Luddites Destroy Woolen Machines

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Luddites Destroy Woolen Machines

Great Britain 1811-1813


Enraged by job loss, low wages, exploitation, and the use of unapprenticed workers spawned by the advent of mechanization in the English textile industry, workers secretly entered factories to destroy the machines that displaced them. The Luddites (followers of the mythical Ned Ludd) were part of a decentralized, politically ambiguous, underground worker movement that rioted and resisted mechanization by destroying textile machinery throughout English industrial centers. While different Luddite groups defended different goals, the revolts drew Britain closer than ever toward violent class warfare and revolution. The government quelled the rebellions by executing workers, imprisoning them, or exiling them to penal colonies. While the movement was all but crushed in less than two years, the name Luddite has survived to become synonymous with those who oppose new technology.


  • 1790: Mutineers from the British H.M.S. Bounty settle on Pitcairn Island in the south Pacific.
  • 1796: British engineer and inventor Joseph Bramah develops the first practical hydraulic press, a machine that will have numerous industrial applications
  • 1799: French chemist and engineer Philippe Lebon introduces gas lighting.
  • 1802: British Parliament passes the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act, an early piece of child-labor legislation, which prohibits the employment of children under nine years of age and limits a child's workday to 12 hours.
  • 1807: American inventor Robert Fulton introduces the Clermont, the first practical steamboat, which begins service along the Hudson River in September.
  • 1810: German art publisher Rudolph Ackerman invents the differential gear, which enables wheeled vehicles to make sharp turns.
  • 1811: Worst earthquakes in U.S. history occur near New Madrid, Missouri, greatly altering the topography of a million-square-mile region.
  • 1812: Napoleon invades Russia in June, but by October, his army, cold and hungry, is in retreat.
  • 1813: Jane Austen publishes Pride and Prejudice.
  • 1818: Donkin, Hall & Gamble "Preservatory" in London produces the first canned foods.
  • 1824: French engineer Sadi Carnot describes a perfect engine: one in which all energy input is converted to energy output. The ideas in his Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire will influence the formulation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which shows that such a perfect engine is an impossibility.
  • 1834: British mathematician Charles Babbage completes drawings for the "analytic engine," a forerunner of the modern computer that he never builds.

Event and Its Context

Death of a Cottage Industry

For hundreds of years, English weavers were considered fine craftsmen, working from home as independent contractors to produce high-quality stockings and lace for domestic and international markets. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, self-managed laborers were forced into factories, where they were controlled by owners and the regimented schedules the owners imposed. Mechanization and cost cutting replaced artisanship with cheaply manufactured products of inferior quality. Since weavers were unable to purchase machines for themselves, the balance of power shifted in favor of factory owners. By 1811 hosiery manufacturers were forcing Midlands frame-knitters to rent the frames on which they worked, leaving a profit margin that kept the once prosperous workers in abject poverty.

The Luddite uprisings were preceded by years of deteriorating worker conditions. While mechanization had sparked exponential growth in cotton yarn spinning as early as the 1770s, weaving was still done by hand, thus prompting huge demand for hand-loom weavers. By 1799 there were more than 200,000 of these artisans—a labor surplus that brought steadily decreasing wages and the gradual extinction of hand-loom weavers. By 1812, when the once well-paid weavers were "reduced to pauperism and the most dire distress," there were more than 30,000 hosiery frames in use in England. Adding to the misery were bad harvests that pushed grain prices beyond the purchasing power of most weavers. Moreover, after nearly two decades of war with Napoleon, a new war with the American colonies, and the subsequent export barriers, Britain saw the value of its woolen exports fall from £12 million to little more than £l million annually.

