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The Luddites: 1775-1825 (Classroom Activity)

The Luddites: 1775-1825 (Classroom Activity)

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In 1771 Richard Arkwright opened a large factory next to the River Derwent in Cromford, Derbyshire, to house several of his Spinning-Frame machines. Arkwright later told his lawyer that Cromford had been chosen because it offered "a remarkable fine stream of water… in an area very full of inhabitants".

According to Adam Hart-Davis: "Arkwright's mill was essentially the first factory of this kind in the world. Never before had people been put to work in such a well-organized way. Never had people been told to come in at a fixed time in the morning, and work all day at a prescribed task. His factories became the model for factories all over the country and all over the world. This was the way to build a factory. And he himself usually followed the same pattern - stone buildings 30 feet wide, 100 feet long, or longer if there was room, and five, six, or seven floors high."

In 1785, Edmund Cartwright, the younger brother of Major John Cartwright, invented a weaving machine which could be operated by horses or a waterwheel. Cartwright began using power looms in a mill that he part-owned in Manchester. An unskilled boy could weave three and a half pieces of material on a power loom in the time a skilled weaver using traditional methods, wove only one.

The introduction of the power loom reduced the demand for cloth produced by handloom weavers. Those who still found masters willing to employ them, had to accept far lower wages than in the past. In 1807 over 130,000 signed a petition in favour of a minimum wage. The average wage of a weaver fell from 21 shillings in 1802 to 14 shillings in 1809.

The rejection of the idea of a minimum wage was defeated in the House of Commons. This was followed by a series of industrial disputes. In May 1808, 15,000 weavers held a meeting in St. George's Fields in Manchester in support of their demands for a minimum wage. The magistrates responded by sending in the military. One weaver was killed and several were seriously injured.

In the early months of 1811 the first threatening letters from General Ned Ludd and the Army of Redressers, were sent to employers in Nottingham. Workers, upset by wage reductions and the use of unapprenticed workmen, began to break into factories at night to destroy the new machines that the employers were using. In a three-week period over two hundred stocking frames were destroyed. In March, 1811, several attacks were taking place every night and the Nottingham authorities had to enroll four hundred special constables to protect the factories. To help catch the culprits, the Prince Regent offered £50 to anyone "giving information on any person or persons wickedly breaking the frames". These men became known as Luddites.

There is some fear of the mob coming to destroy the works at Cromford, but they are well prepared to receive them should they come here. All the gentlemen in this neighbourhood being determined to defend the works, which have been of such utility to this country. 5,000 or 6,000 men can be at any time assembled in less than an hour by signals agreed upon, who are determined to defend to the very last extremity, the works, by which many hundreds of their wives and children get a decent and comfortable livelihood.

A body of men, consisting of from one to two hundred, some of them armed with muskets with fixed bayonets, and others with colliers' picks, who marched into the village in procession, and joined the rioters. At the head of the armed banditti a man of straw was carried, representing the renowned General Ludd whose standard bearer waved a sort of red flag.

Information has just been given in, that you are an owner of those detestable Shearing Frames... I am now writing to you... that if they are not removed by the end of next week, I shall send 300 men to destroy them.

Ned Ludd was a village idiot in a Leicestershire village. Baited one day, he pursued his tormentors into a house and broke some machines. Hence, when machines were afterwards broken, it become customary to say that Ned Ludd had broken them.

King Ludd... obtained his name... from a youth called Ned Ludlam, who smashed his stocking frame... The Luddite movement lasted for more than six years, during which it destroyed tens of thousands of pounds worth of property.

On 27th April a riotous assembly took place at Middleton. The weaving factory of Mr. Burton and Sons had been previously threatened in consequence of their mode of weaving being done by the operation of steam. The factory was protected by soldiers, so strongly as to be impregnable to their assault; they then flew to the house of Mr. Emanuel Burton, where they wreaked their vengeance by setting it on fire. On Friday, the 24th April, a large body of weavers and mechanics began to assemble about midday, with the avowed intention of destroying the power-looms, together with the whole of the premises, at Westhoughton. The military rode at full speed to Westhoughton; and on their arrival were surprised to find that the premises were entirely destroyed, while not an individual could be seen to whom attached any suspicion of having acted a part in this truly dreadful outrage.

During the short time I recently passed in Nottingham, not twelve hours elapsed without some fresh act of violence; and on that day I left the the county I was informed that forty Frames had been broken the preceding evening, as usual, without resistance and without detection.

