Few groups have been more misunderstood and have had their image and name more frequently misappropriated and distorted than the Luddites. The term Luddite has typically referred to an individual who is opposed to technological change, and is derived from various tales in the Midlands stocking trade about an apprentice named Ned or Edward Ludd who broke his frame or needles in response to his master’s strict discipline. (No actual person named Ned Ludd has been identified.) The Luddites were not, as popularizers of theories of technology and capitalist apologists for unregulated innovation claim, universally technophobes. They were artisans—primarily skilled workers in the early-nineteenth-century English textile industry. When faced with attempts to drive down their wages through the use of machines (operated at lower wages by less-skilled labor) the Luddites turned to wrecking the offensive machines and terrorizing the offending owners in order to preserve their wages, their jobs, and their trades. These men objected not only to the threat to their wages, but also to the production of cheap, inferior goods, which they feared would damage the reputation of their trades. Machines were not the only, or even the major, threat to the textile workers of the Midlands and North, however. The Prince Regent’s Orders in Council, barring trade with Napoleonic France and nations friendly to France, cut off foreign markets for the British textile industry. Even more importantly, high food prices required more of each laborer’s shrinking wages. Machines and those masters who used them to drive down wages were simply the most accessible targets for expressions of anger and direct action.
The Luddites varied by region and profession. In the Midlands counties of Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, and Derbyshire, the Luddites comprised (almost exclusively) workers in the framework-knitting and lace trades. Midlands Luddism began in 1811 and ended in 1817 with the executions of men convicted for their roles in the 1816 attack on John Heathcoat’s Loughborough mill. Yorkshire Luddism centered on the woolen trade. Most Yorkshire Luddites were croppers (highly skilled artisans who cropped the nap off of woven woolen cloth to smooth it), but the croppers found support among other skilled workers, such as saddle-makers. Yorkshire Luddism began in early 1812 and ended with the executions of several convicted Luddites in York in 1813. Luddism in the Cotton Districts surrounding Manchester encompassed not only trade-based protest but also political agitation. Luddites there were made up largely of cotton weavers, supported at times by colliers and by women in no trade at all, but spinners also played an important role in Luddite riots in Manchester and Flintshire. In Manchester, north Cheshire, and north Derbyshire, Luddism was frequently joined to food rioting and agitation for political reform.
The Luddites were neither the first nor only machine wreckers. Because organized, large-scale strikes were impractical due to the scattering of factories throughout different regions, machine-wrecking, which E. J. Hobsbawm calls “collective bargaining by riot,” had occurred in Britain since the Restoration. For example, in 1675 narrow weavers in the area of Spitalfields destroyed “engines,” power machines that could each do the work of several people, and in 1710 a London hosier employing too many apprentices in violation of the Framework Knitters Charter had his machines broken by angry framework knitters, also called stockingers. Even parliamentary action in 1727, making the destruction of machines a capital felony, did little to stop the activity. In 1768 London sawyers attacked a mechanized sawmill. Following the failure in 1778 of the stockingers’ petitions to Parliament to enact a law regulating “the Art and Mystery of Framework Knitting,” Nottingham workers rioted, flinging machines into the streets. In 1792 Manchester weavers destroyed two-dozen Cartwright steam looms owned by George Grimshaw. Sporadic attacks on machines (wide knitting frames, gig mills, shearing frames, and steam-powered looms and spinning jennies) continued, especially from 1799 to 1802 and through the period of economic distress after 1808.
The first incident during the years of the most intense Luddite activity, 1811 to 1813, was the March 11, 1811, attack upon wide knitting frames in a shop in the Nottinghamshire village of Arnold, following a peaceful gathering of framework knitters near the Exchange Hall in Nottingham. In the preceding month, framework knitters had broken into shops and removed jack wires from wide knitting frames, rendering them useless without inflicting great violence upon the owners or incurring risk to the stockingers themselves; the March 11 attack was the first in which frames were actually smashed and the name “Ludd” was used. The grievances consisted, first, of the use of wide stocking frames to produce large amounts of cheap, shoddy stocking material, and, second, of the employment of “colts,” workers who had not completed the seven-year apprenticeship required by law. Employers’ violations not only of the law against hiring “colts,” but of a number of other laws as well—such as the prohibition against the use of the gig mill and the limitation on the number of looms any weaver could possess—provided Luddites with justification for direct action against the employers. In probably the best example of such validation, the framework knitters, who launched the Luddite protests in Nottingham in 1811, justified their actions by referring to their own originary or constitutive charter, the 1663 Charter of the Company of Framework Knitters.
Frames continued to be broken in many of the villages surrounding Nottingham. The March 23, 1811, and April 20, 1811, Nottingham Journal reported several weeks of almost nightly attacks in the villages, all successful and carried out with no arrests. The summer of 1811 was quiet, but a bad harvest helped to renew disturbances in November, when, as the story goes, stockingers assembled in the wooded lands near Bulwell and were led in attacks on a number of shops by a commander calling himself Ned Ludd.
