The Luddites

Come all you cotton-weavers, your looms you may pull down;
You must get employ’d in factories, in country or in town,
For our cotton-masters have found out a wonderful new scheme,
These calico goods now wove by hand they’re going to weave by steam.

So, come all you cotton-weavers, you must rise up very soon,
For you must work in factories from morning until noon;
You mustn’t walk in your garden for two or three hours a day,
For you must stand at their command, and keep your shuttles at play.

‘Hand-Loom Versus Power-Loom’, John Grimshaw

Preface

With special emphasis on the events that took place in the years 1811-1812, this essay aims to account for the activities by the revolutionary minorities, known collectively as the Luddites, that sent shock waves throughout British society in the latter years of the Napoleonic Wars. I will analyse the social, economic and political factors that gave rise to the Luddites; the advance of machinery, the war, and the Orders in Council, and consider the impact that these factors had upon the situation of textile manufacturers and labourers alike, as well as British trade and economy in general. In addition, I will account for the Luddites’ methods of organization and how the authorities responded to this “inner enemy”. In the prologue and epilogue I will consider the threat which Luddism posed and its consequences; the prologue thus serving as an introduction and the epilogue as a conclusion.

My main sources have been Edward Baines’ “History of the Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain” (first published in 1835), Robert Reid’s account of the Luddite disturbances in Yorkshire, “Land of Lost Content”, Clive Emsley’s “British Society and the French Wars 1793-1815” and Thomis and Holt’s “Threats of Revolution in Britain 1789-1848”. The song quoted at the beginning of this essay is from Asa Brigg’s “Iron Bridge to Crystal Palace”.

Prologue

The designation “Luddite” was derived from a Midland tale (possibly as early as 1779) of an apprentice (reportedly a half-wit) who in a fit of rage, as a consequence to a brutality committed against him by either his stepfather, his fellow apprentices or as an order from the magistrate, battered his stocking frame into a heap. The boy’s name was Ned Ludd. What made this tale go down in history was that the name was later adopted by the Nottinghamshire frame-breakers. The title was catchy: “General Ludd” became a favoured alias for Luddite leaders and the designation of “Luddites” was soon extended to frame-breakers in other parts of the country.

In the preface I referred to the Luddites as ‘revolutionary minorities’ – the use of the plural is intentional; despite having generalized concerns and grievances in common, the specific causes for and the nature of Luddite activities were marked by distinct regional and occupational variations. No evidence has yet come forth that suggests any interregional co-ordination, communications or organization between the frame-breakers.

The frame-breakers operated in three different regions; in southern Lancashire and at the Cheshire border, in the East Midlands, especially in the Nottingham area, and in the West Riding of Yorkshire, in particular around Leeds. All three areas were dominated by textile production. The frame-breakers were all employed in the textile industry, but in three separate branches of the trade: the Lancashire frame-breakers were primarily weavers, those of Nottinghamshire were hosiers whereas the West Riding Luddites were primarily croppers and gig mill operators. This is evident as they exclusively targeted the machines which threatened their respective professions.

Aside from the specific occupational variations, there was at the turn of the nineteenth century also a great variety in status and nature of employment within the textile industry in general: some workers were employed by manufacturers in factories, others by small Masters while others were independents, working out of their own homes or as journeymen. Differences, too, existed between the situation of the urban and the provincial worker; the urban workers were primarily employed by manufacturers and Masters and the provincial were frequently independents and enjoyed in general more stable conditions and greater freedom than the urban workers.

Due to these professional and regional differences, the textile workers were affected in different degrees, in accordance to their specific professions and status, by changes in the industry. For example, the introduction of the steam-loom and the improved stocking-frame into the industry undermined the livelihood of the hand-loom weavers and the hosiers, independents as well as small Masters, as the large-scale manufacturers flooded the market with their produce and could undercut prices. On top of that, a change in fashion brought on the replacement of the elegant stocking by the plain hose. This meant, during the first quarter of the nineteenth century, quite the extinction of the domestic hosiers and small Masters in the stocking trade.

