Luddite trials at York

This extract from her book, On the Trail of the Luddites is included here by kind permission of the author, Lesley Kipling. More detailed analysis of the evidence appears in the book.

The Special Commission appointed to try the Luddites opened at York on the 2nd January 1813. More than sixty men awaited trial in York Castle on a variety of charges and all were to be tried as Luddites, though many of them had no connection with the movement. This was not to be a demonstration of justice so much as a 'Show Trial', by means of which the government intended to warn any other would-be groups of insurrectionists of the penalties to be faced. Various facts support this argument:

1. Plans for the trials had begun in May, 1812 but by mid-September it had been decided to postpone them so as not to risk any acquittals or lack of evidence;

2. Judge Bailey, who had, presided over the trials of the Nottinghamshire Luddites without giving any death sentences, had offered his services and could not understand why he was turned down. At the end of October Radcliffe wrote to Fitzwilliam,

'But pray exclude Judge Bailey from the Commission. His decisions at the last Assizes gave great encouragement to the Luds, who look on him as their friend.'

The Authorities wanted a 'Hanging Judge'!

3. More than thirty of those held in York Castle were never brought to trial - they were either discharged without trial or discharged on bail to appear again when called for, which they never were. This was ostensibly an act of clemency, but the truth was the government knew there was insufficient evidence against them (despite the fact that they almost certainly had as much evidence against them as they had against the men who were tried and sentenced). Many of those whose trials were held over claimed damages against the government for wrongful arrest and the like. The government's advisers told them it would be better to pay up rather than risk having some of the informers subjected to public scrutiny again, no matter what evidence they might have. By the end of January public opinion had altered too much to risk further trials.

4. The alibis for the defence seem to have been totally ignored in most cases, no matter how many witnesses they had to support them. As Frank Peel later wrote,

'The Jury seem to have heard them and then to have dismissed the evidence given in their support entirely from their minds, apparently as unworthy of investigation. If they really thought the witnesses in support of these alibis were not to be believed and that they deliberately conspired to deceive the court, they ought to have been proceeded against.'