Before the Luddites Custom, community and machinery in the English woollen industry, 1776-1809
Adrian Randall CUP
This wonderful book opens with an exploration of the pejorative use of the term ‘Luddites’ – they were right weren’t they? Wages did fall and goods could deteriorate – and how they ‘could little have imagined the linguistic legacy they were to bequeath to posterity.’ Randall points out that a focus upon direct action – rioting and so on – does not ‘accentuate’ the ‘atypical’: ‘riots often provide historians with our only point of access’ into the past values, attitudes and traditions of custom-held rights. And this point of access reveals that ‘Resistance to machinery was multiform … peaceful petitioning, appeals to the courts … negotiations … strike action, intimidation and riot.’ Randall shows how this resistance echoed 18th century Gloucestershire food riots – ‘Just as food riots reveal order, discrimination and a clear moral economy, so do the community-based riots against the jenny and scribbling machine.’
“Non-fiction uses facts to help us see the lies. Fiction uses metaphor to help us see the truth.”
Thoughts derived from a reading of
Creating Memorials Building Identities The Politics of Memory in the Black Atlantic
(Alan Price Liverpool University Press 2012)
Doors of No Return,
Historic, documented, liminal places,
Not gone with the wind, but both visible and invisible,
Spaces and places in the Stroudwater hills and valleys
With messages and mementoes from a riotous past,
Open doors to the truth –
So how do we create a counter-narrative?
“A performative counter-narrative … a ‘guerrilla memory’”,
“Lieux de memoire, sites of history, torn away from the moment of history”
Memorialisation that moves beyond the empirical,
The documented, the evidenced and the historical,
To a counter-heritage, a counter-memorialisation…
For further reinterpretations,
As we move art and monument
From object to process,
And from ‘noun to verb’,
As we create new museums of the past, present and future…
This reimagining is the result of Mr Randall’s inspiring research and writings.
‘I was born in Woodchester, near Stroud in 1772. I am now in my fortieth year, heartened and invigorated by news of the Luddites up north. (They say there are more Stroud Scarlet troops up there than are being used against the French. What say you, Mr Johnson?) Anyway, this invigoration has led me to pick up my quill and record my memories – such as they are, of the struggles of our scribblers, spinners, shearmen, weavers, men and women in Stroudwater, in my lifetime.
The master clothiers as a body looked down on us with smiling condescension, and although groaning from over indulgence, excoriated us if we had a tankard or two on our St Mondays – some worse than others – but I want to be more particular with my History – I have my notes here in my ledger by my side on the table – We used to discuss the Gloucester Journal at the ale house and I diligently kept a faithful record of both the journal and our debates in a sort of diary. I shall, part by wit, part by design, and part by happenstance, now present my evidence for Posterity, as though Posterity itself were both judge and jury. For the sake of brevity and clarity, I have chosen to edit some of my evidence. This will be shown by ellipsis.
I start my chronicle at Woodchester in 1792, when the Journal reported that ‘A considerable number of the most idle of the people employed in the clothing trade … proceeded to seduce the work people to follow them … but … could not succeed as they found them universally convinced of the advantages of the machines rendered … The rioters finding their cause desperate, dispersed as fast as possible.’
Well, I was there, at my Baptism, you might say, and I can say with all due Veracity that it was only the threat of the special constables that made us disperse. And as for the advantages of these machines, why then, did the authorities choose to suppress all news of the Tumult and unrest caused by these infernal things? I know what occurred but it weren’t in the Gloucester Journal.
And if these machines were so advantageous, then why did the scribblers petition thus?
‘To the Landowners, Renters and others affected by the poor … a great number of persons brought up in the business of wool scribbling are now nearly deprived of employment in consequence of scribbling machines.’ And if there was such a collegiate Commonwealth between clothier, machine and worker, why did the clothiers dismiss any shearman, and woman who had been part of this petition? And why did they declare that: ‘Should the scribblers obtain their demands, the industry would be ruined.’
The petition failed, of course; machinery advanced; Sir George Paul, hearing that a few of us had been reading The Rights of Man, helped foster the burning of a guyed Tom Paine in Minchinhampton. That didn’t stop the food Riots happening, but Sir George sniffed the air and he saw phantoms: Corresponding Societies and the French Revolution: ‘This is but the beginning of an evil that will turn to desperate consequences’, quoth the good Sir George.
