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Fearful and Fed Up: The Luddite Rebellion

Not too long ago, I wrote about the political history of lace. I was surprised by what I’d learned. I hadn’t imagined something as simple as lace could cause such upheaval. In researching that blog, I came across the Luddite Rebellion, another textile-related political rebellion.

Of course, I’d heard of the Luddite Rebellion a long time ago, but had never really explored its history in-depth. So, when the Luddites were mentioned in my lace research, I thought it would be a great topic to revisit.

And here we are.

Much to my surprise (this is what I love about history) the Luddites were NOT opposed to technology. They were highly trained and adept at using the machines they were employed to utilize. Further, smashing machines in protest wasn’t an idea original to the Luddites. Machine-breaking had been going on for some time.

So, what ruffled feathers so much that they decided to break things? Let’s look back at the society out of which the rebellion sprang.

1811, England. This was a wild, radical, and revolutionary time that had been churning for decades (Honestly, though, has human civilization ever NOT been embroiled in revolution, war, economic crises?)

The rebellion begins much earlier in the late 1700s when revolution was in the air alongside a burgeoning industrial age. The American Colonies had just proclaimed their independence from the tyrannical King George III.

This was an incredibly expensive war

for England to fight because it costs more money to send naval ships and troops overseas to fight a bunch of rowdy colonists than it does to fight on land, closer to home.

Within ten years of the American Revolution ending, things kick off in France when they decide to take out the ancient regime with their own revolution.

The French Revolution lasted from 1797 - 1799 and paved the way for Napoleon to march in and seize power. Napoleon began another series of wars that sizzled across Europe and would last for about fifteen years.

During this European crisis, even if Britain wanted to bow out, they couldn’t. The thought of Napoleon invading England struck terror into the hearts of citizen, politician, and royal alike. Britain had no choice. They had to fight or face invasion and a Napoleonic conquest.

For the common people in England in the early 1800s, it seemed the wars would never end, which caused not only the destruction of people and families, but created a severe economic crisis—even in places like Yorkshire which had been enjoying a relative stable economy at the time.

But those blasted Americans in the sheen of their new nation complicated things. The fledgling government, headed by Thomas Jefferson, didn’t want to go to war. Probably for the first and the last time in our nation’s history.

In an effort to avoid war, Jefferson imposed an embargo on foreign trade in an attempt to force both England and France to respect America’s desire for neutrality. Jefferson believed that Americans would cooperate with the embargo out of a sense of patriotism. Instead, smuggling flourished, particularly through Canada.

To enforce the embargo, Jefferson mobilized the army and navy to impose the blockade, and declared the Lake Champlain region of New York, along the Canadian border, in a state of insurrection. Interestingly, this maneuver infringed on the very principles he most cherished: individual liberties and opposition to a strong central government.

However, Jefferson’s plan for American neutrality was a failure.

It was unpopular and expensive. It hurt the American economy and resulted in widespread smuggling. Exports fell from $108 million in 1807 to just $22 million in 1808. Farm prices fell sharply. Shippers also suffered. Harbors filled with idle ships and nearly 30,000 sailors became unemployed.

Pressure to abandon the embargo mounted, and early in 1809, just 3 days before Jefferson left office, Congress repealed the embargo.

When James Madison took charge, he and Congress replaced the failed embargo with

the Non-Intercourse Act, which reopened trade with all nations except Britain and France in order to force them to accept America’s rights to neutrality.

Then in 1810, Congress replaced the Non-Intercourse Act with a new measure, Macon's Bill No. 2. This policy was intended to motivate Great Britain and France to respect America’s desire for neutrality by impelling them to stop seizing American ships, cargoes and crews during the Napoleonic Wars, which had started with Britain about eight years prior. The bill stated, however, that if either whichever country agreed to respect America's neutral rights first, the United States would immediately stop trade with the other nation. Well, that opened up a can of worms.

It was as if the bill was designed to pick sides without actually picking sides and I have a hard time figuring out if Napoleon was the savvy one or if he simply played into Madison’s hands.

At any rate, Napoleon pounced on this new policy in order to draw the United States into his war against Britain. He announced a repeal of all French restrictions on American trade, though France continued to seize American ships and cargoes. In response, President Madison he cut off trade with Britain and recalled the American minister to England in 1811.

