The word Luddite has entered the vocabulary to denote an attitude of stubborn resistance to change an innovation. But the original Luddites were not ignorant, indiscriminate despoilers. They were skilled men who attacked specific targets. Nor was machine-breaking a new phenomenon. Spinning jennies, water-frames and carding engines were all attacked in Lancashire in the 1770s. Gig mills (left) and shearing frames were attacked at the same time by ‘croppers’ or ‘shearmen’ (raised and cut level the nap of woollen cloth) in the west of England. In 1804 French weavers attacked the Jacquard loom in Lyons.
The phenomenon of Luddism needs to be set against the crisis years 1811-12: economic hardship, disillusionment at the Regent’s failure to dismiss his Tory ministers, War of 1812 with the United States. The peak of Luddite activity coincided with an alarming rise in bread prices.
The Luddite movement can be said to have begun in 1811 when the first anonymous threatening letter bearing the pseudonym of Ned Ludd was received by a Nottinghamshire employer. The Nottingham Review referred for the first time to the framework knitters who had destroyed stocking frames since March 1811 as Luddites. The origins of the term in East Midlands folklore are obscure, but it has been claimed that the term derived from a Leicestershire youth named Ludlam, who had angrily smashed the needles of his stocking frame some years earlier. Variations of the pseudonym during the period 1811 to 1816 included Captain Ned Ludd, General Ludd, King Ludd and even Lady Ludd.
Luddism has been seen an indigenous working-class movement that developed independently of the leaders of popular radicalism. In each area the issues were different, but all concerned threats to the status and living standards of artisans, owing partly to an overstocking of the labour market and partly to the introduction of machines of manufacturing techniques which devalued their skills. They did not speak spoke not for the whole working class but for the skilled workers trying to maintain differentials.
There was little scope for legal protest. The Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 had banned ‘combinations’ of workers on pain of imprisonment. Contrary to what was formerly believed, they did not mark a radical change of policy, as combinations of workers had been regularly banned during the eighteenth century. Their context had something to do with free-market ideology, but also the anti-Jacobin panic of those years. The Acts did not prevent the spread of trade unionism and when they were repealed in 1824 it was not because the government had changed its mind but because they were seen to be ineffectual, merely alienating workers. ‘Paradoxically, unions of skilled workers gained strength during twenty-five years of blanket illegality.’ This was partly because the war offered opportunity for many craft workers to put pressure on their employers and force up wages: eg the wave of strikes by west of England woollen workers and London shipwrights in 1802.
1. The East Midlands
The Luddite disturbances began and lasted longest in the hosiery and lace trades of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, trades which relied heavily on exports. The framework knitting trades had been hard hit by the closure of the American market to British goods. But there were also older grievances concerning the production of cheap ‘cut-up’ stockings by unskilled labour on wide stocking-frames which threatened the respectability of their trade and increased the threat of dilution. They also fought against wage-cuts in a shrinking market.
From November1811 to February 1812 groups of well-disciplined masked men smashed the 60 frames in Arnold, belonging to the hosiers who refused to comply with their demands. In November the attacks spread into Derbyshire and Leicestershire. The attacks ceased early in 1812 probably because the men were partly successful in forcing hosiers to comply with their demands for better wages. But by this time c. 1,000 lace and stocking frames had been destroyed.
Meanwhile a bill to make frame-breaking a capital offence was making steady progress through parliament. It became law in February in spite of a powerful speech by Byron. 2,000 troops and special constables were sent into the area - the largest ever sent to quell a local grievance.
2. The West Riding
By January 1812 the machine-breaking had spread to Yorkshire. The Yorkshire protest had a much more violent tone. Here croppers resisted the introduction of shearing frames and gig mills by manufacturers anxious to make long-term economies and to break the monopoly of woollen cloth finishing exercised by no more than 5,000 highly skilled outworkers. By no means all manufacturers could afford the new machines and the targets were therefore easily selected.
The croppers trimmed or shaved the woollen cloth after it had been woven and fulled. The skills of these men, after several years’ apprenticeship, lay in neatly cutting off the nap of the cloth, using giant shears that weighed up to 60lb. It was known that in cropping or dressing a piece of cloth, they could double the value of the material. They were highly paid - they could earn up to 25/- a week - and could have savings of up to £100. They were the aristocrats of the labour market with a reputation for independence.
The gig mill (left) had been banned by legislation dating from the time of Edward VI. It was quite a simple invention - instead of the nap being raised by hand, the cloth was passed between cylinders set with teazles.
The shearing frame (right) was a device by which shears set in a frame could be passed over the surface of the cloth. An unskilled man and a boy could do in a day what it took a skilled cropper a week to do.
January 1812 Forster’s cloth mill in Wakefield was destroyed in an arson attack. Following this groups of between 30 and 50 men organised in companies and equipped with muskets, pistols, pikes, hammers and hatchets were involved in a spate of daring late-night raids on small workshops around Huddersfield, resulting in the destruction of 40 shearing frames and three gig mills.
In April, there were large-scale attacks on mills at Horbury near Wakefield and on William Cartwright’s mill at Rawfolds near Cleckheaton. Cartwright is the origin of Gerard Moore in Shirley. The failure of the second attack left two Luddites mortally wounded. This marked a turning point in the history of Yorkshire Luddism, which entered a more violent phase when William Horsfall, a Huddersfield manufacturer notorious for his opposition to the Luddites was murdered on 27 April (left).
Lancashire Luddism is more difficult to disentangle, and it mixed confusingly with food rioting and political action.
In the spring of 1812 power looms were attacked by handloom weavers but the number of these expensive and unreliable machines was not large until the 1820s and the threat was much less immediate than to the croppers. Another aspect of Lancashire Luddism can be seen in the attack on Burton’s power-weaving factory at Middleton, when colliers from Hollingwood who had assembled in the Oldham market place and forced the sale of food at ‘traditional’ prices, then took themselves off to the factory. Here they were fired on and five rioters were killed. The next day the manufacturer’s house was burned to the ground.
The end of Luddism
In January 1813 a special judicial commission sat at York castle. 24 men were found guilty, some for the murder of Horsfall, some for administering illegal oaths, some for smashing machines. 17 were executed, 3 in one session, 14 in another, hanged from two beams. The crowds were sombre and silent. The rest were transported for seven years. Luddism was broken. New machines were introduced. The number of skilled croppers in the Leeds area dropped from 1700 to barely a handful in 5 years.
The meaning of Luddism
If Luddism is seen as simply an economic phenomenon then it was a failure. The decline of the framework knitters, handloom weavers and croppers was inevitable. These skilled workers were being priced out of the market and their place was taken by women and unskilled men.
There is no doubt that there was local support for the Luddites. In the summer and autumn of 1812, 12,000 soldiers were in the disturbed areas, but they still remained hidden. The local landed gentry, who disliked the manufacturers, were often sympathetic.
Was Luddism a vital stage in the emergence of working-class consciousness as E. P. Thompson has argued?
‘Luddism must be seen as arising at the crisis-point in the abrogation of paternalist legislation, and in the imposition of the political economy of laissez faire upon, and against the will and conscience of, the working people.’ (The Making of the English Working Class, p. 594)Was it an alternative political tradition? An organised conspiracy against industrial capitalism? Or was it a purely industrial dispute?
It is very difficult to obtain evidence of conspiracy. By definition conspiracies are secret, and the reports of spies and agents provocateurs. Luddites were not typical working men and the movement did not outlast the economic crisis which brought it to life. As conditions improved in 1813 it faded away (though there was a brief reappearance in the East Midlands in 1814).