In comparison to workers in other areas of the textile industry, the croppers had most to loose: a skilled shearman, when the trade was good, could earn as much as 30 shillings per week (the weekly income of the average textile worker was rarely more than eight shillings). Their position was that of the privileged skilled labourer, the elite of the textile workers’ community; several were journeymen as there was always a situation to be found for a good cropper, but the machines would change this altogether.

The advance of machinery

‘Men, women, and children … the animal machine … is matched with an iron machine insensible to suffering and fatigue’

C. Turner Thackray (Baines, 1966 458)

 

The turn of the nineteenth century witnessed an overflow of mechanical ingenuity within the textile industry. This had significant consequences to the situation of the textile workers. Increasingly efficient machinery not only saved labour and increased production at lower costs, but also admitted non-skilled labourers to the trade as the machines became increasingly easier to operate. This meant that the work was de-valued and thousands were gradually laid off or had to accept lower wages. The invention of and improvements on four specific machines are significant, namely the steam-loom (or power-loom), the stocking frame (also known as the framework knitting machine), the gig mill (or teaselling machine), and the shearing frame. The power-loom and the stocking frame were respectively used in weaving and in the production of stockings and plain hose, whereas the gig mill and shearing frame were deployed in the finishing of respectively woollen and cotton cloth, i.e. the treatment of the cloth which smoothens its surface and gives it its final individual character. It would be these machines that the frame-breakers would target for destruction.

The power-loom was improved and patented no less than six times during the years between 1800 and 1813. As mentioned in the prologue, the introduction of this machine had an ill affect upon the hand-loom weavers. What previously had been mainly a family enterprise (weaving on a hand-loom required a minimum of strength and even small children could learn and accomplish the task) was now taking on industrial proportions as factories appeared in ever greater numbers and manufacturers extended their production. The domestic weavers had hitherto been able to stay independent and work hours according their own need, ability and wish, enjoying the freedom that the regulated factory workers could not, but now their small business’ were threatened by the greater production and lower prices of the manufacturers. The factory workers and those employed by Masters felt the affect of technology as well: in the summer of 1811 between 10,000 and 20,000 Manchester textile workers stood unemployed. Those that managed to remain in employment suffered a reduction in wages which was ‘felt justified’ because of the apparent ease of working with a machine: ‘In power-loom weaving the manual labour seems to be really nothing, as those who work at it frequently follow the motion of the lay, by leaning on it with their arms, with the view of taking exercise: it is also the healthiest of mill occupations’ (Baines, 1966 460).

In 1803, a method was discovered which made it possible to widen the stocking frame and simplify its operation. This was followed up by a further improvement in 1809. In 1811 occurred that change in fashion which forced skilled hosiers to settle at plain hose, thus reducing their income. Naturally, the factories were able to produce hose in far greater amounts and at lower prices than the independent hosiers and small Masters. In a letter to Lord Holland in February 1812, Lord Byron, who had chosen the subject of the Nottinghamshire disturbances for his maiden speech in the House of Lords, observed that ‘… by the adoption of a certain kind of frame one man performs the work of seven – six are thus thrown out of business. – But it is to be observed the work thus done is far inferior in quality, hardly marketable at home, & hurried over with a view to exportation’ (Marchand, 1973 165).

The gig mill and shearing frame likewise underwent a series of improvements. In 1812, a gig mill managed by one man and two boys could do the work of eighteen men and six boys, thus rendering the work of twenty-one individuals unwanted. Similarly, the shearing frame saved the amount of labour required and could crop in eighteen hours what would take a skilled cropper using hand shears eighty-eight hours to perform, and not only that: it was also far more accurate than manual shearing. During the years 1806-1817 the number of gig mills in Yorkshire increased from 5 to 72 and the number of shearing frames from 100 to 1,462. The consequence of this accumulation of machinery was a severe reduction in employment amongst the croppers and gig mill operators, e.g. in 1806 no less than 3,378 croppers were employed throughout Yorkshire, but in 1817 1,445 were only partially employed and 1,170 were not employed at all.

