Saturday, 26 May 2012

26th May 1812: The trial of the Westhoughton Luddites at Lancaster Special Commission

At 8.00 a.m. on Tuesday 26th May 1812, the prisoners accused of the taking part in the destruction of Westhoughton Mill stood trial at the Lancaster Special Commission.

Fourteen prisoners stood trial for arson: 10 men, 2 boys of 15 & 16, one 15 year-old girl & one 19 year-old woman. All of the accused were identified by those who worked at the Mill.

Job Fletcher (aged 34) was seen amongst the group that had marched from Chowbent to Westhoughton - it was alleged by a witness that he said to them about Westhoughton Mill "take notice, that yonder devil is not on fire before three hours are over". James Smith (aged 31), walking on crutches, was seen heading up the mob. Later, Smith was said to be active in inciting those gathered to destroy the mill, and was also seen throwing stones at the windows.

Abraham Charlson, (aged 16), was said to be armed with a scythe, which he used to attack the window frames. He was also accused of fetching straw from a nearby public house which was used to eventually set light to the Mill.

Another boy, 15 year-old John Bromilow, was participating in the destruction of the Mill, but was pulled away by his mother.

Thomas Kerfoot (aged 26) was said to be amongst the mob, shouting and breaking windows - it was alleged that it was he that first cried out "set fire to it".

Two sisters, Lydia & Mary Molyneux, 15 & 19 respectively, were said to be extremely active, one using a muck hook and another a coal pick to break the windows. They were alleged to have cursed the souls of those who worked at the factory, with Mary crying out "set fire to it". When the rioters gained entry, both of them were observed clapping encouragement and shouting "now lads!".

The defence argued that the indictment was flawed: they suggested that the description of the building as a mill was in error, since that description should apply to a place where corn or similar was ground. Similar arguments were advanced about the other description offered - warehouse and loom shop - but the Judges over-ruled the objection.

Alibis were offered for several prisoners, alongside attestations as to good character. The trial lasted 12 hours.

The Jury deliberated for an hour before returning their verdict at 9.00 p.m.: Thomas Kerfoot, Job Fletcher, Abraham Charlson & James Smith were found guilty. John Bromilow, William Kay, Bold Haworth, John Shuttleworth, John Charlson, Mary Molyneux, Lydia Molyneux, Samuel Radcliffe, Robert Woodward and Adam Bullough were acquitted.

This has been compiled from the account in the Lancaster Gazette of 30th May & 6th June 1812, the Hammonds (1979, pp.239-240) and Grimmett & Thomis (1982, pp.47-48). In the Lancaster Gazette of 30th May, Mary Molyneux is recorded as Mary Cannon, suggesting she had married more recently.

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