Such was the state of that county, and such I have reason to believe it to be at this moment. But whilst these outrages must be admitted to exist to an alarming extent, it cannot be denied that they have arisen from circumstances of the most unparalleled distress: the perseverance of these miserable men in their proceedings, tends to prove that nothing but absolute want could have driven a large, and once honest and industrious, body of the people, into the commission of excesses so hazardous to themselves, their families, and the community.

They were not ashamed to beg, but there was none to relieve them: their own means of subsistence were cut off, all other employment preoccupied; and their excesses, however to be deplored and condemned, can hardly be subject to surprise.

As the sword is the worst argument than can be used, so should it be the last. In this instance it has been the first; but providentially as yet only in the scabbard. The present measure will, indeed, pluck it from the sheath; yet had proper meetings been held in the earlier stages of these riots, had the grievances of these men and their masters (for they also had their grievances) been fairly weighed and justly examined, I do think that means might have been devised to restore these workmen to their avocations, and tranquility to the country.

On Monday afternoon a large body, not less than 2,000, commenced an attack, on the discharge of a pistol, which appeared to have been the signal; vollies of stones were thrown, and the windows smashed to atoms; the internal part of the building being guarded, a musket was discharged in the hope of intimidating and dispersing the assailants. In a very short time the effects were too shockingly seen in the death of three, and it is said, about ten wounded.

The Middleton riots originated in severe distress, exasperated by a short-sighted prejudice against the introduction of newly-invented machinery. The attack of the mob upon the factory, and the destruction of the house of one of its owners, were crimes of the greatest enormity. But at Westhoughton, where a steam-loom factory was set on fire and burnt down, the case was widely different. This outrage was debated at a meeting which took place on Dean Moor, near Bolton, the 9th of April, 1812, sixteen days before the scheme was put in practice. At this meeting there were present, during the greater part of its duration, and up to the time of its close, not more than about forty persons, of whom no less than ten or eleven were spies, reputed to be employed by Colonel Fletcher. The occurrence of circumstances like these, sixteen days before the burning of the factory took place, renders it not a matter of presumption, but of absolute certainty, that that alarming outrage might have been prevented, if to prevent it had been the inclination of either the spies or their employers.

If the machine that I work produces as much as a thousand men, I ought to enjoy the produce of a thousand men. But no such thing. I am working a machine which I know will starve me... At present machinery works against the poor workmen, and therefore it must be his deadliest enemy... The remedy is !i simple... Workmen must form co-operatives and accumulate capital... this will enable them to purchase these wonderful machines... Instead of sixteen hours' work, and eight hours rest, he may, when the machinery works for him, have eight I hours' work and sixteen for rest... Then the workmen will be able to shed tears of joy instead of sorrow over his machine.

Questions for Students

Question 1: Read the introduction and study source 2. Why were local men were so unhappy with Richard Arkwright in 1779?

Question 2: Compare sources 5 and 6. Give possible reasons why these accounts are different.

Question 3: Do you think source 1 is a reliable source of information on the person who wrote source 4?

Question 4: Describe and explain the views being expressed about machines in sources 4 and 12.

Question 5: In February 1812 the government of Spencer Perceval proposed that machine-breaking should become a capital offence. Did Lord Byron (source 8) agree with the government over this issue.

Question 6: Why was John Edward Taylor (source 11) critical of the authorities about the way that dealt with the actions of the Luddites in Westhoughton?

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.

The Luddites: 1775-1825 (Classroom Activity) - History

This historical overview is an extract from Kevin Binfield, ed., Writings of the Luddites (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004). No part of this page may be reproduced in any form without the written permission of Kevin Binfield.

Few groups have been more misunderstood and have had their image and name more frequently misappropriated and distorted than the Luddites. The Luddites were not, as not only popularizers of theories of technology but also capitalist apologists for unregulated innovation claim, universally technophobes. The Luddites were artisans -- primarily skilled workers in the textile industries in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Cheshire, the West Riding of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Flintshire in the years between March 1811 and April 1817 -- who when faced with the use of machines (operated by less-skilled labor, typically apprentices, unapprenticed workers, and women) to drive down their wages and to produce inferior goods (thereby damaging their trades' reputations), turned to wrecking the offensive machines and terrorizing the offending owners in order to preserve their wages, their jobs, and their trades. Machines were not the only, or even the major, threat to the textile workers of the Midlands and North. 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, famine and high food prices required more of each laborer's shrinking wages. Machines and the use of machines to drive down wages were simply the most accessible targets for expressions of anger and direct action.

