|Layer Breton Luddites - 1816
Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History
Published in Parish News - February 2007
As after any war the returning soldiers find it hard to fit into the community. This was no different after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Agricultural was the main employment, particularly in East Anglia, and the price level for wheat and corn had fluctuated considerably during the war. It was now possible to import grain from former suppliers but this, in turn, affected UK prices. In days before modern systems of transportation were available it was almost impossible to ensure that a market had sufficient supplies to make good any deficit arising from poor harvest. A report, in the Colchester Gazette in September 1816, noted that the "corn crop was considered ample" but went on to say that some had been "cut in a green state" and was unlikely to be very good. "Much was uncut and unlikely to ripen". What effect this was to have on corn prices is a little hard to judge. A writer to the paper, in the same month, signing himself "A Looker On", made proposals: "Firstly, the small farmer, if his family are to have bread and shoes, should receive from 70s to 80s per quarter for his wheat, and a proportionate sum for his soft corn. At these prices, were they established, the public would have no reason to murmur, and they might be the means of keeping back, perhaps, if not entirely obviating evils which now threaten him with ruin. Secondly, by the rejection of machines a much larger proportion of labourers would be employed who would care for themselves and families what they now take from their various parishes". Corn was then quoted at 64s per quarter on the London market; much higher than earlier in the year plus, of course, the need to provide food and work for the returning soldiers.
On 12th October 1816 the Gazette noted that "Six men, labourers in husbandry were yesterday escorted to the County Prison of this town, on a charge of having, in company with others, notoriously assembled, destroyed a thrashing machine in the neighbourhood". Two weeks later the trial of the six took place at the Essex Quarter Sessions and was reported as follows: "Threshing Machines, The King v Thomas Gooday and Others. This was an indictment against Thomas Gooday, James Gooday, William Row, Thomas Wade, Robert Beercroft and James Howard, for a riot and assault. The first count charged the defendants with riotously assembling at Layer Bretton (sic) on the 10th of October instant and breaking a threshing machine, the property of Mr William Sach, a farmer of that parish, the second count charged them with common assault upon the prosecutor. Mr Walford stated the case of prosecution, and incidentally observed, that an erroneous notion had gone abroad amongst the labouring classes of the county, that the use of threshing machines by the farmers, instead of the flail, tended to diminish human labour, and consequently to deprive many poor people of the means of livelihood. Nothing was more absurd and unfounded than this idea: the fact being, that the adoption of this invention, whilst it certainly reduced the number of hands usually employed in threshing, enabled a farmer to occupy his capital in other branches of agriculture, which necessarily required a greater proportion of human labour than would otherwise be devoted to such purposes. Undoubtedly, some of the unfortunate persons at the bar had been misled by an error of this kind; and it was necessary, for the sake of public justice, and of dispelling so ridiculous an apprehension, to make some example, and thereby protect the property of individuals from the repetition of the outrage complained of by the present proceeding.
The facts of the case, as detailed in the evidence, were in substance, these: The prisoners were all labourers in husbandry, and several of them had wives and families. On the morning of the 10th October, the prisoners and a great many other persons, male and female, tumultuously assembled on the prosecutor's premises, and threatened that if he did not stop the use of his threshing machine they would destroy it. He replied that he would do as he thought proper, and proceed with the utmost rigour of the law against any persons who would disturb him in the application of the machine, as he pleased The prisoners did not then proceed to any other acts of violence than to take the horses from the machine, pack it up, and stop its working. Then they went away; but between four and five in the afternoon they returned again, and finding the machine at work, they threatened to carry their previous declaration into effect; but upon being warned by prosecutor of their conduct they went away for a few minutes, and returned armed with two hammers, a carpenter's saw, a pitchfork, and other weapons, with which they severally commenced an attack with different degrees of violence upon the threshing machine, and presently broke it in pieces. One of the prisoners (Row) presented a pitchfork at the prosecutor, and said he wished to drive it into his body, but committed no act of violence upon his person. The prisoners, in their defence, said they had been urged to this violence by the instigation of other persons, who complained of want of work, and apprehended that their means of existence would be destroyed by the use of the threshing machines. Two or three of the prisoners urged the same grounds of apprehension, as the motives of their conduct. The prosecutor said, that some of the prisoners were earning three or four shillings a day at the time they committed the outrage.
The Learned Chairman summed up the evidence with his usual perspicuity, and the Jury found all the prisoners guilty ; and the Court taking into consideration the degrees of guilt in the prisoners' cases respectively, sentenced them as follows: Thomas Gooday to twelve months' imprisonment in the House of Correction in this town; William Row in the House of Correction at Halstead for twelve months; and the rest of the prisoners, each six months in the House of Correction at Barking" What chance did the six have of finding work after serving their sentence? Hard times especially for those out of work for whatever reason.