In the spring of 2017, Ra Page of Comma Press asked me to write a piece of historical fiction for his forthcoming anthology on protest and resistance. I was intrigued as well as apprehensive and, for some reason, the rational response of ‘thank you for asking, but I wouldn’t have a clue’ came out as ‘yes’.
My anxiety was entirely justified. I had written more than 300 articles for books, magazines, newspapers and academic journals, and had been part of the editorial collective of an award-winning science fiction magazine (Interzone) for more than a decade. But I had written my first story in 2014, at the age of 54, and had yet to write anything outside the comfort zone of weird fiction. History was completely new territory.
Originally, I’d been interested in attempting a story about the Battle of Cable Street. My wife’s Aunt Kitty and Uncle Teddy were heavily involved in the events of October 1936, and their skirmishes with the police and Blackshirts are part of our treasure trove of family history. In the end, however, the lure of Luddism and the Pentrich Rising proved stronger.
On the wall of my study is a framed certificate celebrating, in an avalanche of adjectives, my late father’s long, loyal, efficient and meritorious service to the mining industry and the country. He received it when he retired, in the period when the industry was being dismantled. It’s signed by Sir Ian Kinloch MacGregor, described by Arthur Scargill, former National Union of Mineworkers President, as “the American butcher of British industry”. I’ve kept it as an industrial momentomori. The Union of Democratic Mineworkers believed Nottinghamshire pits would be spared in the aftermath of the 1984-5 strike. Today, the industry has been erased from the landscape of the county. A confluence of economic, political and technological factors obliterated a way of life experienced by my family over many generations. Local communities like Clipstone, Bilsthorpe, Blidworth and Forest Town have never quite recovered.
The sudden onset of destructive protest was interesting in itself but, for me, there was an added attraction in the competing interpretations of the Luddites’ intentions. Thomis (1970) sees Luddism as an inchoate attempt to form solidarity in the absence of trade unions and to undermine the use of lower paid workers, while Beckett (2018) notes a shift towards complexity, organisation and political engagement. Beckett’s perspective seems to have been shared by the Government of the day, who began to fear organised insurrection on a national scale.
Prior to researching my story I’d assumed the state’s response to Luddism had been consistently draconian, but I discovered that Prime Minister Spencer Perceval and Home Secretary Richard Ryder had originally adopted a measured response. The shift towards punishments such as execution and transportation came when more soldiers had been deployed against Luddite actions than sent to fight the war against Napoleon. The illegal destruction of textile machinery only became a capital offence with the introduction of the Frame-Breaking Act of 1812 (Hobsbaum, 1952).
The issue of capital punishment brings us to the Petrich Rising of 1817. In everyday life, personal and public, I’m appalled by duplicity and betrayal, but I’ve always been attracted to fictional narratives involving deception and double-cross.I was fascinated by Tim Roth’s role-within-a-role in Reservoir Dogs, and one of my favourite radio dramas of the early 2000s was Spy Nozy and the Poets by Paul B Davies. Set in 1797, it relates the true story of a man in debt, who is hired by the Home Office to infiltrate the circle of the poet, and suspected revolutionary, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It’s a tragicomic tour de force, in which Davies’ characters, like the playwright himself, take liberties with the boundary between reality and imagination.
History was repeated in Pentrich in 1817, this time with a tragic outcome. An indebted man known as William Oliver, referred to by E.P. Thompson (1968) as ‘the archetype of the radical Judas’, played a key role in the organisation of the Pentrich Rising. Oliver was responsible for a planned march on London, joining forces with revolutionaries from the north of England.
There were no other revolutionaries, and the march was broken up by dragoons in Giltbrook, near Nottingham. Three of Oliver’s co-conspirators, Jeremiah Brandreth, Isaac Ludlam and William Turner were found guilty of High Treason and hanged and beheaded at Derby Gaol. Even at the time, the events led to criticism of the Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth. It is clear that without the intervention of ‘Oliver the Spy’ there would have been no rising, and no executions.
In her afterword to my story, Dr Katrina Navickas, Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire, identifies similarities between Oliver’s activities and the disturbing cases of police officers going under deep cover in environmental groups. In her powerful and compelling novel, Guest, SJ Bradley explores the moral implications of police infiltration of radical groups, but I wanted to consider paradoxical issues of cause and effect in relation to agents provocateurs.
The tale of ‘Oliver the Spy’ may well have been familiar to some readers – an anthology focusing on the history of protest was likely to attract an informed readership – so while I linked my tale of deception to Pentrich, I decided not to set it at the heart of that insurrection.
