“Those engines of mischief were sentenced to die by unanimous vote of the trade, and Ludd who can all opposition defy was the grand executioner made” – Luddite song.
The reign of George III of England (1760-1820) was a time of enlightenment, technological advancement and emerging capitalism, and as such witnessed the rise of the cotton, woollen and silk industries. The result was social destabilisation, which in turn led to an increase in criminal activity and, subsequently, to the implementation of unnecessarily excessive punishments. In the later part of the reign, these changes were set within the context of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1818), trade boycotts and a regency by the Prince of Wales (1811-1820) on account of the king’s “madness”.
In the Midlands, the counties of Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire were predominant in the trades of woollen knitting, cotton and stockings respectively. This had been based on the labour of framework knitters who worked in their own homes, fairly contentedly, despite low wages and long hours. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, there were around 30,000 knitting-frames in England, and around 25,000 of these were located in the Midlands.
Conditions began to decline for these knitters at the end of the eighteenth century due to a combination of factors: a rising population, changes in fashion (trousers began to replace the silk stockings which had been worn by men as well as women), exploitation by their ‘masters’ (who looked to buy the products cheaply in order sell them at a profit) and by the invention and implementation of labour-saving machinery.
Faced with poverty, and with no trade unions yet permitted to represent them (though the likes of Gravenor Henson were campaigning for government reform), these workers turned to direct methods, which targeted these new machines and the industrialists who utilised them in their factories and mills.
Machine-breaking was not new, but the scale of the sabotage occurring in England between 1811 and 1816 was unprecedented. Those involved were called ‘Luddites’, a name which may be based upon the legend of Ned Ludd, who is said to have smashed part of a stocking frame in temper in the previous century, or a reference to an Ancient British king named Lud.
The first phase of the Luddite Rebellion occurred in Nottinghamshire in 1811. Initially, parts were removed from the new wide-frames, but this soon developed into the complete destruction of the machines. The Midlanders were opposed to the misuse of the new wide-frames rather than to the machines themselves, as it undermined their fight for a minimum wage and affected their livelihoods.
The machine-breaking spread to Leicestershire and Derbyshire, and continued into the new year. From November 1811 to January 1812 inclusive, the Midland hosiery workers destroyed on average 175 frames per month.
Around this time, Luddite attacks began in Yorkshire, where the opposition was directed at the machinery itself, as a labour-saving device. As well as being somewhat divided in their grievances, there were few links between the Luddites in the Midlands and the North, and the main periods of activity in each region were detached, demonstrating further a lack of coordination.
The Government responded to the rebellion with the Frame-Breaking Bill, which passed through the House of Commons in February 1812. It proposed transportation or the death penalty for those found guilty of breaking stocking or lace frames (thus focussing on the events in the Midlands). In its second reading in the House of Lords, the poet and social campaigner Lord Byron spoke against the Bill, arguing that the value of life was being placed at “something less than the price of a stocking-frame”. It was passed nevertheless.
Rather than acting as a deterrent, however, the Frame-Breaking Act led to increased Luddite activity, as some protestors threw caution to the wind and resorted to violence and the use of arms, with the popular rhyme being “you might as well be hung for death as breaking a machine”.
The climax of the Luddism in Yorkshire occurred in April 1812 near Dewsbury. Mr Cartwright, the owner of Rawfolds Mill, had anticipated an attack, and defended his premises so well that the perpetrators withdrew. A local vicar, Patrick Brontë, presumably recounted the event to his daughter, Charlotte, for it provided the backdrop to her novel Shirley.
Two Luddites had been killed in the attack on Rawfolds Mill, though the verdict of ‘justifiable homicide’ led to riots across the North. Mr Cartwright would survive an assassination attempt, though fellow mill-owner Mr Horsfall was not so lucky, as he was shot and killed on his way home from Huddersfield on 18 April.
In London, the forming of a new Cabinet following the assassination of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval in May 1812 was a turning point in the authorities’ response to the rebellion, with mass arrest, trials and harsh sentencing following. The unrest continued, but machine-breaking declined. However, by the end of the year, frame-breaking erupted again in Nottinghamshire.
Three suspects in the murder of Mr Horsfall were tried at York Assize Court in January 1813. Even before the trial, permission had been given for their bodies to be given to surgeons for dissection, so that it is hardly surprising that they were found guilty. They were hanged outside York Castle (Clifford’s Tower), a large crowd of onlookers watching in silence.
On 15 January, another fourteen men (five of whom had been involved in the attack on Rawfolds Mill) were hanged for crimes associated with Luddism, the largest number ever hanged in a day at York Castle. A further seven were sentenced to transportation.
Around fifty-seven children were left fatherless as a result of the York trials. This was partly on account of the misuse of the Frame-Breaking Act by the authorities, since these attacks were not actually associated with the breaking of stocking or lace frames. Nevertheless, these punitive methods had the desired effect; there would be no more machine-breaking in Yorkshire.
After a hiatus, Luddite action broke out in the Midlands (Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire) in 1813 and 1814. The Battle of Waterloo in 1815 brought about the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and there followed a period of economic prosperity in England. The framework knitters, however, did not benefit from this, and in 1816 attacks on machinery recommenced.
The climax of the Luddite Rebellion in the Midlands occurred at midnight on Friday 28 June 1816, when sixteen men raided the factory of Heathcoat and Lacy at Loughborough, with around 1000 sympathisers watching as they destroyed nearly all of the fifty-five lace-frames. At the same time, they unintentionally destroyed Leicestershire’s ‘valuable connection with the lace trade’ (Bailey, 1998), as the factory owners subsequently moved their business to Devon.
Around eight men were sentenced to death at Leicester Assizes Court for their involvement, a crowd of 15,000 witnessing the hangings. Another two were transported for life.
There would be some isolated incidents in the years that followed, mainly in the form of food riots and strikes, but, otherwise, the Luddite Rebellion was over. Continued attempts to campaign peacefully for improved wages failed. Gravenor Henson was arrested in 1816 and imprisoned for seven months, despite his condemnation of the methods used by the Luddites.
The Northern Luddites had achieved nothing, having failed to halt the emergence of new machinery. Their counterparts in the Midlands witnessed some improvement in standards of living, with an increase in wages, but this was short-lived, and they became worse off in the long term.
‘Luddism, then, as a means of achieving improvements in the miserable living conditions of textile workers in the Midlands and the north, was an abject failure.’ (Bailey, 1998).
* * * * *
The main source of information for this article is Brian Bailey’s The Luddite Rebellion (1998), very well-researched, well-considered, and an interesting read – available in libraries, bookshops and online sellers, such as at Amazon
I became aware in the Luddites through my interest in the Bronte family, having read Shirley by Charlotte Bronte when I was thirteen years old – this is available in libraries, bookshops, and as a free e-book at Project Gutenberg
If you are interested in the Bronte link, I would recommend Juliet Barker’s biography The Brontës, in which she covers Patrick Bronte’s experiences of the Luddite Rebellion – this is available from online sellers, such as at Amazon
If you are looking for an historical site to visit associated with the Luddites, try The Framework Knitters’ Museum at Nottingham
All pictures are from Wikipedia and are in the public domain, with the exception of that of York Castle, which is the author’s own