HUDDERSFIELD, England (Reuters Life!) - The people of Huddersfield are rising up again, but this time it’s to celebrate the city’s 19th century local weavers rather than smash modern technology.
The northern English town of Huddersfield was home nearly 200 hundred years ago to the secretive Luddites, weavers armed with muskets and hammers who roamed the countryside attacking the textile mills which threatened their livelihoods.
Once they were the scourge of northern England, murdering mill owners and smashing machinery, but a vow of silence and the industrial decline of the 21st century mean that finding any tangible remains of the movement — whose name has become an English catchphrase — has become a bit of a challenge.
Now Huddersfield member of parliament Barry Sheerman is meeting with historians, museums and locals to come up with ideas to celebrate the bicentenary of the Luddite movement.
“We want to recognize the part the Luddites made in our struggle for democracy...and recognition of organized labor,” Sheerman said.
Sheerman said he is in discussions with various national museums in the United Kingdom, to build a Huddersfield center or museum to commemorate the Luddites and social change.
A spokesman for Kirklees Council, which administers Huddersfield and surrounding areas, also said there are plans to launch a new heritage trail and blue plaque scheme for Huddersfield, which may include Luddite links.
Luddites met and planned many of their attacks at public houses dotted around picturesque countryside, using numbers instead of names, wearing hats and coal-blackened faces.
With no social welfare, community members in 19th century northern England realized that the introduction of new textile machines would leave them out of work and facing starvation.
Organizing themselves to co-ordinate attacks on mills, the group signed threatening letters “Ned Ludd” or “General Ludd” — after an apprentice said to have been mistreated by his master.
“The Luddites weren’t against progress, but against unfairness,” Sheerman said.
The Huddersfield area saw as many as 200 attackers raid Rawfolds mill during the dead of night, and one mill owner was ambushed and murdered by pistol wielding masked men.
“It has long been the legend that the grave of Robin Hood is in the area, and these people were a Robin Hood figure to ordinary weavers,” said David Pinder, mayor at Mirfield Town Council, an area that saw some of the bloodiest Luddite events.
Sadly many of the public houses where the Luddites met and the places where their triumphs and tragedies played out have closed or fallen derelict.
One pub where a mill owner bought his last drink before riding off on his horse to be assassinated by Luddites is now an out-of-business furniture shop.
The grand home of a landowner and magistrate who persecuted Luddites, is almost derelict. The Shears Inn, where Luddites held meetings and planned the destruction of textile machines, is now boarded up and awaiting new owners.
“Part of the problem, is that the guys who led the Luddites, came from isolated weaver cottages, so you wouldn’t have a house where you could say ‘this is where so-and-so died’,” added Pinder, who is also chairman of the Mirfield History Society and lectures part-time at Bradford University.
The area continues to retain a manufacturing sector, which these days provides only 20 percent of the jobs for a population of 404,000 and the latest economic downturn has hit hard. January 2007 to January 2010 unemployment claims in Kirklees increased by more than 90 percent from 6,469 to 12,501.
“A lot of old mills have been converted into flats,” Pinder said. “There are very few textile industries left now. One of our last factories here that made carpets has just moved to eastern Europe.”
Eventually the army were sent to sort out the Luddites, turning Huddersfield into a police state and quashing the movement. The death knell for Luddism sounded when more than 100 men were imprisoned or hanged at York Castle in 1813.
Fearing retribution and the hangman’s noose, Luddites and their families took a vow of silence, taking their secrets to the grave.
Huddersfield’s modern residents have retained a reputation as a straight-talking people with a penchant for the dark humor developed in adversity, Pinder said.
“But people these days are much better educated,” he said. “Any resistance nowadays, is far more likely to be a bit more eloquent and to use the system.”
Reporting by Michael Taylor; editing by Paul Casciato