Early on, the gig mill operators and the croppers had recognized the accelerated mechanisation of their field as a threat to their employment and wages. In 1802, in Wiltshire, when demand for cloth was still high, workers refused to undertake the dressing of cloth on gig-mills, and succeeded in delaying the introduction of machines. Strikes among shearmen also held back mechanisation within their field; the Yorkshire croppers managed to keep shearing frames out of the Leeds area into the early nineteenth century, consequently forcing Yorkshire manufacturers to maintain backward procedures. This affected the comparative quality of the goods. One Hirst, a Yorkshire manufacturer, claimed in 1810 that ‘… if a Yorkshire manufacturer went into a market with one from the west of England and they both had a piece of cloth manufactured from the same wool, the latter would get a better price by nearly one-half’ (Lipson 159).

Lord Fitzwilliam, who was the government’s representative in Yorkshire during the Luddite disturbances, said of the croppers: ‘They are the tyrants of the country; their power and influence has grown out of high wages, which enables them to make deposits that puts them beyond all fear or inconvenience from misconduct’ (Reid 47). The croppers could afford protest and strikes and relied on the need for their unique skills. The efficiency of strikes was, however, gradually made obsolete by the mechanical innovations that within the decade would render the work of half their numbers unwanted; technology and ill economy would mean that they no longer could pressure their employers by threatening to strike or handing in their notice.

The predicament of the manufacturers

‘The manufactory of Nottm. and its neighbourhood depending very much on foreign demand, has never suffered so much as it now does …’

(Emsley 156)

 

In the early nineteenth century Napoleon set about to undermine British trade, the primary source of wealth of the country. Measures taken to accomplish this included the barring from France of any vessel, regardless of nation, which had visited a British port. Parliament’s response were the Orders in Council, introduced in 1807. The Orders closed off not only French, but also neutral ports. Most critical was the closure of the American ports which resulted in the introduction of the Non-Intercourse Act of 1808 by the Washington government which barred trade between the United States and the United Kingdom. All of British industry suffered from the loss of the American market, but most affected of all was the textile industry; the American embargo brought on a redundancy of prices on all textile goods and also a shortage of cotton supplies. During 1809 and most of 1810, the American market was briefly re-opened and provided a temporary respite for the industry and gave rise to quite the economic boom. This boom was not to last long, however: in late 1810 Napoleon tightened up the blockade against British merchandise. Concurrently, President Madison presented Britain with three months to renounce the Orders in Council and, when this was refused, recommenced the non-intercourse legislation and the American market was closed once more.

The consequences of this to all areas of trade were staggering: in the summer of 1810 no less than 26 banks failed, of which twenty were provincial; the markets still accessible were glutted with British textile produce; the exchanges fell and the Bank of England saw it necessary to contract its issues; many manufacturers went bankrupt and many Masters had to shut their doors for business. Those that were still standing and would avoid financial ruin had to make quick and radical decisions. Meanwhile, the government issued no more orders to the manufacturers. A number of exchequer bills were released to manufacturers so that they might keep their workmen employed, but they far from solved the problems.

The harsh equation that could lift the manufacturers out of the recession and allow their survival was thus: the introduction of machinery. This would mean less workmen and a greater production at a reduced cost and subsequently the option to sell their product at a cheaper, more competitive price. Those that could raise the capital – and those that dared – had no choice but to embrace mechanisation.

Daring indeed; history had shown how such a scheme might be received by the workers. As early as the 1770’s attacks against the so-called spinning jennies had occurred in Leicester and recently there had been strikes among croppers and gig mill operators and no little amount of personal threat against manufacturers and Masters had been involved. Many manufacturers had hitherto sent their cloth elsewhere to be “gigged” on commission in order to avoid unrest among their local workers.

Some employers, however, took to less delicate methods of bringing down costs by hiring cheap labour in the form of unskilled workers, women and children or expanding the number of apprentices in their pay, at the expense of the skilled, and more expensive, craftsmen.

The situation of the textile workers

‘I have seen the state of these miserable men, & it is a disgrace to a civilised country’

Lord Byron (Marchand,1973 165)

 

As the livelihood of the manufacturers and Masters were threatened, so was that of the workers. Unemployment, due to failing business’ and mechanisation, was widespread and wages were reduced by as much as a third in some areas, due to the competition for employment and over-manning at a time of falling demand. If a worker would not accept the offered pay and work conditions there would always be a more desperate man ready to take his place. Disbanded merchant seamen, forced ashore by the Orders in Council, and Irish immigrants proved great competition to the already pressured textile workers.

