Commemoration of the execution of 17 Luddites, York, 19 January 2013

On Saturday 19 January, York's Alternative History held an afternoon of talks and commemoration for the Luddites tried and executed at York.

placards outside York Castle

In the huge space of the Guild Hall, Adam Gutteridge, one of the organisers, introduced the themes of the day. His speech echoed the two interesting articles publicising the event in the Guardian (by local historian Paul Furness, here, and by another organiser Helen Graham, here). They argue that now that York's industrial economy is no more (chocolate and railways), York has remade itself round the past: an economy of tourism. Yet the past as presented to tourists and indeed to residents, is a sanitised and normalised history, centring round Vikings, medieval religion, and Georgian middle-class pleasures. The recent York 800 celebrations had no place for the popular protest and resistance that had a distinguished history in the city.

I began the talks by explaining the context and meaning of the Luddites for the non-converted, although most of the people shivering along in the draughty hall already knew about the meaning of the Luddites.

Then Professor Malcolm Chase gave a thoughtful and provoking account of the long list of political prisoners held at York Castle since the Farnley Wood rebels were executed on 16 January 1664 (Chase mused on whether the date for the execution of the Luddites, 16 January 1812, was co-incidental or not).

Alan Brooke, dressed as usual in General Ludd garb, took us on a poetic and carefully worded journey, as he said, 'from Huddersfield through Munich and to Middle Earth', telling the influence of the Luddites in literature and politics to the present day.

[NEW: I have redacted this bit of the original blog post as it offended the sensibilities of some of the Luddite200 people. The main message was that some of the audience who didn't know the history of the Luddites expressed to me that they felt a little excluded by the speeches that followed the talks. I suggested that perhaps we should be more inclusive and positive, and focus on the history to bring people together, which I think is what the Alternative York group is trying to do]

We then processed from the Guild Hall to the site of the executions, led by a mourning drum and carrying placards bearing the names of the executed Luddites.

processing past Clifford's tower

on the final approach to the scaffold
 The last execution at the tyburn at York had been in 1801, although it was not dismantled until April 1812. A specially-constructed scaffold was erected for the Luddite executions 'at the usual place behind the castle'. Local historians believe that the Luddites were executed on the spot you can see in the photos, now next to the road which now goes over what was St. George's Field.
Reading out the names of those executed, with General Ludd (Alan Brooke) present

The placards were hammered into the ground (though by a mallett not by Enoch) and a minute's silence preceded another walk to the pub. 

the door through which the Luddites may have come out to the scaffold

Extracts from my talk [please cite the url if you are using this]:
The Luddites involved three different groups of textile workers, differentiated by their particular type of industry and different geographical locations: stocking knitters in Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire, woollen croppers in the west riding, and cotton weavers in south Lancashire and north Cheshire. Among these groups we also find other workers: especially colliers/miners. It is important to remember that the ‘industrial revolution’ was not a singular homogeneous process of national development: it was profoundly regional. It was regional in the specialisms that each area produced in accordance to their different environments and material resources. 
What is significant about Luddism was that it was able to transcend this regionality. Skilled textile workers in all three regions had a common enemy – and although the introduction of new technology was the immediate target, that technology was only the tip of the iceberg. 
Throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, artisans and textile workers were incensed by what they regarded to be their employers’ displacement of individual skill for the cheap efficiency of mass production. They opposed the laissez-faire, free trade economics taken up by their employers who had been reading their Adam Smith. They also opposed the government’s apparent bowing to pressure by these manufacturers to remove state regulation and protection and mechanisms of intervention in employment practices and wage levels. Their language is full of a defence of customary regulations and price levels, harking back to the Elizabethan statute of artificers. 
They were not stupid and reactionary, attacking technology because it was new and they didn’t understand it – in fact the complete opposite – to be a Luddite meant to know about what that technology represented = to know about the wider political and economic changes that were being imposed on workers and how it would make their lives worse.
Skilled textile workers and their supporters tackled this common threat by uniting under the one, mythical, leader: General Ludd.
Custom and distinctiveness of place shaped the form in which Luddism was enacted. Taken from folk culture, the mythical figure of ‘General Ludd’ did not deny their regionality, but served to reinforce it. So this is a story of regional pride, and a deep knowledge of place, its histories and its customs.  
Men alone carried out Luddism, and other forms of collective action that drew their clothes and disguise from mumming and morris. This exclusion mirrored trade union culture, which was designed in part to restrict the inclusion of women into a skilled workers’ hierarchy.


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