The Luddites

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

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 ceased trade between the United States and the United Kingdom altogether. 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 part 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, resumed the non-intercourse legislation and the American market was closed once more.

The consequences of this for all areas of trade were staggering: in the summer of 1810 no less than 26 banks failed, twenty of which 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 small 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 were a drop in the ocean.

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 the option to sell their products 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 threats had been issued against manufacturers and Masters. 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.

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

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