The bad harvest of 1811 forced up the price of foodstuffs and many textile workers’ families were in dire straits and could barely sustain themselves. Soup kitchens were established and parish relief was extended, but little did it help. It should not be forgotten, either, that the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were marked by depreciating currency.

In his maiden speech in 1812, Lord Byron said: ‘I have been in some of the most oppressed provinces of Turkey; but never under the most despotic of infidel governments did I behold such squalid wretchedness as I have seen since my return in the very heart of a Christian country’ (Marchand, 1957 321). A Yorkshire textile worker, the father of five children, all below the age of eight, told the Reverend Mr Prescott in the same year that: ‘I work sixteen hours a day … my family live upon potatoes chiefly and we have one pint of milk per day’. The same man could tell that many were worse off than he was (Reid 70).

During the early years of the nineteenth century groups of textile workers mounted campaigns and sent forth petitions to Parliament requesting financial and legislative aid. Many were well-spoken and well-prepared. In particular, the workers requested regulations that would protect their position against speculation and mechanization, especially the setting of wage rates in the industry and restrictions on the number of machines and apprenticeships permitted each Master or manufacturer. Manufacturers campaigned also, their requests in direct opposition to those of the workers, seeking to suspend or annul remaining statutes which would give them freer hands in the choice of machinery and the number of apprentices and labourers under their employment. A coalition of Yorkshire croppers spent as much as £10,000 in legal fees to preserve the statutes favourable to their trade against the campaign of the manufacturers. They lost their case. In 1809, all former restrictions and protective legislation regarding the number of apprenticeships and machines were rendered obsolete.

Despite the authorities’ seeming failure to even acknowledge the plight of the textile workers and refusal to negotiate, textile workers continued to campaign, indeed intensified their efforts. The stock reply to their petitions was perseverance, lower wages, or to seek other employ – needless to say, this was not a welcome recommendation. Throughout the cotton, woollen and hosiery districts there was anxiety and general discontent with the government. Among the petitions received during the Luddite peak years of 1811 and 1812, was one signed by as many as 40,000 textile workers from Manchester requesting regulations on wages. It was rejected. The Manchester petitioners addressed a follow-up to their petition, suggesting that the government disregarded the predicament of ‘the indigent’ and that it was ‘unfit to manage our affairs’, curtly reminding that it had set the wage rates for others, such as the tailors of London, and judges and clergymen, and that ‘had you possessed 70,000 votes for the election of Members to sit in that House, would your application have been treated with such indifference, not to say inattention? We believe not’ (Emsley 156). In 1812, a coalition of Nottinghamshire frame-work knitters, led by Gravener Henson, sought legal protection against ‘Frauds and Abuses in the Frame-work Knitting Manufacture, and in the payment of persons employed there in’ and collected 10,000 signatures from, mostly urban, hosiers and frame-work knitters. The petition passed the House of Commons and a bill was drawn up to address the issues. Despite support and careful preparation the bill was thrown out by the Lords with the hope that ‘no such principle’ would ‘be again attempted to be introduced in any Bill brought up to that House’ (Emsley 155-156).

The Nottinghamshire petition reveals understanding of the situation of the textile industry and British economy in general. It reveals also the anxiety of a class of craftsmen witnessing former conditions and privileges dissipate. Quality was among its principle concerns. It argued that ”Tis not the orders in Council, ’tis not the threats or power of Buonaparte, that have, or can ruin the Trade of these Counties. No! the evil arises from a far different source; ’tis in the manufactory itself; ’tis in speculating, unprincipled individuals that have made fraudulent goods, to cheat and rob the Public’ (Emsley 155-156). Only a decade earlier, many textile workers had still enjoyed the position of craftsmen and skilled workmen, but, with the changes in the industry, that position was rapidly being reduced to naught. Independents had become dependent on manufacturers and craftsmen no longer enjoyed the esteem that that their skill had formerly ensured. The Nottinghamshire petition stressed quality in that quality required craftsmen and provided those craftsmen with employment, secure wages, privilege, pride and identity. It was the Nottinghamshire petitioners reasoning that quality would ensure both workers and trade from speculation and ruination; however, this opinion was not shared by the neither manufacturers nor the authorities. Quality was unaffordable; trade must flow.

