Monday, 17 April 2017

James Hobson 'The Last Luddite Executions, April 17th 1817'

Luddites destroyed machines in the Midlands in the period 1811-1816. These machines were destroying skilled jobs and emboldening the master manufacturers to treat their workers with contempt. The Luddites may have been wrong in their belief that they could hold back technological change, but they were organised and principled people who were trying to use their view of the world to bring back social justice. “Luddite” is used here as a badge of honour rather than a term of abuse.

The Luddite violence in Loughborough, Leicestershire was seen by the hostile press of the time as the worst outbreak of machine breaking since March 1811. It was in many ways an unusual example of machine breaking. The perpetrators were not local; this was the first time serious Luddism visited Loughborough; and there was not much love lost for the manufacturers who were the victim of violent protest either.

The lace factory of Heathcote (sometimes “Heathcoat”) and Boden was the target; and there may not have been a less popular pair of businessmen in Loughborough.  John Heathcote and John Boden were no ordinary textile entrepreneurs. Heathcote had invented and patented new technology that reproduced the work of skilled people making   good quality pillow lace at the fraction of the price; earlier Luddites attacks on lace making machines had been on Heathcote’s franchised machines. He was notorious as an exploiter of workers and fellow manufacturers, and his factory in Mill Street (where Loughborough Iceland) now stands, was an obvious target for Luddite resentment.

He employed six guards to protect his factory, but on the early morning of June 28th, they did not prove to be enough. About 30 people organised an attack in the early morning on June 28th. It was a well organised attacked, with men armed with blunderbusses, ramrods, and a detailed knowledge of the layout of the factory. How well organised was impossible to work out; it served the purposes of the hostile press to imply that it was a quasi-military organisation, with a captain on a horse with attackers having their own number; as it turned out most of the men called each other “Ned”

Heathcote and Boden were not popular locally. Heathcote and Boden had already reduced wages  of its 400 employees  in January and survived the subsequent strike (“general turn out”) but starvation and lack of alternatives had forced most to work; some previous workers were “ not accorded that privilege”, according to the loyalist Stamford Mercury. The owners had clearly blacklisted those deemed trouble-makers.

The Luddites attacked the machines because they were convinced that the bosses  had unfairly altered the relationship between masters and men  by exploiting the new technology to reduce wages, although it may be that the company’s reason for reducing wages was the loss of revenue from  other manufacturers stealing their technology. The company, being hated by both capital and labour, were making plans to leave Loughborough even before the attack, having annoyed both lace masters and lace makers. It may have been that the master lace makers even encouraged the attack.

John Asher and two others were guarding the entrance to Heathcote and Boden. John was the first to the pistol and fired at “Ned’s Band” and one of them replied with a blunderbuss and shot Asher in the back of the head; all three guards were disarmed and guarded as the majority pushed their way through to the factory. Five other men were forced to lay prostrate on the floor as 53 lace knitting machine were destroyed to the replacement cost of over £8000 pounds. The whole event took no more than 45 minutes.

The attackers taunted the guards that were lying helplessly on the floor.

Now men, if you can tell us of any machines that are working under price, if it be one hundred or two off, we will   go and break them......

All’s well, Ned Ludd, do your duty well, it’s a Waterloo job by g-d !

The serious nature of this outbreak could be judged by the response. The local constables patrolled the streets and ordered locals not to extinguish their lights to help the Luddites escape; homes were raided and pubs were closed at 9pm; the town crier passed news of the attack and the reward given of £500. Panicking government often offered outlandish rewards for information about the ringleaders during this period. It was by this mixture of law, violence, and bribery that the state operated against the anger of the lower orders.

Another weapon of the establishment was the informer, in this case Jack Blackburn, who turned King’s evidence at the trial of William Towle and the others. Blackburn gave evidence against him at the trial. “Bill” Towle was one of the Ned’s band. According to Blackburn, Bill was armed with an axe or hatchet, mostly for the destruction of the machines, but also available to threaten those guarding the machines. When a dog barked on the entrance to the factory, Bill tried to chop it down but is eventually shot by Jem Towle, William’s brother, who had already been executed for his part in the violence in 1816. Bill was there when John Asher was shot, and was deemed complicit in his injury. John Asher took a few months to recover and was never in danger of dying. The real crime was the organised assault on property- if John has been shot in a pub brawl it would have resulted in a two year sentence at a local House of Correction.

William and the other Luddites, Thomas Savage, William Withers, Joshua Mitchell, John Crowder, and John Amos, were executed at the Leicester County Bridewell on April 17th. The initial expectation was that the execution would take place on the Monday previously, but the crowd was still about 15,000, with dragoons clearly in place to deter any crowd reaction.   They were accompanied by a whole bevy of clerics who all wanted the men to be launched into eternity in with the conventional amount of dejection, admissions of guilt and calls for the undeserved mercy of the redeemer. The Luddites did moderately well; they Luddites appeared very cheerful, but were singing   hymns most of the way as they passed along. They mostly accepted the exhortation to look to heaven; but they were not going to admit their guilt. They carried oranges, as many condemned people on the scaffold, and threw them out to people they recognised, telling them to save them for their children.

Towle did not speak; William Savage said the most; all of the men died with dignity, but Towle wavered a little, according to a later report in the Leicester Chronicle.

“Towle, a fresh looking youth, betrayed no symptoms of agitation, until towards the close of the tragic scene, when, on the cap being pulled over his face, he evidently seemed much affected”.

Mr Musson, the executioner, used the New Drop system of hanging- a long rope rather than slow strangulation. All the other Luddites were buried locally; William Towle’s body was returned to his wife and child in Chilwell.

Heathcote and Boden prospered.  John Heathcote moved his whole enterprise to Tiverton, Devon and took 200 of his Leicestershire workers with him. Legend has it that he went on his horse and his workers walked. They were employing 1500 people by 1822 and members of the two families prospered into the twentieth century.  Heathcote died a rich man in 1861.

After the last executions, the establishment newspapers were triumphant and - literally - of one voice.

“The System of   Luddism , which has been so long carried on to the terror of the Nottinghamshire and the neighbourhood ,is expected to be finally checked by the imprisonment  of the principal offenders”

Stamford Mercury, 21st February 1817
Leeds Mercury, 1st March 1817
Lancaster Gazette, 8th March 1817

A compliant press is not a new phenomenon!

James Hobson
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