The Luddites

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

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, History 458)

The turn of the nineteenth century witnessed an overflow of mechanical ingenuity within the textile industry. This had significant consequences for the situation of the textile workers. Increasingly efficient machinery not only saved labour and increased production at lower costs, but also allowed the admittance of 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 and whatever conditions the manufacturers dictated. Craftsmen became knob-turners. Independents became wage slaves.

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 cloth which smoothens its surface and gives it its final individual character. It would be these four 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. 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) took 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 a freedom that the regulated factory workers could not, but by 1810 they had been outmanoeuvred by the greater production and lower prices of the manufacturers. The factory workers and those employed by Masters felt the effects 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, History 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 on 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 Luddite 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, Famous 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 18 men and 6 boys, thus rendering the work of 21 individuals unwanted. Similarly, the shearing frame saved the amount of labour required and could crop in 18 hours what would take a skilled cropper using hand shears 88 hours to perform, and, in addition, 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; in 1806 no less than 3,378 croppers were employed throughout Yorkshire, but in 1817 only 1,445 were partially employed and 1,170 were not employed at all.

Early on, the gig mill operators and the croppers had recognised 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, forcing Yorkshire manufacturers to maintain backward procedures. 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 half their numbers unwanted; technology and an unstable economy meant that they no longer could pressure their employers by threatening to strike or handing in their notice.

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

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