"George Mellor & The Luddites"

October 2005 Meeting Report

Guest Speaker - David Mellor

The October 2005 meeting of the Keyworth & District Local History Society was held in the Centenary Lounge, Keyworth on 7th October 2005. The guest speaker for the evening was David Mellor who gave a presentation on George Mellor & the Luddites. The meeting was not so well attended as might have been expected though there were visitors from as far afield as Sheffield, (David Mellor referred to them as “His Groupies”). David began by telling the audience that he, like a great many other people nowadays had been conducting some research into his family history when relative of his enquired if they might share the results of their investigations. It was from this enquiry that David learnt about the activities of the principal player in tonight’s presentation, namely, George Mellor. David was intrigued to discover whether or not he could discover a link between himself and George Mellor.

George Mellor was born in 1789, a watershed year in European history for that was the date which heralded the beginning of the French Revolution, an event that was to have such a significant effect on Great Britain and the continent of Europe itself for the next quarter of a century. George was born in Huddersfield, the son of William Mellor. Little is known of George’s early life but it seems that he received a fairly comprehensive education as by the time he went to work he could both read and write well. George’s father died when George was only three years old. Whether this had any bearing on his later political development is not known. Certainly George’s family came from the working classes and everyday life for such people could be a very precarious affair. George was apprenticed as a “Cropper” at John Wood’s Finishing Shop at Longroyd Bridge, Yorkshire. The job of the cropper was to trim the nap off the woollen yarn and to give it a very neat and smooth finish. The job was highly skilled and the croppers were the most highly paid of the workers in the finishing shops. The principal tool which was used to finish the cloth were cutting shears, a pair of which weighed between fifty and sixty pounds. By 1812 George was highly proficient in the use of these shears.

However, the latter years of the Napoleonic Wars were highly unsettled politically. The very great fear that the British working classes might revolt, in the same manner as the French peasantry had done was very considerable with the British ruling class. Couple that with the vast advances that science and technology were making in what was to be known as the Industrial Revolution and it will be seen that the conditions obtaining at the time had all the volatile elements for massive social upheaval and unrest. George himself was particularly affected. Nearly twenty years of war with France had seen the near collapse of the exporting of finished woollen cloth and goods. The value of the trade had dropped from over £12 million to around £1 million per annum. At the same time England had suffered a series of disastrous harvests. The cost of food was rocketing whilst the rates of pay were falling.

It was into this highly charged situation that two Yorkshire brothers, James & Enoch Taylor, introduced an invention that was to have violent repercussions in the wool trade. The brothers invented and manufactured a cropping machine that could do the work of ten men. Another product of their workshops was a large sledgehammer, nicknamed an “Enoch”. The new cropping machines did not give the woollen cloth such a good finish as the skilled croppers but that did not hinder their introduction into many mills with the consequent loss of work. At a time when the lot of the common, working man was already hard this proved to be a straw, which broke the camel’s back in parts of Nottinghamshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire.

Luddism had already reared its head in the Nottinghamshire villages of Bulwell and Arnold. The word Luddism is believed to have been taken from the founder of the movement, one Ned Ludd, also known as General Ludd. There is no historical proof that any such person existed in real life. Luddism itself seems to have taken different forms in different parts of the country. In Nottinghamshire Luddism seems to be associated almost entirely with acts of destruction and vandalism. In Yorkshire, where George Mellor operated the movement was far more politically orientated. George Mellor saw Luddism as a vehicle for change and improvement in the lot of the labouring classes. To be labelled a “Luddite” is to infer that a person is against progress. This was not the case at all. In Yorkshire where George Mellor was operating the factories where the new cropping frames were being manufactured were never targeted for destruction. Likewise the new canal at nearby Marsden was not seen as a threat to the livelihood of working people. Luddites were not opposed to progress per se, only progress that was detrimental to themselves.

