Luddites was the name given to artisans who took to smashing up machinery which was being introduced in the late 1700s and early 1800s to speed up production of woollen and cotton garments. The new machines were seen to be taking away work and therefore wages, from workers in both industries. The name is thought to come from a young man, Ned Ludd, who smashed up a stocking making frame in 1779. The name evolved into legendary General Ludd or King Ludd, a figure who, like Robin Hood, was reputed to live in Sherwood Forest.
Opposition to new machinery spread quickly from the Midlands to Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cheshire. The key characters in West Yorkshire Luddism were tradesmen known as croppers, who needed great skill and strength to manipulate enormous shears with which they smoothed the surface of woollen cloth produced in the weavers’ cottages which dotted the hills and villages.
The increasing violence in West Yorkshire in the early 1800s led to attacks on mills and the homes of mil owners. This violence came to a peak on 28th April 1812 when William Horsfall, a mill owner, was shot dead on Crossland Moor as he rode back from Huddersfield to Marsden.
Eventually, a man named Benjamin Walker came forward and confessed to taking part in the murder, along with William Thorpe, Thomas Smith and George Mellor, a charismatic cropper dubbed ‘the General Ludd of Yorkshire’.
By turning King’s evidence, Walker saved his own skin, but the other three were tried and hung in York in January 1813. Eight days later 14 other men were hanged after being rounded up for their part in the murder and attack on Rawfolds Mill. The subject fascinated both Charlotte Brontë, who wrote about the Luddites in Shirley, and the Halifax-born author Phyllis Bentley, who used the story in her 1932 novel, Inheritance.
When a man took the Luddite oath the process was known as ‘twisting in’. The fearsome language of the oath stated that the penalty for giving away Luddite secrets was to be “sent out of the world by the first brother who shall meet me, and my name and character blotted out of existence and never be remembered but with contempt and abhorrence”.
A Yorkshire legend has it that croppers were such a wild bunch that when they all end up in Hell the Devil was desperate to get rid of them. So he opened the gates again and shouted “ALE! ALE!” The croppers rushed out and the Devil bolted the gates of Hell after them.
Remember throughout all the violence of the Luddite era not one Birstall Luddite was ever arrested. The local reputation for discretion and silence would seem to work!