The Second Annual Luddite Memorial Lecture – a brief review.

ludd lecture

The second Luddite Memorial Lecture – a joint Huddersfield Local History Society/University of Huddersfield venture, was held at the University on 16 April 2015. It starred Prof Malcolm Chase of Leeds who spoke on ‘York Castle and its political prisoners – the Luddites in a wider context.’ Malcolm Chase is best known for his ‘Chartism – a new history’ and for his in depth study of 1820 and the threat posed by discontent to the government of the day, including uprisings in Huddersfield and Barnsley, which is soon to appear in paperback. Here I will forgo a grouse about the cost of academic books, since the hardback edition costs a small fortune.
This is the fifth time I have heard Malcolm speak and as usual his talk was both very informative and entertaining. Above all, for me, it was also politically relevant, in that it demonstrated the continuous development of the state apparatus in quelling dissent from mediaeval times to the 20th C.
The speaker’s point of departure was not the Luddite executions but the ‘Pilgrimage to York’ organised by the Ten Hour movement led by Richard Oastler, when in Easter 1833 thousands of working men women and children marched from the manufacturing districts to York Castle in support of their demands to limit the hours of child labour. This was just 20 years after the execution of the 17 Luddites (or Luddites and burglars using the cloak of Luddism) and Malcolm asserted that among the protestors from the Huddersfield area there must have been many for whom York still held that association, through common knowledge, as relatives of Luddites, or even some who had participated in Luddite activities. For those of us who still vividly remember the Miner’s Strike of 1984/85, although 30 years ago now, it seems more than likely that such a dramatic, and indeed traumatic event in people’s lives as the Luddite executions would have been embedded in popular consciousness and would have been recollected by some. As I have mentioned elsewhere however, a culture of ‘omerta’ does seem to have prevailed and there is little evidence of the Luddites being publically discussed at this time. (1)
Having set the scene at York Castle and established its significance in the Luddite story Malcolm recounted not only a brief history of its political inmates but also described the physical evolution of the Castle as a gaol, illustrated by some fascinating slides including an early aerial view. The site, familiar to us today as Clifford’s Tower, the adjacent massive car park and the elegant square bounded on three sides by the Castle Museum and the Law Courts was, in the 19th C, surrounded by a massive curtain wall and accessible only via a formidable towered gate house. Also in the early 19th C a state of the art panopticon prison was built on what is now the car park.
Malcolm described how Clifford’s Tower probably owed its survival to its utility as a gaol when the rest of the Norman castle had been demolished. Since at least the early 13th C it had housed enemies of the Crown including Irish, Scots and French. In the 17th C both opponents of the Monarchy and the Commonwealth, including many Quakers had found themselves in the Castle, though which part of the physical structure was used for their incarceration I either missed or Malcolm failed to specify.
Here Malcolm pulled out of the hat one of those interesting historical coincidences that makes the subject so delightful even if it explains absolutely nothing. Most of the Luddites were hung on 16 January 1813. On the same day in 1664 there was another mass hanging – 16 men implicated in the Farnley Wood plot, a republican attempt to overthrow the restored monarchy of Charles II. Unfortunately, this is not our Farnley Wood near Huddersfield (although there was some local involvement in the rising) but Farnley near Leeds, otherwise the coincidence would have been even more poignant. However the plot did focus on the woollen manufacturing areas, as did the Luddite rising. It would have been interesting to know the occupations of those executed in 1664. Indeed, two men executed on Attercliffe Moor for their part in the plot were recorded as a clothier and a cloth dresser.   (2) But this date was no more than a coincidence and reporting on the Luddite executions in 1813 one newspaper recapitulating other mass executions at York remained oblivious of the Farnley Wood rebels.
The Jacobite rebellion also produced its martyrs at a time when the mediaeval practice of mutilating the hanged men still remained in force. Over 250 were held in York and 22 were executed, the heads of two being stuck on Micklegate Bar where they remained for ten years. Malcolm did describe some other executions as well as the loathsome conditions in the gaol in the 18th C which, being a sensitive soul, I decline to repeat.
As well as Jacobites at least one prominent ‘Jacobin’ as the authorities dubbed him was incarcerated twice in York on the 1790s. James Montgomery (who had previously been an apprentice baker in Wakefield) was indicted in 1795 for writing a subversive poem about the fall of the Bastille and for criticising the shooting down of protestors the following year. Malcolm contrasted the harsh treatment of the Luddites in 1813 with that of the Yorkshire rebels of 1820, when participants in the Grange Moor rising had their death sentences commuted to transportation. This he attributed to a reluctance to exacerbated a dangerously tense political situation which he claimed posed the biggest threat to government since the Jacobite rebellion or subsequently – including the 20th C. In Scotland however three insurgents were executed, creating martyrs that are still remembered today.