The organisation of the frame-breakers

‘ … workers found themselves with the option of either taking less work, requiring less skill and being paid lower wages, or with taking action’

Robert Reid (Reid 58-59)

 

During the few years between 1809 and the recession of 1811, looms, gig mills and shearing frames appeared throughout the country at a rate unseen before. There were strikes and sporadic cases of threats and violence, but the bubble didn’t burst until 1811. It commenced in February in Nottinghamshire with the simple sabotage of the jack-wires in a workshop in the village of Arnold. The idea took on, however, and nightly raids and sabotage became exceedingly frequent, extending not only to workshops, but also to houses. It culminated in March when a large riot in Nottingham compelled the local militia to intervene and it was not until the Home office had dispatched regular infantry and cavalry to the riotous area and more than 200 stocking-frames had been destroyed that things quieted down again. This was in April.

In November the disturbances broke out again: this time the attacks on frames were systematic in the form of raids carried out with almost military precision and discipline by masked men armed with axes, heavy hammers, and firearms. Threats were made against Masters and manufacturers who would not comply to the Nottinghamshire frame-breakers’ demands. The demands made by these men were following: regulations on wages, apprenticeships, truck payments and the quality of products.

“General Ludd” first made his appearance during this period: on the night of the 10th of November 1811 a group of (some accounts tell of as many as seventy) men arrived at the residence of Edward Hollingworth who kept a considerable number of frames. Hollingworth had anticipated the raid and barricaded himself within the building, armed and ready to defend his property. It was much to his surprise to see how organized the frame-breakers proceeded: look-out guards were placed about the house whilst the remaining force moved in formation toward the building. When a section of the group commenced to break down the doors, he opened fire – the fire was returned. The frame-breakers succeeded in breaking and entering and whilst a couple supervised Hollingworth the remaining set about to destroy the frames. The Luddites were specific and discriminant in their destruction; only the frames which knitted the broad, cheap cloth were destroyed – the others were left untouched.

The disturbances and raids in Nottinghamshire continued into February 1812. A number of reasons can be recognized for the cessation of activities: 1) partial success in carrying out demands; 2) the introduction of a bill that made frame-breaking a capital offence; 3) massive introduction of troops and special constables in the area; 4) faith in Gravener Henson and his political efforts. The degree in which Henson was involved in the frame-breaking has been much discussed – no evidence, however, indicates him. Whether the frame-breakers of Nottinghamshire consisted of one or several groups is also a matter yet to be ascertained – their systematic raids will suggest, however, that they commanded an efficient network within the county.

In early 1812, the destruction of machinery extended to Lancashire. Here, on the other hand, Luddism expressed itself mostly in form of urban unrest and riots, many arranged aforehand with the objective to pressure the authorities to adjust conditions. There were provision riots led by “General Ludd’s wives” and frequent confrontations with local militia and the military which was quickly deployed in the area. Threats of “Reform or Death” were put to manufacturers who employed cheap labour, but few threats were genuine. Cases of frame-breaking in Lancashire were almost exclusively in context with the riots, but, like in Nottinghamshire, this destruction was not random nor the result of a riot gone wild; the machines targeted were exclusively those which were considered of the greatest threat to the weavers, i.e. the steam-looms. This suggests that the frame-breaking was planned in connection to the riots and that those who arranged the riots and those who carried out the destruction of machines were in collusion, perhaps the same.

Little warning was given to the manufacturers of West Riding when in January 1812, seemingly out of the blue, the systematic destruction of gig mills and shearing frames commenced. To the magistrates’ alarm, numerous reports poured in telling of large workmen’s gatherings in pubs and companies of armed men in the fields. Informers spoke of the impending threat of a massive rebellion and Freemason-like organisations with oaths of fight and loyalty to the death. Most of this was at first attributed to tall tales and hearsay, but soon the authorities became painfully aware that there existed a well-organised and determined force of men prepared to go to great lengths to bring by the achievement of their goals – even acts of lethal violence against their fellow men. The West Riding Luddites proved that they were ready to carry out their threats: several manufacturers were assaulted and on April 28th William Horsfall took several bullets and subsequently died. Not only manufacturers received threats from “General Ludd”; also magistrates had their share. Joseph Radcliffe, the magistrate most persistent in the work to apprehend the Luddites, was the victim of vandalism and several attempts were made at his life.

