The Luddites

Preface • Prologue • The advance of machineryThe predicament of the manufacturersThe situation of the textile workersThe organisation of the frame-breakersThe management of the disturbances by the authoritiesEpilogueBibliography


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” or “King Ludd” became a favourite 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. While they did have general concerns and grievances in common, Luddite activities were characterized by distinct regional and occupational variations. No evidence has yet come forth that suggests any interregional co-ordination, communications or organisation between the frame-breakers.

The frame-breakers operated in three different regions; in southern Lancashire and along the Cheshire border, in the East Midlands, the Nottingham area in particular, 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 in that they exclusively targeted for destruction the machines which threatened their respective professions.

Aside from the occupational variations, there was at the turn of the nineteenth century also a great difference in the status of textile workers and the conditions under which they were employed: some were employed by manufacturers in factories, others by Masters, who presided over local workshops, 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, whereas the provincial workers were frequently domestic independents and journeymen and in general enjoyed more stable conditions and greater freedom than their urban counterparts.

Due to these regional and occupational differences, the textile workers were affected in different degree by the mechanical innovations and economic 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 independent hand-loom weavers and hosiers, domestic as well as small Masters, as the large-scale manufacturers flooded the market with their produce and 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.

© 1996, 2010, 2015, 2018, 2019 Kirstin Sørensen

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