Luddite Martyrs Day, anarchism and the politics of re-enactment

Luddite Martyrs Day, anarchism and the politics of re-enactment

A short account of a rowdy anarchist intervention in a Luddite historical reenactment and its repercussions.

200 years after the Luddite rebellion that erupted in West Yorkshire and other parts of the country a crowed of around a hundred people gathered in the small Pennine village of Liversedge to unveil a statue to the Luddite martyrs. The event was organised by the local Civic Society but present also, uninvited was a group of about a dozen anarchists and others from Huddersfield many masked armed with pistols, muskets or sabres and dressed in the attire of 1812.

The speeches of the Civic Society were predictably tame for our liking, interspersed with shouts of ‘Long Live General Ludd’ and ‘For an English Republic’ form the Luddite re-enactors. When the chairperson of the Civic Society condemned the ‘senseless murder of William Horsfall ‘, a Huddersfield mill owner bent on the destruction of the Luddites, the cry went up ‘ It was an assassination not a murder’ and ‘how many were killed in the wars by King George’. All hell breaks loose and the constable, in the form of a couple of PCSOs, were called for who side with the Luddites. Harsh words are exchanged as the Luddite re-enactors read a roll call of the Luddite martyrs and some members of the Civic Society are outraged whilst others are amused, nay pleased by the injection of genuine 1812 rowdiness brought to these proceedings by these masked strangers. Later the re-enactors are barred from the Civic Society commemoration event at the historic Shears inn but the landlord nonetheless provides them with food and drink in the beer garden and is keen to discuss Luddite history.

Despite the argy bargy and harsh words, two years later the re-enactors now known as the Fraid Knot are back in Livesedge, this time at the invite of the same Civic Society that barred them from the Shears previously. The rowdiness, heckling and upfront arguing in the spirit of 1812 had added to the previous event and paid off in the move of reconciliation from the Civic Society who made a mock up shear frame for them to smash in the same demonstration that occurred at the 2012 Anarchist Bookfair in London. A good time was had by all, children were photographed with the Luddites and the most important local part of local history was celebrated by people of different backgrounds. This was another example of theatrical, humorous and direct goings on of anarchists in Huddersfield getting a message across and having a good time to boot.
Many thanks to Spen Valley Civic Society for helping to keep the memories of the Luddites alive.

Gustav Glimmer.

Posted By

Apr 16 2014 07:00


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Red Marriott
Apr 16 2014 10:20

Sounds like it was a good intervention, similar to what is advocated here;

The re-enactment of historical battles is said to be the fastest growing hobby in the UK, drawing large crowds of spectators to battle sights. Partly a simple fetish, perhaps, of military uniforms, weaponry and strategy (toy soldiers for big boys) - while ignoring the deeper social roots and context of the battles (such as class conflict) - but also an attempt at temporary escape from the modern world into a cosy nostalgic primitivism. One feels that these spectacles of frozen historical costume drama are just asking to be playfully subverted; the many re-enactments of battles from the English Civil War of the 1600's are a prime example. After all, many of the unresolved social tensions of the present day originate in this period - questions of ownership and access to land and commons, class relations, the role of the monarchy etc. One can imagine a band of Diggers and Ranters (the true radical elements in the Civil War) storming the battlefield and disrupting the carefully choreographed manoeuvres of Parliamentarians and Royalists; at the same time Digger and Ranter pamphlets could be distributed to the spectators with an accompanying critique of the event and our reasons for disrupting it - and calling for them to join in, to cease being spectators and to enter the battlefield of history. Just a mad fantasy? A Reclaim the Battlefield of History movement, anyone? The desire to finally live history and no longer merely consume it has been too long repressed. ('Last Orders For The Local?' - 2001.)

Apr 16 2014 17:48

I agree with the above point. I have been to middle ages events and they have been a bit clean and tidy and as you say devoid of social content. The Civil War scene is earthier with many people in it who do know the history, but along side the ordered ranks of parliamentarian pike men and musketeers it would be ace to have a detachment of 'clubmen' the ordinary people men and women who either rose up in the early stages of the war to defeat the Cavaliers or who came to join the Parliamentarian forces armed with scythes and home made pikes etc etc.
Now re-enacting the riots of the people of London in 1641/42 that would be wonderful.
Its something for radicals in the re-enactment scene to work on. I don't know what its like in other parts but in Huddersfield there is a fair proportion of anarchists who are involved in re-enactment in different era's.

Apr 16 2014 17:51

Thats an interesting site Jim has posted and most worthy, but like many misses off the huge social movements and riots in London betwixed 1638 and 1661. Some one here is writing a book on the Uprising In London at these times hopefully it should be finnished for the anarchist book fayre.

The above is a good article on lib com regarding this.

Hudds Ludds
Apr 19 2014 11:27

Not sure whether the link posted by Jim is meant to be ironical, but it makes a good point about 'living history'. It is a good way to get people involved and encourage them to 'take ownership' of their own history, so that they feel rather than just intellectualise the continuity with past struggles. It can also be used to get people working together for intervention in current struggles. Jim's London Riots link seems to be advocating this. Would be interested to know if anyhting has actually happened.
Before anyone out there jumps to the conclusion that re-enactment just means playing at politics, they should reflect on the possibility that dressing up in costume is not incompatible with a sound record of class struggle.
Nor is street theatre opposed to real life conflicts, but compliments it. Indeed, there is often a degree of theatre involved in street protest. We need to consider any medium for putting forward anarchist views which makes our propaganda and agitation more creative and appealing.