Martha Arnold of Mirfield and the Kirklees Luddites

Revised and re-published in 2020 from an article first written in 2016.

Researching Brick Walls

I have been engaged in my family history research for many years and have come across a number of brick walls…ancestors for whom I can find little detailed evidence…and Martha Arnold’s family has been one such “brick wall”.

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). Recently I have had a period of some activity and 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 titbits of new information on a few of my more elusive 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 almost all of my ancestors in the last 500 years, came from an area 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 at least 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 his wife Martha Arnold were both born in 1802. Thomas was born in Mirfield (about 5 miles from Huddersfield) and became a woodman (forrester) by occupation, living at Lee Green as had his family before him. He and Martha married in Mirfield in 1825 and had at least seven children together. I am descended from their youngest child, Edwin, who was also a woodman, of Lee Green. Census records show quite clearly that Martha was not born in Mirfield but in Woolwich, south-east London. I discovered that she had been baptised in the parish of Westminster, London on 29th August 1802. Martha had four siblings baptised in London up to 1809, then the whole family disappeared entirely from the London records.

In 1825, Martha is recorded in Mirfield, West Yorkshire, where she married my third great-grandfather, Thomas Sheard. There 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 there was plenty of work in Woolwich.

So, why would someone move from the hub of activity of Woolwich, 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? Most of the Arnolds in the BMD records hail from the south, especially London, and not Yorkshire, so clearly Martha was moving north, not returning there.

A plausible reason to move from Woolwich to Mirfield

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 paternal 5th Great Grandfather 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 the turbulent history of the early 19th century?


I think that “Woolwich” is the clue. A chance meeting with an acquaintance, who was herself born in Woolwich, led to a suggestion 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.

If Jonathan Arnold was indeed with the military, what might he have been engaged in at Mirfield sometime between 1809, when the family disappeared from Woolwich, and 1825 when his daughter Martha was to marry in Mirfield?

It didn’t take too much research before I discovered the West Yorkshire Luddite rebellion, centred on Kirklees, when thousands of soldiers, including cavalry and support personnel, and often also their families, were sent north to Yorkshire to support the local militia and to quell the Luddite rebellion. It looks like I had my possible link, so I set about searching for Martha’s father in earnest.

The search for Martha’s father

On-line records helped me to identify Martha’s father, Jonathan Arnold, his marriage in London at Saint Anne Soho (Westminster) in 1801, to Elizabeth Esther, the baptisms of five children between 1802 and 1809, but unfortunately not Jonathan’s occupation. None of the family appear in any census of England and Wales, except Martha herself who, by the 1841 census, was now married to Thomas Sheard, my third great-grandfather and was living in Mirfield. The remaining family just disappeared from parish records…so, could they sometimes even be abroad? Could they really be an army family? Would they, could they, have left Martha behind?

Next, I discovered a “J. Arnold” in the records of the 8th Light Cavalry, who was a “Farrier” and he appears in the “Army of India Medal Roll 1799-1826”, in a record dated 1817. All Cavalry units would have their own farriers to take care of the horses, who would also be soldiers, with rank from private to sergeant.

Could this be him? In 1812, Martha was 10 years old. Might Jonathan, along with a wife and several children, have been sent north with a regiment that was sent to put down the Luddite uprising and later might he be the Jonathan Arnold, a soldier, who was sent abroad to India. Might he have then left his wife and his family in Mirfield? It’s a very long shot and I suspect that I may never know all the answers, but it’s a decent working theory in the absence of any other and it gave me the push that I needed to have a peek at that period in Mirfield’s industrial history, including the Luddite rebellion.

Traditional Woollen Manufacture in Mirfield

Woman operating cottage handloom

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 by the croppers before going to market. 

Croppers and the beginning of unrest in Mirfield

Yorkshire Croppers

The dressing process was the only one that was 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.

Mechanised Mills and the Croppers

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 being less well paid.

Other Factors

Many other factors led to the disaffection of the workers.