James Mongomery, political prisoner and poet.

James Mongomery, political prisoner and poet.

Here I have to point out Malcolm’s most serious omission, – a failure to mention the Huddersfield uprising of 1817 where, again, this time mainly due to revelations that a government provocateur had been at work, those arrested were released after trial – apart from Tom Riley who committed suicide in his cell. Since Riley was one who ‘had form’ as a Luddite suspect in 1812/13 his story is a good example of the likely continuity from Luddism to later Radical activity as well as being a personal tragedy that throws light on the conditions of prisoners.
York also held its quota of radicals from the 1830s and 40s, like Joshua Hobson, Huddersfield’s campaigner for the liberty of the press and many Chartists including Feargus O’Connor. However Chartists often served their terms in Northallerton gaol, noted for its harsh regime which resulted in the martyrdom of Samuel Holberry of Sheffield.
York does not seem to have been used for political prisoners in the later 19th C although during the first world war it did hold interred enemy aliens – so many if fact that some had to be accommodated in tents in the grounds.
Malcolm closed with the reflections that York’s political prisoners are not remembered in the city, dominated as it is by a twee heritage industry geared to tourism, which sees Dick Turpin, a petty gangster, as more sellable than radical heroes. He closed with an account of the 2013 Luddite commemoration at York which marked the site of the executions outside the walls of the Castle, now by a busy ring road, with no permanent memorial to the Luddites or to any of the thousands of political prisoners who had passed through that grim place.
The talk was not only a fascinating overview of the workings of the British state through the ages in one locality (which brought out York’s role as de facto ‘capital of the North’), but also a tribute to all those who have fought, lost their liberty and often their lives in the fight for freedom as they saw it at the time. Yorkshire should have a fitting tribute to its radical martyrs and there would be no better site for it than York Castle.  Malcolm’s talk could help kick start that discussion if we as historians and activists carry on the task of bringing our radical history to a wider audience through such popular events as the Annual Luddite Memorial Lectures.

Outside York Castle commemorating the execution of the Yorkshire Luddites .January 2013

Outside York Castle commemorating the execution of the Yorkshire Luddites .January 2013

The text of an earlier version of this talk, delivered at the York Luddite Commemoration in 2013 can be found at:

Click to access political-prisoners-in-york-castle.pdf

For a review of last years Luddite Memorial Lecture see:                                                              

(1)  see

(2) A. J. Hopper, ‘The Farnley Wood plot and the memory of the civil wars in Yorkshire’, Historical Journal, 45 (2002), 281-303,

Charlotte Bronte, Shirley and the Luddites -Review of the Inaugural Luddite Memorial Lecture.


Thursday 16 January,

 ‘Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley -Luddism through the Tory-Radical Looking Glass’

 The inaugural Luddite Memorial Lecture, dedicated to Lesley Kipling, attracted around 130 people to the University of Huddersfield.  After introductions by the Chair of Huddersfield Local History Society, Cyril Pearce and local MP Barry Sheerman, Dr Matt Roberts of Sheffield Hallam University delivered a thought-provoking and enjoyable talk on the above topic.  He set out to re-define the political position of Charlotte Bronte through her characterisation of the Luddites in her novel Shirley and at the same time explore whether the work threw any light on the historical Luddites.  It could be said that to some extent Dr Roberts was, on this occasion, attempting to rescue not the Luddites, but Charlotte Bronte from ‘the condescension of posterity’.  How far he succeeded is rightly still open to debate, but he made an extremely well argued case.

