The Luddites and Charlotte Bronte


york court proceedingsAlong with many of my fellow countrymen I am a great devotee of the novels of the Bronte sisters. I have read all the novels, seen all the films and follow any TV adaptation. Exploring sites associated with the novels has provided me with several happy days out. Many years ago I remember watching an old black and white film adaptation of the novel Shirley. The scenes of the Luddites being repelled by soldiers at the mill have been etched on my memory ever since. I knew that Charlotte had based the events on a real life incident that had been related to her by her father.

At the time of the Luddite rebellion the Rev Patrick Bronte was minister at Hartshead Moor Church. When his children were young he told them about the night men from the area quietly walked past his church to Rawfolds Mill where new machinery was about to be installed. Soldiers guarding the mill shot at these men and the injured fled back over the moor near Hartshead. Legends in the area say that Patrick secretly buried some of those, who died from their injuries, in Hartshead graveyard in unmarked graves. Charlotte remembered this story and repeated it in her novel Shirley. Though she changed the names of the owner, the perpetrators of the assault and the name of the mill the similarities between her account and what actually happened are very marked.

How did Charlotte know these details? Though Patrick was aware of the incident how did he know all the fine details of what happened? I think I have found the answer to these questions in our library. Anyone who has been involved in a court trial will know that a verbatim report is made of each trial etc. Nowadays each court has its own typist to record the details. In the 19th century verbatim reports were hand written and we are lucky to have 3 copies of the following in our library.

REPORT OF THE PROCEEDINGS FOR THE COUNTY OF YORK HELD AT THE CASTLE OF YORK FROM 2ND TO THE 12TH JANUARY 1813.

The books are divided into 4 parts:

1) A preamble on the history of the Luddites plus condemnation of their action and praise for the proposed improvements by mill owners.
2) An alphabetical list of the prisoners showing name, residence, occupation, age, offence and verdict.
3) Verbatim description of each occurrence plus witnesses and defence accounts.
4) Composition of the Grand Jury which included some of the great and good of the county – Honourable Henry Lascelles, Sir Mark Sykes, Sir Lister Kaye, James Wortley esq. etc

There were 10 trials: 5 for burglary, 2 for making unlawful oaths, 1 for attempted murder, 1 for murder and 1 for riotous assembly and damage to a mill. This last one was the attack on Rawfolds Mill that was owned by William Cartwright. Eight prisoners were in the dock on Saturday 9th January 1813 accused of the attack. They were James Haigh, Jonathan Dean, John Ogden, James Brook, Thomas Brook, John Walker, John Hirst. There should have been 3 more but George Mellor, William Thorpe and Thomas Smith had been executed the day before. George Mellor and Thomas Smith were found guilty of a) the murder of William Horsfall b) beginning to demolish William Cartwright’s mill c) breaking Shearing-frames and d) nine other Capital felonies. William Thorpe was found guilty of a, b and c but of only 5 Capital felonies.

I won’t go into details of the Rawfolds Mill trial as you can read about it yourselves. Though I will say that many locals gave evidence against them and the verdicts were not surprising!

James Haigh guilty hanged 16th January 1813
Jonathan Dean guilty hanged 16th January 1813
John Ogden guilty hanged 16th January 1813
James Brook not guilty discharged on bail
John Brook not guilty discharged on bail
John Walker guilty hanged 16th January 1813
John Hirst not guilty discharged on bail

They were all local men from Longroyd Bridge, Liversedge, Dalton, Lockwood and Huddersfield. They were aged between 22 and 31 so were probably married with young families to support. Finally they were all clothdressers by trade. The occupation that would be most effected by the new machinery William Cartwright was about to install.

Janet C. Senior, Assistant Librarian