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HAVING started late as a fiction writer, I was apprehensive when Ra Page of Comma Press commissioned a historical story from me for their recently published Protest anthology. Early last year, I had no experience outside the comfort zone of science fiction, but I was intrigued and began researching Luddism and the Pentrich Rising.
On the wall of my study is a framed certificate, signed by Sir Ian Kinloch MacGregor. It celebrates, in an adjectival avalanche, my late father’s service to the National Coal Board. I’ve kept it as a cultural memento mori.
MacGregor, described by Arthur Scargill as “the American butcher of British industry,” went on to dismantle the British mining industry. At the end of the 1984-5 miners’ strike, a confluence of economic, political and technological forces obliterated a way of life experienced by several generations of my family. Nottinghamshire pit villages such as Clipstone, Bilsthorpe and Forest Town have never quite recovered.
Like the miners, the Luddites fought to protect better-paid employment but also to preserve a way of life and there’s a half-forgotten history of their insurrection in the East Midlands. The first Luddite action took place nine miles to the south of where I’m sitting, in the town of Arnold. Historian John Beckett tells us that, on March 11 1811, 63 frames “belonging to those hosiers who had rendered themselves the most obnoxious to the workmen” were smashed by a group of framework knitters. Over the next fortnight more than100 frames were broken in other Nottinghamshire towns such as Sutton in Ashfield, Kirkby in Ashfield, Woodborough, Lambley and Bulwell.
Many historians see Luddism as a shift towards resistance based on complexity, organisation and political engagement and the aggressive actions of the government of the day suggest they feared organised insurrection on a national scale.
Before writing my story, I assumed that the state’s response to Luddism was consistently draconian, but research revealed that Prime Minister Spencer Perceval and Home Secretary Richard Ryder adopted a measured response until the headcount of soldiers deployed against Luddites exceeded the number facing Napoleon. Only with the introduction of the 1812 Frame-Breaking Act was Luddism punished by transportation and execution.
The theme of capital punishment brings us to the Pentrich Rising of 1817. The Pentrich rebels saw Luddism as a template for direct action and aimed to inspire a national movement against the corrupt and repressive government of Lord Liverpool.
I’ve long been attracted to stories involving deception and double-cross. One of my favourite radio dramas, Spy Nozy and the Poets by Paul B Davies, based on real events in 1797, involves a debtor being hired by the Home Office to infiltrate the circle of poet and suspected revolutionary Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In this tragicomic tour de force, Davies’s characters, like the playwright himself, redraw the boundaries between reality and imagination.
In Pentrich in 1817, state-sponsored duplicity had a bloodier outcome. A debtor known as “William Oliver,” described by EP Thompson as “the archetype of the radical Judas,” drew up plans for a march on London. “Oliver” and his comrades were to join revolutionaries from the north and overthrow the government by force.
Only he knew that there were no other revolutionaries. The march was broken up by dragoons in Giltbrook, near Nottingham. Three rebels, Jeremiah Brandreth, Isaac Ludlam and William Turner, were tried for high treason, then hanged and beheaded at Derby gaol. “Oliver the Spy” planned the rising and provided the condemned men.
I believed that “Oliver” would be a familiar figure for potential readers, so I set my story outside the events at Pentrich, focusing instead on the bizarre and spectacular march on the Heathcot and Boden factory in Loughborough in 1816.
I introduced “Bromwich,” an invented agent provocateur into a cluster of historical characters, including the leader of the march Jim Towle. As I researched the story, my feelings towards the Loughborough Luddites became as volatile as the mob themselves.
Their march from Nottingham to Loughborough, drunken, chaotic and doomed, involved kidnapping a local woman, shooting a guard dog and destroying 55 lace-making frames or bobbinets. After the march, the organisers were betrayed by an associate arrested for poaching. It’s the stuff of black comedy.
Whether you admire, pity or despise Towle and his boozy, ragtag army, it’s clear they were justified in fearing the impact of Heathcot’s machines. Technological leaps in lace making affected pay, working conditions and working class culture. As the Austrian satirist Karl Kraus asserted, “progress makes a purse of human skin.”
I was supported in my research by Professor Adrian Randall of the University of Birmingham, who challenged my assertions about events, clothing, institutions and expressions and suggested new lines of research. There were several surprises. Nottingham’s Trent Bridge was formerly known as Heth Beth Bridge. Public order was maintained by regular soldiers and yeomanry, an early example of an unpopular public-private partnership.
The Regency era had a spymaster on a par with Elizabeth I’s Francis Walsingham — the shadowy and manipulative General Byng. Agents provocateurs were not Regency James Bonds but desperate people resorting to plot and betrayal to settle debts.
I knew 19th century prisons were brutal and unhealthy, but the original Leicester Borough gaol was a veritable hell on earth. It was a pleasure to discover that Doncaster’s Salutation Inn, a favourite Saturday night haunt in the late 1970s, has a long and intriguing history. It is now the backdrop for the final scene of my first historical short story.
Trying Lydia, with just 1,700 words, two plot twists and three locations, is an object lesson in the way the shortest historical story demands significant investment in research. It offers insights into the present and, in her afterword to Trying Lydia, Professor Katrina Navickas identifies similarities between Oliver’s activities and the disturbing cases of police officers working undercover in modern environmental groups.
“Oliver the Spy” lured Jeremiah Brandreth to his death while, more than 250 years later, activist Helen Steel was deceived into a relationship with a Metropolitan Police “spycop.” Jim Towle feared the impact of lace-making bobbinets — we will have to cope with driverless vehicles.
The tools have changed, but the anxieties remain the same and so does the ruthlessness of the owners of the technology.
A version of this piece originally appears on the Comma Press blog, commapress.co.uk, from where the paperback Protest anthology is now available. Trying Lydia, with Katrina Navickas’s commentary, is available as a Comma Single from Amazon.
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