The Luddites

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


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, Famous 165)

As the livelihood of the manufacturers and Masters were threatened, so was that of the workers. Unemployment, due to failing businesses 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, Byron 321). A Yorkshire textile worker, the father of five, 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 them against speculation and mechanisation, especially the setting of wage rates and restrictions on the number of machines and apprenticeships permitted each Master or manufacturer. Manufacturers campaigned also, their petitions 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 and the conditions under which they were employed. 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, but it also strikes a remarkable moral note. The preservation of quality was among its principle points. 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). The Nottinghamshire petition not only stressed quality in that quality required craftsmen and provided those craftsmen with employment, secure wages, pride and identity, but expressed fear of the consequences, overall, should quality give way to quantity and ruthless profit. What kind of values would such practice encourage? What else might give way? It was the Nottinghamshire petitioners’ reasoning that preserving quality would protect the workers, the trade and the nation alike from speculation and ruination; however, this opinion was shared by the neither manufacturers nor the authorities. Quality was unaffordable; trade must flow.


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

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