The Luddites were not the first or only machine wreckers. Because organized, large-scale strikes were impractical due to the scattering of manufactories 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 Spitalfields narrow weavers 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 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, 1811-13, was the 11 March 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 at Nottingham. In the preceding month, framework knitters, also called stockingers, 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 11 March 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 that was cut and sewn into stockings rather than completely fashioned (knit in one piece without seams) and, second, of the employment of "colts," workers who had not completed the seven-year apprenticeship required by law. (For those laws, see the page on "Interpretations.")

Frames continued to be broken in many of the villages surrounding Nottingham. The 23 March 1811 and 20 April 1811 Nottingham Journal reports several weeks of almost nightly attacks in the villages, all successful and carried out without one attacker's being arrested. 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.

Letters from Midlands correspondents to the Home Office report a number of riotous disturbances, including the burning of haystacks and "an anonymous letter received by a Magistrate threatening still greater acts of violence by fire." Letters dated 13 and 14 November 1811 request that the government dispatch military aid because "2000 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, some of which were carried out in the two Nottingham newspapers, failed to result in the return of wages, piece rates, and frame rents to earlier levels or in any satisfactory amelioration of the framework knitters' economic circumstances. Frame breaking continued in the Midlands counties of 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 has traditionally been understood as having centered on the cotton-weaving trade, which had failed in an attempt to organize in 1808, and which was suffering from the use of steam-powered looms to decrease the wages of skilled weavers at a time of rising food prices and depressed trade however, documents that I have discovered in the McConnell, Kennedy and Company papers and Home Office documents that have been entirely overlooked by previous scholars indicate that Luddites were active in defense of the spinning trade, too. (For those documents, see Chapter 3 of Writings of the Luddites.) In Manchester, unlike Nottingham, the offensive machinery was housed in large factories. Luddite raids in and around Manchester tended to be carried out by large numbers of attackers and also often coincided with food riots, which provided crowds that were large enough to carry out the factory attacks and that came from a broadly distressed population ready to take action. 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 and the administration of loyalty oaths coupled with royal pardons conditioned upon the taking of those oaths.

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 fail 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 by 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 as a result of the rescinding of the Orders in Council, the suppression of the riots by the government's use of spies and the military, some wage and usage concessions, and some reduction in food prices. Despite its brief run, Luddism ought to be understood as E. P. Thompson and J. L. and Barbara Hammond have argued, as an important step in the formation of a class consciousness and the development of labor unions in Britain. Both the appropriation of the term Luddism and the use of the term as an epithet are erroneous to use the term other than in its historical context is to display ignorance of the particularity of historical conditions.

A number of excellent published histories of Luddism are available and are far more reliable and accurate than anything appearing on the internet. J. L. Hammond and Barbara Hammond gleaned the Home Office Papers for their treatment of Luddism in The Skilled Labourer (1919 -- indispensible). E. P. Thompson's landmark study, The Making of the English Working Class (1963 -- indispensible), considers Luddism in its relationship to cotemporaneous Radical and labor movements. Malcolm Thomis's The Luddites (1970 -- indispensible) was the first major study devoted solely to the Luddites. John Rule surveys the various scholarly treatments of Luddism in a chapter of his book The Labouring Classes in Early Industrial England (1986 -- supplemental). Adrian Randall's Before the Luddites (1991 -- indispensible) explores the philosophy of Luddism in its nascent form and considers the differences between the woollen industry in the West of England and the Yorkshire industry, where Luddism flourished. Kirkpatrick Sale's Rebels against the Future (1995 -- cautiously recommended) reinterprets Luddism as a general resistance to technology. The most recent complete history of Luddism is Brian Bailey's The Luddite Rebellion (1998 -- cautiously recommended). The first collection of actual Luddite writings is Kevin Binfield's Writings of the Luddites (forthcoming Spring 2004). Many of these books are available from major booksellers.

The Legend of &aposGeneral Ludd&apos

Nottingham’s textile workers claimed to be following the orders of a mysterious “General Ludd.” Merchants received threatening letters addressed from “Ned Ludd’s office, Sherwood Forest.” Newspapers reported that Ludd had been a framework knitting apprentice who had been whipped at the behest of his master and took his revenge by demolishing his master’s machine with a hammer.

Ned Ludd, however, was likely no more real than another legendary denizen of Sherwood Forest who fought against injustice, Robin Hood. Mythic though he may have been, Ned Ludd became a folk hero in parts of Nottingham and inspired verses such as:


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.


