Martha Arnold of Woolwich and Mirfield – a possible Luddite link?

Researching Brick Walls

I have been engaged in my family history research for over ten years and have come across a number of brick walls…ancestors for whom I can find little meaningful evidence. These days, my research is characterised by bouts of intense interest, interspersed with long periods of inactivity (that’s a tongue twister to start with). Today I have had a period of some activity, partly due to having been contacted by a lady from, who had asked me if I would be prepared to add a link to their family trees feature, which I have done (see Links page). In doing this and checking out that the link worked, I noticed that, for three days, most of the ancestry catalogue was free without subscription, so I set about looking up some of my “brick wall” entries in the hope of finding just a small lead…and I did find quite a few little tidbits of new information on a few of my brick wall ancestors…and one link set me off on a journey to explore Yorkshire’s Luddite past.

Traditional weaving looms used in domestic industry.

In all the years that I have been researching, I have found that all of my ancestors as far back as I can reach, come from the West Riding of Yorkshire within a roughly drawn triangle bounded by Halifax, Wakefield and Huddersfield. I have been proud to say that I am Yorkshire through and through…but then some time ago, I found that I needed to acknowledge one anomaly in this otherwise immaculate Yorkshire ancestry. One of the greatest puzzles of my family tree has been my third great-grandmother Martha Arnold, who married into the well-documented Sheard family of Mirfield.

Migration from Woolwich to Mirfield

My third great-grandfather Thomas Sheard and Martha Arnold were both born in 1802. Thomas was born in Mirfield and became a woodman by occupation. He and Martha married in 1825 and had at least seven children together. I am descended from their youngest child, Edwin, who was also a woodman. Census records show quite clearly that Martha was not born in Mirfield but in Woolwich. I found that she was baptised in the parish of Westminster, London. That I found very odd. Martha had four siblings born in London up to 1808. Sometime between 1808 and 1825, Martha was uprooted from London and firmly planted in Mirfield, West Yorkshire. I initially had no clue as to why this should be. There really had to be a very good reason for a family to move such a great distance in those times, when the most distance that the average working class person moved was into a nearby parish. The driving influence in the movement of most working class families in the early 19th century was for work, so movement from country to town may involve moving from working on the land to working in the mill. But why would someone move from the hub of activity, a busy naval and military town in London, to come to a small borough where woollen cloth manufacture was the tradition and times were hard?

In the middle of documenting all the birth, marriage and death records that we can find, it is easy to forget what was going on socially, militarily and economically at the beginning of the 19th Century – when England was in the thick of the industrial revolution and also fighting the Napoleonic wars. I have already come across family drama in the early years of that century, detailed in my article “A case of industrial espionage” when my 5th Great Grandfather on my father’s side was arrested on suspicion of aiding and abetting his brother-in-law in creating drawings and models of textile machinery, with a view to taking them to France. Is it possible that I can find another family connection to that turbulent history?

I wondered if “Woolwich” was itself the clue. An acquaintance of mine, who was herself born in Woolwich, suggested that Martha’s father may have been a soldier…Woolwich was historically a great naval town and, in 1695, the Royal Laboratory was established, manufacturing explosives, fuses and shot. Later on garrisons of soldiers were there and 1716 to 1720 saw the formation of the Royal Regiment of Artillery and the construction of its first barracks. The Royal Military Academy was founded at Woolwich in 1741. From 1795, both the Corps of Royal Engineers and the Corps of Royal Military Artificers were head-quartered at the Woolwich Arsenal.

It didn’t take too long digging before I discovered that the Luddite rebellion occurred very shortly after and that thousands of soldiers were sent north to Yorkshire to quell the 1812 rebellion. Could Martha’s father have been sent north with his regiment in order to put down the Luddite uprising? I suspect that I may never know, but it’s a decent theory in the absence of any other and it gave me the push that I needed to have a look at that period in Mirfield’s history. helped me to find Martha’s father, but unfortunately not his occupation. Was he a soldier, a merchant, a labourer?

Woollen Manufacture in West Yorkshire

Mirfield is at the centre of the Yorkshire Woollen District. Sheep farms covered the nearby hills and valleys. For centuries, many local families, including my ancestors, would have specialised in the different processes involved in the manufacture of woollen cloth via a system known as “Putting out”. A clothier delivered raw wool from farms to the cottages in the villages and hamlets. The wool was transported by pack horses along ancient routes. Each cottager and his family would spin the yarn into woollen thread or weave the thread into fabric on hand looms.

The fabric was then collected and delivered to other craftsmen to be fulled (scoured and milled) and then sent to a dressing shop to be finished before going to market. The dressing process was the only one not carried out in the cottages. It was carried out by craftsmen called “croppers”, who were highly skilled in raising the nap and finishing the fabric and the quality of finish that they achieved could increase the value of the cloth by up to a third. Skilled croppers were paid three times as much as labourers and so they had a relatively good lifestyle.

