Martha Arnold of Woolwich and Mirfield and a possible Luddite link

Researching Brick Walls

I have been engaged in my family history research for about twelve years and have come across a number of brick walls…ancestors for whom I can find little meaningful 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 tidbits 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 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 his wife Martha Arnold were both born in 1802. Thomas was born in Mirfield (about 5 miles from Huddersfield) and became a woodman 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 born in London up to 1808, then the whole family disappears.

Sometime between 1808 and 1825, Martha was uprooted from London and planted in Mirfield, West Yorkshire, where Martha married my third great-grandfather, Thomas Sheard. I had no clue as to why this should be. 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 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? My first instinct was that it was a family returning home, but 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 here.

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 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 the Luddite rebellion during which thousands of soldiers including cavalry were sent north to Yorkshire to support the local militia and quell the 1812 rebellion.

Search for Martha’s father

Online records helped me to find Martha’s father, Jonathan Arnold, his marriage in London at Saint Anne Soho (Westminster) in 1801, to Elizabeth Esther, the baptisms of their five children between 1802 and 1808, but unfortunately not Jonathan’s occupation. None of the family appear in any census of England and Wales, except Martha who, by the 1841 census, was now married to Thomas Sheard, my third great-grandfather and was living in Mirfield. The remaining family has disappeared from view…could they be abroad? Could they really be an army family…or were they all dead?

I discovered a “J. Arnold” in the records of the 8th Light Cavalry. He was a Farrier and he appears in the Army of India Medal Roll 1799-1826, in a record dated 1817. Could this be him? Might he, along with a wife and several children, have been sent north with a regiment in order to put down the Luddite uprising and later might they have moved abroad, leaving Martha in Mirfield? It’s a very long shot and I suspect that I may never know, 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 what life would be like for army wives and also to have a look at that period in Mirfield’s industrial history.

Women’s role in the early 19th Century Army

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. Officers were encouraged to marry and to provide a paternal role in their regiment, but lower ranking soldiers had to obtain the permission of their commanding officer before marrying. For those wives who accompanied their husbands on campaign, life would be very hard and sometimes dangerous.

By 1800 the British army had established that 6 per cent of the rank and file would be permitted to marry, with the commanding officer’s leave, and that their wives and children could live in barracks and draw rations. It was not until 1811, however, that the women could draw bedding and their children were not issued bed and bedding until 1856. (Until this date the parents had to provide the bedding or the children slept in the beds of soldiers on guard duty). As the nineteenth century began these women and children were housed in the same rooms as the bachelor soldiers, usually taking over the corners of the rooms and hoping that no one would enforce the 1795 Barrack Regulations, which forbade the use of any of the bedding… “to any other purpose than they were originally intended for.” 

Barracks Life in the Nineteenth Century; or, How and Why Tommy’s Lot Improved; Carol M. Whitfield; Chief of Research and Acting Chief of Interpretation at the Halifax Defense Complex

Woollen Manufacture in West Yorkshire

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 before going to market. 

Croppers and the beginning of unrest


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.

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 was difficult. In order to maintain profitability, the mill-owners cut the wages of the workers and introduced more cropping frames into the workrooms.


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 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.

In retaliation for the Luddites’ 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 1,000 troops were stationed in the Huddersfield area alone and many were helping mill-owners to protect their property from attack.

Luddite Rebellion

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 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.

Luddites breaking machinery

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 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 to me as they exist in my own family tree.

Seventeen convicted men were hanged at York. The first fourteen were hanged at York Castle in two batches of seven, on 16th January 1813, leaving sixteen widows and fifty six children between them and one more child on the way. They 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 Coal Miner of Briestwhistle (who was almost certainly a member of my extended “Fisher of Briestwhistle” clan.).
    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 three children. Joseph had married Maboth Tyne in 1806 Thornhill
    Their Children:
    Nathan Fisher born 1807 Thornhill
    Joseph Fisher born 1809 Thornhill
    Martin Fisher born1811 Thornhill
    Maboth Fisher then married George Milnes in 1814 at Wakefield.

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. John Lumb was married to another Fisher (Hannah Fisher, daughter of James Fisher – probably also a relation of mine). Three were sentenced to hang and Lumb to be transported.

On the morning of Weds 16th January 1813, the first fourteen convicted men were hanged in two separate batches of seven. 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”.

In addition to the fourteen, three other men were tried at York for murder. George Mellor was accused of firing a pistol at a 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.
Murder of William Horsfall

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. They were executed two days after the other fourteen, on Friday 8th January 1813. See Criminal Chronology of York 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.

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

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? If he was not, how did Martha end up in Mirfield, where she met her husband to be, Thomas Sheard? Whatever was his profession, Jonathan may 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…and none found, so far, in Mirfield.

I suppose I may 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 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 Fisher ancestors had a number of Joseph Fishers baptised.

© Christine Widdall updated April 2018.

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