The management of the disturbances by the authorities

‘I believe that a system of terror prevails and that we are shutting our eyes to an evil, small in amount, but serious in its nature, from the dread of trying totally to extirpate it’

Lt General Thomas Maitland (Reid 202)

 

In order to curb the Luddite unrest, 12,000 soldiers were deployed in Nottinghamshire, West Riding and Lancashire during the summer and autumn of 1812 – a greater force than that led by Sir Arthur Wellesley at the landing in Portugal in 1809. The government’s policy was clear: force would bring by the end of Luddism, not negotiation.

Lord Byron, who sympathised with the conditions of the textile workers, was resolved to promote measures that could alleviate their predicament rather than enforce their repression. What Byron didn’t know was that whilst he was gathering statistics for his maiden speech, the Cabinet had devised a bill that would make frame-breaking a capital offence, punishable by death, and which would force those on whose property frames were broken to become informers. It was a well-kept secret right until its announcement on February 14th 1812 in the House of Commons where, despite some opposition, it passed at the third reading and was sent to the Lords on February 20th. Byron chose to speak on the second reading in the House of Lords, on February 27th, launching a direct attack on the inhumanity and injustice of the bill, wholly on the side of ‘the wretched mechanic, famished into guilt’ (Marchand,1957 321). As a consequence to his speech – much complimented by prominent members of the Whig opposition – he came to sit on the committee that modified the bill, replacing the death penalty with fine or imprisonment. The amendment was, however, quite repudiated by the Commons in March and the bill, in its original form, was carried through.

I have already given reasons to the end of the Luddite activities in Nottinghamshire. In the proceeds against the Lancashire and West Riding Luddites, other and heavier measures were taken: Lt. General Thomas Maitland was called in to deal with matters and manage the veritable army that by now had been administered to the rebellious areas. Also one J.S.Lloyd, a young lawyer, was employed to unravel any Luddite conspiracy he might find in the area. Lloyd, who had had previous experience in the extracting of information concerning working class organizations as well as having been employed by the Bank of England as a catcher of forgers, set to work forming a net of paid spies. He did not leave all to spies and informants; he and his confederate, Captain Francis Raynes, were often to be found in the midst of the disturbances. Aided by their information, Maitland’s forces were able to quell riots before they had commenced and intercept the frame-breakers before they had completed their mission of destruction – thus Lancashire was subdued.

In Yorkshire, however, matters were more severe. Maitland told his second-in-command: ‘… the general disposition here is a feeling of fear, that renders the military necessary, but at the same time there exists a feeling of detestation against us that makes its appearance ever in the middle of the fears’. Maitland was not blind to the desperate state of the workers in the area and understood their reasons for outrage; ‘So long as the price of manufacturing labour is so low, and that of provisions so high, we must still contemplate with a considerable degree of anxiety the result of the present winter’ (Reid 222). He was sitting on the proverbial powder keg. His sympathies notwithstanding, he resolved to deal with the Yorkshire Luddites as speedily as possible and with full force if need be. Magistrates and manufacturers, as well as workers who were not committed to their ranks, were held in a grip of threats and terror by the Yorkshire Luddites. It was difficult to find informers. Neither the making a capital offence of frame-breaking nor the presence of Maitland’s forces appeared to lessen the Luddites’ determination.

It was Lloyd, however, who brought by the apprehension of the ringleaders – with less finesse, certainly, than he had in Lancashire, namely with the use of both psychological and physical pressure upon both captive and suspected Luddites as well as their victims and intimidated fellow workers. Aided by the information extracted by Lloyd, the authorities finally identified, pursued and captured the leaders of the West Riding Luddites. In January 1813, the leaders were accused, tried and convicted for the murder of Horsfall. Deprived of their dynamic leadership, the remaining Yorkshire Luddites slunk into the shadows and laid their hammers to rest.

