Luddites’ death sentence

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THIS month sees the 200th anniversary of the hanging of Luddites who were convicted of attacking Cartwrights Mill in Rawfolds.

In January 1813, 17 men were sent to the gallows for their part in the uprising – which included the failed attack at the Liversedge mill as well as the murder of Marsden mill owner William Horsfall.

The Luddites were croppers who feared for their livelihoods as more and more mill owners introduced machinery which threatened to put them out of work.

It was the croppers’ job to shave imperfections off pieces of woven cloth before it was sold, but the increasing mechanisation meant that machines could do the job much more quickly and cheaply.

The movement had begun in Nottinghamshire but soon spread throughout the country and the Spen Valley in particular was a hotbed of unrest.

Faced with deepening poverty, the croppers felt drastic action was needed to protect their families from starvation.

They met in secret at the Shears Inn in Hightown to co-ordinate attacks on the mills to smash the new looms and machinery.

In April 1812 a group of around 150 Luddites armed with pistols and hammers attacked William Cartwright’s mill. But Cartwright had been tipped off and had fortified the mill with soldiers. In the ensuing battle two Luddites were killed.

The following week an attempt was made on Cartwright’s life at Bradley Woods and on April 28 William Horsfall was assassinated.

The government, keen to quash the civil unrest, was brutal in its determination to bring the Luddites before the courts. Many arrests were made and the Luddite trials began in York on January 2, 1813.

Those in the dock included key figures in the movement, such as George Mellor, William Thorpe and Thomas Smith, who were accused of William Horsfall’s murder as well as the attack at Rawfolds.

In all, 66 people were convicted of various offences ranging from burglary, repeating the Luddite Oath, murder or attempted murder, riotous assembly and damage, and 17 of the men were sentenced to be hung on the gallows at York Castle.

A newspaper report at the time commented: “The prisoners were all young and in the prime of life, and many of respectable appearance, many of them particularly good-looking young men.”