Sir George perceived what he called Evil all over the Valleys, and particularly so in Uley in 1795 when this note was sent: ‘No King but a constitution down down down o fatall dow high caps and proud hats for ever dow down we all.’ Sir George could not imagine that poor folk could think about abstract Ideas, Rights and Principles; he imagined that hunger was the fundament – ‘the cry of want of bread … forms a body of insurgents, amongst them are mixed a number of seditious persons’, quoth the good and philanthropic Sir George.
His associate, the Earl of Berkeley possessed a similarly disparaging View of us, but he did have the capacity for perceiving that some of us could think. I have this in my ledger: ‘A vein of bad materials runs through the lower order in the clothing part of the county which still continues to study Tom Paine with a few political clubs of the very dregs and of T. Paine’s cash’. Dregs indeed. We can see the source of the Earl’s metaphors.
Sir George might have feared insurgents and seditiousness, but his patriotism was of a most intriguing texture. During the invasion scare of 1798 some master clothiers bade workmen that they should join volunteer militia – Sir George was rather more perturbed about his workmen bearing weapons than the French sailing up the Severn. Yet he was above embarrassment, as so many of his class: ‘If too many of them should get under arms … and no enemy appear, they might take an opportunity of holding strong language to their masters on the sore point of increasing machinery.’ Shall I add an exclamation mark? No. I do not think one is needed.
The shearmen were patriots mostly, however, and wedded to law and constitution, and married to Deference: ‘It is not the wish of the petitioners that the use of gig mills should be entirely suppressed, but only to confine them to … such cloth … the coarser sort.’ But such Deference could not budge Sir George from his entrenched opposition. Here is the beneficent Sir George again – ‘When I see a number of decent, orderly men … who can relinquish a life of industry which produced a comfortable subsistence and who determine themselves to be dismissed by their employers … for the purpose of laying on a piece of useless paper on the table of the House of Commons, I cannot but presume that they are biased by some motive adverse to reason.’
Truly, one man’s meat is another man’s poison, and so it is with reason.
I regret to say that Deference brought nought but unwished for consequence – the gig mills continued their advancement; Wiltshire rioted; some Gloucestershire shearmen communicated with the Brief Institution in the West Riding, a form of Combination, and then in 1800 … ‘Some evil disposed person’, ‘destroyed three cloths … in the rack grounds … at Rodborough and … nine more … in … Woodchester’; a reward of £100 was increased by another 500 guineas after yet another clothiers’ meeting at The Fleece; a penitent Joseph Stephens was hanged for the offence. The goodly clothiers uttered some mealy-mouthed cant, asking that shearing machines should only be taken up ‘in such a manner as not to deprive any of their shearmen of Employ’.
And mealy-mouthed Cant it was and Hypocrisy and Deceit.
I have written so far of the scribblers. I will now turn my pen to the struggles of the weavers, and then return to the food Riots. Like the scribblers, the weavers wanted to shun the ways of Wiltshire, and follow the path of peaceful Deputation. So it was thus: a meeting with Mr Watts, the Stonehouse clothier, about his new looms; followed by a mass meeting up on Rodborough Common; followed by the master clothiers’ customary meeting at The Fleece; followed by the clothiers meeting with Nathaniel Watts of Stonehouse.
The Consequence? ‘The miseries of the manufacturing poor are now inexpressibly greater … provisions being extremely dear, trade also languishing. … Bisley and Chalford Bottom particularly afford melancholy proof of how many wretches of the clothing district are prompted by the despair to wander about and trust to the shelter of hedges and barns rather than starve under their own ineffectual roofs.’
And so my pen is inexorably led to the Tumult caused by Want. With the price of bread so high and with wages so low and work so scarce, patience was at an end. Men and women and boys and girls marched down to the Navigations. They were at their Wits’ ends. Moral, frugal God-fearing and law abiding folk who could take no more and who were disinclined to see their children starve whilst food was exported from our fields along the waters to London. And so they tried, like pirates of yore on the high seas, to board the Barges laden with wheat. But blowing of Horns, and carrying knives to open Bags and Sacks of flour could not stop what also seemed to be the inexorable march of machinery.
