Much maligned, almost a byword for backwardness, the Luddites were in fact fighting for their livelihoods and self-respect at a time when trade unions were virtually illegal…
Luddite machine breaking began in 1811 in the hosiery districts of the Midlands counties. Framework-knitting traditionally had been carried out in workers’ homes, though the frames belonged to the employers. Trouble arose around the making of new, cheap “cut up” hosiery and the use of a new wide frame that reduced the numbers of workers employed and also produced shoddier goods. More and more factories began installing machinery and increasingly handloom weavers were thrown out of work.
The mill owners in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire suddenly began receiving letters threatening the destruction of their machines. These proclamations were signed in the name of Ned Ludd, or sometimes General Ludd and his Army of Redressers. Threats did not remain idle but were translated into physical action. Under cover of darkness and in a disciplined manner, bands of men attacked mills and factories with a military precision to destroy the mechanical looms (‘frames’) that were cutting their wages and putting them out of work.
|A still-working spinning mule at Quarry Bank Mill, Cheshire. The introduction of power looms massively increased the supply of cotton yarn, undermining the traditional livelihoods of the handloom weavers.|
In Nottingham over a three-week period in March 1811, more than two hundred stocking frames were destroyed by workers upset by wage reductions and the use of un-apprenticed workmen. Several attacks took place every night and 400 special constables were enrolled to protect the factories; even £50 rewards (a phenomenal sum for the time) were offered for information.
Action against machines quickly spread north to Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire, and into Leicestershire. Contemporary accounts indicate that bands of machine-breakers were huge, numbering hundreds or sometimes thousands of people. Unlike the Midlands, the offending machines in the cotton and woollen industries of the northern counties were chiefly to be found in factories rather than workers’ houses, hence under the direct protection of employers’ hired guards, which led to more violent, often less successful acts.
In Yorkshire in the 1810s, the croppers – a highly skilled group of workers who produced the cloth’s fine finish – turned their anger on the new shearing frames.
Their most notable attack took place at Rawfolds Mill near Brighouse in April 1812. Two croppers and a local mill-owner lost their lives; three croppers were transported and fourteen were hanged. In February and March 1812, factories were attacked in Huddersfield, Halifax, Wakefield and Leeds. Throughout 1812, activity also centred on Lancashire cotton mills where local handloom weavers objected to the introduction of power looms.
Thousands of troops
In an attempt to control these widespread Luddite manoeuvres, there were in 1812 as many as twelve thousand troops deployed by the government in the four northern counties – more troops than Wellington had available in Spain that year to fight Napoleon’s armed forces! Luddites met at night on the moors surrounding the industrial towns, where they rallied, manoeuvred and drilled their forces. They enjoyed, particularly in the early years, extensive popular support in the immediate community.
Luddism was not the first example of attacks on new machinery in Britain. Sporadic machine breaking had occurred long before the Luddites, particularly within the textiles industry. Indeed, Hargreaves and Arkwright had had to move to Nottinghamshire, away from open animosity in Lancashire. But the industrial revolution by this time was adding to the misery and causing the movement. Bad housing, employment of women and children at cheap rates, insanitary and unsafe conditions in factories and mines, and the replacement of labour by machines all played their part in the distressed state of the people. The ongoing Napoleonic Wars also added to their desperate plight when Napoleon’s blockade prevented British manufacturers and traders from selling their goods, having a destructive effect on the cotton industry.
Employers cut wage bills, workers were sacked and machines were made more use of. In addition, there was a series of bad harvests (1808-12). Food prices rocketed and food riots broke out in 1812 in places like Manchester, Oldham, Ashton, Rochdale, Stockport and Macclesfield. (A load of potatoes could cost twenty weeks wages.) Great economic distress subjected workers to “the most unexampled privations”. From being among the most prosperous of workers, handloom weavers quite suddenly found themselves facing destitution.
The government introduced a series of repressive measures to deal with the Luddites. The Frame Breaking Bill (1812) made the destruction of machinery punishable by death. Trials of suspected Luddites were held before judges who could be relied upon to hand down harsh sentences. Several dozen Luddites were hanged or transported to penal servitude in Australia. The spy system was reintroduced. The Anti-Combination Act (1799), under which trade unions were forbidden, remained in force. No wonder Luddism was characterised by one historian as “collective bargaining by riot”.
Despite the repression, further sporadic incidents occurred in subsequent years. In 1816, there was a revival of machine breaking following a bad harvest and a trade downturn. 53 frames were smashed in Loughborough. But by 1818 machine breaking had petered out.
It is fashionable to stigmatise the Luddites as mindless blockers of progress. But they were motivated by an innate sense of self-preservation, rather than a fear of change. The prospect of poverty and hunger spurred them on. Their aim was to make an employer (or set of employers) come to terms in a situation where unions were illegal. They wanted to protect a centuries-old, craft-based way of life that gave them livelihood and self-respect. Frames were left untouched in premises where the owners were still obeying previous economic practice and not trying to cut prices.
At times the Luddites did improve real wages. Luddism was a deliberate tactic employed by a self-acting, self-organising working class grappling with many desperate problems during industrial capitalism’s harsh autocratic beginnings.