For 19 months, the British went without American trade. Cotton, tobacco, rice, indigo, grains, dried and salted fish, turpentine, rosin, tar, pitch, potash, and charcoal were among the largest American imports the British had come to rely on daily. For instance, the turpentine was used for lamps. The rosin and potash were used to make soap, glass, and candles. The tar and pitch were used in the naval industry. And though the cotton production in 1810 was nothing compared to what it became in the 1860s, it was still an important export to Britain.

So, the British citizens began feeling the pinch. Food shortages, mounting unemployment, skyrocketing inflation, and increasing inventories of unsold manufactured goods finally convinced Britain to end their restrictions on American trade. But it was too late.

The pressure hit a critical high on March 11, 1811, in Nottingham. A crowd of protestors outside a textile manufacturing center demanded more work and better wages.

The Luddites were not, as has often been portrayed, against progress and industrialization. The textile workers and weavers were actually highly skilled, well-trained, middle-class workers. They didn’t hate progress. Rather, they hated that the machines were churning out products of lower quality, the low wages and poor job security, and that they would be replaced by less-skilled, underpaid workers operating machinery.

In an attempt to halt or at least make the transition smoother, the Luddites initially sought to renegotiate the terms of their working conditions based on the changing circumstances in the workplace. They requested a minimum wage, the adherence of companies to abide by minimum labor standards, and taxes which would enable funds to be created for workers’ pensions.

When these negotiation attempts failed, and their valid concerns were ignored, the Luddite movement was born.

Legend has it that the Luddites were led by a man named Ned Ludd, also known as Captain, General or even King Ludd. Supposedly, he organized the move from one industrial center to the next and apparently drilled his “soldiers” at nighttime. Naturally, government agents were determined to find him and put a stop to his rabble-rousing.

In fact, no such person existed. Ludd was a fiction concocted from an incident that supposedly had taken place 22 years earlier in the city of Leicester. According to the story, a young apprentice named Ludd or Ludham was working at a stocking frame when a superior admonished him for knitting too loosely. Ordered to “square his needles,” the enraged apprentice instead grabbed a hammer and flattened the entire mechanism. The story eventually made its way to Nottingham, where protesters turned Ned Ludd into their symbolic leader.

But for all the fairy tales about Ned Ludd, The Luddites, as they soon became known, marked their sincere protests with a sense of humor. They sent officious-sounding letters that began, “Whereas by the Charter” ...and ended with “Ned Lud’s Office, Sherwood Forest.” Invoking the Robin Hood legend gave them an air of nobly righting egregious wrongs of the rich agaist the poor. They also sometimes marched in women’s clothes as “General Ludd’s wives.”

For all the mockery and mischief, the Luddites were neither as organized nor as dangerous as authorities believed.

The group often met under cover of night, in isolated areas near the industrial towns where they worked. Initially, the bulk of the activity surrounded the Nottinghamshire area in 1811, but soon extended to Yorkshire by 1812, and to Lancashire in 1813. The movement was organized by smaller groups of men who believed their livelihoods were at stake. Since there were no centralized unifying forces or unions, the movement was able to sweep the country easily. They broke machines, burned down mills, and sent death threats to industrialists.

Initially, the attackers used sledgehammers. In Yorkshire, they even named their sledgehammers the “Great Enoch,” after a local blacksmith who had manufactured the hammers, and, ironically, the machines the protestors aimed to destroy. The rebels declared, “Enoch made them and Enoch shall break them.” In some cases, the violence escalated to gunfire when the factory owners responded by shooting the protesters.

In addition to the raids, Luddites coordinated public demonstrations and mailed letters to local industrialists and government officials. These letters explained their reasons for destroying the machinery and threatened further action if the use of the machines continued.

The Midlands Luddites often justified their demands through the Company of Framework Knitters, a sort of proto-union that negotiated with masters through named representatives.

However, in North West England, textile workers lacked these long-standing trade institutions. So, their letters were more of an attempt to achieve recognition as a united body of tradespeople. As such, they were more likely to include petitions for governmental reforms, such as increased minimum wages and the cessation of child labor. Northwestern Luddites were also more likely to use radical language linking their movement to that of the American and French revolutions.

One technology the Luddites targeted was the stocking frame.

Interestingly, the knitting machine had been developed 200 years earlier by an

Englishman named William Lee, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

However, the savvy queen understood that the traditional hand-knitters would be displaced, so she denied him the patent.  Eventually, Lee’s invention entered into the textile industry and, with gradual improvements, it helped the textile industry grow and created many new jobs. But this also paved the path for more machines to threaten humans.

