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Luddism

LUDDISM

The Luddites were early-nineteenth-century English machine-breakers, so named after their mythical leader, Ned (later "King" or "General") Ludd, who according to legend smashed the needles of a stocking-frame in Anstey in Leicestershire sometime in or around 1779. Essentially an expression of working-class resistance to industrial technology, Luddism proper began on 11 March 1811, when a crowd of stockingers—hosiery knitters—destroyed some sixty-three frames in the small town of Arnold in Nottinghamshire. From there the violence spread to neighboring Derbyshire and Leicestershire and assumed the characteristics of an insurrectionary movement: pseudonymous letters, torchlit raids, secrecy, and oath-taking. There was the occasional riot and the occasional injury or even loss of life. But for the most part, the Luddites reserved their fury for the machines that in their minds threatened their artisanal independence and way of life. They did not destroy machinery randomly or wantonly. Rather, they targeted those specific master hosiers who either charged excessive rents for the stocking frames or unscrupulously adapted them to the purpose of mass, low-quality production. To that extent, Luddism at its origin was less about machinery per se than its fair and responsible use; it was a movement in defense of traditional standards of employment and production.

After a lull through the summer of 1811, Luddism revived strongly across the Midland counties in November. Some 250 frames were destroyed in November and December, and another 300 in January 1812 alone. By now the authorities were seriously alarmed and suspected some sort of seditious French connection. The prince regent issued a proclamation offering a reward of £50 for information leading to the conviction of anyone involved in machine breaking, the home secretary dispatched nine troops of cavalry and two troops of infantry to the affected region, and the government of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval (1762–1812) introduced into Parliament a bill to make frame-breaking, hitherto a minor felony, a capital offense. By the time the bill became law in March (over the furious objections of Lord Byron, among others), Luddism in Nottinghamshire had largely died away.

To the north, however, in the textile districts of Lancashire and Yorkshire, Luddism still raged, and here the workers were far less particular about what they destroyed. In Leeds, an entire finishing mill went up in smoke; in Manchester, a whole warehouse stocked with machine-woven cloth. On 14 March 1812, a crowd of weavers in Stockport attacked several factories, destroyed power looms, and for good measure burned down the home of a local mill owner. The climax came on 12 April 1812, when one hundred workers attacked a strongly defended shearing mill near Huddersfield—the central incident in Charlotte Brontë's novel Shirley (1849). From this point, it becomes difficult to separate Luddism out from the general social turbulence of the time and the struggle for constitutional reform. Machine breaking continued in sporadic fashion throughout the nineteenth century. But the last explicit invocation of General Ludd's authority, the last record episode of machine breaking in the name of Ludd, came in January 1813, when fourteen stocking frames were destroyed in Nottinghamshire, where it all began.

Extract of a threatening letter from "Ned Ludd" to "Mr. Smith Shearing Frame Holder at Hill End Yorkshire," reproduced in W. B. Crump, ed., The Leeds Woollen Industry (Leeds, 1931), p. 229:

Sir. Information has just been given in that you are a holder of those detestable Shearing Frames, and I was desired by my Men to write to you and give you fair warning to pull them down, and for that purpose I desire you will now understand I am now writing to you. You will take Notice that if they are not taken down by the end of next week, I will detach one of my Lieutenants with at least 300 Men to destroy them and furthermore take Notice that if you give us the Trouble of coming so far we will increase your misfortune by burning your Buildings down to Ashes and if you have Impudence to fire upon any of my Men, they have orders to murder you, & burn all your Housing, you will have the Goodness to your Neighbours to inform them that the same fate awaits them if their Frames are not speedily taken down as I understand there are several in your Neighbourhood, Frame holders. …

Signed by the General of the Army of Redressers
Ned Ludd Clerk
Redressers for ever Amen.

What the Luddites had achieved is difficult to say. They had destroyed about £100,000 worth of machinery and delayed briefly the advent of the industrial age in a few isolated places. Their more lasting achievement, though, was to have made so enduring an impression on history that to this day technological skeptics describe themselves as Luddites. Luddite has become, that is to say, a generic term for anyone doubtful of the social benefits of innovative technology. Historians, meanwhile, continue to argue over the scope and bearing of the original revolt. Where one sees pointless physical violence and blind vandalism, another sees "collective bargaining by riot." Where one sees a reactionary hankering after the lost village community, another sees a progressive struggle for industrial democracy. The Luddites themselves, unfortunately, left no tracts or manifestos behind: the question of their ultimate intention will never be resolved. But in the evidence of their actions we discern, at the very least, a historically compelling refusal to submit to the arbitrary tyranny of the machine.

See alsoCaptain Swing; Industrial Revolution, First; Machine Breaking.

bibliography

Hammond, J. L., and Barbara Hammond. The Skilled Labourer, 1760–1832. London, 1919.

Hobsbawm, Eric. "The Machine-Breakers." In Labouring Men. London, 1964.

Thomis, Malcolm I. The Luddites: Machine-Breaking in Regency England. Newton Abbott, U.K., 1970.

Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. London, 1963.

Stewart Weaver

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