A Beestonian (sort of) Bicentennial

It’s a common conceit at tis time of year to look forward and make predictions about 2011, sensible journalists suddenly morph into Derek Bloody Acorah and bandy round guesses on future events as if the Guardian had become Old Moore’s Almanac. I will, of course, mount this bandwagon and confidently say:

  • Soubry will do something that makes everyone go ‘gahhhhh’
  • Tesco will slowly choke off the High Street, until the whole area is tanning salons and Pound Shops
  • Cats will be evil, still.
  • I will fall off the wagon around Easter and be found attempting to superglue myself to the bar at the Crown screaming ‘Never let us be apart again’ before passing out.

See? Piece of piss. But sod the future,with the austerity cuts already slicing limbs off the poor and needy and things only getting worse – rumours are Hollyoaks is going to SIX days a week, ferchristssake-I am as reluctant to immerse myself into 2011, trying to pretend it’s not happening by dressing like, and having a hairstyle, more akin to 1978. So lets take refuge in the past. Step into my time machine, and lets head back….

Its two hundred years previous, January 1811. Things aren’t good in Nottingham, as poverty swells and unrest on the street. A contemporary account (I do research this stuff you know, this one piece took three hours in Beeston library, so be grateful) reports:

Such was the reduced state of trade, and the high price of food, that half-famished workmen, belonging to nearly every branch of local manufacture, were constrained to sweep the streets for a paltry support. They were so employed by the Overseers at St. Mary’s , the Workhouse being too full to receive their families, and no other employment presenting itself….

Which sounds awfully like the ‘Big Society’ to me…

Things got very bad in Nottingham, manufacturing declining and poverty soaring. Then, something truly wonderful happened.

Nottingham folk are notoriously anti-establishment. Our heroes are Robin Hood (proto-Socialist and ruralist); D.H. Lawrence (anti-Censorship class-warrior); Alan Silitoe (the original Angry Young Man, chronicler of the anarchy inspired by ennui) Byron (bear-wrestlin’, lady-lovin’, establishment shockin’, revolution rousin’ Mad Bad Dangerous to Know MoFo of the highest order), Brain Clough (big-headed, big-mouthed antithesis to the blandness of football management). Add to this marvellous roster  a figure who appeared in those dark days, exactly two hundred years ago. The first stirrings were recorded in early March of that year:

A great amount of deep disappointment had been smouldering in the breasts of framework-knitters generally, for a long period, occasioned by reductions in wages….This day was memorable as the commencement of the protracted and most alarming series of outrages, in the name of a mysterious leader’

Ned Ludd had entered the battlefield. The Luddites, some of the greatest heroes of industrial history, were taking up arms.

I hear you, yes I do. Why am I bigging up these Philistines who couldn’t accept change and progress while I am sitting typing on the very sort of machine that change and progress have made possible? What hypocrisy is this? To which I reply: that’s not what the Luddites were about, dear reader.

They have had an AWFUL press. The word Luddite is now a mocking word to those who can’t face technology and progress, and would happily live in caves eating raw meat and dismissing the wheel as a ‘poncey new-fangled idea’. It’s a great shame, cos this lazy dismissal misses the point.

The real reason for their ire was not the frames themselves, but how they were treated. As the mill owners tried to increase their profits by bringing in machines that produced inferior stockings, the skilled workers were replaced by unskilled men, on much lower wages. Profits soared, quality dropped, men became poorer and mere accessories to the new working processes. A lack of organised unionization, and factory owners unwilling to listen to their worker’s concerns, led to desperate acts committed by desperate people. Looms and frames were smashed, not due to some backwards fear of the new, but because everyone lost out, except for the boss, who got fatter while churning out. What the Luddites were against was not technology, but the early stirrings of the Free-market and the inequities that bought with it.

And the public loved them, shielding them from the army who were drafted in to find the ringleaders. Riots broke out when suspects were arrested, to the extent the Riot Act was read in Nottingham that September. The movement moved NorthWest, to the factories and mills of Lancashire, and for a while Spencer Percevel’s goverment feared revolution, passing the hilariously specific ‘Frame Breaking Act’ . This was punishable by death, and was enforced with gusto and indiscriminately: in Manchester, a 12 year old by the name of Abraham Charslton was hung after being caught near the scene of an arson. He was led to the gallows, crying for his mother, and was most probably innocent, as the incident was contrived by a local magistrate to justify a crackdown on suspected Luddites in the area.

For five years, they raged across the industrial landscape, and inspired many of the movements that followed from there, most notably the Pentrich Rising, where a small army of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire stocking-makers decided to march on London with the rather fuzzy aim of ‘cancelling the National Debt’, which is mad but possibly more sane than letting Gideon Osborne try.

So, next time you go to call someone a Luddite, think on. Find a better name. Its time to reclaim the word and use it to describe those who are driven by the crapness of modern working practices to take up arms and make a stand, and not as a dismissive term for someone who hasn’t got a smartphone.

Happy two hundreth birthday, Ned. We might be seeing you again soon.

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Halfway through writing that, my blogging software crashed and I lost 500 words. I was *this* close to throwing my laptop at the wall before the irony of doing that sank in and I sensibly calmed down.

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So, who is my Beestonian Hero/ Villian of 2010? What are the best additions and most missed things of the last year? All will be revealed very soon, so feel free to give me more sugggestions…

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7 thoughts on “A Beestonian (sort of) Bicentennial

  1. Steve Barber says:

    Anyone who’s interested in life arounbd Nottingham 200 years ago should read local author Alan Dances books “Narrow Marsh” and “The Ghost House”. I’m not sure if the latter, which refers to murderous goings on in Chilwell is still in print but I’m sure you can get a copy of the latter.

    Did you know Clinton Cards was burnt down in 1832 by a Chilwell man who was practising on his way to burning down the Castle in protest about Parliamentary reform. He was sentenced to death but instead deported to Tasmania (then Van Demon’s Land).

  2. Brilliant post, miLord Beestonia. It was Byron himself speaking in the House of Lords who said of the Luddites: “These men, as I have seen them – meagre with famine, sullen with despair, careless of a life which your Lordships are perhaps about to value at something less than the price of a stocking-frame.” As you say, the Luddite movement has been very much misinterpreted.

    Nomination for Beestonia’s Hero of the Year: the landlord at the Crown. Villain: there can be only one, surely, and I gather she doesn’t live in Beestonia.

    • beestonia says:

      And I thought I couldn’t worship Byron more…that put a lump in my throat.

      • I should have said that I got the quote from Geoffrey Trease’s “Nottingham: A Biography”, which I recommend to anyone interested in local history. Out of print now but look out for it in what few second-hand bookshops are left.

  3. Sean says:

    “Soubry will do something that makes everyone go ‘gahhhhh”
    That’s not a prediction, thats history. I went ” gahhhhh” at one minute past midnight on the 1st of January when I realised that she was still my MP (and that she still hadn’t replied to my second email about tuition fees of course. I was shocked at that)

  4. Alan-a-dale says:

    Nice piece… and puts the Luddites where they truly belong, in the proud pantheon of Nottingham rebels and radicals.

    Makes me proud to be a native of this fair city.

  5. Dave Cook says:

    Excellent article. 200 years since “kicking off” time tomorrow 🙂

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