The Plight of the Luddite

Machine Breaking and the Plight of the Luddites

During the period 1812-22, it could be said that England suffered more economically, socially and politically, than during the height of the Napoleonic Wars. The population of England and Wales had risen to 10.2 million by 1811, the rapid development of factories had seen villages become insanitary and dependent factory towns, and the system of paternalism and deference on which rural society was conducted was dying.  In February 1812 Spencer Perceval’s government, known for persecuting radical elements, proposed that machine-breaking, a form of industrial sabotage, should become a capital offence.

Despite an impassioned plea by Lord Byron in the House of Lords opposing the measure (27 February 1812), after his eye witness assessment of the situation, Parliament passed the proposed Frame Breaking Act, enabling a sentence of transportation to the penal colony of Australia, or a capital sentence , to be passed on those convicted of machine breaking. Although the sabotage was not committed kingdom-wide, it was large-scale, well-organized, meaningful, and considered a very serious threat to public contentedness by the Perceval government. Upperclass Britain was haunted by a spectre of popular uprising: the French Revolution.

HO42/119. f.135

Woman Spinning 1814 from The Costume of Yorkshire…1814 George Walker
NYPL Image ID: 1123177

The destruction of stocking frames by misguided or unbalanced mill workers had been occurring occasionally, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, since 1710. When slow witted mill worker Ned Ludd broke into an Anstey, Leicestershire mill and smashed two frames in 1779, Ludd’s image was appropriated into proletariat folklore and reinvented as a mythical king, captain or general, a mysterious, dark and romantic figure of worker championship.

The traditional trades and crafts of rural Britain were slowly being made irrelevant with the progress of the Industrial Revolution. In the past, mill and factory owners required highly skilled career laborers but by 1811 new stocking frames, cloth finishing machines and power looms were replacing traditional frames, and cheap, unapprenticed, unskilled laborers, including children, were replacing the traditionally trained workers.

Skilled workers, now being offered unskilled wages or having been made redundant altogether, began breaking into mills at night to destroy the machines. They were known as the Luddites and in 1811 the first threatening letters from General Ludd and the Army of Redressers were sent to mill owners in Nottingham. Within a three-week period over two hundred stocking frames were destroyed. In March, 1811, several attacks were taking place every night and the Nottingham authorities had to enroll four hundred special constables to protect the factories.

Over the next year Luddism spread from Nottinghamshire to Yorkshire, Lancashire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire. In Yorkshire, croppers, a small and highly skilled group of cloth finishers, turned their anger on the new shearing frame that they feared would put them out of work. In February and March, 1812, factories were attacked by Luddites in Huddersfield, Halifax, Wakefield and Leeds.

Poster advertising a reward for help in capturing Luddites in Nottinghamshire 1812
National Archives Catalogue reference: HO42/119. f.135

Upperclass fears of a public uprising grew stronger after the 11 May 1812 assassination of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval by a mentally unstable bankrupt. Though unrelated, the incident sparked crack downs on suspected radicalism. Twenty-four men were convicted under the Frame Breaking Act after an attempt to destroy Cartwright’s textile mill at Rawfold in April 1812 by hundreds of Luddites. Of the convicted, 17 suffered the death penalty at York in January 1813 and the remainder was transported to Australia as convict laborers.

The raid on Cartwright’s was the last hurrah for the Luddites. Attacks on machinery and industrialists became sporadic and by 1817 Luddism had disappeared altogether, although the sabotaging of machines did again crop up in 1830 during the ‘Swing’ Riots.  In his masterful 1963 work The Making of the English Working Class E. P. Thompson counters the view that the Luddites were thuggish. There were remarkably few Luddite arrests and executions, and yet they operated highly effectively against the forces of the state. The best explanation for this is that they were working with the consent of the local communities.

Thompson also effectively argues that Luddites were not opposed to new technology in itself, but rather to the abolition of price defined by custom and practice, and therefore also to the introduction of what we would today call the free market.

1123154 NYPL Digital Gallery

The Cloth-dresser 1813 from The Costume of Yorkshire…George Walker 1814. Image ID: 1123154 NYPL Digital Gallery

On the attack on Burton’s Mill in Middleton from the Leeds Mercury in April, 1812:

“A body of men, consisting of from one to two hundred, some of them armed with muskets with fixed bayonets, and others with colliers’ picks, who marched into the village in procession, and joined the rioters. At the head of the armed banditti a man of straw was carried, representing the renowned General Ludd whose standard bearer waved a sort of red flag.”

Lord Byron’s Speech in the House of Lords February 27th 1812

“During the short time I recently passed in Nottingham, not twelve hours elapsed without some fresh act of violence; and on that day I left the county I was informed that forty Frames had been broken the preceding evening, as usual, without resistance and without detection. Such was the state of that county, and such I have reason to believe it to be at this moment.

But whilst these outrages must be admitted to exist to an alarming extent, it cannot be denied that they have arisen from circumstances of the most unparalleled distress: the perseverance of these miserable men in their proceedings, tends to prove that nothing but absolute want could have driven a large, and once honest and industrious, body of the people, into the commission of excesses so hazardous to themselves, their families, and the community.They were not ashamed to beg, but there was none to relieve them: their own means of subsistence were cut off, all other employment preoccupied; and their excesses, however to be deplored and condemned, can hardly be subject to surprise. As the sword is the worst argument than can be used, so should it be the last. In this instance it has been the first; but providentially as yet only in the scabbard.

The present measure will, indeed, pluck it from the sheath; yet had proper meetings been held in the earlier stages of these riots, had the grievances of these men and their masters (for they also had their grievances) been fairly weighed and justly examined, I do think that means might have been devised to restore these workmen to their avocations, and tranquility to the country”

Related Topics: The ‘Swing Riots’ 1830-31

1123154 NYPL Digital Gallery

Factory Children 1814 from The Costume of Yorkshire…George Walker 1814. Image ID: 1123184 NYPL Digital Gallery

Images in this post are from the book The Costume of Yorkshire, illustrated by a series of forty engravings, being fac-similes of original drawings. With descriptions in English and French (published 1814), care of the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

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