Luddite trials and media
The disturbances in the West Riding were believed to have been caused by Luddism which had spread from other parts of the country from 1811 and ended with trials at York Castle in January 1813 which saw 64 men being charged as Luddites.
The captured men refused to make any confessions at either the prison or at their place of execution. Of the 64 men,
- 17 were executed by being hanged for their offences such as rioting, murder and robbery
- 25 were transported to Australia for giving or receiving illegal oaths.
- 22 others were either acquitted or released on bail.
It is also believed that some were discharged after there was no evidence, suggesting that this trial was more of a demonstration to discourage the Luddite movement.
This left most of the families involved without husbands, fathers and brothers and left the families distraught. After the Luddites responsible were hanged following the trials in the York castle, Luddism started to subside and was no longer a threat to the country.
Although this trial was supposedly for justice, it seems the government at the time was more interested in restoring the peace and it is believed some of these men were not even part of the Luddite movement. There are arguments to support this theory, such as the postponed plans for trials in May 1812- lack of evidence, perhaps?
- The evidence that was provided was dismissed by the jury as unworthy of investigation
Judge Bailey (the judge of the Nottinghamshire trials) was turned down when offering his services. He could not understand why and it has been further suggested the authorities at the time wanted a 'hanging judge'. He had not given the death penalty in the trials that had taken place in Nottingham.
The tradition of public execution goes back to early modern times and was an extremely ordered custom in which the authority of the state was shown to the public in a highly dramatised way.
The condemned were expected to play their part by showing obedience, penitence, contrition and giving a full confession on the gallows and all this was recorded by the newspapers as occurring at the trials of these 17 men.
However whilst the men accused at York gave a speech expressing their sorrow and hopes that others would be deterred by their example, they refused to give a full confession to the crime of being Luddites and thus broke away from the tradition of the public execution.
This all leads to a conclusion the trials of the Luddites was more of a demonstration of the state's might and ability to crush the movement, as said before, due to the way it was threatening a peaceful society.
We cannot help noticing the peaceable and good conduct which was throughout the whole of the melancholy scene - The York Herald, County and General Advertiser, Jan 23 1813.
There seems to have been a general consensus between newspapers when reporting about the Luddite executions. The Luddite trials and executions were heavily reported within newspapers, the Leeds Mercury alone having 49 articles on the Luddite disturbances from 29/02/1812 to 04/12/1813. The reports seem to take a softer view of the executions, the Morning Chronicle claiming it to be a ‘Solemn and painful scene’.
The articles are all similar as they would have been copied from the same source. Each reporting of the executions of those found guilty, reflect on the ‘melancholy situation’ (the Morning Chronicle) and report that these men show great remorse, penitence, with their behaviour contrite, despite a lack of direct confession to the crimes.
Many of these articles include sections of the men’s speeches, where they asked those witnesses to take warning from the punishment they were about to see, and what becomes of deluded men, as they had been led from the virtuous path by others. This was in keeping with the ritual and traditions surrounding a public execution. However it was thought by some, that members of the executed group were wrongly punished or with little evidence, and that it was more a way of stopping further attacks, than a punishment of those involved. This is also later reaffirmed with an article printed in the Leeds Mercury with the ‘Confessions’ dated 27 February 1813.
The Lancaster Gazette reports large crowds which came to watch the hanging of the convicted luddites and murderers of William Horsfall.
Furthermore there seems to be very little support for the Luddites from the general public. As a letter to the editor of the Leeds Mercury explains, these people have not gained anything from their actions but just have caused a nuisance. Both the Lancaster Gazette and the Morning Post reported that large crowds came to watch the guilty men being hanged.
Judge Le Blanc and the Morning Post both show the importance of repentance. Judge Le Blanc stressed in his closing speech whilst sentencing George Mellor, William Thorpe and Thomas Smith that penitence must be looked for in the next world. The newspaper mirrors this opinion by discussing the importance of the guilty paying penance for their acts.
Bibliography for Luddite Trials
Here you can find further information about the Luddite trials, and media surrounding the trials via the sources we have used.