In a field near Rawfold’s Mill, Huddersfield, Yorkshire
“Remember what I told you, brothers. Leave the machines, but shoot the masters.” George Mellors pulled his mask back over his face, leaving only his blue eyes blazing out from atop the soiled kerchief. His large, brawny presence belied his age of two and twenty.
Dozens of men imitated him in silence, the rustling of their masks the only sound in the growing twilight. The remainder of Mellor’s straggling army had foregone masks and blackened their faces. The malodor of his mask made Mellor wish he’d done the same.
He shook his head in wonder at the few who had adopted a strange uniform, an ill-fitting woman’s dress over homespun trousers. He, like most of the men, wore their cropping aprons, used to protect their clothing from loose fibers as they used huge, weighty shears with curved blades to cut away the nap of recently woven and pounded fabric. This slow and laborious work resulted in cloth with a smooth and even surface. The croppers’ work was the final stage of manufacture before fabric was sent to market.
The average cropper had bulging arms, carved and toned from years of handling his forty-pound cropping blades. But these talented craftsmen, whose work was so highly prized that they typically earned three times that of mere wool spinners, were this night planning to use their strength for more nefarious purposes.
“I’ll personally smash in Cartwright’s head!” bellowed a man in the crowd, holding up a smithy hammer with a nasty iron head.
“Quiet, fool!” Mellor hissed. “Can’t have anyone noticing us before we even git started.”
The men jostled restlessly, and an “Ow!” from the direction of the shouter told Mellor that someone had swiftly applied an elbow or fist to his side to shut him up.
Mellor crouched down to wait until it was dark enough to complete the march to Rawfold’s Mill. Tonight they were going to teach William Cartwright a lesson. The man had brazenly used new cloth-finishing machinery for the past year, putting many honest, competent men out of work, and ruining the trade by producing inferior fabrics, stockings, and lace. Nothing exceeded what a Yorkshire man could do with a pair of cropping shears.
It could be tolerated no longer.
Known affectionately as “King Ludd” by the other croppers, in honor of Ned Ludd, who had initially started the rebellion against machinery in Nottinghamshire, Mellor had steadfastly tried to be precise in his attacks, directing men to smash only the offending pieces of equipment, and not to molest buildings or mill families.
But Cartwright’s arrogance had driven Mellor insane with fury.
First, the mill owner had sent derisive responses to Mellor’s letters instructing him to remove the new mechanized cropping frames and gig mills. Then, to make matters worse, rumors reached Mellor’s ears that Cartwright was reinforcing his mill, trying to turn it into a fortress against him. Even the smaller outbuildings of the mill complex had supposedly been fortified. Doors strengthened, spikes set on stairwells, and men poised on the roof with acid carboys ready to be poured on any attackers.
It was insufferable. Not that he believed the bit about the acid.
And so Mellor changed his policy of protecting the mill owners. Tonight, Cartwright would pay the ultimate price.
Mellor gave a hand gesture, which was repeated throughout the crowd, signaling that it was time to begin their three-mile walk to the mill. Along the way, they converged with a Luddite group from Leeds, and now marched as a terrifying, three hundred man army to Rawfold’s. Each man armed himself in his own way, either with hammer, sword, or pistol. Mellor smiled grimly at the terrifying sight they must be.
Cartwright stood no chance. He hadn’t eliminated the offending machinery, and so he must be done away with altogether.
It was completely dark as they approached the five-story mill and its thatched outbuildings. Mellor spread word that all but a few torches were to be extinguished.
All was quiet and still at Cartwright’s place, with just a lone lamp burning in an upper-story window. Probably left behind by one of those witless new machine operators.
Mellor signaled again, and his men began silently fanning themselves around the main building. This was the moment that always thrilled Mellor the most. Those last ninety seconds before he and his fellow Luddites rampaged into a mill. The smell of fear and excitement blended into an energizing intoxicant, and he could feel his own power oozing from his pores, knowing that no one would raise a pike, stick, or hammer without his say-so.
He paused to let a light breeze pass over him. He closed his eyes, and breathed deep of the crisp night air. Their cause was just and they were fearless to a man.
It was time.