Notes and Addenda.

[1] In the course of the debate following this talk a member of the audience pointed out that the Methodist hymn sang by some of the victims on the scaffold did contain imagery of martyrdom ‘Behold the saviour of mankind/Nailed to the cruel tree…’ and that the Methodist ideology of some of the Luddites may have fuelled their sense of self sacrifice.

[2] Since writing this I came across another local story. According to Stuart Christie in his biography ‘Granny made me an Anarchist’, the house he rented in Honley, where he came to live after his acquittal in the Angry Brigade trials, contained an attic in which Luddites had hidden after the shooting of William Horsfall ! I have not come across this story anywhere before, so whether this is a garbled account of a true event, a local legend – or a tall tale told by locals to humour Christie I don’t know.

[3] The accounts of the use of the body fat of concentration camp victims to make soap makes this a prophetic utterance rather than just lurid hyperbole.

[4] One classic work ommitted from this account is Kurt Vonnegut’s 1952 novel ‘Player Piano’, where resistance to machines is led by the secret ‘Ghost Shirt Society’. Interestingly, former miner Dave Douglass entitles the last volume of his passionate autobiographical triology, describing the struggle against pit closures, ‘Ghost Dancers’ – evoking the same idea of a last ditch stand against cultural oblivion. The original Ghost Dancers, who wore the Ghost Shirts which were supposed to endow them with invulnerability, represented the final act of overt collective resistance by the Sioux people – (at least until the American Indian Movement occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973). It could be said that, in some ways, the Luddites were the Ghost Dancers of England’s pre-industrial age.

The Luddites: 1775-1825 (Classroom Activity) - History

In a panic at rising militancy resulting from rising food prices and the fear in the British ruling class inspired by the French Revolution, the Combination Act was passed in 1799, imposing draconian penalties for any form of association by workers. The Act of 1800 slightly moderated the 1799 Act. The Combination of Workers Act of 1824 repealed both these Acts. After an upsurge of trade union militancy Conspiracy Laws were introduced in 1825 with much the same effect. The 1859 Molestation of Workmen Act allowed peaceful picketing. The 1871 Trades Union Act finally gave trade unions legal recognition.

Especially around 1811-12, at a time when unions were being brutally suppressed and wages were being depressed to starvation levels by the introduction of machinery operated by unskilled labour, weavers led by the mythical General Ned Ludd organised a campaign of smashing machinery. They became known as The Luddites.

Proclamations Respecting Seditious Meetings 1795.

Seditious Assemblies Act 1795.

Treasonable and Seditious Practices Act 1795.

The Combination Laws 1800.

The Weavers Declaration Ned Ludd, 1812.

The Luddites in the West Riding a Barnsley Weaver, 1812.

Report of Luddite activity in Yorkshire Earl Fitzwilliam, 1812.

Report recommending Repeal of the Combination Act 1824.

Report from the Select Committee on the Combination Act 1825, including Rules of various unions.

The strike wave which broke out after the repeal of the Combination Act was replaced by a new Combination Act in 1825. The new Act narrowly defined the rights of trade unions as meeting to bargain over wages and conditions. Anything outside these limits was liable to prosecution as criminal conspiracy in restraint of trade. Trade unionists were not allowed to "molest," "obstruct," or "intimidate" others.

Declaration of The Yorkshire Woolcombers’ and Weavers’ Union, 1825.

Initiation Ceremony of The Woolcomber’s Union, circa 1834.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs, 1834.


England History Archive



The original Luddites claimed to be led by one Ned Ludd, also known as Ned Lud, "King Ludd" or "General Ludd", who is believed to have destroyed two large stocking-frames that produced inexpensive stockings undercutting those produced by skilled knitters, and whose signature appears on a "workers' manifesto" of the time. The character seems to be based on Ned Ludd, whose motives were probably quite different (frustration and not anti-technology).

The movement began in Nottingham in 1811 and spread rapidly throughout England in 1811 and [1812]], with many wool and cotton mills being destroyed, until the British government harshly suppressed them. The Luddites met at night on the moors surrounding the industrial towns, practising drilling and maneuvres and often enjoyed local support. The main areas of the disturbances were Nottinghamshire in November 1811, followed by the West Riding of Yorkshire in early 1812 and Lancashire from March 1812. Battles between Luddites and the military occurred at Burtons' Mill in Middleton, and at Westhoughton Mill, both in Lancashire. It was rumoured at the time that agent provocateurs employed by the magistrates were involved in stirring up the attacks. Magistrates and food merchants were also objects of death threats and attacks by the anonymous General Ludd and his supporters.

