This is a fantastic handbill dating from 1812 marking the hanging of Luddite rioters. It’s printed on thin, tissue-like paper – quite a miracle it’s survived two-hundred years.

It opens: ‘The last Dying Speeches, And CONFESSIONS of the Westhoughton and Manchester Rioters … for setting Fire to a Weaving Mill at Westhoughton, and … for breaking open the House of John Holland … in Deansgate, Manchester’.

Those convicted, seven men (one of them just sixteen years old) and one woman, were executed at Lancaster on 13th June 1812.

The woodcut is a very simple gallows scene. the bulk of the text refers to those convicted and the crimes for which they were sentenced to death.

Of the woman executed, Hanah Smith, the handbill records:  ‘This misguided female was in the fifty-fourth year of her age and was tried and convicted of riotously assembling with many others at Manchester, and committing a high-way robbery by stealing a quantity of potatoes. Besides the crime for which she suffered, her life had been stained by many other disgraceful proceedings.’

Two short paragraphs in smaller print, probably last minute interpolations, give some sense of the scene at the execution: ‘This morning the above unhappy sufferers were brought out upon the drop behind the castle, severally pinioned, to suffer the awful sentence of the law. …’

Of this incident, a local history website records: ‘On the 25 March 1812 a group of Luddites torched a Westhoughton mill, owned by Wray & Duncroff, in one of the first major terrorist acts in Britain. Twelve people were arrested on the orders of William Hulton, the High Sheriff of Lancashire. Four of them, James Smith, Thomas Kerfoot, John (or Job) Fletcher and Abraham Charlston, were sentenced to death for taking part in the attack. The Charlston family claimed Abraham was only twelve years old but he was not reprieved. They were publicly hanged outside Lancaster Castle on the 13 June 1812. It was reported that Abraham cried for his mother on the scaffold.’

Luddism was an attempt to resist mechanisation in some aspects of textile manufacture, and the burning down of the Westhoughton mill was one of its most noted and violent manifestations. The handbill would probably have been hawked round the area in the immediate aftermath of the execution, and while the language is condemning of the Luddites, it may well have found a market among those who were not entirely condemnatory of the resistance to new forms of working.

Birkbeck is hosting a one-day conference on 6th May 2011 entitled: ‘The Luddites, without condescension – a conference on the 200th anniversary of the framebreakers’ uprising’.

Andrew Whitehead

 


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