‘Paul Wathen you Hare a Damd in Fernald Scoundrel and We will Teack yuir Damd Life from you if Don’t teacl care of yuirself. And We Hear in Formed that you got Shear in mee shens and if you Don’t pull them Down in a Forght Nights Time Wee will pull them Down for you Wee will you damnd infernald Dog. Andd Bee four Almighty God We will pull down all the Mills that heave Heaney Shearin me Shens in Wee will cut out Hall your Damd Hearts as do Ceep them and Wee will meack the rst Heat them or els Wee will searve them the seam.
Thear Read this and Weep do you For your Time is but shourt Hear your Damd Villian Raskell.’
No one hereabouts knows who wrote this Note but The manuscript ends abruptly here – pages have been torn out (see later).
The manuscript then continues
‘Workmen have been guilty of repeated acts of malicious mischief and of sending anonymous letters of a threatening and diabolical tendency … they have frequently resorted to … cutting the cloths in the tenters during the Night.’ That was Thomas Croome, Stroud Magistrate, after the destruction at King’s Stanley, 1805. Further Destruction followed throughout the valleys – the news was suppressed. But here’s what happened: LOOM SHOPS WERE ATTACKED THROUGHOUT STROUDWATER by what those of us in the know called The Stroudwater Secret Combination. We were a small group, but effective in our nocturnal Visitations. We tried to have at least one Member in each Village and theUnfortunately, some pages are missing here – they have obviously been torn out.
It seems that the pages were deliberately removed to protect persons unknown.
We think the compiler of this manuscript was Charles William Butler. The Woodchester parish records show his baptism on Aug 22nd 1772. Records of births, deaths and marriages show that he died at Clerkenwell, London, in 1852. There is evidence of a William Butler working as a boatman on the Thames and Severn Canal and River Thames at Lechlade in 1816. A William Butler married Charlotte Alice Bingham in Rodborough in 1795. A William Butler of Clerkenwell appears in the Chartist Allen Davenport’s recently discovered manuscripts.
We can, however, continue our narrative through the eyes of Alice Bingham. Alice broke with gender conventions and worked as a weaver, not a spinner. She was something of an iconoclast and was equally resolute in opposing the master clothiers in their desires to introduce loom shops. She was born in Rodborough in 1776 and kept a journal from the age of sixteen. Her journal provides a fascinating insight into Gloucestershire for about ten years, before she moved to the West Riding. We omit the introduction from her journal so as to maintain emphasis, and jump straight to her recording of the notorious events at Uley in 1792.
The Uley weavers told Nathaniel Lloyd straight to his face that he was breaking both law and custom by having multiple looms under one roof. This led to the Uley Skimmington of the mid-summer. Two score and more weavers congregated outside John Teakle’s: ‘You be working under price for that damned Lloyd, Teakle’.’Give us that bloody cloth or we’ll dip ee with the skimmington’ and, ‘We shall have the slates off your roof if ee don’t comply, you damned rogue’ and such forth.
The long, tall and the short of it is that Teakle’s cloth got trampled on; he was ducked over Owlpen way, and there was a skimmington procession with him bestride the pole, through Horsley and Nailsworth then back to Uley until ale got the better of the weavers. When they got back to Uley, Teakle hid in William Webb’s house; doors, windows and slates were smashed.
Most of the crowd faced charges, but the good opinion of the churchwardens and the vicar of Horsley – ‘men of sober and orderly conduct’; ‘peaceable’; ‘good character’, and so on – resulted in lenient sentences. It also counted for them that Teakle and Webb had previously incurred the attention of the law: both had seen the inside of the lock-up.
We wondered if the sentences were also an olive branch to all the Stroud valleys – but if so, it was to no avail. Unrest continued, but strange to relate – or is it? – Not one report appeared in the journals and newspapers.
I see no reason to name names now. The only one I will detail is that of the Reverend William Lloyd-Baker: ‘I perfectly agree with your friends that government do wisely to keep it secret. The less riots are talked of the less likely they are to increase or succeed.’