Resistance to Mechanization

Even before 1812, a year of widespread machine destruction, Yorkshire croppers had been resisting the advent of machines in the woolen industry. Traditionally, finishing wool cloth was a two-part process carried out manually by "croppers," who raised the nap on newly woven wool by brushing with hand-held "teasles" and then cut or "cropped" by hand with huge, iron shears weighing up to 40 pounds. Technology brought direct competition in the form of the gig-mill (which used mechanically driven rollers to raise the nap on the woolen cloth) and the shearing-frame (which attached the shears onto a power-operated frame). The crude machine allowed two unskilled workers to do in a day a week's work performed by a skilled cropper. According to Luddite historian Steven Marcus, machine-breaking in the woolen district that year was "unquestionably aimed at preventing the movement of the woolen industry toward a factory system in which such machines would replace hand workers."

On 11 March 1811 a large crowd of framework-knitters gathered in the Nottingham marketplace calling for revenge on employers who had reduced payment for making stockings. By this time "wide machines," on which stockings were produced from one cut piece of material called a "cut-up," were rapidly making individual artisans superfluous through mass production. For weeks Nottingham employers had been receiving threatening letters from one General Ned Ludd and the Army of Redressers. Militia dispersed the crowd, but rioters went on to smash almost 60 knitting frames in Arnold that night. Over the next three weeks, several attacks took place nightly, with workers breaking into the factories of despised manufacturers to smash more than 200 stocking frames. One factory owner had 63 machines destroyed in a single night.

Luddite Tactics

The Luddites generally limited their attacks to the new machines that were displacing them, leaving the rest of the factories' infrastructures intact. In addition to factories, they attacked individual homes where the frames were in use.

They organized "in parties of from six to sixty," all following the supposed leader "Ned Ludd," also known as "General Ludd" or "King Ludd," who lived in Sherwood Forest. Ludd was most likely a fictional character around whom the rioters rallied, with the title being transferred to the acting leader of a particular raiding party. The groups acted at night, usually meeting in the forest outside towns before making their attacks. Luddites commonly wore disguises. While some workers stood guard in the streets or subdued owners with pistols, swords, firelocks, and other weapons, others entered houses with hammers and axes to destroy the frames. When the sabotage was complete, one would reportedly fire a shot and yell "Ned Ludd!" and the group would disband. With weeks of practice beforehand, the rioters could dismantle a frame secretly and in a question of minutes, without leaving any other trace of their presence.

Government Response

In the wake of the recent French Revolution and in fear of an English version, the government of Perceval Spencer ordered a large military force to Nottingham to weed out protest leaders. By mid-December, General Dyott's army of 900 cavalry and 1,000 infantry were aiding local militias in hunting down the Luddites. Despite the considerable monetary investment in a secret network of spies and informers bent on obtaining information about the Luddites, the rioters were able to keep their movements shrouded in secrecy, and proportionally few were caught. The Luddites met secretly at night, swore secret oaths, had secret greetings, and identified each other by numbers. In the very forests and hills that inspired the Robin Hood legend, Luddite sympathizers sang of a new hero: "Chant no more your old rhymes about bold Robin Hood/His feats I but little admire,/I will sing the Achievements of General Ludd/Now the Hero of Nottinghamshire."

The Movement Spreads

Popular support and relatively low capture rates emboldened the Luddites. In a new wave of attacks in November 1811, rioters carried out some actions in daylight. At least one raid occurred in sight of the military, and another, within 100 yards of troops. Despite a royal proclamation offering a £50 reward for information leading to the conviction of "any person or persons wickedly breaking the frames," the Luddites stepped up their attacks, and the movement spread. These "bands of famished operatives" reportedly plundered farmhouses of money and provisions, saying that "they would not starve while there was plenty in the land."

In 1812 rioters in Cheshire, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Derbyshire, and the West Riding of Yorkshire began destroying power cotton looms and wool shearing machines. In February and March the Luddites attacked factories in Halifax, Huddersfield, Wakefield, and Leeds. So secret and organized were the attacks that "the magistrates could not take upon themselves to apprehend the persons whom they suspect of having committed the outrages."

