Wednesday, 11 April 2012

11th April 1812: Mass Luddite attack on William Cartwright's Mill at Rawfolds, near Cleckheaton

The 'Dumb Steeple' in it's original location in 1921.
The night of Saturday the 11th April 1812 was a new moon & had been chosen by Luddites in the West Riding to attack William Cartwright's Mill at Rawfolds.

In the pitch black night, several hundred Luddites had gathered in a field belonging to Sir George Armytage, close to the 'Dumb Steeple' (or simply 'Obelisk' as it more likely to be known by at the time). Around 25 to 36 men were there for 10.00 p.m., being joined by many more by 11.00 p.m.: this rendezvous point was a short distance north-east of Cooper Bridge and a crossroads leading to the different townships in the area, a good place to marshal forces from around and about. The total force numbered somewhere between 150 to 300 according to different witnesses.

The leaders had various principal tasks before the Luddites set off. The men were divided into different companies according to the armaments they had brought: hatchets, pistols and muskets. Tactics were discussed and agreed, and numbers were assigned to each man present. Everyone was urged to disguise themselves well, so that they would not recognise each other - some had brought masks, others covered their heads and faces with cloth. In the cold dead of night, tots of rum were passed around, to imbue both warmth & courage. And then they eventually set off, directly over Hartshead Moor to Rawfolds, which lay 3 miles distant.

At Rawfolds, Cartwright had assembled a small force of employees to defend his Mill. Of the 9 of his employees who had originally constituted his night-watch, by now two were too ill to help, and the obvious fears of a third man, fears which had been exacerbated after the attack on Foster's Mill on the 9th April, meant that Cartwright had dismissed him from the watch. He was left with 6 men, plus himself, and he needed 2 of them to keep watch outside. He had applied to the Cumberland Militia for help, and they had supplied 5 soldiers. The defences he had prepared at the Mill made it into a virtual fortress.

With midnight falling, Cartwright decided it was time for his men to retire to bed. But the Luddites had now arrived close to the Mill. The leaders had by now realised that the force they had brought from South of the Spen Beck was as good as it would get: there was no sign of the Halifax contingent who had pledged to be present. But it was now too late, they couldn't wait any longer.

The sentries Cartwright had posted outside the Mill were just then jolted out of their boredom: they heard several gunshots - one from the North, answered by another from the South shortly afterwards. Similar shots were heard from Eastern and Westerly directions. Being distracted, the men had not noticed figures in the pitch black night approaching from the shadows, and they were quickly overpowered by the Luddites.

Inside the Mill, a dog that Cartwright had chained on the ground floor began to continuously bark.

By 12.30 a.m., groups of men carrying hammers had arrived, and others armed with muskets followed. The smashing and crashing proceeded in earnest - the windows on the ground floor were now being broken in, and men with Enochs pounded at the main door. Men with pistols closer to the building fired off shots into the ground floor. Other with firearms surrounding the mill took aim and loosed off shots at the first floor.

Inside, Cartwright was now alert, ordering his mixed band of military and workers to return fire, whilst another was tasked with ringing the bell he had installed. He was hoping the bell would quickly alert and bring the Queen's Bays cavalry which were stationed a mile away, but as the man yanked on the rope, it snapped. Cartwright ordered him and another man to get up to the roof and ring it by hand. When the tolling of the bell re-commenced, Cartwright distinctly heard some outside shout "Damn that bell, get it!"

Cartwright's men were taking aim from behind flagstones that had been raised from the floors to form embrasures. Standing in the lea of the building was now dangerous and many of these men withdrew to reload their weapons. An attempt to break down the doors by the breaking parties with hammers continued. Another voice shouted "Bang up, my lads - in with you!"

Luddites stationed further away fired back into the Mill, and a stand off began. Volleys of fire went back and forth. Some of the Luddites were wounded, with one or two lying about the Mill yard, unable to move and crying out in agony.

Inside the Mill, not all of the participants were willing. To Cartwright's shock and disgust, two of the Cumberland Militia were not conducting themselves as he had expected. Whilst one soldier seemed to be making a meal of reloading his weapon and didn't seem to be targeting anything but the trees, another had refused to fire on the Luddites, put down his weapon and slumped against a wall. Cartwright was livid, but reserved his ire for the Luddites outside for the time being.

20 minutes into the fire and counter-fire, and with the bell still ringing out from the top of the Mill, those in charge of the assault realised their situation was hopeless - with the likelihood that military stationed at a distance were already assembling, if not already on their way; with casualties strewn around and about the Mill; with a seemingly impregnable door that had still not yielded to the Enochs despite being severely battered; and with a robust defence from Cartwright, the decision was taken to leave and disperse. But not before retrieving the wounded.

But it soon became apparent that this was dangerous, and for two of men lying there almost impossible, such were the nature of their wounds. Shots were still being fired down at them from the Mill - it was decided to leave behind the two men in the worst condition and retreat with those who could be carried or could move with some assistance.

From the position high in the Mill, Cartwright's men began to report that shapes in the dark were moving away in two different directions, but both in a southerly direction towards Huddersfield. The returning fire had ceased. The steady fire his men had laid down had worked - he later estimated that 140 shots had been fired over the 20 minute attack, 7 shots a minute being a reasonable rate of fire for a small group with muskets. Cartwright ordered the ceasefire and waiting a minute or two he then ordered a halt to the ringing of the bell. In the stillness could be heard the anguished cries of the two men left behind by the Luddites.

Making his way downstairs to the ground floor, Cartwright noted the damage, which he would tally more fully later: the Luddites had almost got through the main door, being so damaged by axes and hammers that it would have to be replaced rather than repaired. Not just the glass, but also the frames of 8 windows were destroyed. Upstairs, 50 panes of glass had been destroyed by gunfire.

Cartwright and his men waited and did not venture out until they could be sure it was safe. He heard a familiar voice, that of a Mr. Cockhill, a dyer from nearby. He opened what was left of the door and ventured out to survey the scene.

Outside, other than the cries of anguish of the two men left behind, the yard was strewn with the discarded weapons of the Luddite breaking party - no less than 14 hammers, mauls and hatchets - even an adze and bullet moulds - were later found, along with some muskets. Some of the masks that the Luddites had worn were also discarded. Here and there were patches and pools of blood; in the daylight later, some of them could be tracked for a fair distance. There were even traces of flesh and a man's finger was later found nearby.

The next day Cartwright's servant, James Wilkinson, spotted a man's hat floating in Mill damn at the side of the building. He fished it out and gave it to his master.

The West Riding Luddites had suffered their first defeat.

This has been compiled from a number of sources: the Leeds Mercury of 18th April 1812; a letter from William Cartwright to Robert Rayner of 23rd April 1812 which can be found at HO 42/122; a letter from 'John Bull' to Richard Ryder dated 15th April 1812, also at HO 42/122; a letter from Thomas Bailey to Colonel Campbell dated 12th April 1812 at HO 42/122; the deposition of Benjamin Walker which can be found at HO 42/128; Howell, 'State Trials' (1823, pp.1093-1123); a letter from George Wilson undated, but c.April 1812 which can be found in Radcliffe MSS 126/32.


  1. the first paragraph helped me with my homework. thanks! =)

  2. Searching family tree cuthbert's in liversedge, found working in 1901 as worsted spinner, any info would be greatly appreciated thanks Donna Butcher nee Cuthbert