The Luddites

Preface • PrologueThe advance of machineryThe predicament of the manufacturersThe situation of the textile workersThe organisation of the frame-breakers • The management of the disturbances by the authorities • EpilogueBibliography


The management of the disturbances by the authorities

I believe that a system of terror prevails and that we are shutting our eyes
to an evil, small in amount, but serious in its nature,
from the dread of trying totally to extirpate it
Lt General Thomas Maitland (Reid 202)

In order to curb the Luddite unrest, 12,000 soldiers were deployed in Nottinghamshire, West Riding and Lancashire during the summer and autumn of 1812 – a greater force than that led by Sir Arthur Wellesley during the landing in Portugal in 1809. The government’s policy was clear: force would bring about the end of Luddism, not negotiation.

Lord Byron, who sympathised with the conditions of the textile workers, was resolved to promote measures that would alleviate their predicament rather than enforce their oppression. What Byron didn’t know was that whilst he was gathering statistics for his maiden speech, the Cabinet had devised a bill that would make frame-breaking a capital offence, punishable by death, and which would force those on whose property frames were broken to become informers. It was a well-kept secret right until its announcement on February 14th 1812 in the House of Commons where, despite opposition, it passed at the third reading and was sent to the Lords on February 20th. Byron chose to speak on the second reading in the House of Lords, on February 27th, launching a direct attack on the inhumanity and injustice of the bill, wholly on the side of ‘the wretched mechanic, famished into guilt’ (Marchand, Byron 321). As a consequence to his speech – much complimented by prominent members of the Whig opposition – he came to sit on the committee that modified the bill, replacing the death penalty with fine or imprisonment. The amendment was, however, quite repudiated by the Commons in March and the bill, in its original form, was carried through.

Nottinghamshire was subdued first. The disturbances and raids continued into February 1812, after which they quickly died out. A number of reasons can be identified for the cessation of activities: 1) a partial success in demands; 2) the passing of the bill that made frame-breaking a capital offence, which notably coincided with the end of Luddite disturbances in Nottinghamshire; 3) the massive introduction of troops and special constables in the area that followed in its wake; 4) faith in Gravener Henson and his political efforts. The Nottinghamshire textile workers had in Henson something, which the Lancashire and Yorkshire Luddites did not; a leading, public figure, who, as he later would claim, urged reason, patience, and observance of the law. No shadowy “General Ludd”, even if he was, more than once, suspected of being one and the same.

The Lancashire and West Riding Luddites were more intransigent. Lt. General Thomas Maitland was called in to deal with matters and manage the veritable army that by the summer of 1812 had been administered to the rebellious areas. Also one J. S. Lloyd, a young lawyer, was employed to unravel and root out any Luddite conspiracy he might find. They began their efforts in Lancashire. Lloyd, who had had previous experience in the extracting of information concerning working class organisations as well as having been employed by the Bank of England as a catcher of forgers, set to work forming a net of paid spies. He did not leave all to spies and informants; he and his confederate, Captain Francis Raynes, were often to be found in the midst of the disturbances. Aided by their information, Maitland’s forces were able to quell riots before they had commenced and intercept the frame-breakers before they had completed their mission of destruction. Thus Lancashire was subdued.

In Yorkshire, however, matters were more severe. Maitland told his second-in-command: ‘… the general disposition here is a feeling of fear, that renders the military necessary, but at the same time there exists a feeling of detestation against us that makes its appearance ever in the middle of the fears’. Maitland was not blind to the desperate state of the workers in the area and understood their reasons for outrage; ‘So long as the price of manufacturing labour is so low, and that of provisions so high, we must still contemplate with a considerable degree of anxiety the result of the present winter’ (Reid 222). He was sitting on the proverbial powder keg. His sympathies notwithstanding, he resolved to deal with the Yorkshire Luddites as speedily as possible and with full force if need be. Magistrates and manufacturers, as well as workers who were not committed to their ranks, were held in a grip of threats and terror by the Yorkshire Luddites. It was difficult to find informers. Neither making frame-breaking a capital offence nor the presence of Maitland’s forces had weakened the Yorkshire Luddites’ determination.

It was Lloyd who brought by the apprehension of the ringleaders – with less finesse, certainly, than he had in Lancashire, namely with the use of both psychological and physical pressure upon both captive and suspected Luddites as well as their victims and intimidated fellow workers. Aided by the information extracted by Lloyd, the authorities finally identified, pursued and captured the ringleaders of the West Riding Luddites. In January 1813, the leaders were accused, tried and convicted for the murder of Horsfall. Deprived of their dynamic leadership, the remaining Yorkshire Luddites slunk into the shadows and laid their hammers to rest.

By 1816 the national economy was restored, the Orders in Council having been revoked in regard to American vessels in June 1812; wages rose and foodstuff was to be had for reasonable prices; unemployment decreased, but the machines were there to stay.


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

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