  • A succession of poor harvests caused a rise in the price of corn to an an all-time high, so food prices increased.
  • The Berlin Decree of 1806 forbade French, allied or neutral ships trading with Britain. By this means, Napoleon hoped to destroy Britain’s international trade. At the same time, the British King’s Privy Council also placed restrictions on trade with France and its allies through its “Orders in Council”.
  • The Embargo Act of 1807, was a trade embargo enacted by the United States Congress against both Great Britain and France. There was consequential conflict between the United Kingdom, America and neutral countries, whose trade was seriously affected by these international affairs.
  • Taxation became higher and the Yorkshire woollen trade became difficult.
  • In order to maintain profitability, the mill-owners cut the wages of the workers and introduced more cropping frames into the workrooms.


Now, some of the workers joined the Luddite movement. Luddites were named after Ned Ludd, a Leicestershire born man who broke two stocking frames in 1779. A generation later, in 1811, poverty among the mill workers in the lace industry in Nottingham led to violence erupting there, with gangs of workers breaking the new machines that were taking their jobs, and it wasn’t long before the workers of Cheshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire also began to engage in attacking the mills at night and breaking the new machines that they blamed for their poverty and starvation…unrest became widespread in the north but the greatest unrest was in Yorkshire.

The Kirklees Luddites

The West Riding Luddites were mainly self-employed textile workers who feared the end of their trade brought about by employers installing labour saving technologies in mechanised mills in 1810-1816.

In Kirklees, Luddite groups 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 Thornhill and Mirfield had joined in and not all of them were textile workers.

In retaliation for the Luddites’ actions, the government sent around 12,000 troops to the North, from barracks such as those at Woolwich. This was more than Wellington had taken abroad when he sailed for the Peninsula in 1808 to fight in Spain and Portugal against Napoleon. The Government were very afraid that revolution of the type that had overthrown the French aristocracy and government only a generation before, might be starting in England. Consequently, 5,600 infantry and 1,400 cavalry were stationed at Manchester and at least 1,000 troops, including cavalry, were stationed in the Huddersfield area alone. Many were engaged in helping mill-owners to protect their property from attack.

Luddites breaking machinery

Yorkshire Luddite Rebellion 1812

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 is 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 garrisoned soldiers and local militia, plus his foresight in strengthening the defences of the mill, enabled him to hold off the Luddites.

Tim Green from Bradford [CC BY 2.0 (]

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 by four armed croppers and shot at Crosland, near Huddersfield. He was an obvious target. An outspoken opponent of the Luddites, he had installed a cannon at his mill to defend his machinery. He was also easy to find, as he regularly rode past the local headquarters of the Luddites at Longroyd Bridge. Horsfall was carried to the Warren House Inn nearby, where he was tended by doctors but died 36 hours later. Four men who were later arrested were George Mellor, William Thorpe, Thomas Smith and Benjamin Walker (Benjamin was George Mellor’s stepson).

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 sixty-four Luddites stood in the dock at York in January 1813, twenty-four of them were young men from the Huddersfield area, many of them croppers, with an average age of 27. Some bore surnames that are familiar, as they exist on my own family tree.

Fourteen of those convicted and sentenced to death, are identified below with their ages, crimes and the families they left behind:

  • James HAIGH of Dalton (aged 28); Crime: Riot and attempt to demolish William Cartwright’s water mill (for finishing cloth by machinery) at Rawfolds, Liversedge, on 11 Apr 1812; left a widow and two children.
  • Jonathan DEAN of Huddersfield (aged 30); Crime: Riot and attempt to demolish William Cartwright’s water mill (for finishing cloth by machinery) at Rawfolds, Liversedge, on 11 Apr 1812; left a widow and seven children.
  • John OGDEN of Huddersfield (aged 28); Crime: Riot and attempt to demolish William Cartwright’s water mill (for finishing cloth by machinery) at Rawfolds, Liversedge, on 11 Apr 1812; left a widow and two children.
  • Thomas BROOK of Lockwood (aged 32); Crime: Riot and attempt to demolish William Cartwright’s water mill (for finishing cloth by machinery) at Rawfolds, Liversedge, on 11 Apr 1812; widow and three children.
  • John WALKER of Longroyd Bridge (aged 31); Crime: Riot and attempt to demolish William Cartwright’s water mill (for finishing cloth by machinery) at Rawfolds, Liversedge, on 11 Apr 1812; widow and five children.
  • Job HEY, of North Dean (Greetland, Halifax) (aged 40); Crime: Breaking and entering the farmhouse of George Haigh at Copley Gate, Skircoat, and stealing a gun and a pistol on a night in August 1812; left a widow and seven children.
  • John HILL (aged 36); Crime: Breaking and entering the farmhouse of George Haigh at Copley Gate, Skircoat, and stealing a gun and a pistol on a night in August 1812; left a widow and two children.
  • William HARTLEY of Warley, tailor (aged 41); Crime: Breaking and entering the farmhouse of George Haigh at Copley Gate, Skircoat, and stealing a gun and a pistol on a night in August 1812; left seven children, his wife having lately died.
  • James HEY son of a Methodist preacher from Skircoat, Huddersfield (aged 25) Crime: Robbery in the dwelling house of James Brook of Sheepridge, Huddersfield; left a widow.
  • Joseph CROWTHER of Sowerby (aged 31); Crime: Robbery in the dwelling house of James Brook of Sheepridge, Huddersfield; wife pregnant, and four children.
  • Nathan HOYLE of Skircoat  (aged 46); Crime: Robbery in the dwelling house of James Brook of Sheepridge, Huddersfield; widow and seven children.
  • John SWALLOW (aged 37) Coal Miner of Briestwhistle (now named Briestfield); Crime: Breaking and entering at night into the dwelling house of Samuel Moxon of Upper Whitley, Kirkheaton, and stealing money and butter on 4 Jul 1812; widow and six children.
  • John BATLEY (aged 31) Cloth maker of Thornhill Edge; Crime: Breaking and entering at night into the dwelling house of Samuel Moxon of Upper Whitley, Kirkheaton, and stealing money and butter on 4 Jul 1812; left a widow and one child.
  • Joseph FISHER (aged 33) Coal Miner, of Briestwhistle; Crime: Breaking and entering at night into the dwelling house of Samuel Moxon of Upper Whitley, Kirkheaton, and stealing money and butter on 4th July 1812; left a widow and three children.

The last three above (Swallow, Batley and Fisher) had been tried for armed burglary at the home of John Moxon at Whitley Upper on 3rd July 1812 and for stealing various items. Shots were fired and threats of violence were made. Fisher said that he went along under intimidation from the others and that they said they would kill him if he refused to go…however he went armed with a sword and made threats with it. A vital prosecution witness was coal miner Earl Parkin, who went along on the raid but later turned evidence for the prosecution. The prosecution made much of the fact that three of the accused were coal miners:

In: “York Castle in the Nineteenth Century, Being an Account of All the Principal Offences Committed in Yorkshire from the Year 1800 to the Present Period, with the Lives of the Capital Offenders” by William Leman Rede, Leman Thomas Rede; 1906.  

Swallow, Batley and Fisher were tried along with John Lumb, aged 32, another coal miner, who was recommended for mercy by the jury. Three were sentenced to hang and Lumb to be transported.

Murder of William Horsfall

In addition to the fourteen, three other men were tried at York for the murder of William Hosfall. Benjamin Walker had agreed to turn King’s Evidence for the State and made a long confession, to which he added his mark as he was illiterate. At the trial, George Mellor was accused of “firing a pistol at William Horsfall, a manufacturer employing 400 men, on 28th April 1812, inflicting a mortal wound on the left side of Mr Horsfall’s abdomen”. William Thorpe and Thomas Smith were accused of aiding and abetting this act. The accused men, who all pleaded “not guilty” were:

  • George MELLOR, cloth dresser of Longroyd Bridge, the acknowledged leader of the Luddites in the Huddersfield area, probably unmarried, born 1789 (aged 23).
  • William THORPE of Huddersfield, cloth dresser.
  • Thomas SMITH of Huddersfield, cloth dresser.

Although several witnesses tried to provide alibis, they contradicted each other; the Jury retired and took just 25 minutes to find the men guilty and they were promptly sentenced to hang.

On the morning of Weds 16th January 1813, the first fourteen convicted Luddites were hanged in two separate batches of seven at York. Mellor, Thorpe and Smith were executed two days after the other fourteen, on Friday 18th January. See Criminal Chronology of York Castle. Between them, they left sixteen widows and fifty-six children between them and one more child on the way.