"Machine breaking" (industrial sabotage) was made a capital crime, and seventeen men were executed after 1813 trial in York. Many others were transported as prisoners to Australia. At one time, there were more British troops fighting the Luddites than against Napoleon Bonaparte on the Iberian Peninsula.

In recent years, the terms Luddism and Luddite or Neo-Luddism and Neo-Luddite have become synonymous with anyone who opposes the advance of technology due to the cultural changes that are associated with it.

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The odds are high, according to recent economic analyses. Indeed, fully 47 percent of all U.S. jobs will be automated “in a decade or two,” as the tech-employment scholars Carl Frey and Michael Osborne have predicted. That’s because artificial intelligence and robotics are becoming so good that nearly any routine task could soon be automated. Robots and AI are already whisking products around Amazon’s huge shipping centers, diagnosing lung cancer more accurately than humans and writing sports stories for newspapers.

They’re even replacing cabdrivers. Last year in Pittsburgh, Uber put its first-ever self-driving cars into its fleet: Order an Uber and the one that rolls up might have no human hands on the wheel at all. Meanwhile, Uber’s “Otto” program is installing AI in 16-wheeler trucks—a trend that could eventually replace most or all 1.7 million drivers, an enormous employment category. Those jobless truckers will be joined by millions more telemarketers, insurance underwriters, tax preparers and library technicians—all jobs that Frey and Osborne predicted have a 99 percent chance of vanishing in a decade or two.

What happens then? If this vision is even halfway correct, it’ll be a vertiginous pace of change, upending work as we know it. As the last election amply illustrated, a big chunk of Americans already hotly blame foreigners and immigrants for taking their jobs. How will Americans react to robots and computers taking even more?

One clue might lie in the early 19th century. That’s when the first generation of workers had the experience of being suddenly thrown out of their jobs by automation. But rather than accept it, they fought back—calling themselves the “Luddites,” and staging an audacious attack against the machines.

At the turn of 1800, the textile industry in the United Kingdom was an economic juggernaut that employed the vast majority of workers in the North. Working from home, weavers produced stockings using frames, while cotton-spinners created yarn. “Croppers” would take large sheets of woven wool fabric and trim the rough surface off, making it smooth to the touch.

These workers had great control over when and how they worked—and plenty of leisure. “The year was chequered with holidays, wakes, and fairs it was not one dull round of labor,” as the stocking-maker William Gardiner noted gaily at the time. Indeed, some “seldom worked more than three days a week.” Not only was the weekend a holiday, but they took Monday off too, celebrating it as a drunken “St. Monday.”

Croppers in particular were a force to be reckoned with. They were well-off—their pay was three times that of stocking-makers—and their work required them to pass heavy cropping tools across the wool, making them muscular, brawny men who were fiercely independent. In the textile world, the croppers were, as one observer noted at the time, “notoriously the least manageable of any persons employed.”

But in the first decade of the 1800s, the textile economy went into a tailspin. A decade of war with Napoleon had halted trade and driven up the cost of food and everyday goods. Fashions changed, too: Men began wearing “trowsers,” so the demand for stockings plummeted. The merchant class—the overlords who paid hosiers and croppers and weavers for the work—began looking for ways to shrink their costs.

That meant reducing wages—and bringing in more technology to improve efficiency. A new form of shearer and “gig mill” let one person crop wool much more quickly. An innovative, “wide” stocking frame allowed weavers to produce stockings six times faster than before: Instead of weaving the entire stocking around, they’d produce a big sheet of hosiery and cut it up into several stockings. “Cut-ups” were shoddy and fell apart quickly, and could be made by untrained workers who hadn’t done apprenticeships, but the merchants didn’t care. They also began to build huge factories where coal-burning engines would propel dozens of automated cotton-weaving machines.

“They were obsessed with keeping their factories going, so they were introducing machines wherever they might help,” says Jenny Uglow, a historian and author of In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815.

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The workers were livid. Factory work was miserable, with brutal 14-hour days that left workers—as one doctor noted—“stunted, enfeebled, and depraved.” Stocking-weavers were particularly incensed at the move toward cut-ups. It produced stockings of such low quality that they were “pregnant with the seeds of its own destruction,” as one hosier put it: Pretty soon people wouldn’t buy any stockings if they were this shoddy. Poverty rose as wages plummeted.