 Far from Charlotte being simply a reactionary high Tory in the Wellington mould Dr Roberts places her in the Radical-Tory tradition alongside Richard Oastler and Parson Bull of Bierley.  As such, her novel Shirley is not simply a romance, which uses Luddism as an exciting backdrop, but part of the ‘Condition of England’ genre, arising from the social and political conflicts of the 1830s-1840s, which sought to draw attention to the plight of the working classes.  Her comment to her publisher in 1849, that on reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton,  (perhaps THE classic Condition of England novel), she found she had been ‘in some measure anticipated both in subjects and incident…’ reveals that she identified with this kind of social realist writing.  But while Mary Barton was a tale set in a contemporary Chartist context, Charlotte chose the historical events of 1812 for her story and for her observations about social conflict.

 Tory-Radicalism existed in an uneasy alliance with working class democratic radicalism throughout the 1830s and 40s because of the hostility of both to the consequences of unfettered industrial development.  Industrial capitalism, for the Tory-Radical, was a force which was corroding the natural order of things and destroying the paternalist bonds which held community and society together.  Consequently they could see the rationale between workers’ efforts to oppose it, even if they didn’t approve of their methods.  Charlotte’s views of these conflicting forces, argues Dr Roberts, can be see through her drawing of the characters in Shirley. On the one hand, Robert Moore, the owner of Hollows Mill, and on the other the Luddites personifying different aspects of Luddism.  The latter, said Dr Roberts, are less caricatured and more nuanced than Charlotte has often been given credit for.

 Moore starts off as the ruthless, grasping, progress-chasing, free-market capitalist, contemptuous of the concerns of his workers and archetypical of the Whig, Nonconformist (and often nouveau rich), manufacturer of the West Riding.  It was this rising type of bourgeois, lacking responsibility to their communities, or noblesse oblige, that the Tory-Radicals blamed for destroying social bonds and creating friction between the classes.  It is underlined in Moore’s case by the fact that he is an outsider.  There is a vast cultural gulf between himself who he regards as ‘civilised’ and his workers who are ‘savages’. But, before the end of the novel, following the attack on his mill, Moore in fact undergoes a conversion, sees the error of his ways and pledges to use his money for good and to help his fellow man.  He also survives an assassination attempt and, as if in an act of contrition and social reconciliation, no effort is made to apprehend his attacker.  From one archetype he becomes its opposite and is now the Tory-Radical’s ideal of a paternalistic and benevolent employer.  Thus far there is nothing contentious in Dr Robert’s analysis and these points have been made by Andrew and Judith Hook in their introduction to the 1974 Penguin Classic edition of ‘Shirley’.

 How Charlotte portrays the Luddites is far more problematic. The reactionary 19th century view of working class movements, particularly those engaging in direct action, whether Luddites, trade unionists or Chartists, was that they were a mindless mob, manipulated by leaders who were cynical demagogues, (usually outsiders), pursuing their own devious agenda for self aggrandisement (a view not much changed today in some circles).  Charlotte does not subscribe to this stereotyped view, but her depth of understanding of historical Luddism is less well defined.  It is with regard to what she has to say about historical Luddism that Dr Roberts’ thesis is perhaps less well substantiated.

