The Luddites

Preface • PrologueThe advance of machineryThe predicament of the manufacturersThe situation of the textile workersThe organisation of the frame-breakersThe management of the disturbances by the authorities • Epilogue • Bibliography


Were the Luddites a revolutionary threat? Neither the home secretary in office in 1809-12 nor Lt General Maitland believed that Luddism was involved with anything more than industrial disputes within the textile trade.

That Luddism was involved with “nothing more” than disputes within the textile industry would be the conclusion of this essay also; the cause of the Luddites was not political on a national scale, but was based in local and trade specific grievances. Locally, they did, however, pose a threat, but, being local, that threat was contained. General, but not active, sympathy with the Luddites was expressed by workers in other fields; the propertied classes sided with the government and the troops that were sent into the riotous areas remained loyal. Had all the discontented textile workers gathered under one banner, however, this could have had severe repercussions, including in other areas of industry, but they did not. While the Manchester petitioners suggested that the government was “unfit”, and many textile workers were displeased with the government, the majority notwithstanding continued to look to negotiation as the soundest means to improve their conditions, as the continued flow of petitions, even during the Luddite disturbances, is indicative of. The petitions also show how the textile workers organised themselves generally; those belonging to the same status and branch of the trade and from the same region would gather and form independent groups to bring about the improvement of their specific situation and trade, rather than organise on a national scale, bridging the gap between professions and regions, with a common purpose in mind.

Interestingly, the authorities looked with most anxiety upon the unrest in Lancashire – the area least notable of organised frame-breaking. The provision rioters were not specifically textile workers, but represented by a cross-section of industrial workers, and their families. This implied solidarity across professions and position. What the authorities appear to have been most unnerved by were the attempts at trade unionism in the years before the Luddite disturbances. That the Yorkshire croppers had been able to raise £10,000 to promote their case was considered the expression of the power and wealth of a potentially dangerous political group.

An alternate threat posed by the Luddites is, however, more frightening: their use of organised and contained violence and destruction to bring about their aims. Seemingly, they found it to be a legitimate means of pressure and protest. That violence should become a political weapon in itself bears an element of unmistakable perilous dimension – had the Luddites succeeded in their demands, with the use of such means, what could it not have meant for the future of industrial protest? Also the Luddites’, in particular the West Riding Luddites’, general disregard of law and order put the authorities at risk – had the disturbances extended for much longer than they did, it could well have meant a loss of credibility and respect – as reflected in the crime wave which accompanied Luddism.

The term “Luddite” remains in our vocabulary and is used to this day to define rigid resistance towards mechanisation; it is this legacy of the Luddites that has endured. It is used disparagingly about those who reject or obstruct progress out of ignorance or obstinacy and often associated with fury or rage. A distorted legacy: progress as such was not what ignited the Luddites’ fears and outrage, but the undermining of their livelihoods, the depreciation of their labour and the dehumanisation and the diminished freedom, status and stability that that depreciation and the accelerated mechanisation of their industry brought about.

Today, fear of revolution and its inherent instabilities has been replaced by the fear of mechanised progress and its inherent instabilities. The link between capitalist economy and mechanisation has been confirmed; their combined progress no longer affects specialised or regional areas alone, but has gone global. Efficiency, volume and profit set the tone; value, meaning and quality are secondary concerns. What alarmed the Luddites is today everywhere. Contemporary philosophers identify in us the dream of revolution that might overthrow the hegemony of capitalist economy and corporate and industrial dominance. Since 1812 we have undergone a reversal. Lord Byron’s recommendation, in his letter to Lord Holland in February 1812; ‘Surely, my Lord, however we may rejoice in any improvement in the arts which may be beneficial to mankind; we must not allow mankind to be sacrificed to improvements in Mechanism’ (Marchand, Famous 165), is as relevant now as it was then.

It is tempting to transfer contemporary anxieties and ideological and social concerns onto the Luddites. How, given the chance, would they respond to our post-industrial society? With amazement? Horror? Or picked up their hammers?

May 1996

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

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