Sunday, 20 January 2013

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.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

5 celebrations of the Making of the English Working Class and counting...

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the first edition of E. P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1963).

As far as I am aware, there are at least half a dozen events/workshops/colloquia/conferences celebrating the anniversary. I keep getting invited to them, and at this point, I have to start declining them as
a) no one wants to hear me talk five or six times, and
b) I don't want to end up saying the same thing five or six times.

The continual stream of invitations and notifications makes me wonder whether it would better serve the purpose if there was just one giant conference.

But on the other hand, having lots of little regional events, each with its own theme and its own local as well as academic audience, is perhaps more appropriate. All the different events are testimony to the type of influence Thompson had. His work had such a sense of place, and much of The Making is rooted in a regional approach, especially focusing on the Spen and Calder valleys in which he spent much of his time teaching for the WEA [see my review of Luke Fowler's film in an earlier post]. Many of the commemoration events are open to the general public, whom I am sure will attend in their droves.

I first caught sight of a tattered Penguin copy of The Making (the revised 1968 edition) on the desk of my history teacher at secondary school. It was always at his right hand, like a bible [indeed, probably instead of the Bible]. We studied radicalism and the Luddites and the industrial revolution for A-level, and he encouraged us to pick up the book and immerse ourselves in its stories as well as its polemic. And now, when teaching and researching, I continue the tradition of my history teacher, with a battered Penguin copy, the front cover with that striking image from Walker's Costume of Yorkshire hanging off its spine, at my right hand.

my 1968 edition

on the Luddites. A Penguin paperback that deserves annotation and marginalia

the key bit about class as a cultural process as much as an economic structure

I will do some more pondering about why The Making retains its influence and standing in a way that no other book from that era has done. But in the meantime, here's the list of (confirmed) events (with more to come):

  • People's History Museum, Manchester, Sat 13 April, 10am-4.30pm
  • Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, 11 May, Labour History Research Unit and Victorian Studies Centre, Saffron Walden
  • University of Burgundy, Dijon, session at the International Association for Strikes and Social Conflicts conference, 16-18 May 
  • Harvard University, Cambridge MA, 3-5 Oct, 'The Global E. P. Thompson: Reflections on the Making of the English Working Class after Fifty Years'
  • Square Chapel, Halifax, Society for the Study of Labour History, Sat 16 November
with more to be confirmed...

and there'll most likely be much discussion of Thompson at workshop 3 of my New Approaches to the History of Protest series, Sat 2 March, University of Gloucestershire, Cheltenham. For more details, see the website:
Thompson will no doubt be mentioned at some point at the Radical York commemorations of the execution of the Yorkshire Luddites this Saturday at York Guild Hall and Castle.

Postscript: Taking these photos has underscored the materiality of the book for me.

In my research I use a lot - it's so much easier to find that reference I remembered from a book I read a few years back, and to discover a cross-reference to a new book I haven't seen yet. Using digitised books makes it so much easier than the physical pile of books on the library desk, not having to wait for them to come from the stacks. Yet, despite my 'digital humanism', I still need those yellowed and annotated pages of the Penguin paperback to really get to the heart of Thompson's writing. A copy on a screen, though much easier to search, still misses something, and indeed I miss the important contextual and descriptive elements of it, if I key word search for a particular term.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

two lectures, wake, and workshop

here are my upcoming engagements. All welcome.

Sat 19 January - York's alternative history/radical York presents a commemoration of the Luddites executed at York Castle. It's followed by a wake in a pub for the executed Luddites.

Sat 2 March - New approaches to the history of protest and resistance - workshop 3, University of Gloucestershire, Cheltenham.

Tues 9 April - Enfield branch of the Historical Association: lecture on the Luddites

Google fusion tables now exports styles to kml

Good news for anyone using google fusion tables to produce maps. It has finally (after 2 years of requests) allowed users to export styles in their tables into kml files.

For some unknown reason, previously it didn't allow map styles (e.g. colour of pins or symbols) that you can easily do in google maps to be exported in a kml file. So, as I do, when you made a table of points with different coloured pins for different places (e.g. I use blue pins for loyalist events and places, pink pins for trade union events and sites, etc), you couldn't export those styles to, say, google earth. Now you can, which makes life so much easier as I can now use my colour-coded data on google earth.

So, for example, here is a shot from my google fusion map of Manchester political meetings:
And here's how it looked, exported without styles to google earth, on Green's 1794 map. Not that useful (there are still problems: it still compresses multiple points on the same lat/long into one, so you have to click on the point to see the multiple entries).

Nevertheless, here's the new view, with exported styles.