Sunday 11 March 2012

11th March 1812: The Leeds Luddite James Shaw walks away free from York Lent Assizes

The Lent Assizes at York had commenced on Saturday 7th March. On the following Wednesday, it was the turn of James Shaw, the Luddite captured by the authorities at Sheepscar in January, to face trial. The Leeds Mercury of 14th March recorded the words of the Judge, Sir Simon Le Blanc a Justice of the Court of King's Bench, on his case:
"Assembled as we are at present in the ordinary discharge of a duty you have so often been called upon to perform; I should have felt it necessary to trouble you with any observations of a case had not occurred which seem from its infrequency to require some notice. The list of offences, though somewhat longer than usual, does not appear to contain many cases of novelty, and I hope to have had the pleasure of congratulating the County of York in having escaped the contagion of that system of depredation which has continued so long and occasioned such extensive mischief in a neighbouring county, but this hope has not been fully realised; I am grieved to find from the case in the Calendar, and from information received since we arrived here, that this county has not entirely escaped the influence of bad example; but I trust there will be found not only sufficient vigilance in the magistracy to suppress these disorders, but, also courage in the subjects to protect their property from the attacks of these depredations. The advantages of machinery in manufacture has been so clearly proved, and the subject so ably discussed, that it excites surprise that any should be found so ignorant and infatuated as to imagine that the destruction of machinery should better the situation of the persons employed in manufactures. These absurd ideas have been refuted over and over again, not only by writers on the subject, but by the judges in their different circuits, and one might have expected no man could be found ignorant enough to be influenced by them, and I should hope no man would have been so wicked as to instil such mischievous notions into the minds of these deluded man. The Legislature has heretofore provided penalties and serious penalties for the protection of the species of property; all that is required is that the law should be put in force, which can only be by vigilance and courage in detecting offenders. I only find one case in the Calendar which has any reference to this subject, and that person, most fortunate for himself, was by the prompt exertions of a magistrate arrested, perhaps before he had completed the offence. He will probably be prosecuted under some of the provisions of what is called the Black Act, an Act passed to repress certain enormities in the reign of George I, committed by persons armed and disguised by blacking their faces, and as prosecutions under this act are extremely rare, I take the liberty of pointing out to you the words of the Act, 'if any person or persons being armed with swords, fire-arms, or other offensive weapons, and having his or their faces blacked, or being otherwise disguised, shall appear in any forest, park, &c. or in any high road, and shall be convicted thereof, they shall be adjudged guilty of felony.'

Two circumstances it will be observed are necessary to constitute this offence, that the person should be armed, and should be disguised by having his face blacked, and in the present instance perhaps it will appear, but of this you will judge when the case comes before you, this person was discovered before the offence was completed, and that only one of the circumstances can be proved against him; he was evidently on the verge of committing capital felony, from which he was, perhaps fortunately for himself, withheld by being taken into custody. You will therefore inquire not only as to his person being disguised, but as to the fact of his being armed with offensive weapons, as swords, firearms, or other weapons, calculated to injure or terrify his Majesty's subjects. I have presumed to make these observations because a case of this kind may not have come before you, and in a statute so extremely penal there ought to be satisfactory grounds for putting a person upon this trial before another Jury, who in such case will have ultimately to decide upon his guilt or innocence."

The Bill against James Shaw, of Leeds, cloth-dresser, charging him with having disfigured his person by blacking his face, and with being unlawfully armed with offensive weapons, was thrown out, by the Grand Jury, on Wednesday; and he was, of course, discharged without being put upon his trial.
 The first trial of anyone accused of being a Luddite had ended without a conviction.

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