Situated by the side of a busy junction at Cooper Bridge, where the A62 between Huddersfield and Liversedge bisects the A644 between Brighouse and Mirfield, the Dumb Steeple is a millstone grit column, approximately twenty-six feet high, topped by a ball-shaped finial. It originally stood at the centre of the crossroads but was moved to its current location when the traffic grew too heavy in the 1980s. Some believe the name to be a corruption of the phrase “doom steeple”, so called because it once marked the boundary of Kirkless Priory, within which “doomed” men could claim sanctuary. Anybody who managed to reach it would be safe from the law for forty days after which they could choose to surrender themselves to the secular authorities for trial or be exiled from the country, never to return on pain of death. Yet ironically, the most famous local tradition connected with the Dumb Steeple concerns somebody running not towards it but away (as we will see).
An alternative explanation for the name is that it could be a corruption of the Latin phrase Domini Stapulus, meaning the Lord’s Steeple. However, the theory that it marked an ecclesiastic boundary is not universally accepted, as there is no evidence that Kirklees Priory was ever accorded sanctuary rights. Meanwhile, the monument itself only dates from the 18th Century (although it may have been a replacement for an earlier structure). It seems that prior to the 19th Century it was referred to simply as the Obelisk, lending its name to the Elland & Obelisk Turnpike Road, constructed in 1815 and a now demolished house nearby, Obelisk Grove. It’s been suggested that it may have been dubbed Dumb Man’s Steeple by local folk following the disastrous Luddite rally which took place there in 1812, described below. The name certainly doesn’t seem to have been used until after this event.
Meanwhile, it is recorded that a common local reply to anybody who asked why it was called the Dumb Steeple was “Because it says nowt!” This may support another mooted suggestion that it is called dumb because it lacks what you would expect to find in most steeples, namely a bell. The most prosaic suggestion is simply that it was once a boundary marker, delineating the convergence of the parishes of Clifton, Mirfield and Hartshead. Arguably the most fanciful, and the most difficult to prove, is that the 18th Century structure replaced a much older standing stone or menhir which could’ve stood there since prehistoric times. The theory was mooted by Harry Speight in an article for the Yorkshire Weekly Post on the ground that other such ancient monoliths in the West Riding are colloquially referred to as Dumb Steeples, although further evidence of such nomenclature is difficult to find.
On the night of 11th April 1812, the Dumb Steeple was used as the meeting place of a contingent of Luddites who were gathering to march to Cartwright Mill at Rawfolds near Cleckheaton to attack the new cropping machines which they believed were a threat to local employment at a time when life was already hard due to the privations inflicted by the Napoleonic Wars. These events were subsequently dramatised by Charlotte Brontë in her novel Shirley, based on the diaries of her father Patrick Brontë who was the vicar at St. Peter’s Church, Hartshead at the time. Doubtless the massed Luddites would’ve made a fearsome bunch. There were up to 150 men present, many with their faces blackened and carrying weapons such as hammers or muskets. It is little surprise, therefore, that one of their number lost his nerve and fled the scene just before the contingent began their march across Hartshead Moor towards their target.
The man who ran was a youth by the name of Rayner and his house was situated near St. Matthew’s Church at Rastrick. He must have been an exceptionally athletic individual, because he is alleged to have left the assembly at the Dumb Steeple at 11:40pm and have made it back just in time to hear the clock at St. Matthew’s strike midnight. As this occurred, the sexton was just leaving for the night and both men counted thirteen chimes, remarking on it to each other. This could be interpreted as a sign of ill-omen portending the disaster which was about to befall the Luddites at Rawfolds or as the sexton said at the time, simply that the Brighouse clockmaker Old Skelton – who had been working on the mechanism earlier in the day – had failed to set it correctly. Nonetheless, this chance meeting and the singular event of the thirteen chimes was to prove instrumental in deciding Rayner’s future.
The Luddite attack on Cartwright Mill went ahead as planned. However, the mill-owner had been expecting them due to a build-up of smaller incidents in the prior weeks and weapons being stolen around the district. Consequently, the mob found the mill fortified and defended by armed workers and militiamen. They was driven back and at least two Luddites were so badly injured in the skirmish that they died of their wounds in the Star Inn at Roberttown. Many others were forced to hide out in the aftermath, for fearing that the insurrection could spread, local authorities led by Huddersfield’s Squire Radcliffe were determined to purge the district of Luddism and saw the attack on Cartwright Mill as the perfect opportunity to do so. Consequently, a number of those involved were rounded up and after a trial in York where they stood accused of trying to demolish the mill, fourteen men were sent to the gallows at Tyburn on 16th January 1813.
It is said that Rayner was named by those arrested as also having been present at the rally and so he too was brought up before the court. However, he informed the judge that he had been in Rastrick at the strike of midnight on the night of the attack. The sexton was called to corroborate his story, and even the clockmaker Old Skelton to offer expert testimony that the clock would indeed have struck thirteen that night as Rayner claimed. The judge was already aware that the Luddites had moved from the Dumb Steeple at 11:45pm and concluded that no man could have travelled between Cooper Bridge and Rastrick in that time. His conclusion makes you wonder if Rayner’s remarkable fitness really had really allowed him to cover a distance of two to three miles in between fifteen and twenty minutes, thus unwittingly saving his life, or whether the story had been manufactured with the sympathetic sexton to give him a convincing and watertight alibi.