 The views of the Luddites are set out in a scene where Moore receives a deputation from the croppers.  One of their leaders, Moses Barraclough, is portrayed in very unflattering terms by Charlotte.  He is both physically (a wooden leg) and morally deformed.  Strangely, his first words to Moore are ‘Peace be unto you’.  He talks in religious phraseology which leads Moor to assume that he is a ‘Ranter’ (at that time, a Primitive Methodist).  But Charlotte then has him address Moore in rational terms which, to some extent, negates the caricature of religious fanatic. This is worth quoting in full, although Dr Roberts only alluded to part of the speech:

 ‘’Or iver you set up the pole o’ your tent amang us, Mr Moore, we lived i’ peace and quietness; yea, , I may say, in all loving-kindness. I am not myself an aged person as yet, but I can remember as far back as maybe some twenty year, when hand-labour were encouraged and respected, and no mischief maker had ventured to introduce these here machines, which is so pernicious. Now, I’m not a cloth-dresser myself, but by trade a tailor; however my heart is of a softish natur’: I’m a very feeling man, and when I see my bretheren oppressed like my great namesake of old, I stand up for ‘em; for which intent, I this day speak with you face to face, and advises you to part wi’ your infernal machinery, and tak’ on more hands’ 

 Moore’s response is to call him a drunkard, roll out the standard accusations of demagoguery and reiterate his determination to introduce machinery.  He also accuses Barraclough of breaking his shear-frames as they were being carted across the moor and arrests him at pistol point.

Following this violent response another workman, William Farren, tries to reason with Moore, describing their plight and while accepting that new inventions were inevitable and deprecating violence,  ‘it isn’t right for poor folks to starve.’*  He calls for a political solution saying that parliament should intervene.  For Charlotte, Farren is the type of the honest, salt-of-the-earth worker, who lives in a clean cottage and is respectful to his social superiors.  By arrogantly ignoring his plea without ‘a whimper of good-will, or hope, or aid.’ Moore makes a violent clash inevitable.

This scene ably epitomises the two main historical responses of the croppers to machinery.  One,  to humbly beseech the manufacturers and seek help from Parliament – the other to use both the threat and actual direct action to stop the machines.  Charlotte’s sympathy is clearly with Farren, but she understands how the failure to respond to his appeal for natural justice leads to the second response – as do efforts to merely resort to physical repression as with Moore’s arrest of Barraclough.

 The other main Luddite character, Michael Hartley, is also described as a religious fanatic, ‘that mad Calvinist and Jacobin weaver.’  He is ‘crazed’, expresses himself in ‘ravings. And ‘would be half a poet, if he were not wholly a maniac.’ He also ‘uttered strange blasphemy in his Antinomian fashion’.  Dr Roberts sees this reference to Antinomianism as significant and the speculation about what Charlotte meant by this made one of the most interesting and yet perhaps most tenuous parts of his talk.  There was certainly no shortage of Antinomians both in the early 19th century and in the 1840s, people who rejected all established religious, political and moral law and who expressed it in personal eccentricity, or the formation of sects, often with a Millenarianist or eschatological ideology, ie an anticipation of the more or less imminent end of the world. In the 17th century they were generically referred to as ‘Ranters’, a term revived to describe the more enthusiastic non-conformist preachers such as the Primitive Methodists.  But why Charlotte should depict religious Antinomianism rather than outright Atheism as a moral threat isn’t really apparent.

 Also, why Charlotte should identify this ideology with Luddism wasn’t clearly explained by Dr Roberts.  Indeed there was a millenarianist strand in working class religion and politics in the early 19th century in particular, when great change was anticipated and signs of its coming were sought. We have mentioned this in Liberty or Death, which Dr Roberts acknowledged with regard to the shadowy ‘Ezekialites’.  However, how strong an influence this was in determining the motives and actions of the Luddites is speculative.  Even if it was, it is difficult to see how Charlotte would have been aware of it – unless she was informed by oral accounts unrecorded elsewhere.

 Dr Roberts sees this element as further confirmation that Luddism was a backward looking movement engaged in an old forms of ‘protest’, machine breaking, threatening letters, physical attacks in contrast to the process of ‘modernisation of popular protest,’ heralded by Chartism – peaceful demonstrations, petitioning, propaganda etc.   This is not a view I share.  Luddism was not merely looking backwards.  It stood at the gateway of the industrial revolution and, Janus faced, it looked both backwards and forwards.  As Dr Roberts said in response to a question, the croppers had tried parliamentary lobbying and legal arguments before they were forced to fall back on ‘old’ methods of struggle when the legal path was closed to them.