In the second half of the 18th century, the processes involved in converting the raw wool to finished cloth started to be undertaken under one roof…this was much more cost effective for the clothiers and helped to increase production. Cottage-based spinners and weavers were forced to stop working from home and walk to work in the new mechanised mills powered by coal. However, at first, the croppers were still earning good money, as the mill owners were still sending cloth to their dressing shops to be finished.

As the century changed from 18th to 19th, change also caught up with the croppers, as machines were now being devised to mechanise their jobs too. By the turn of the century, the first cropping frames, operated my mill wheels, were being installed and each machine could do the work of ten skilled croppers. Many croppers found themselves out of work or looking for much less well paid work.

At the same time, as a result of the Napoleonic Wars and an American Trade Embargo, leading to higher taxation and aggravated by poor harvests, the price of corn was at an all-time high. In order to maintain profitability, the mill-owners cut the wages of the workers and introduced cropping frames into the workrooms. The rich got richer and the poor became destitute. Poverty among the mill workers in the lace industry in Nottingham led to violence erupting there, with gangs of workers breaking the machines, and it wasn’t long before the workers of Cheshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire began to also engage in attacking the mills at night and breaking the new machines that they blamed for their poverty and starvation…but the greatest unrest was in Yorkshire.

Luddite Rebellion

Luddites were named after Ned Ludd, a Leicestershire born man who broke two stocking frames in 1779. They were mainly self-employed textile workers who feared the end of their trade brought about by employers installing labour saving technologies in mechanised mills around 1810-1816. In Kirklees, they were made up of croppers and other textile workers and their machine-breaking activity spread to Huddersfield and surrounding areas, including Halifax, in 1812. Although most of the Luddites came from the Huddersfield and Halifax areas, there is evidence that sympathisers from Mirfield had joined in. In retaliation for their actions, the government sent around 12,000 troops north from barracks such as those at Woolwich and I have read that more troops were engaged in opposing the Luddites than were fighting abroad at that time. At least 1000 troops were stationed in the Huddersfield area alone and many were helping mill-owners to protect their property from attack.

Luddites breaking machinery.

In April 1812, a large body of men, including the Huddersfield and Leeds Luddites, some armed with pistols, others with old swords and home-made weapons and sledgehammers, set out to attack William Cartwright’s Mill in Cleckheaton. Some had met at Dumb Steeple earlier in the day. Dumb Steeple was a monument at Cooper Bridge, Mirfield , which was a rallying point during troubles. The Huddersfield Luddites then joined up with the other groups until there were about 300 in the mob. Cartwright’s reinforcements of soldiers and local militia plus his foresight in strengthening the defenses of the mill, enabled him to hold off the Luddites. The soldiers fired into the crowd. Two Luddites were killed and many seriously injured. One soldier, who refused to fire on the crowds, was publicly flogged. Shortly afterwards, another mill owner, William Horsfall, was ambushed at Crosland, near Huddersfield, and murdered by Luddites. Martial Law was enforced for a time and the government of the day took decisive action, bringing in legislation to make machine-breaking punishable by death and making a concerted effort to round up the Luddites and their leaders.

Capture and Punishment

Eventually, by using a network of informers and spies, by torturing suspects and with the help of the soldiers, the authorities arrested more than a hundred men. When 64 Luddites stood in the dock at York in January 1813, 24 of them were young men from the Huddersfield area, all of them croppers, with an average age of 27. Some bore surnames that are familiar to me as they exist in my own family tree. Seventeen of these men were hanged and their bodies were dissected for medical science, in order that funerals could not be held, as they might give the excuse for more violence. Some of the men who avoided the capital punishment were transported to Australia and their families left destitute.

The remaining workforce, who eventually surrendered, were pardoned and some degree of stability returned. The uprising was largely over. In March 1813, most of the militia were withdrawn.

Within 20 years, the croppers’ trade had vanished, as more and improved machines were installed in the mills.

Martha Arnold

That brings me back to Martha Arnold’s father, who was probably named Jonathan. Was Jonathan a soldier from down south who was sent to the West Riding to quell the Luddite revolt? If so, how did it affect him? How did Martha end up in Mirfield?  Did Jonathan send for his family to settle with him up north after the troubles? How did Martha come to meet her husband to be, Thomas Sheard? I suppose I will never know the answer to any of those questions, but the speculation enabled me to engage with that period in my ancestors’ history, so I guess I come out of the experience with a little more knowledge about the Luddites and a lot more feeling for what it was like for my not too distant family, in the early part of the 19th Century, living in the Yorkshire Woollen District…what a struggle they must have had to keep their large families from starving and how lucky I am to have never experienced real hunger, destitution and violence like they did.

© Christine Widdall Feb 2016



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