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On 3rd August 1816, a particularly dramatic trial took place at the Shire Hall, now the National Justice Museum. It was the trial of two Luddites who were acquitted of machine breaking – a capital offence at the time. But were they acquitted because of the witnesses who spoke in their defence, or the pressure of the threatening crowd outside the courtroom? Sam Croxton, a student from Nottingham Trent University who has been on placement at the Museum, offers some more information and thoughts on the case…
Of the countless trials that have taken place within the Shire Hall court room within which the National Justice Museum is based, one stands out as rather unique and intriguing – the trial of Thomas Glover and John Chettle, two Luddites during the 19th century. The Luddite rebellion was composed of groups of skilled artisans, specifically framework knitters in the East Midlands, who manufactured stockings. They felt threatened by the innovative wave of the Industrial Revolution, more specifically the introduction of machinery, or new manufacturing techniques, which inevitably left them without work; this in turn leading to the destruction of many machines throughout areas such as Derbyshire, Leicestershire and of course, Nottinghamshire. The uprising would later spread to Yorkshire and Lancashire.
During the period of the Luddite rebellion, many Luddites accused of machine breaking and other offences passed through Shire Hall, and many of those found guilty were executed. The first man hanged on the steps of the Shire Hall, Daniel Diggle in 1817, was a Luddite who had also shot his former employer.
Both Glover and Chettle were accused of breaking a total of 19 frames belonging to William Wright and Thomas Mullen, as well as stealing two pieces of lace in the process – a pretty standard accusation made against a Luddite. Now what makes this particular case differ from the others is that both Glover and Chettle were acquitted, much to the disgust of the general public. The 12-hour trial which occurred on Saturday 3rd August continued over to the Sunday involved over 15 witnesses, many of whom backed the defendants.
The Morning Post of 19th August 1816 reported:
We are sorry to learn that the demoniacal spirit of a part of the population of the town and neighbourhood of Nottingham was again manifested at the trial of the Luddites there at the late assizes, all of whom were acquitted.
The outcome of this case wasn’t simply concluded based on the evidence given, even though it was supposedly a result of ‘insufficient evidence’, but seems to have been influenced largely by external factors from inside and outside the courtroom. Throughout the trial spectators cheered and applauded anything that was in favour of the prisoners and upon entering and leaving the court, Judge Baron Graham was verbally harassed by supporters of Glover and Chettle. It seems that this fact, along with the reported 2000 men waiting outside the courthouse armed with sticks as well as some reportedly having concealed pistols, plus the spectators putting out the lights rendering Graham forced to use a candle to read the evidence, may suggest that the judge felt slightly fearful of how they would react if Guilty had been the verdict… I think we can all agree here; you’ve got to feel for the guy.
This trial can be seen as a prime example of how much the justice system has evolved over the last 200 years (as you’d hope it had), but it is still interesting to compare it to today’s system which still has its critics at times. And I must say, it’s reassuring to know that, these days, having several thousand friends is not enough to get you off committing a crime.