Though the Luddites are the most famous of the machine-breaking movements, machine-breaking was nothing new. In the earliest dawn of the Industrial Revolution in 1700s England, man lashed out against machine. Sir John Kay’s flying shuttle, a device by which a weaver could send the yarn through the web of a loom without assistance, met with violent resistance in the 1760s.

Around the same time, James Hargreaves's spinning jenny, an invention that could turn up to a hundred spindles with a single wheel that had traditionally turned only one spindle came under attack. 

With the successful application of steam power to spinning and the advent of the power loom, cotton textiles became the world's first factory-based industry, and incidents of machine-breaking increased accordingly.

These struggles sometimes resulted in government suppression via Parliamentary acts such as the Protection of Stocking Frames, etc. Act 1788, but it did little to thwart machine-breaking activity.

Wool, England's traditional textile fiber, was less cooperative than cotton to industrial

production, but it would not be left out of the industrial boom. The invention of the gig mill—a machine used for raising the nap of the cloth preparatory to shearing--appeared in 1802, provoking destructive riots, notably in Wiltshire.

So, in 1811, when the Luddites began their machine-breaking movement, they were simply following a decades long precedent.

For the Luddites, the intention was to put employers under pressure until they caved to the workers’ demands. However the response they were met with was swift and brutal. The wealth of the factory owners, and no doubt their connection to government officials, meant that the British government responded swiftly to the concerns of the owners rather than the workers. But that’s nothing new, right?

The British government sent around 12-14,000 soldiers into the affected areas, a larger number than the Duke of Wellington’s army in the Peninsular War. They also attempted to suppress the Luddite activity by infiltrating the group with spies.

This only escalated tensions and violence.

In April 1812, a crowd of about 150 protesters had exchanged gunfire with the defenders of a mill in Yorkshire, and two Luddites died. Later than month, in one of the bloodiest incidents of the rebellion, some 2,000 protesters mobbed a mill near Manchester. The owner ordered his men to fire into the crowd, killing at least 3 and wounding 18. Soldiers killed at least 5 more the next day.

At the Ottiwells Mill in Marsden, West Yorkshire, at Crosland Moor in Huddersfield, four Luddites, led by a man named George Mellor, ambushed and assassinated mill owner, William Horsfall. Mellor had fired the fatal shot to mill owner’s groin when Horsfall claimed he would “ride up to his saddle in Luddite blood.” The four Luddites were arrested. One of the men, Benjamin Walker, turned informant to save his neck and the other three were eventually hanged.

In January 1813, the government sought to suppress the Luddite movement with a mass trial at York following the attack on Cartwrights Mill at Rawfolds near Cleckheaton. Over 60 men were charged, including Mellor and his companions, with various crimes in connection with Luddite activities. While some of those charged were actual Luddites, many of the arrestees had no connection to the movement at all.

Although the proceedings were legitimate jury trials, a lot of them were abandoned due to lack of evidence, leading to the acquittal of 30 men. These trials were certainly intended to act as show trials to deter other Luddite activities.

The harsh sentences of those found guilty, which included execution and penal transportation to Australia, quickly ended the movement.

Parliament made "machine-breaking" (i.e. industrial sabotage) a capital crime with the Frame Breaking Act of 1812.

The infamous Romantic poet, Lord Byron, whose family seat, Newstead Abbey, resided in Nottinghamshire, sympathized with the plight of the working class.

He denounced the government's ridiculous policies and ruthless repression. In his maiden speech in the House of Lords on February 27, 1812, he opposed the Frame Breaking Act. He said, "I have been in some of the most oppressed provinces of Turkey. But never, under the most despotic of infidel governments, did I behold such squalid wretchedness as I have seen since my return, in the very heart of a Christian country.”

Of course, anyone who knows anything about the nefarious Lord Byron knows he was the last man on the planet who should’ve been lecturing anyone about Christian principles and morality.

But I digress.  

By 1813, the government had succeeded in quashing the most of the Luddite rebellion and activities dwindled. Within a few years, the movement had completely dissipated.

While writing this blog, I’ve been reminded of one truth: when studying history, we can see that no matter how much things change, they often stay pretty much the same: New technology threatening human jobs and our ability to live and feed our families. Wars and policies creating unbearable inflation, supply shortages, and hardship for the common people. Politicians playing with people’s lives in their greedy grasp for power---and working-class people fed up with it all.    





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