Friday, 25 January 2013

Political Prisoners & Luddites in York

ALMOST 100 turned up last Saturday at the York Guildhall to a commemorate the 200-year anniversary, in January 1813, of the execution of several men accused of being Luddites. In York, at that time, before a densely packed Court room all the men were found guilty of crimes like criminal riot, unlawful oaths, robberies etc. They were men of the West Riding of Yorkshire: of the Calder Valley, of the Spen Valley and the Colne Valley. A contemporary writer wrote:

'As the day broke slanting rain faded away to reveal flakes of snow' as the men were taken shackled to York Castle to be punished, the streets were heavily policed because of the 'fear that people will try to rescue the people before they were executed'.

 Dr Katrina Navickas at the University of Hertfordshire, spoke eloquently and pointed out that to the men from the West Riding in those days the city of York was 'a foreign land'. It was, she said, a case of 'execution for political of social crimes'. It was the time of the last years of the Napoleonic Wars, and Ms. Navickas told us that in the West Riding there were 'communities of silence' with a fear of spies, but Joseph Woods from Halifax visited the parents of one executed man Tom Smith to uncover some of the facts. She claimed the Luddites were not 'a faceless mob' but were confronted, as we are today, by a free market economics in which the invisible hand of capital would 'increase profits' and 'cheapen labour'. Government had already 'banned' trade unions in the early 1800s.

In their letters the Luddites had shown themselves to be knowledgeable looking to protection from the Elizabethan laws. They knew that the new technologies of their time would threaten to reduce their skills as workers. In a book by George Walker 'The Costumes of Yorkshire' there is an illustration of a Luddite as a man in a woman's dress; rather like the one in the painting by Ford Madox Brown entitled 'Work' (this picture is at present in storage at the Manchester Art Gallery).

Professor Malcolm Chase addressed the issue of York as a historic place for political prisoners because it was the epicentre of Yorkshire. From the imprisonment of Welshmen in 1295; through the jailing of Parisian nobles in the 15th Century; to the men of the West Riding being hung, drawn and quartered in 1664; and on to the Jacobite executions 'York was a political place,' he said. Indeed, it seems that York was the major political prisoners after London. York was a centre of reform and Pro. Chase said 'Campaigns for centre for political reform often began in York'; these political vibrations continued right up to the First World War.

The last speaker, Alan Brooke, was indeed an anarchist from Huddersfield and he claimed that in 1912 George Greensmith, a local anarchist, claimed that 'the syndicalists were inspired by the Luddites'. He made many quotations with references to Gustav Landau's criticism of Marx, the Munich Soviet, Max Weber, Tomas Mann, Bellock, Chesterton, Louis Mumford, and Friz Lange's film 'Metropolis'. He said: 'The Luddites tried to engage the people for a law to stick to and uphold the Elizabethan Statutes'. But it was a time when the regime didn't want the market or the workplace to be constrained by statutes.

Curiously the problems of the weavers, colliers, and other workers of Nottinghamshire, Leicester, Yorkshire and south Lancashire over the introduction of new technology and their attempts to retain their skills and artisan crafts, has some similarities to the the late 19th century struggles of the Spanish rural workers of Andalucia to fight 'piecework' through violent action: in 1882, these workers who labelled themselves the 'Desheredados' or 'Disinherited', consisting of the vineyard labour of Jerez and Arcos de la Frontera, broke away from the Regional Workers' Federation after the Congress in Seville in that year. Gerald Brenan writes in 'The Spanish Labyrinth':

'The real struggle on the large estates was over destajo (piece-work)... The landlords could not pay decent wages so long as their labourers did so little work. The labourers would not work harder because by doing so they would increase the already cruel unemployment. The serfs, landlords got serf labour – that is, bad and unwilling labour – but the labourers did not get the one privilege of which is maintenance.'

The issue of piece-work was serious for the people of this South West corner of Spain in the late 19th Century, just as the issue of the introduction of new technology was for the people of the West Riding of Yorkshire in the early 19th Century.  In both cases they thought the practices were inhuman and degraded people.  Gerald Brenan explains:

'Feeling in the country districts at that time (1880s) was especially tense because the last two years had been years of severe drought and famine. The starving labourers had had to stand by and watch the crops on the large estates carried off to be sold at high prices in Seville or Cadiz. Ever since 1876 discontent had been acute and had shown itself in burnings of vineyards and in assassinations. Secret groups and societies pullulated. Then came a year of exceptional abundant rainfall. The harvest was excellent and a strike of reapers against piece-work led to a state of excitement and expectation in the whole district.'

In both cases the people responded in the best way they could and perhaps the only way they could; through riot and direct action.  In the absence of proper trade unions the Luddites were attacking machinery while trying to invoke the Elizabethan statutes to protect themselves, and the labourers of the Cadiz province of Southern Spain were seeking 'justicia' by sabotage and direct action.  There seems to be some similarity in these struggles.  As he faced the prospect of execution in York George Mellor spoke up:

'The human soul is worth more than work or gold'

One could image a Spanish anarchist in Andalucia in the 19th Century saying something similar.

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