The workers tried bargaining. They weren’t opposed to machinery, they said, if the profits from increased productivity were shared. The croppers suggested taxing cloth to make a fund for those unemployed by machines. Others argued that industrialists should introduce machinery more gradually, to allow workers more time to adapt to new trades.

The plight of the unemployed workers even attracted the attention of Charlotte Brontë, who wrote them into her novel Shirley. “The throes of a sort of moral earthquake,” she noted, “were felt heaving under the hills of the northern counties.”

In mid-November 1811, that earthquake began to rumble. That evening, according to a report at the time, half a dozen men—with faces blackened to obscure their identities, and carrying “swords, firelocks, and other offensive weapons”—marched into the house of master-weaver Edward Hollingsworth, in the village of Bulwell. They destroyed six of his frames for making cut-ups. A week later, more men came back and this time they burned Hollingsworth’s house to the ground. Within weeks, attacks spread to other towns. When panicked industrialists tried moving their frames to a new location to hide them, the attackers would find the carts and destroy them en route.

A modus operandi emerged: The machine-breakers would usually disguise their identities and attack the machines with massive metal sledgehammers. The hammers were made by Enoch Taylor, a local blacksmith since Taylor himself was also famous for making the cropping and weaving machines, the breakers noted the poetic irony with a chant: “Enoch made them, Enoch shall break them!”

Most notably, the attackers gave themselves a name: the Luddites.

Before an attack, they’d send a letter to manufacturers, warning them to stop using their “obnoxious frames” or face destruction. The letters were signed by “General Ludd,” “King Ludd” or perhaps by someone writing “from Ludd Hall”—an acerbic joke, pretending the Luddites had an actual organization.

Despite their violence, “they had a sense of humor” about their own image, notes Steven Jones, author of Against Technology and a professor of English and digital humanities at the University of South Florida. An actual person Ludd did not exist probably the name was inspired by the mythic tale of “Ned Ludd,” an apprentice who was beaten by his master and retaliated by destroying his frame.

Ludd was, in essence, a useful meme—one the Luddites carefully cultivated, like modern activists posting images to Twitter and Tumblr. They wrote songs about Ludd, styling him as a Robin Hood-like figure: “No General But Ludd / Means the Poor Any Good,” as one rhyme went. In one attack, two men dressed as women, calling themselves “General Ludd’s wives.” “They were engaged in a kind of semiotics,” Jones notes. “They took a lot of time with the costumes, with the songs.”

And “Ludd” itself! “It’s a catchy name,” says Kevin Binfield, author of Writings of the Luddites. “The phonic register, the phonic impact.”

As a form of economic protest, machine-breaking wasn’t new. There were probably 35 examples of it in the previous 100 years, as the author Kirkpatrick Sale found in his seminal history Rebels Against the Future. But the Luddites, well-organized and tactical, brought a ruthless efficiency to the technique: Barely a few days went by without another attack, and they were soon breaking at least 175 machines per month. Within months they had destroyed probably 800, worth 㿅,000—the equivalent of $1.97 million, today.

“It seemed to many people in the South like the whole of the North was sort of going up in flames,” Uglow notes. “In terms of industrial history, it was a small industrial civil war.”

Factory owners began to fight back. In April 1812, 120 Luddites descended upon Rawfolds Mill just after midnight, smashing down the doors “with a fearful crash” that was “like the felling of great trees.” But the mill owner was prepared: His men threw huge stones off the roof, and shot and killed four Luddites. The government tried to infiltrate Luddite groups to figure out the identities of these mysterious men, but to little avail. Much as in today’s fractured political climate, the poor despised the elites—and favored the Luddites. “Almost every creature of the lower order both in town & country are on their side,” as one local official noted morosely.

An 1812 handbill sought information about the armed men who destroyed five machines. (The National Archives, UK)

At heart, the fight was not really about technology. The Luddites were happy to use machinery—indeed, weavers had used smaller frames for decades. What galled them was the new logic of industrial capitalism, where the productivity gains from new technology enriched only the machines’ owners and weren’t shared with the workers.

The Luddites were often careful to spare employers who they felt dealt fairly. During one attack, Luddites broke into a house and destroyed four frames—but left two intact after determining that their owner hadn’t lowered wages for his weavers. (Some masters began posting signs on their machines, hoping to avoid destruction: “This Frame Is Making Full Fashioned Work, at the Full Price.”)