The 1751 Murder Act “for the better preventing the horrid crime of murder” mandated the dissection of the bodies of executed murders, including both males and females. Anatomy was an important area of scientific investigation during the 18th century, with surgeons dissecting humans and animals in order to improve the understating of how the human body functioned (Mitchell et al. 2011). After dissection, the bodies of all the Luddites were claimed by family/friends except those of Joseph Crowther and Nathan Hoyle, whose bodies were “interred in the hoppet at the back of the Castle”.

Those Luddites who avoided capital punishment were transported to Australia and their families left destitute. A number of remaining Luddites, who eventually surrendered, were pardoned and some degree of stability eventually returned to the area.

In 1865, a cavalry style pistol was found by workmen clearing a hedge, near Huddersfield. It was in a dilapidated state with a rotted wooden stock and was believed by many to be the weapon used to murder Horsfall.

Fishers of Briestwhistle
Joseph Fisher, the convicted Luddite, had married Maboth Tyne in 1806 at Thornhill (the parish for Briestwhistle). Maboth Tyne's brother, Mark, was married to another Fisher, Hannah, daughter of James Fisher.
Joseph and Maboth's children were:
    Nathan Fisher born 1807 baptised Thornhill
    Joseph Fisher born 1809 baptised Thornhill
    Martin Fisher born 1811 baptised Thornhill 
Maboth Fisher (Born Tyne) afterwards married George Milnes in 1814 at Wakefield.
John Lumb was married to another Fisher (Hannah Fisher).

Briestwhistle was little more than a hamlet at the time.[See Descriptive Gazetteer Entry for BRIESTFIELD, or Briestwhistle, a hamlet in Lower Whitley township, Thornhill parish, W.R. Yorkshire; 5½ miles E of Huddersfield by John Marius Wilson, Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales (1870-72)]

The Fisher family would all be somehow related to each other. Therefore, Joseph Fisher was probably a member of my extended "Fisher of Briestwhistle" family, also coalminers, though he was not a direct ancestor. My Fisher family favoured the name "Joseph" in every generation, so it has been difficult to sort out all the Josephs. My direct descent is from Richard Fisher, who was 20 at the time of the uprising and was another coalminer. I am separately descended from Mary Fisher (born 1713), the daughter of Timothy Fisher of Briestwell (Briestwhistle), who was baptised there in 1683.     


The Luddite uprising was largely quelled as a result of the suppression of riots by the government’s use of spies and the military; by the rescinding of the Orders in Council, plus some wage concessions and a reduction in food prices. 

In March 1813, most of the militia were withdrawn from the West Riding. However, Luddism did not end with the hangings of 1813 and it left a legacy of unrest in the West Riding. Huddersfield remained at the forefront of demands for radical reform of parliament, introduction of trade unionism, resistance to the factory system and to the new poor law in the late 1820s and 1830s.

Richard Oastler, the Radical Tory leader of the Factory Movement, advocated sabotage of  machines used to flout the Factory Acts, though it never took place. The culmination of these movements, the great General Strike of 1842, did involve attacks on mills, but not to destroy machinery, but to force their closure and reinforce the strike.


In addition to machine breaking, “Ludding” came to refer to raids for arms and generally to describe rebellion against change and “Luddites” is now a word used to insult technophobes.

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

Final Thoughts on the Arnolds of Woolwich

That brings me back to Martha Arnold’s father, who was named Jonathan. Was Jonathan a soldier from Woolwich Arsenal, sent to the West Riding to quell the Luddite revolt and/or was he the Private J Arnold, farrier, who later served with the army in India? In the early 19th Century, women played a role in the activities of the army, living and travelling with it, supporting the troops as washerwomen, cooks, seamstresses, nurses, etc.

Whatever was his profession, it seems that Jonathan might have eventually returned to London, as there are a number of entries for a Jonathan Arnold in the Westminster Poor Rate books from 1822-1830 and there is a burial for a Jonathan Arnold recorded in Poplar, London, in 1857…but no record found in Mirfield, so far, for either Jonathan or his wife Elizabeth.

I suppose I may never know the complete answer to my questions, but the research that I carried out enabled me to engage with that period in my ancestors’ history. Consequently, I came 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.

Along the way, I may also have found another unexpected ancestral family link in Joseph Fisher of Briestwhistle (AKA Briestwell, Briestfield), a small village near Thornhill, where my coalmining Fisher ancestors had a number of Joseph Fishers baptised.

© Christine Widdall updated Dec 2020.