“Now, boys, now!” he shouted. Who cared if any of Cartwright’s people heard him at this point? Mellor’s men were too numerous and too keyed up to be stopped.
The men began whooping and brandishing their weapons as ran closer, intending to both smash windows and batter down doors in their effort to get to Cartwright.
From his peripheral vision, Mellor saw the upstairs lamp go out. Just as suddenly, lamps were lit along the roofs of all the mill buildings, illuminating its defenses.
Mellor gasped. It was true. Cartwright really did have acid vats. The Luddite leader shouted for everyone to hold, to pull back, but it was too late. The men were in a frenzy and could neither hear him nor pay attention to the cauldrons being tipped over.
And then windows began creaking open all over, and the sound of pistols being loaded, fired, and re-loaded, soon overcame the deafening screams of his men being drenched in skin-flaying acid.
George Mellor froze in his vantage point. His raids had always been successful before, with little or no resistance by mill owners. How had he miscalculated this so badly?
Annabelle Stirling reached out a hand to reverently stroke her shop’s new gig mill, which would mechanize the raise of fabric nap. She’d scrimped from the shop’s profits for over a year to afford, and it was finally here. The shop had been chaotic and disorganized during the three days it took for the workmen to set it up, but it was surely worth it.
She frowned. All of the shop’s workers, and half the village, were here to see it in operation for the first time. But where was Wes?
“May I try it, Miss Stirling?” Henry asked. He was the first cropper they’d hired when deciding to expand from merely being cloth merchants, to also taking rough cloth and doing the final finishing work on it. Since bringing on Henry, they – well, Belle – had hired three more croppers.
“Of course, it’s only right that you should try it. You’ll be the one in charge of it,” she said.
Henry looked tentatively at the enormous piece of machinery, which looked like a large drum in the middle of a letter “C.” Fabric would be fed in at the top of the C, and fed around the spine and over the drum, straightening and stretching through a set of rollers, then would be gathered in soft folds at the bottom of the C. Henry stood facing the inside the C, which towered at least two feet over his head, his foot poised over a foot pedal.
“When you’re ready,” she said quietly.
Henry began pumping his foot pedal, and a combination of gears and belts attached at various points to the mill screeched and protested loudly. Sweat was already pouring down the man’s face as the drum began rotating slowly. He reached up and pulled the edge of the long length of fabric over the top of the C and into the first roller above the drum, feeding it in and out of the rollers that would automatically smooth the cloth, removing the nap in a consistent and reliable manner.
His audience stood breathlessly, Belle included, to see the finished product. After Henry had fed about ten yards of cloth through the machine, he stopped pedaling to examine the cloth. He furrowed his brow as he pinched a section of fabric and ran his thumb over it. He looked up at Belle.
“Miss Stirling, I don’t know. Not as good as I could do myself.”
Belle lifted a section of cloth that had been cropped at deposited in the bottom of the C. Henry was right. The finishing wasn’t quite as fine as what he did. But she looked at the quantity of fabric that had been finished in record time and announced, “Henry, nothing could possibly replace your hands on a set of shears. But look at how much you’ve accomplished already this morning. I say the gig mill is a success.”
And with that, everyone crowded inside the room ran forward to touch the fabric and form their own opinion on its quality.
Late in the day, after nearly everyone in their village near Leeds had come forward to handle the newly-processed cloth and then gone off to gossip about it in the coffee shop, Henry came to her, hat in hand.
“I dunno, Miss Stirling, how we can ‘spec to compete with merchants selling hand-finished cloth. My own work is much better, and I surely don’t mind goin’ back to it.”
“Yes, your hand work is better, but you saw how much fabric you were able to finish in just a short amount of time.”
He twisted his hat through his fingers. “Yes, ma’am. But it’s your reputation I’m worried about. If you start selling poor-quality cloth and all.”
She smiled. “Henry, your job is secure. I couldn’t possibly do without you. I’m just glad you’ll be able to accomplish so much more each day.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He continued to stand there, looking nervously from side to side.
“Is there more?”
“I was just wondering, er, whether Mr. Stirling was pleased about the new gig mill. I noticed he wasn’t here this morning. Just thought he might have his own opinion.”
