The Workers and Merchants of Leeds

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The Workers and Merchants of Leeds

"Yorkshire Cloth Workers' Petition"

Published in the Leeds Intelligencer and Leeds Mercury, June 13, 1786

"Leeds Cloth Merchant Proclamation in Support of Machinery"

Published in the Leeds Intelligencer and Leeds Mercury, 1791

"But what are our children to do; are they to be brought up in idleness?"

The move by textile workers from home-based workshops into large factories was the first big social change brought about by the introduction of new machinery into the indus-try—part of the process known as the Industrial Revolution. Previously, skilled workers spun yarn from cotton or wool and wove it into fabric on smaller machines located in their houses; textiles were called a cottage industry for this reason. But newly invented machines could produce as much yarn or cloth as several individuals using old equipment. These machines, by virtue of their size and expense, were housed in factories, where the formerly independent tradespeople became employees of the factory owners.

This new so-called factory system made a big change in the relationship between a worker and the work. People operating the machines were paid on the basis of how long they worked, instead of on the basis of how much yarn they spun or how much fabric they wove. Instead of supervising themselves, they had to adhere to rules set by the factory owner governing when they would start work and when they could stop for the day. Children as well as adults worked in factories, and supervisors insisted on strict discipline to keep the machines working continuously and for as many hours a day as possible. Employees often worked up to twelve hours a day with a short break for a meal in the middle.

By 1786 the emerging industrial system was already resulting in complaints from workers who were not used to being supervised when they had worked at home. More important, the workers complained that because the machines could produce so much more yarn or wool in a day, many people who formerly worked at home could no longer find work. They asked what would happen to them and their families if newer machines kept being introduced, causing more jobs to disappear. Their letter (which appears on pages 57–59) is a plea to stop the introduction of machines and stick to the old ways.

The city of Leeds, in the north of England, had become a center of new factories, which is how workers came to publish their petition there in 1786, in the local newspapers, the Leeds Intelligencer and the Leeds Mercury. Five years later, in 1791, cloth merchants, who sold fabric both in England and overseas, published their opposing views (which appears on pages 59–61) in the same newspapers. The two statements coming at around the same period are a clear indication of how different the Industrial Revolution appeared to people, depending on whether they had the viewpoint of a worker or of a business owner.

Things to remember while reading the statements of the workers and merchants of Leeds:

  • In their petition, which takes the form of a letter addressed to factory owners, the workers argue that new machines in the textile industry had resulted in many people losing their jobs. In many cases, these workers had been trained since childhood to do skilled work, such as weaving, and had no obvious alternatives for employment. Unlike today, there was no unemployment insurance to protect them when they lost their jobs. The workers' proposed solution was to stop the spread of the machines and, in effect, go back to the old ways, which required more people to turn out the same amount of finished products.
  • The factory merchants, in their proclamation nearly five years later, also in the form of a letter, pointed out the advantages of the Industrial Revolution, which eventually made England the most powerful country in the world. The factory owners argued that they needed the new machinery in order to be competitive against other nations in processing raw cotton into yarn and cloth. They reminded their readers that competition was international, and that using machines enabled them to sell fabric for less than their competitors and thereby bring even more business to England. More customers would result in more work and higher wages for factory workers, they argued. Eventually, their argument proved to be correct: England was the world's most efficient manufacturer of textiles in the first part of the nineteenth century and sold its goods widely. But the factory owners' letter overlooked the fact that introducing the new system had resulted in widespread difficulty for workers who lost their jobs and who had not yet benefited from increased orders from abroad.
  • These two documents are reproduced in their original printed form. In the late 1700s capitalization, punctuation, and spelling did not conform to the conventions that are followed in the twenty-first century.

"Yorkshire Cloth Workers' Petition"

To the Merchants, Clothiers and all such as wish well to theStaple Manufactory of this Nation.

Staple Manufactory:
Main industry.

The Humble ADDRESS and PETITION of Thousands, who labour in the Cloth Manufactory.

SHEWETH , That theScribbling-Machines have thrown thousands of your petitioners out of employ, whereby they are brought into great distress, and are not able toprocure a maintenance for their families, and deprived them of the opportunity of bringing up their children to labour. We have therefore to request, that prejudice and self-interest may be laid aside, and that you may pay that attention to the following facts, which the nature of the case requires.

New machinery.
Procure a maintenance:
Earn a living.

The number of Scribbling-Machines extending about seventeen miles south-west of LEEDS, exceed all belief, being no less than one hundred and seventy! and as each machine will do as much work in twelve hours, as ten men can in that time do by hand, (speaking within bounds) and they working night and day, one machine will do as much work in one day as would otherwise employ twenty men.

