The Luddites were 19th-century English textile workers who protested against the machines developed during the period of industrial revolution, which were replacing their artisan textile manufacturing with factory manufacturing. The artisans skilled labour was no longer needed, less skilled machine workers could do the work for less pay. The spinning frames, the power looms, the flying shuttle, new machines changing the shape of the textile world.
The Luddite story is not a simple one
The Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, served the masters in society. It made the rich richer but allowed the continuation of oppression of the poor.
The turn of the 19th century was not a happy time for the poor in society. Against a backdrop of continuing war with France and the pervading climate and fear of the revolution in France, could the same happen in Britain? The poor were suppressed, there was a very real fear that an educated, informed public would become difficult to handle and any sign of insurgency was dealt with swiftly.
There were many signs of discontentment in society, caused by a wide range of things
- cost of virtually continuous war to Britain was hugely expensive
- need to fund these activities was a constant drain on the public purse and required the levy of increasing taxes
- rather than advancing and progressing our concerns for the poor sick and needy, Britain was going backwards and the governments of the late 18th and early 19th centuries pursued a blatant policy of punishing and penalising those in dire need of help. You need only trace the history of the Poor Law to see the evidence of lack of progress other than by a limited number of philanthropists. ( Old Poor Law and Poor Law Amendment Act 1834.)
- Wages for manual labour remained at little above subsistence levels and were falling rather than increasing. The conditions in which ‘factory workers’ had to work were dreadful.
- The fightback of the workers, to organise themselves as a labour force and demand fair pay continued to be forcefully resisted by law, government and the the emerging industrialists, funded by the capital of the ruling elite.
- The ruling classes were in genuine fear of the spread of revolution from France to our shores but did next to nothing to set-right the conditions that could lead to such rebellion.
- Reforms would come in time, but it would take too long and it could be argued was the consequence of riot rebellion and the fear of unrest rather than by the enlightenment of governments and the ruling elite. Most civil rights have been fought for and the cost has been high.
The actions of the Luddites
The movement was begun in the area of Nottingham in 1811 when a group of discontented textile workers met and decided to take physical action against their loss of work, low wages and poor working conditions. Using the pseudonym ‘King Ludd’ they began a course of civil disobedience and disturbance. They threatened factory bosses, merchants, magistrates, anyone who stood against them. They sabotaged machinary, breaking into premises and smashing machines to bits.
The British Government sent in the troops to control the Luddites
The Government followed it up with the Frame Breaking Act of 1812 which made the breaking of machines a capital felony. They held a mass trial of those caught in 1813 and executed 17 men, others were sent to penal colonies. These were show trials and sat uncomfortably with some politicians, an air of panic had settled in Government. The harsh punishments meted out did stop the Luddite protests, in all between 60 and 70 people were executed. This was a very large stick with which to beat people who were desperate.
- 17 men lost their lives in York with the savage repression of the government of the day in 1813, it was this that broke the movement, better to live to fight another day
- Events started in Nottingham, with the infamous King Ludd and hence the name, who was rumoured to have his headquarters in Sherwood Forest
- The Luddites was a North and South dividing issue, most of the protests were regional in the North of England and the Midlands but it would subsequently be re-enacted by the agricultural workers in the South
- The regional focus was due to the location of the early industry built around automating the traditional industry of weaving and cloth-making which had developed in the North and Midlands spreading across Yorkshire and Lancashire in time.
- There was some alienation from the means of production, the erosion of a craft and skill reduced to operating a manufacturing process, unified and automated but there were also considerable economic drivers.
- The distress of the hand loom Weavers and framework knitters was possibly the central motivator but this is disputed, an under current of dissatisfaction was pervading the poor.
- Government savagely put down what was seen as outright insurrection and revolution.
- Spencer Perceval as Prime Minister, with a comfortable background, a campaigner against slavery but with no empathy with the British workers. With the constant threat and state of war with France and fear of the consequences of that countries recent revolution infecting the British population his hands were more than full
- Machine breaking was almost a tradition, which started before the Luddites, not only breaking but industrial sabotage as well.
What do we know about the hand loom weavers?
- Hand loom weavers worked largely in the cotton and wool industries, which were largely superseded early in the Industrial Revolution by looms powered by water and steam. Whilst this reduced the manual toil and increased productivity it also ultimately reduced the number of people needed and the skills needed and therefore the wages paid.
- In 1826 when the industrial unrest was reaching its height there were as many as 250k cotton hand-loom weavers.
- By 1850 the number had fallen to 40k
- In 1813 there had been just 2400 powered looms by 1850 they numbered some 250k
Luddites, the consequences of their actions
The Luddites could not stem the tide of the machines, if indeed that had been their goal. They brought attention to the poor in society and the shocking conditions in which they existed. Luddites wanted a fairer society, they did not achieve it. The first half of the 19th century was a time of very real hardship for people. It took another twenty years before any type of reform took place.