Belle bristled. “My brother is off tending to his own affairs, and his opinion is that I should do as I please here.”
Which wasn’t entirely true, but enough to chastise Henry and send him on his way back to his family for the night.
Where was Wes today? He knew the gig mill was being installed and would be in operation for the first time this morning. Belle sighed. Although Wesley Stirling had inherited the shop from their father, after both their parents had been swept away in a fever epidemic that had run through the area nearly five years ago, it was Belle who had taken responsibility for the small shop and its workers. Her parents ran it as merely a cloth merchant’s shop, but Belle saw the benefit in bringing in pre-finished cloth and having it finished herself before sending it on its way via the River Aire downriver to land transport for eventual arrival and sale in London and beyond.
By having it finished on premises, she could control the final quality of what was sold, and thereby manage the shop’s growing reputation.
Not that Wes had much interest. Much to their father’s despair, he’d run off to India with a local village girl, Alice Treadle, in some of kind of business prospect that he never quite explained, and when he was called back when their parents took ill, never explained why Polly didn’t accompany him on his return.
Wes’s presence was largely unnecessary, since he merely signed or approved whatever Belle wanted, leaving management of the shop to her and spending days – and sometimes nights – at undisclosed locations.
Belle shook her head. Well, it was better this way, for there was nothing more satisfying than being in the shop, her shop, rolling the long bolts of fabric after the croppers – now the gig mill – had done their work for the day. Even more, she enjoyed using cloth samples to show how they might cover plump pillows, or turn a drab settee into a striking centerpiece for a parlor. She perpetually kept an ever-changing tableau or two at the front of the shop to show local customers the latest fabric styles and how they could improve even the simplest home into one that was warm and inviting.
Most cloth merchants were concerned about selling fabrics to dressmakers. Belle cared about getting her cloth turned into draperies, chair cushions, and sometimes even wall coverings.
The jangling of the door bell broke her from her reverie. Hurrying out to the front of the shop, she greeted her customer warmly.
“Amelia! Have you come to see our new mill? I noticed you weren’t here this morning.”
“And from what I hear, I was the only person in Leeds who wasn’t here. How fares the beast?”
“Come see.” Belle led her friend to the room containing the gig mill, now stilled in the waning hours of daylight.
Amelia Wood kept her hands behind her back while owlishly inspecting the machinery from behind her wire-rimmed glasses, as though afraid it might reach out and grab her. “It’s quite. . .immense,” she finally proclaimed.
Belle laughed. “It is! And it will help me keep up with the other cloth manufacturers who can now supply far greater quantities to their London distributors. But enough about the shop, how’s the vicar?”
“Papa’s fine. I told him I thought it was high time we took you away from your servitude in the shop and had you up for tea. Come tomorrow?”
The following day, Belle was admitted to the rectory. Mr. Wood and Amelia greeted her and ushered her into their small parlor for to wait for a tea tray. The tea was served scalding hot, exactly how Belle like it. She blew gently on her cup while looking around the room.
“Belle, I see you’re noticing our new portrait. A woman gave it to Papa as payment for officiating at her brother’s funeral over in Huddersfield a few weeks ago.”
The small painting was a religious allegory and appeared to be quite old.
“Hmm,” Belle said over the rim of her tea cup.
Amelia rolled her eyes in good humor. “Oh, do tell us, Belle, what is wrong,” she said, pushing her glasses back against her face. Her glasses had been loose for some time, but despite Belle’s urging, Amelia refused to see the optics man to have them fixed.
Belle put her cup down. “Well, not that anything is wrong, particularly. It’s just that the portrait hangs too high upon the wall. It should come further down, like this.” She stood next to the portrait and gestured to show that the subject’s eyes should be nearly level with the viewer’s.
Mr. Wood nodded his head seriously. “And what of the rest of the room? Is everything in good order?”
The draperies were too heavy and dark. “Nothing at all,” she said. “These cakes are delicious, Amelia. You’ve outdone yourself.”
Her friend demurred graciously, willing to allow the subject change, but the vicar wasn’t so pliable.
Shaking his head, Mr. Wood said, “Belle, you remind me more and more of your other each day. How proud – and exasperated – she would be to see you now.”