As we do not mean to assert any thing but what we can prove to be true, we allow four men to be employed at each machine twelve hours, working night and day, will take eight men in twenty-four hours; so that, upon a moderate computation twelve men are thrown out of employ for every single machine used in scribbling; and as it may be supposed the number of machines in all the other quarters together, nearly equal those in the South-West, full four thousand men are left to shift for a living how they can, and must of coursefall to the Parish, if not timely relieved. Allowing one boyto be boundapprentice from each family out of work, eight thousand hands are deprived of the opportunity of getting a livelihood.

Fall to the Parish:
Depend on charity.
Assistant to a skilled worker.

We therefore hope, that the feelings of humanity will lead those who have it in their power to prevent the use of those machines, to give every discouragement they can to what has a tendency soprejudicial to their fellow-creatures.


This is not all; the injury to the Cloth is great, in so much that inFrizzing , instead of leaving anap upon the Cloth, the wool is drawn out, and the Cloth is leftthread-bare.

A step in weaving wool cloth.
Bump of thread.

Many more evils we couldenumerate, but we would hope, that the sensible part of mankind, who are notbiassed by interest, must see the dreadful tendency of their continuance; adepopulation must be the consequence; trade being then lost, the landed interest will have no other satisfaction but that of being last devoured.

Leaning to one opinion over another.
Lessening of the number of workers.

We wish to propose a few queries to those who would plead for the further continuance of these machines:

Men of common sense must know, that so many machines in use, take the work from the hands employed in Scribbling, —and who did that business before machines were invented.

How are those men, thus thrown out of employ to provide for their families; —and what are they to put their children apprentice to, that the rising generation may have something to keep them at work, in order that they may not be likevagabonds strolling about in idleness? Some say, Begin and learn some other business. —Suppose we do; who will maintain our families, whilst we undertake thearduous task; and when we have learned it, how do we know we shall be any better for all our pains; for by the time we have served our second apprenticeship, another machine may arise, which may take away that business also; so that our families, beinghalf pined whilst we are learning how to provide them with bread, will be wholly so during the period of our third apprenticeship.

Shiftless individuals.
Half pined:
Lost their health.

But what are our children to do; are they to be brought up in idleness? Indeed as things are, it is no wonder to hear of so many executions [for crimes]; for our parts, though we may be thoughtilliterate men, our conceptions are, that bringing children up to industry, and keeping them employed, is the way to keep them from falling into those crimes, which an idle habit naturally leads to.

Unable to read or write.

These thingsimpartially considered will we hope, be strong advocates in our favour; and we conceive that men of sense, religionand humanity, will be satisfied of the reasonableness, as well as necessity of this address, and that their own feelings will urge them toespouse the cause of us and our families—

Objectively; fairly.

Signed in behalf of THOUSANDS, by

Joseph HepworthThomas Lobley
Robert WoodThos. Blackburn.

"Leeds Cloth Merchant Proclamation in Support of Machinery"

BEING informed that various Kinds of MACHINERY, for the better and moreexpeditious DRESSING OF WOOLLEN-CLOTH, have been lately invented, that many such Machines are already made and set to work in different Parts of this County, and that great Numbers more are contracted for, to be used in the Dressing of Cloth in other Parts of Yorkshire, and in the Counties of Lancaster, Derby, Chester, Wilts and Gloucester, thought it necessary to meet together on the Eighteenth of October, to take into their most serious Consideration what Steps were needful to be taken, to prevent the Merchants and Cloth-Dressers in other Parts, from diminishing theStaple Trade of this Town, by the Enjoyment of superior Implements in their Business.

Staple Trade:
Chief business.

At the said Meeting, attended by almost every Merchant in the Town, the above Facts did clearly appear, and after a Discussion of the Merits of various Inventions, and the Improvement in Dressing likely to be derived from them, it appeared to them all, absolutely necessary that this Town should partake of the Benefit of all Sorts of Improvements that are, or can be made in the Dressing of their Cloths, to prevent the Decline of that Business, of which the Town of Leeds has for Ages had the greatest Share, and which from its local Advantages, we presume may be maintained and increased, provided the Merchants, and Dressers of Cloth, in Leeds, do not neglect to use the best Means in their Power, of performing their Work to the utmost Perfection.

In order that the Matter should be undertaken on a Plan to afford every possible Information, a Committee was then appointed for the Purpose of obtaining one of each of the different Machines now in Use, on the most approved Construction, and a Subscription was entered into fordefraying the Expence thereof, and to enable them to obtain an eligible Situation for erecting and working them,for the Inspection of the Trade, previous to their being brought into general Use.