Instead, I focussed on a notorious march on the Heathcot and Boden factory in Loughborough, led by a Nottingham man called Jim Towle, in 1816. I introduced ‘Bromwich’, an agent provocateur of my own invention, into a cluster of genuine characters, capitalising on a bizarre and spectacular series of events. As I researched the story, my feelings towards the Loughborough Luddites became as volatile as the mob themselves. Their march from Nottingham to Loughborough was a drunken, chaotic and doomed affair which involved kidnapping a local woman, shooting a guard dog and destroying 55 lacemaking frames or bobbinets. After the march, the organisers suffered a bizarre betrayal following the arrest of one of their number for poaching. It’s the stuff of black comedy but whether you admire, pity or despise Jim Towle and his boozy, ragtag army, it’s clear they were justified in fearing the impact of Heathcot’s machines. The technological leap in lacemaking affected pay, working conditions and working class culture. For me the story illustrates the Austrian satirist Karl Kraus’s assertion that ‘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 opened up new lines of research.
The process led to several surprises. There was some intriguing trivia: I wasn’t aware, for example, that Nottingham’s Trent Bridge was formerly known as Heth Beth Bridge. I hadn’t understood that public order was maintained through the use of regular soldiers and yeomanry – an early example of an unpopular public-private partnership. And I had little idea of the role of General Byng, who seems to have been the Regency Era’s answer to Elizabeth I’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham. The agents provocateurs of the era were not, it turns out, prototype-James Bond figures, but people willing to engage in plot and betrayal to settle their debts. I was well aware that nineteenth century prisons were brutal and unhealthy places, but my reading on the original Leicester Borough Gaol (demolished after the construction of the new prison on Welford Road) revealed it to have been a veritable hell on earth.
One of the most challenging aspects of the research was verifying the names of pubs that existed in the period 1816-17. It was heartening to learn that The Salutation in Doncaster, one of my favourite Saturday night venues in the 1970s, has a long and intriguing history. It has now provided the backdrop for the final revelation in ‘Trying Lydia’, my first historical short story.
* * *
Stacy Aumonier (1877–1928) was one of my favourite short story writers. He had this to say about the re-imagining of history:
The whole of history is a record of dead dates, dead kings, dead dynasties, dead battles. It is only when the poet and the artist have stepped in that the dreary record has shown signs of vitality.
It is for readers of the Protest anthology to decide if my story imbues the historical record of the Luddites and Pentrich rebels with an additional sense of vitality. It is a story of fewer than 1700 words with two plot twists and three settings (as suggested by the editor). For me it was an object lesson in the way even the shortest of historical fictions demands a huge investment in research and verification.
And it was also a reminder that stories set in the past offer insight into the events of the present. What would Jim Towle’s Luddites have made of driverless buses? Or the Metropolitan Police infiltrators who led double lives to the extent of having children with the women they had under surveillance?
Andy Hedgecock is a freelance writer, researcher and trainer. His earliest reviews, essays and interviews were published in the anarchist press in the 1980s. Since then he has written for publications such as The Spectator, Time Out, Penguin City Guides, The Oxford Companion to English Literature, The Third Alternative, The Breaking Windows Anthology and Foundation. Andy has been part of the editorial collective of Interzone, Britain’s longest-running British science fiction magazine, since 2006. He is a regular contributor toThe Morning Star.
His story ‘Trying Lydia’ appears in Protest: Stories of Resistance (ed Ra Page), published by Comma Press: http://commapress.co.uk/books/protest-stories-of-resistance-1/
References / Further Reading
Beckett, John. Luddites. Nottinghamshire Heritage Gateway, Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire. http://www.nottsheritagegateway.org.uk/people/luddites.htm. Retrieved 26 march 2018.
Darvall, F. O. Popular Disturbances and Public Order in Regency England: Being an Account of the Luddite and Other Disorders in England During the Years 1811-1817 and of the Attitude and Activity of the Authorities. Oxford University Press, 1934.
Davies, Paul B (2001) Spy Nozy and the Poets. (First Broadcast on Radio 4 on 22 February 2001, last repeated 12 April 2012, BBC Radio 7)
Hobsbawm, Eric (1952) “‘The Machine Breakers’, Past and Present 1 (1952), 57–70. Available via Libcom.org.Retrieved 26 march 2018.
Thomis, Malcolm (1970). The Luddites: Machine Breaking in Regency England. Shocken.