Thursday, 22 December 2016

22nd December 1816: The death of John Blackner - a 'General Ludd'?

A mezzotint of John Blackner, after an original by R Bonington.
On Sunday 22nd December the Nottingham Review journalist & historian John Blackner died at his home & business, the Rancliffe Arms in Turn-Calf Alley (latterly Sussex Street) in Nottingham at the early age of about 47.

Originally from Derbyshire, Blackner occupied a unique place in the politics and society of Nottinghamshire during the Luddite period. Born in 1770, a native of Ilkeston in Derbyshire, Blackner’s original profession was an apprentice framework-knitter, before turning to lace-making when he moved to Nottingham in 1792. A heavy drinker throughout his life, Blackner was not averse to illegalism, having frequently turned to poaching to make ends meet when the drinking left his family short of money. Previously illiterate, after his arrival in the Town Blackner set about learning to read and write, and a few years later had become eloquent enough to publish political pamphlets. A political radical, Blackner was a regular contributor to the Nottingham Review newspaper from 1808, but his political engagement went beyond words in print and into industrial organising: in 1810, he was sentenced to a month’s imprisonment for conspiring to resist wage reductions in the lace trade.

Blackner also represented the trade at the highest level, when he took part in making submissions to Parliament as part of the Committee on the Petitions of the Framework-knitters, alongside Gravenor Henson and others. He was interviewed on 15th May 1812. Two months later, he became editor of Daniel Lovell’s London-based newspaper ‘The Statesman’, although this was short-lived due to increasing ill-health. Thereafter, Blackner returned to Nottingham to write for the Review again, and run a public house, the Rancliffe Arms (previously the ‘Bull’s Head’), which he had taken over in 1813.

In the last few years of his life, Blackner was no stranger to controversy. In 1814, the target of an attack by Luddites in Leicestershire, Simon Orgill, all but accused Blackner of orchestrating the raid (though not directly by name). Blackner responded furiously to the accusations in an article for once bearing his name, but Orgill was not satisfied and even took his concerns to the neighbouring authorities in Nottinghamshire, who passed them on to the Home Secretary.

Possibly the most serious affair Blackner was concerned in led to the jailing of his employer, the proprietor of the Nottingham Review, Charles Sutton. Again in 1814, the paper published a satirical  letter from ‘General Ludd’ to the Editor (i.e. Blackner). The letter posited that the General’s son, Ned, had enlisted in the army and has been sent to fight in the colonial wars in North America, and was now being lauded for destroying Washington, ironically by the same people who had decried his lawless efforts in Nottinghamshire but a few years before. The government, at the behest of the Nottingham solicitor Louis Allsopp, decided to prosecute Sutton as the publisher of the letter, and he was eventually jailed for 12 months for ‘seditious libel’. Throughout all of his, Blackner was never identified as the author of the satirical letter, even by biographers, who seem to have overlooked the parallel fact that his eldest son, John, was a soldier who was killed in America whilst taking part in the operation against Washington.

Perhaps Blackner’s longest-lasting legacy is his work as a historian, having published the epic ‘History of Nottingham’ in 1815. In the last 18 months of his life, the years of heavy drinking had finally taken their toll on him and he became particularly unwell before his untimely death.

Blackner’s position in relation to Luddism is uncertain. Whilst the Review (and therefore, arguably, Blackner) had always been critical of the methods of the Luddites, their attempts to illustrate the predicament of the framework-knitters had lead to widespread criticism and perhaps go some way to explain the relentless attempts to prosecute Charles Sutton. It’s likely that he was to a degree involved, and many aspects of his life suggest connections: his advocacy for the trade at the political level, his deep involvement in the Union leading to his prosecution & imprisonment, and his days undertaking illegal activity (i.e. poaching) leave it hard to imagine he didn't move in those circles and knew some of those involved. Then again, other than over the Simon Orgill affair, his name never crops up in the correspondence between the local authority and the Home Office, and the infamous Nottingham spy never mentions him once. However, one of Blackner’s biographers, John Crosby, wrote this fascinating passage:
At the commencement of "Ludding" he assisted the deluded men with his advice and in other ways, thinking that the system of terror they sought to establish was more likely to operate on the minds of the hosiery masters than cool dispassionate reasoning, but he lived to see the folly of the attempt, and was sorry for the part he had acted.
It is likely that Blackner penned the article in the Nottingham Review that gave birth to the ‘Ned Ludd’ mythos, at least outside of the Luddite milieu: the article was published almost 5 years prior to his death and is the earliest example in print of the use of the name Ned Ludd. Seven days prior to this, Blackner had written a leading article introducing ‘General Ludd’ to the world. Perhaps, after all, Blackner was indeed a ‘General Ludd’ of a sort other than the one he gave fictional voice to in 1814? We may never know, but this fascinating character is surely long overdue a more lengthy and serious biography than those that already exist.

In writing this biography, I have drawn upon Blackner's entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and the Thoroton Society of Nottingham's 'Life of John Blackner' by JC Warren (which draws upon a biography by John Crosby, who apparently knew Blackner).

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