The Luddites

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

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 (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 threats and violence, but the bubble didn’t burst until 1811.

The frame-breaking began 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 private homes. It peaked 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 frame-breaking recommenced: 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 (as many as 70, according to some accounts) 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. He was much surprised at the level of organisation and discipline with which 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 few supervised Hollingworth the remaining set about to destroy the frames. The Luddites were specific and discriminate in their destruction; only the frames which knitted the broad, cheap cloth were destroyed – the others were left untouched.

The degree to which Gravener Henson was involved in the frame-breaking has been much discussed – no evidence, however, indicates him. Throughout the Luddite disturbances, he and his followers doggedly continued to petition. 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 wanton; the machines targeted were exclusively those which were considered of the greatest threat to the weavers, i.e. the new 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 impending 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 died from his wounds. Not only manufacturers received threats from “General Ludd”; also magistrates had their share. Joseph Radcliffe, the magistrate most persistent in the effort to apprehend the Luddites, was the victim of vandalism and several attempts were made on his life.

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

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