For the Luddites, “there was the concept of a ‘fair profit,’” says Adrian Randall, the author of Before the Luddites. In the past, the master would take a fair profit, but now he adds, “the industrial capitalist is someone who is seeking more and more of their share of the profit that they’re making.” Workers thought wages should be protected with minimum-wage laws. Industrialists didn’t: They’d been reading up on laissez-faire economic theory in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, published a few decades earlier.

“The writings of Dr. Adam Smith have altered the opinion, of the polished part of society,” as the author of a minimum wage proposal at the time noted. Now, the wealthy believed that attempting to regulate wages “would be as absurd as an attempt to regulate the winds.”

Six months after it began, though, Luddism became increasingly violent. In broad daylight, Luddites assassinated William Horsfall, a factory owner, and attempted to assassinate another. They also began to raid the houses of everyday citizens, taking every weapon they could find.

Parliament was now fully awakened, and began a ferocious crackdown. In March 1812, politicians passed a law that handed out the death penalty for anyone “destroying or injuring any Stocking or Lace Frames, or other Machines or Engines used in the Framework knitted Manufactory.” Meanwhile, London flooded the Luddite counties with 14,000 soldiers.

By winter of 1812, the government was winning. Informants and sleuthing finally tracked down the identities of a few dozen Luddites. Over a span of 15 months, 24 Luddites were hanged publicly, often after hasty trials, including a 16-year-old who cried out to his mother on the gallows, “thinking that she had the power to save him.” Another two dozen were sent to prison and 51 were sentenced to be shipped off to Australia.

“They were show trials,” says Katrina Navickas, a history professor at the University of Hertfordshire. “They were put on to show that [the government] took it seriously.” The hangings had the intended effect: Luddite activity more or less died out immediately.

It was a defeat not just of the Luddite movement, but in a grander sense, of the idea of “fair profit”—that the productivity gains from machinery should be shared widely. “By the 1830s, people had largely accepted that the free-market economy was here to stay,” Navickas notes.

A few years later, the once-mighty croppers were broken. Their trade destroyed, most eked out a living by carrying water, scavenging, or selling bits of lace or cakes on the streets.

“This was a sad end,” one observer noted, “to an honourable craft.”

These days, Adrian Randall thinks technology is making cab-driving worse. Cabdrivers in London used to train for years to amass “the Knowledge,” a mental map of the city’s twisty streets. Now GPS has made it so that anyone can drive an Uber—so the job has become deskilled. Worse, he argues, the GPS doesn’t plot out the fiendishly clever routes that drivers used to. “It doesn’t know what the shortcuts are,” he complains. We are living, he says, through a shift in labor that’s precisely like that of the Luddites.

Economists are divided as to how profound the disemployment will be. In his recent book Average Is Over, Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, argued that automation could produce profound inequality. A majority of people will find their jobs taken by robots and will be forced into low-paying service work only a minority—those highly skilled, creative and lucky—will have lucrative jobs, which will be wildly better paid than the rest. Adaptation is possible, though, Cowen says, if society creates cheaper ways of living—“denser cities, more trailer parks.”

Erik Brynjolfsson is less pessimistic. An MIT economist who co-authored The Second Machine Age, he thinks automation won’t necessarily be so bad. The Luddites thought machines destroyed jobs, but they were only half right: They can also, eventually, create new ones. “A lot of skilled artisans did lose their jobs,” Brynjolfsson says, but several decades later demand for labor rose as new job categories emerged, like office work. “Average wages have been increasing for the past 200 years,” he notes. “The machines were creating wealth!”

The problem is that transition is rocky. In the short run, automation can destroy jobs more rapidly than it creates them—sure, things might be fine in a few decades, but that’s cold comfort to someone in, say, their 30s. Brynjolfsson thinks politicians should be adopting policies that ease the transition—much as in the past, when public education and progressive taxation and antitrust law helped prevent the 1 percent from hogging all the profits. “There’s a long list of ways we’ve tinkered with the economy to try and ensure shared prosperity,” he notes.

Will there be another Luddite uprising? Few of the historians thought that was likely. Still, they thought one could spy glimpses of Luddite-style analysis—questioning of whether the economy is fair—in the Occupy Wall Street protests, or even in the environmental movement. Others point to online activism, where hackers protest a company by hitting it with “denial of service” attacks by flooding it with so much traffic that it gets knocked off­line.