Amid Violence, Luddism Is Crushed

By 14 February 1812 the government was sufficiently alarmed to propose a bill making machine-breaking a crime punishable by death. Existing law allowed for those wrecking hosiery frames (but no other types of machinery) to be "transported" to a penal colony for 14 years. The bill passed the House of Commons within a week. One of the few members of the House of Lords to oppose the measure was the poet and writer Lord Byron, who spoke passionately in defense of the Luddites. Having recently returned from a trip to Nottingham and recognizing the "alarming extent" of the attacks, Byron declared on 27 February that they had risen from "circumstances of the most unparalleled distress. … They were not ashamed to beg, but there was none to relieve them." In March, Parliament passed the Frame-Breaking Act, which made machine-breaking a capital offense.

Despite death threats, attacks on property, and intimidation through arms, the Luddites avoided violence against people. The struggle turned bloody in April 1812, when mill owners started to defend their property. On 11 April some 200 Luddites led by a young cropper from Huddersfield named George Mellor attacked Rawfolds Mill in Yorkshire; armed guards forced back the rioters, killing two. Fourteen men would later be hanged for their involvement. A week later, Luddites killed William Horsfall, a large mill owner who reportedly swore he would ride "up to his saddle girths in Luddite blood." Hundreds of suspects were apprehended, 64 were indicted, and three were put to death. On 20 April nearly a thousand Luddites attacked the power loom mill of Emanuel Burton in Lancashire with sticks and rocks; this mill was also defended by well-armed private guards, who killed three rioters. The Luddites burned down Burton's house, after which the military returned to kill seven more of them.

The violence had escalated to the point that Parliament sent Lieutenant General Thomas Maitland and 35,000 men to stop the revolt. It was crushed by December. Luddite oaths of secrecy notwithstanding, Huddersfield magistrate Joseph Radcliff obtained a confession leading to the arrest of Luddite leaders. A special judicial commission held in January 1813 at York Castle found 24 men guilty. Seventeen were executed, 14 of those at the same time. Seven others were sent to Australia. There were occasional Luddite uprisings until 1817, but by 1813 the movement was all but broken.

Key Players

Lord Byron (1788-1824): Born George Gordon and later inheriting the title Baron Byron of Rochdale, he was a renowned English writer and advocate of social reform. In the House of Lords, Lord Byron was a vocal defender of the Luddites, arguing against the Frame-Breaking Act. In 1816 he penned "Song for the Luddites." In addition to his poetry and satire, he supplied frequent contributions to radical and progressive journals.

Ludd, Ned: Also called Edward Ludd, General Ludd, or King Ludd, this most likely fictional character was the proclaimed leader of the Luddites. There were numerous, conflicting legends surrounding the origin of the name. Several rioting workers were known to refer to themselves as Ned Ludd. On at least one occasion, workers marched with a straw figure meant to represent the mythical English leader.

Spencer, Perceval (1762-1812): A lawyer of noble origin and a loyal supporter of King George III, Spencer became prime minister of Britain in 1809 to oversee years of economic depression and labor unrest. Spencer was a supporter of the conservative Tory group and his rule was characterized by repression against the Luddites and the introduction of the Frame-Breaking Act. In 1812 a failed businessman shot Perceval upon entering the House of Commons, making him the only British prime minister ever to be assassinated.



Martineau, Harriet. History of the Peace: Being a History of England from 1816 to 1854. Boston: Walker, Wise, and Company, 1864-1866.

May, Thomas Erskine. The Constitutional History of England Since the Accession of George the Third, 1760-1860. London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1861-1863.

Young, Edward. Labor in Europe and America. United States Bureau of Statistics. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1875.


Englander, David, and Taylor Downing. "The Mystery of Luddism." History Today 38 (March 1988).

Marcus, Steven. "Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age." The New Republic 214 (10 June 1996): 30.


The Luddites. Spartacus Educational [cited 7 October 2002]. <>.

Additional Resources

Texts of the Nottinghamshire Luddites [cited 7 October2002]. <>.

—Brett Allan King