 Charlotte Bronte was not interested in factional party politics, but that did not mean that she was apolitical.   She even saw some understanding of why people were driven to direct action.  Dr Roberts explained that he had omitted a discussion on the light Shirley throws on ‘the modernisation of popular protest’.  Perhaps here is the only axe I have to grind with Dr Roberts.  ‘Popular Protest’ has to a large extent become post-modernese for ‘class conflict’, or the now taboo ‘class struggle’.  It is seen as just another reflection of social conflict and not as a manifestation of a fundamental dynamic of social change.  I would argue that the industrial revolution cannot be understood without a concept of the class struggle which was taking place.  However, I am the first to admit that class struggle views have often by presented simplistically and an insightful view of the Luddites has been a casualty of this.  Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley, for all its faults as both literature and history, does have something to say about ‘popular protest’, or class struggle in the 19th century.  Dr Roberts foray into this is to be valued as a contribution to creating a more multi-faceted view of working class history.

 The Brontes and the Luddites are both perennial topics of interest and integral parts of our West Riding Pennine culture.  Together they are a successful recipe for a panoramic view of  early 19th century history.  In the wide range of his talk, Dr Roberts gave us more than a glimpse of that panorama.  Hopefully future Luddite Memorial Lectures will measure up to the high benchmark that this inaugural lecture has established.


 *William Farren’s appeal to Moore:

“I’ve not much faith I’ Moses Barraclough,” said he; “and I would speak a word to you myseln, Mr. Moore. It’s out o’ no ill-will that I’m here, for my part; it’s just to mak’ a effort to get things straightened, for they’re sorely acrooked. Ye see we’re ill off, — varry ill off: wer families is poor and pined. We’re thrawn out o‘ work wi’ these frames: we can get nought to do: we can earn nought. What is to be done? Mun we say, wisht! and lig us down and dee? Nay: I’ve no grand words at my tongue’s end, Mr. Moore, but I feel that it wad be a low principle for a reasonable man to starve to death like a dumb cratur’: — I will n’t do’t. I’m not for shedding blood: I’d neither kill a man nor hurt a man; and I’m not for pulling down mills and breaking machines: for, as ye say, that way o” going on ’ll niver stop invention; but I’ll talk, — I’ll mak’ as big a din as ever I can. Invention may be all right, but I know it isn’t right for poor folks to starve. Them that governs mun find a way to help us: they mun mak’ fresh orderations. Ye’ll say that’s hard to do: — so mich louder mun we shout out then, for so mich slacker will t’ Parliament-men be to set on to a tough job.”


There is some discussion of Charlottes use of the term Antinomian in Marianne Thormahlen’s  The Brontes and Religion (Cambridge 1999) p.77. However, from this brief reference in a book exploring the Bronte’s religious beliefs in some depth, it would be fair to conclude that the term is used mainly as a form of invective, rather than a description of a religious position – meaning little more than an amoral/immoral anarchist. For a detailed study of the 17th century origins of Antinomianism see E P Thompson, Witness against the Beast, (Cambridge 1993), which is a study of the religious and philosophical influences on William Blake.
See Also :
Steven E Jones ‘Against Technology – From Luddism to Neo-Luddism’ (Routledge 2006) Chapter 5
Philip ROGERS, ‘Tory Brontë: Shirley and the “MAN”’  Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 58, No. 2 (September 2003), pp. 141-175.
Herbert J. Rosengarten ‘Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley and the Leeds Mercury’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 16, No. 4, Nineteenth Century (Autumn, 1976), pp. 591-600.
Susan Zlotnick , ‘Luddism, Medievalism and Women’s History in “Shirley”: Charlotte Brontë’s RevisionistTactics’,   NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Spring, 1991), pp. 282-295.

[available on the internet].




Dedicated to


Luddism through the Chartist Looking Glass: 

Shirley and the Modernisation of Popular Protest.


Dr Matthew Roberts,

(Sheffield Hallam University).

Was delivered on Thursday 16 January 2014.

at the

University of Huddersfield