He and his ilk weren’t just perturbed by the antagonism caused by loom shops, jennies and gig mills of course. They were aware that some of us were reading The Rights of Man; were opposed to monarchy, and could see the advantages of a republic. That’s why they made their pretence and dissimulated.
But it was not all tumult and nocturnal depredations. The majority of our weavers saw no reason to break the law; they said the law, precedent and custom were on our side; the Gloucestershire Society of Broad and Narrow Cloth Weavers was formed late in the year of 1793 – but the authorities responded with troops and militia, particularly in the vicinity, and streets, of Wotton-under-Edge and Dursley. St Clem’s Day resounded like a hammer on the anvil.
In the north of Stroudwater, in Bisley, the weavers maintained the use of law: they took legal action against a Chalford clothier who transgressed customary working. There was a consequent meeting at the Berkeley Arms – in Cam – in the south of Stroudwater – this was how effective we were – and a new Weavers’ Society was formed. It was modelled on Friendly Societies, with detailed rules, subscriptions and a calendar of meetings. It desired to maintain custom, maintain wages and prevent illegal working. Three thousand members and this conciliatory demeanour counted for nought with the master clothiers, however. Strikes followed in Wotton-under-Edge just as night follows day.
I argued that the Weavers’ Society was trapped like a fly in a spider’s web. Trapped between conciliatory deference, resolute clothiers and a few equally resolute weavers, who wanted the Society to countenance the law-breaking, machine-breaking stance of the Wiltshire weavers. Then the giant spider, Parliament, would come along and abolish the very laws that previously protected the weavers.
The Society lacked all potency.
A few of us talked of printing handbills or chalking exhortations on mill walls and parish workhouses: ‘Cheap Bread!’; ‘Cheap Bread and No King!’ But the inclement weather and the constant rain, together with a lack of copper, and a talk of government spies, all conspired to mute us. We didn’t trust those men from the North with their talk of revolution and a republic, but circumstances alter cases and so I resolved to tramp north to seek work in the summer of 1802.
Here endeth the Stroudwater chapter of my narrative.
Plus ca change. The day after completing my preparatory reading of Professor Randall’s book, I had to retrieve some euros from a Thomas Cook cash-card – and needless to say, had forgotten the pin number. The website failed me. The hole in the wall failed me. A lengthy period on the ‘phone failed me. So I went into the Thomas Cook shop where the assistant sorted me within seconds.
‘People are better than machines’, I said.
‘That’s what we keep telling head office’, she replied.
I wrote this re-creation at the beginning of the year, 2017, making my rough notes on the hoof ‘in the landscape’. I was on the hunt for The Fleece, in Rodborough (not easy – we had to think about four different possible inns of that name in the parish), where the master clothiers met. It is now, as I eventually discovered, Hillgrove House on the old turnpiked Bath Road, the A46, at the bottom of Bear Hill – which leads up to Rodborough Common.
It was a beautiful winter’s day; I made my way up to the common, sat on a bench so that I could gaze out to Woodchester and so allow the landscape to infuse my thoughts and re-imaginings. Sunlight lustred some scarlet spindle-berries in a bush to my left. I made some draft notes, then wandered to Rodborough’s church, where I sat on an 18th century gravestone in a late afternoon sun, beneath a fretwork of branch-shadows. When it became too cold, I gathered up my notebooks and pens, when a gentleman hobbling along with walking sticks appeared from behind the crepuscular church door.
‘A peaceful place to write’, he said.
It was all a bit Edwin Drood.
I explained briefly what I was about – gazing out to Woodchester and re-creating the lives of weavers and so on.
He was born in Woodchester, he told me; his mum worked in a pin mill before the Great War – ‘pins everywhere then’; told me about Hillgrove House – ‘Used to be The Fleece. That’s where the master clothiers used to meet and where all the decisions were made about the canal and the railway.’
The sun was descending: it was time to go. I told him I would include him in my narrative – a narrative not just of the past, but of how the present and past collide when you write outside, in the landscape: a harmony of the diachronic and synchronic.
But who sent this revenant?
The sources used may be found cited in Before the Luddites: Custom, Community and Machinery in the English Woollen Industry 1776-1809, Cambridge University Press, 1991