At a time when the People, engaged in every other Manufacture in the Kingdom, are exerting themselves to bring their Work to Market at reduced Prices, which can alone be effected by the Aid of Machinery, it certainly is not necessary that the Cloth Merchants of Leeds, who depend chiefly on aForeign Demand , where they have for Competitors the Manufacturers of other Nations, whose Taxes are few, and whose manual Labour is only Half the Price it bears here, should have Occasion to defend a Conduct, which has for its Aim the Advantage of the Kingdom in general, and of the Cloth Trade in particular; yet anxious to prevent Misrepresentations, which have usually attended the Introduction of the most useful Machines, they wish to remind the Inhabitants of this Town, of the Advantages derived to every flourishing Manufacture from the Application of Machinery; they instance that of Cotton in particular, which in its internal and foreign Demand is nearly alike to our own, and has in a few Years by the Means of Machinery advanced to its present Importance, and is still increasing.

Foreign Demand:
The demand by other countries for goods.

If then by the Use of Machines, the Manufacture of Cotton, an Article which we import, and are supplied with from other Countries, and which can every where beprocured on equal Terms, has met with such amazing Success, may not greater Advantages be reasonably expected from cultivating to the utmost the Manufacture of Wool, the Produce of our own Island, an Article in Demand in all Countries, and almost the universal Cloathing of Mankind?


In the Manufacture of Woollens, the Scribbling Mill, theSpinning Frame , and theFly Shuttle , have reduced manual Labour nearly One third, and each of them at its first Introduction carried an Alarm to the Work People, yet each has contributed to advance the Wages and to increase the Trade, so that if an Attempt was now made to deprive us of the Use of them, there is no Doubt, but every Person engaged in the Business, would exert himself to defend them.

Spinning Frame:
A machine used to manufacture yarn.
Fly Shuttle:
A loom that speeded the weaving of cloth.

From these Premises, we the undersigned Merchants, think it a Duty we owe to ourselves, to the Town of Leeds, to the Nation at large, to declare that we will protect and support the free Use of the proposed Improvements in Cloth Dressing, by every legal Means in our Power; and if after all, contrary to our Expectations, the Introduction of Machinery should for a Time occasion aScarcity of Work in the Cloth Dressing Trade, we have unanimously agreed to give aPreference to such Workmen as are now settled Inhabitants of this Parish, and who give no Opposition to the present Scheme.


[The document closed with the signatures of sixty-one Leeds merchants.]

What happened next …

Despite the protests of the workers, the process of introducing machines (called industrialization) continued in England without pause. Ten years after the mill owners published their response, some workers tried to slow down the process by vandalizing new factories that they viewed as robbing them of jobs. Led by a character named Ned Ludd (possibly a fictitious person), the so-called Luddites tried to use sabotage as a means of preserving their jobs. The effort failed completely.

The hardships endured by workers eventually resulted in radical political movements, such as socialism and communism, in which workers tried to exert government control over industry, either by passing regulations or by seizing private property. Workers concluded that their interests were different from the interests of factory owners, and they organized labor unions and political movements designed to advance the interests of workers at the expense of factory owners. Eventually their voices were heard, and during the course of the nineteenth century, the governments of Britain and other industrialized countries, including the United States, passed laws limiting the hours that children could work and establishing new safety regulations for factories.

Did you know …

As late as 1803, seventeen years after the textile workers wrote their letter, only about 16 percent of woolen fabric was being produced in a factory in Leeds. Hand-operated looms were still the dominant source of cloth. The introduction of the power loom, in 1820, was a much more significant advancement in the industrialization of the British textile industry than were the machines invented earlier.

For more information


Foster, John. Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution: Early IndustrialCapitalism in Three English Towns. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1974.

Harrison, J. F. C. Society and Politics in England, 1780–1960: A Selection ofReadings (includes "Yorkshire Cloth Workers' Petition" and "Leeds Cloth Merchant Proclamation in Support of Machinery" published in the Leeds Intelligencer and Leads Mercury in 1786 and 1791). New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

Jennings, Humphrey. Pandaemonium: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers, 1660–1886. New York: Free Press, 1985.

Mantoux, Paul. The Industrial Revolution in the Eighteenth Century: AnOutline of the Beginnings of the Modern Factory System in England. Edited by Mary-Lou Jennings and Charles Madge. Translated by Marjorie Vernon. New York: Macmillan, 1961.

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The Workers and Merchants of Leeds

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