Midlands authorities’ letters dated November 13 and 14, 1811, request that the government dispatch military aid because “2,000 men, many of them armed, were riotously traversing the County of Nottingham.” In December 1811 public negotiations between the framework knitters and their employers, the hosiers, failed to result in the return of wages, piece rates, and frame rents to earlier levels or in any satisfactory improvement of the framework knitters’ economic circumstances. Frame-breaking continued in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, and Leicestershire through the winter and early spring of 1812. It resurfaced in 1814 and again in Leicestershire in the autumn of 1816.
The first signs of the spread of Luddism to the cotton-manufacturing center of Manchester and its environs in Lancashire, Cheshire, and Flintshire materialized in December 1811 and January 1812. Manchester Luddism centered on the cotton-weaving trade, which was suffering from the use of steam-powered looms, but Luddites there were active in defense of the spinning trade as well. In Manchester, unlike Nottingham, large factories housed the offensive machinery. Large numbers of attackers tended to carry out the Luddite raids in and around Manchester; these also often coincided with food riots, which provided crowds that were large enough to carry out the factory attacks. Luddite activity continued in Lancashire and Cheshire into the summer of 1812 and blended into efforts to establish larger trade combinations and into political reform, but the force of Luddism dissipated following the acquittal of dozens of accused Luddites in Lancaster later that year.
The factory owners and cloth merchants of the woolen industry in the West Riding of Yorkshire were the targets of Luddism in that county. Although West Riding Luddites represented a variety of skilled trades, the most active and numerous by far were the cloth dressers, called croppers, whose work was threatened by the introduction of the shearing frame. The croppers’ work consisted of using forty- or fifty-pound handheld shears to cut, or crop, the nap from woven woolen cloth in order to make a smooth and salable article. They were threatened by two types of machines. The gig mill, which had been prohibited by law since the rule of Edward VI, was a machine that raised the nap on woolen cloth so that it might be sheared more easily. The shearing frames actually mechanized the process of shearing and reduced the level of skill and experience necessary to finish an article of woolen cloth, even though the machines could not attain the quality of hand-cropped cloth. From January 1812 through midspring, Luddite attacks in Yorkshire concentrated on small cropping shops as well as large mills where frames were used. In April, Luddites began to attack mill owners and raided houses and buildings for arms and lead. Luddism began to lose steam after the failed attack upon Rawfolds Mill and the murder of mill owner William Horsfall by George Mellor and other Luddites. By the next winter, West Riding Luddism had run its course, even though after the January 1813 executions of Mellor and other Luddites a few more threatening letters were sent to public officials.
In all three regions, Luddites responded to the distressing concurrence of high food prices, depressed trade caused by the wars and by the trade prohibitions imposed under the Orders in Council, and changes in the use of machinery so as to reduce wages for the amount of work done. That machinery alone was not the primary cause of Luddite anger is evident in the cessation of Luddism. Luddite activities ended following the rescinding of the Orders in Council, some wage and usage concessions, and some reduction in food prices. While Malcolm Thomis (1970) has argued that Luddism was not a concerted agitation for political reform, but simply a common label applied to a range of unconnected protestors in different trades in different regions, it is perhaps more accurate that there were several Luddisms (see Randall 1991; Binfield 2004). Despite its brief run, Luddism ought to be understood, as J. L. Hammond and Barbara Hammond (1919) and E. P. Thompson (1963) have argued, as an important step in the formation of a class-consciousness and in the development of labor unions in Britain.
SEE ALSO Machinery; Machinery Question, The; Technology; Technophobia
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Navickas, Katrina. 2005. The Search for ‘General Ludd’: The Mythology of Luddism. Social History 30 (3): 281–295.
Randall, Adrian. 1991. Before the Luddites: Custom, Community, and Machinery in the English Woollen Industry, 1776–1809.
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Thomis, Malcolm I. 1970. The Luddites: Machine-Breaking in Regency England. Newton Abbot, U.K.: David and Charles; Hamden, CT: Archon Books.
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John F. C. Harrison
Lud·dite / ˈlədˌīt/ • n. a member of any of the bands of English workers who destroyed machinery, esp. in cotton and woolen mills, that they believed was threatening their jobs (1811–16). ∎ a person opposed to increased industrialization or new technology: a small-minded Luddite resisting progress. DERIVATIVES: Lud·dism / -ˌizəm/ n. Lud·dit·ism / -ˌītˌizəm/ n.
Luddites, name given to bands of workingmen in the industrial centers of England who rioted between 1811 and 1816. The uprisings began in Nottinghamshire, where groups of textile workers, in the name of a mythical figure called Ned Ludd, or King Ludd, destroyed knitting machines, to which they attributed the prevailing unemployment and low wages. In 1812 workers in Lancashire, Cheshire, and the West Riding of Yorkshire began to wreck cotton power looms and wool shearing machines. There was no political aim involved and no cohesion in the movement. Outbreaks of Luddism were very harshly suppressed by the government.