The Luddites, Fighting for a Better Life

Luddite The Luddites were 19th-century English textile artisans who protested against the newly-developed, labour-saving machinery from 1811 to 1817. The stocking frames, spinning frames, and power looms introduced during the Industrial Revolution made it possible to replace the artisans with less-skilled, low-wage labourers, leaving them without work.

Although the origin of the name Luddite is uncertain, a popular theory is that the movement was named after Ned Ludd, allegedly a youth who had smashed two stocking frames 30 years earlier, and whose name had become emblematic of machine destroyers. The name evolved into the imaginary General Ludd or King Ludd, a figure who, like Robin Hood, was reputed to live in Sherwood Forest.

Any casual observer of working-class behaviour during the years 1740 to 1800 might easily have come to the conclusion that the majority of the lower orders were disaffected to the point of disloyalty toward the King and his Government. Such a verdict, however, would have been inaccurate, as a careful study of the facts would have proved. There was never any evidence and display of disloyalty, nor any real signs of disaffection toward the Government. Even when the opportunity came in 1745, and again in 1789, for the people to ally themselves with revolutionary movements, they remained aloof. It is no exaggeration to say that the suffering masses of the eighteenth century never tried to alter the Constitution and never openly desired a change in the form of administration. What concerned them most was the adequate meeting of their daily needs. When that became difficult because of high prices and continued exploitation, they quickly lost their patience and vented their anger in noisy demonstrations.

But when commodities remained plentiful and prices fairly stable, then the working classes maintained their tranquillity and disorders became rare. There can be no shadow of doubt about the conclusion that physical distress and anxiety were responsible for the explosions of violence so frequently occurring throughout the greater part of the century.

The movement emerged during the harsh economic climate of the Napoleonic Wars, which saw a rise in difficult working conditions in the new textile factories. The principal objection of the Luddites was the introduction of new wide-framed automated looms that could be operated by cheaper, relatively low-to-unskilled labour, resulting in unemployment among the skilled textile workers. The movement began in Nottingham in 1811 and spread rapidly throughout England over the following two years. Handloom weavers burned mills and pieces of factory machinery. Many wool and cotton mills were destroyed before the British government suppressed the movement.

The Luddites, often enjoying local support, met at night on the moors surrounding industrial towns, where they would practice drills and manoeuvres. Their main areas of operation were Nottinghamshire in November 1811, followed by the West Riding of Yorkshire in early 1812 and Lancashire by March 1813. Luddites battled the British Army at Burton’s Mill in Middleton and at Westhoughton Mill, both in Lancashire. Rumours abounded at the time that local magistrates employed agents provocateur to instigate the attacks. Using the pseudonym King Ludd, the Luddites and their supporters anonymously sent death threats to–and even attacked–magistrates and food merchants. Activists smashed Heathcote’s lacemaking machine in Loughborough in 1816. He and other industialists had secret chambers constructed in their buildings which be used as hiding places during an attack. In 1817, an unemployed Nottigham stockinger and probable ex-Luddite named Jeremiah Brandreth led the Pentrich Rising, which was a general uprising unrelated to machinery but could be seen as the last major Luddite act.

Government Response
Later intrepretation of Machine Trashing (1812), showing two men superimposed on an 1844 engraving from the Penny magazine which shows a post 1820s Jacquard loom.

The British Army clashed with the Luddites on several occasions. At one time, there were more British soldiers fighting the Luddites than Napoleon on the Iberian Peninsula. Three Luddites, led by George Mellor, ambushed and assassinated a mill owner named William Horsfall from Ottiwells Mill at Crosland Moor in Marsden, West Yorkshire. Horsfall had remarked that he would, “Ride up to his saddle in Luddite blood.” Mellor fired the fatal shot to Horsfall’s groin, and all three men were arrested.

The British government sought to suppress the Luddite movement with a mass trial at York in January 1813. The government charged over sixty men, including Mellor and his companions, with various crimes in connection with Luddite activities. While some were actual Luddites, many had no connection to the movement. Rather than legitimate judicial reckonings of each defendant’s guilt, these were show trials intended as a deterrent to other Luddites from continuing their activities. Through effective displays of harsh consequences, including many executions and penal transportations, the trials quickly ended the movement.

Parliament subsequently made “machine breaking” (i.e. industrial sabotage) a capital crime with the Frame Breaking Act and the Malicious Damage Act. Lord Byron, becoming one of the few prominent defenders of the Luddites after the treatment of the defendants at the York trials, opposed this legislation.

In Retrospect

Later intrepretation of Machine Trashing (1812), showing two men superimposed on an 1844 engraving from the Penny magazine which shows a post 1820s Jacquard loom.

Later intrepretation of Machine Trashing (1812), showing two men superimposed on an 1844 engraving from the Penny magazine which shows a post 1820s Jacquard loom.

The movement can also be seen as part of a rising tide of English working-class discontent in the early 19th century. An agricultural variant of Luddism, centring on the breaking of threshing machines, occurred during the widespread Swing Riots of 1830 in southern and eastern England. Research by Kevin Binfield places the Luddite movement in its proper historical context: as organised action by stockingers had occurred at various times since 1675, the movements of the early 19th century must be viewed in the context of the hardships suffered by the working class during the Napoleonic Wars rather than an absolute aversion to machinery.

Such figures are not without their value. They should not be taken to portray a comfortable, well-ordered society in which the conditions of labour may be contrasted with the later conditions of exploitation, unemployment and misery; the permanent condition of the times was still that of underemployment.

Employment which arose out of the growth of trade and shipping in ports — the dramatic ‘growth’ industries of these years — were notorious then, as later, for occupations with precarious employment prospects. But, also in ‘domestic’ manufacturers, there was a desire for more available labour than normally employed; this, as an insurance against labour shortages in boom times.

Moreover, the organization of manufacture by merchant-capitalists, still the predominant textile industry form, was inherently unstable. Whilst the financier’s capital was still largely in the form of raw material, it was easy to increase commitment where trade was good; but, it was almost as easy*to cut back when times were bad. Merchant-capitalists lacked the incentive of later factory owners, their capital invested in building and plant, to maintain a steady rate of production, and return on fixed capital. Combined with this seasonal variations in wage rates, effects of violent short-term fluctuations springing from harvests and war, periodic outbreaks of violence become more easily-understood.

Spasmodic rises in food prices provoked keelmen on the Tyne to riot in 1709, tin miners to plunder granaries at Falmouth in 1727. There was a rebellion in Northumberland and Durham in 1740, manhandling of Quaker corn dealers in 1756. More peaceably, skilled artisans in the cloth, building, shipbuilding, printing and cutlery trades organized friendly societies to insure them against unemployment and sickness and sometimes, gild fashion, against the intrusion of ‘foreign’ labour into their trades.

In modern usage, “Luddite” is a term describing those opposed to industrialisation, automation, computerisation or new technologies in general.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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