Monday, 9 April 2012

9th April 1812: Attack on the Mill of Joseph Foster at Horbury, near Wakefield

Up until the 9th April, Luddite attacks in the West Riding of Yorkshire had been aimed at smaller establishments, in particular cropping shops owned by the smaller masters and worked by only a few workmen. Were it not a one-off up until then, the attack on the premises of Francis Vickerman of Taylor Hill on 15th March could have suggested a shift in pattern to attacking larger establishments. That trend was affirmed on the night of 9th April when large numbers of Luddites attacked the extensive Mill complex of Joseph Foster at Horbury, near Wakefield.

That night anywhere between 300 to 600 Luddites had assembled on the road between Wakefield and Horbury. They had come from different locations, such as Huddersfield, Dewsbury, Heckmondwike, Gildersome, Morley & Wakefield. They were organised into sections, and moved off, with 10 Luddites mounted on horses at the front and 10 at the rear, all carrying drawn swords.

They reached the Mill at midnight on the 10th April, surrounding it and the family residence owned by the Fosters. All the routes into and out of the Mill were secured with guards, although the chances of them being disturbed were slim, as the nearest military units were stationed 11 miles away. Most of the Luddites carried weapons, reportedly hatchets, clubs and fire-arms, and all of those seen by the witnesses were disguised.

Joseph Foster himself was not resident at the adjoining house that night, but 5 of his sons were - James, Thomas, Joseph Bedford, John and Josiah were asleep as the Luddites assembled outside.

The four sons were soon awakened by noise: they lay in bed in terror as they heard the breaking of windows and doors coming from the weaving shop next door. They could soon hear more breaking noises coming from inside: the mill contained a blacksmith's shop, warehouse, press shop, scribbling mill, fulling mill and a dye house and the noise was coming from all of these locations.

James Foster, who was the foreman of the Mill, lived in a separate house adjoining the main dwelling and the Luddites smashed his windows and soon broke down the front door. He had not dared to stir, but the Luddites were soon in his bedroom demanding the keys to the premises. He did not have them, and the Luddites were soon moving to the next house where the 4 other brothers lay terrified in bed. Another door was broken down, and the Luddites first confronted Thomas & John Bedford Foster demanding the keys - Thomas indicated they were kept in the next room, where John & Josiah slept, and the Luddites forced the two brothers out of bed, finally obtaining the keys. John & Josiah noticed that the upstairs rooms and staircase were full of men who were either masked or had blackened faces. Still in their underwear, they were hurried downstairs and out into the yard between the houses and the Mill - the yard was packed with Luddites, "almost impassable" in the words of Josiah.

The Luddites made Josiah open the door to the scribbling mill, demanding to see the machines. In his fear, Josiah led them to where the scribbling mill was kept, but the men were soon expressing their displeasure, this machine not being that they had in mind - they had come for the shearing frames. They frog-marched Josiah to another door, but the keys had been left behind, so the door was smashed asunder. Everything inside was to be destroyed, shearing frames and conventional hand shears, 2 gig mills and even some cloth. At the same time, John & Josiah were ordered out into the yard, and to lie down. While the destruction took place they were tied up, bound together, with one Luddite posted as a guard. Someone had started a fire in the warehouse.

Excitement and noise was in the air, and shots from guns rang out from time to time, although the guns weren't aimed at any of the Fosters. John & Josiah's guard urged them to stand up, as best they could. When their work was over, the leaders formed the huge group into three units, which took some time. The Luddites left at around 1.00 a.m., leaving behind the man left to guard John & Josiah. After a while, the solitary Luddite urged the brothers to get up and go inside, following them to the door. With that, he wished them "good night" and moved with haste back to the yard, where the darkness swallowed him up.

The brothers waited a short while and Thomas and Joseph Bedford joined them, and then James from next door, untieing their bonds. Their first priority was to put the fire out, which they soon managed, helped by the fact the wind was not helping to fan the flames on this night. In the distance, they could hear distant noises and voices from different directions. The brothers later thought that the Luddites had dispersed in various columns towards Wakefield, Leeds, Halifax and Huddersfield.

Reports later reached the press and authorities from various quarters that many of the Luddites had headed across the Huddersfield Road on Grange Moor, where they were observed at 3.00 a.m. Some others went through Horbury on the Wakefield Road - passing another house belonging to Joseph Foster, they fired a volley of shots into the air. The elderly Foster was apparently present and heard and was shocked by the shots.

The raid on Foster's Mill had been a huge success, and an operation equalling the military in planning and coordination. The Luddites must have taken huge confidence from it and already had other targets lined up. It was now only a matter of time before another large establishment was attacked.

This account is based upon a number of sources. There are reports in the Leeds Mercury of 18th April 1812, and also the Leeds Intelligencer of 13th April 1812. Also, a letter from Colonel Campbell to General Grey of the 11th April 1812, which can be found at HO 42/122. A detailed eyewitness account written by Josiah Foster can also be found at HO 42/122.

The numbers of Luddites taking part varies between these accounts: The Intelligencer says 300, whilst the Mercury says 400. Josiah Foster estimated 600. The figure for the damage done is from the Intelligencer. £700 in 1812 is the equivalent of £469,000 using average earnings today.

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