By 1816 the national economy was restored, the Orders in Council having been revoked in regard to American vessels in June 1812; wages rose and foodstuff was to be had for reasonable prices; unemployment decreased, but the machines were there to stay.

Epilogue

Were the Luddites a revolutionary threat? Neither the home secretary in office in 1809-12 nor Lt General Maitland believed that Luddism was involved with anything more than industrial disputes within the textile trade.

That Luddism was involved with “nothing more” than disputes within the textile industry would be the conclusion of this essay also; the cause of the Luddites was not political on a national scale, but was based in local and trade specific grievances. Locally, they did, however, pose a threat, but, being local, that threat was contained. General, but not active, sympathy with the Luddites was expressed by workers in other fields; the propertied classes sided with the government and the troops that were sent into the riotous areas remained loyal. Had all the discontented textile workers gathered under one banner, however, this may have had severe repercussions, including in other areas of industry, but they did not. While the Manchester petitioners suggested that the government was “unfit”, and many textile workers were displeased with the government, the majority notwithstanding continued to look to negotiation as the soundest means to improve their conditions, as the continued flux of petitions, even during the Luddite disturbances, is indicative of. The petitions also show how the textile workers organized themselves generally; the natural consequence was that those belonging to the same status and branch of the trade and from the same region would gather and form independent groups to bring about the improvement of their specific situation and trade, rather than organize on a national scale, bridging the gap between professions and regions, with a common purpose in mind.

Interestingly, the authorities looked with most anxiety upon the unrest in Lancashire – the area least notable of organised frame-breaking. The provision rioters represented not specifically weavers, or hosiers, but a cross-section of the industrial workers, and their families. This implied solidarity across professions and position. What the authorities appear to have been most unnerved by were the attempts at trade unionism in the years before the Luddite disturbances. That the Yorkshire croppers had been able to raise £10,000 to promote their case was considered the expression of the power and wealth of a potentially dangerous political group.

An alternate threat posed by the Luddites, other than a revolution of national proportion, is, however, more frightening: their use of organised and contained violence and destruction to bring by their aims. Seemingly, they found it to be a legitimate means of pressure and protest. That violence should become a political weapon in itself and be accepted as such bears an element of unmistakable perilous dimension – had the Luddites succeeded in their demands with the use of such means, what could it not have meant for the future of industrial protest? Also the Luddites’, in particular the West Riding Luddites’, general disregard of law and order put the authorities at risk – had the disturbances extended for much longer than they did, it could well have meant a loss of credibility and respect – as reflected in the crime wave which accompanied Luddism.

The term “Luddite” remains in our vocabulary and is used to this day to define rigid resistance towards mechanization; it is this legacy from the Luddites that has endured. It is used disparagingly about those who reject or obstruct progress out of ignorance, obstinacy or regression and often associated with fury or rage. A distorted legacy: progress as such was not what the Luddites were concerned about, but their survival, and the depreciation of their labour, their skill, the fruits of their labour, and their status.

Today, fear of revolution and its inherent instabilities has been replaced by the fear of mechanized progress and its inherent instabilities. The link between capitalist economy and mechanization has been confirmed; their combined progress no longer affects specialized or regional areas alone, but has gone global. Efficiency, volume and competition set the tone; value, meaning and quality are secondary concerns. What alarmed the Luddites is today everywhere. Contemporary philosophers identify in us the dream of revolution that might overthrow the hegemony of capitalist economy and corporate and industrial dominance. Since 1812 we have undergone a reversal. Lord Byron’s recommendation, in his letter to Lord Holland in February 1812; ‘Surely, my Lord, however we may rejoice in any improvement in the arts which may be beneficial to mankind; we must not allow mankind to be sacrificed to improvements in Mechanism’ (Marchand, 1973 165), is as relevant now as it was then.

It is tempting to transfer contemporary anxieties and ideological and social concerns onto the Luddites. How, given the chance, would they respond to our post-industrial society? With amazement? Horror? Or picked up their hammers?

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Copyright © 1996, 2010, 2014, 2015 Kirstin Sørensen

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