The main target of George Mellor’s Luddite activities was the mills where the new frames were situated and their factory owners. George Mellor seems to have been a natural leader, literate, he subscribed to the local newspaper, itself highly unusual for a working class man and highly motivated politically. The plight that the working classes were being subjected to drove George take positive and radical action. To lose your job was to place you and your family in the very gravest of situations. Starvation could be a very real result of such a situation. It was in this climate that the Luddites began their systematic destruction of the machinery that threatened their existence. The usual course of action would be for a mill to be selected and anything up to two hundred workers to descend upon it and destroy all the new machinery in it. Terrified mill owners had to stand by and witness such events. The Luddites were careful not to damage any other property. The destruction was systematic, organized and anything but wanton. The assailants were aware that they needed the mills and factories as places of employment for themselves after the frames were smashed.

Draconian laws were passed in Parliament aimed specifically against the Luddites. Merely to utter a secret oath in support of the Luddite movement was a capital offence, punishable by hanging. The Government offered huge sums of money, some as great as £2,000, for information leading to the arrest and conviction of any Luddite. The local militia and yeomanry were mobilized against the Luddites with permission to use any force necessary to capture rioters or defend property that was being attacked. Some of the confrontations between Luddite rioters and the forces of law and order were nothing short of pitched battles with casualties, sometimes fatal, on both sides.

So it was that from the beginning of 1812 George Mellor led his Luddite troops to attack any mill that had been identified as operating one of the hated cropping machines. The lanes would echo in the night with the sound of an army of Luddites on their way to the next object of their destructive intentions. As often as not terrified mill owners had to stand by and watch their property smashed to pieces. As the destruction continued some mill-owners took very positive action to defend their property against the rioters. Mills were fortified as far as was possible, if there was the suspicion that a mill was targeted for attack the local militia or yeomanry might well be waiting to confront the Luddites. Things came to a head in Yorkshire on 11th April 1812 when a large body of Luddites targeted Cartwright’s Mill at Rawford. A couple of month’s earlier the then Prime Minister, Spencer Percival, (who found ever-lasting fame later in the year when he had the dubious honour to become the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated), passed The Frame Breaking Law. The penalties for infringing this law were severe, the death penalty being one of the many punishments available to the Judiciary. The scenes that followed the attack were more reminiscent of the war then taking place against the French. Cartwright had fortified his mill and had hired armed men to protect his property. He had also organized the local church bells to be rung to alert the yeomanry of any attack. About 200 Luddites fell on the mill and a bitter battle ensued. The Luddites failed in their attempts to smash any of the hated frames and several of their number were seriously wounded, two in particular suffering gunshot wounds from which they would later die.

The ferocity with which the mill was defended certainly angered George Mellor and his followers. That, coupled with comments made by another local mill owner named William Horsfall that the rioters were cowards and that if he met any he would know how to deal with them did nothing to diffuse the heated atmosphere. Indeed, George Mellor decided that they would ambush William Horsfall and kill him. This they duly did, it was a reckless action. The full majesty of the law swung into action against the rioters. Over 100 suspected Luddites were arrested; some as a result of Luddite informers who had been granted an amnesty for such help. Of those arrested 64 were indicted. Three were executed for the murder of William Horsfall; a further 14 were executed for the attack on the mill, (though since they had failed to damage any machinery in the mill they were not actually in breach of the law that they were charged under!). The law of the time was merciless. There is one example of an alleged rioter in Manchester, Abraham Charlston, being executed though only 12 years of age.

The Luddite rebellion continued for a few more months after the arrest and execution of George Mellor but support gradually dwindled away. The ruthless manner in which the law was implemented no doubt having a seriously adverse effect on the resolve of the rioters. David Mellor finished his talk with the disappointing news that he had been unable to discover any positive proof that he and George Mellor were in any way related. This was a matter of some regret to him. All in all the talk was of an exceptionally interesting nature and the members who attended the meeting were well pleased with the evening’s entertainment.