Perhaps one day, when Uber starts rolling out its robot fleet in earnest, angry out-of-work cabdrivers will go online—and try to jam up Uber’s services in the digital world.

“As work becomes more automated, I think that’s the obvious direction,” as Uglow notes. “In the West, there’s no point in trying to shut down a factory.”

You know the name, but just who were the Luddites?

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"You heroes of England who wish to have a trade
Be true to each other and be not afraid
Tho' Bayonet is fixed they can do no good
As long as we keep up the Rules of General Ludd."

Not long ago I met a filmmaker friend for lunch in the Fisherman's Wharf area of San Francisco, where she was doing some work. She showed up in her sports car with her digital video gear and spent much of our meeting setting it up. At some point she got a call and took it on her BlackBerry. Toward the end of our conversation, I mentioned a new piece of software I had downloaded.

"I don't get that stuff," she nervously confided. "I'm such a Luddite."

One of the ironies of our time is that while most Americans have more machines and gadgets than ever, the term "Luddite" has become part of our lingua franca. An online critic calls a new play skeptical of cell phone culture a "luddites' manifesto." A writer for the New York Times boasts of his "luddite summer," in which he "tried not to Twitter." A graduate student wonders whether it is still "OK to be a luddite," as did the writer Thomas Pynchon almost a quarter of a century ago.

"We now live, we are told, in the Computer Age," Pynchon worried. "What is the outlook for Luddite sensibility? Will mainframes attract the same hostile attention as knitting frames once did?"

What's strange about this kind of talk is how divorced it is from the concerns of the poor unfortunates of two hundred years ago who actually were "The Luddites." We've got them down as a noble mob of anti-technology and anti-capitalist crusaders. But were they either of those things?

Only General Ludd . . .

The Luddites were weavers who had the bad luck to live in early nineteenth century Britain, most famously in the Nottinghamshire county of Robin Hood legend. They made leg stockings, first as apprentices and then hopefully as masters. They worked in villages and sold their wares to hosiery distributors who, in turn, sold them locally or shipped them off to markets across the British Isles, continental Europe, and the rest of the world.

Then a series of economic calamities shook their world. During the Napoleonic wars and its conflict with the United States in 1812, Britain lost access to continental European and American consumer markets. To add insult to economic injury, the clothing stylist Beau Brummell encouraged the London upper classes to wear trousers rather than stockings.

This reduced many parts of artisan England to near starvation in response, weaver masters made the same blunder that farmers of the time often made. They overproduced, skimped on quality, and embraced labor-saving machines—which in turn cut the wages of thousands of stocking makers and put more of them out of work.

The weavers appealed for help and emergency relief, but the war with France painted any public outcry with the color of sedition. The workers could not vote, legally join unions, or in some cases even demonstrate in public. There was, however, one ancient means of registering discontent that artisans resorted to in desperate times: breaking or "Ludding" machines. Popular legend had it that one day a young slacker named Ned Ludd got sick of his job and stopped working. His boss managed to convince a judge that Ned should be whipped. The kid wasn't the sharpest pencil in the cup, and he smashed up his weaving machine in response.

Desperate, and inspired by this tale of Ned Ludd, between 1811 and 1817 thousands of stocking makers in five counties raised hell, destroying weaving frames, factories, and workshops. When they weren't trashing machinery, they robbed storehouses and rioted over food prices and supplies. All told, the Luddites destroyed property and machinery worth about ?100,000. By the height of the rebellion, "Ned Ludd" had been promoted to mythical leader of the Luddites.

"Only General Ludd means the poor any good," his followers scrawled on the walls of public houses and taverns.

Full fashioned work

So what did the Luddites really believe in? The popular image of them as an anti-technology movement fumbles upon a close look at their lives. The stocking frame weaving machines that these artisans mastered were complicated devices that required hand and foot coordination. So were the shearing tools they used to cut their cloth.

Obviously, the Luddites whacked an impressive number of new labor-saving devices—"wide" weaving frames that could do the work of five stocking makers, and even bigger steam-powered factories that could replace entire artisan communities. But they just as often went after workshops with conventional machinery. The Luddites didn't oppose technology they opposed the sudden collapse of their industry, which they blamed in part on new weaving machines, but just as often on cost-cutting workshops that still operated with more conventional equipment.

You also can't tag the Luddites simply as an anti-capitalism movement (although plenty of writers do). Their anonymously published poems and statements didn't cite the c-word—but, obviously, they made stockings for sale in the marketplace. What these artisans fought was a completely unregulated economy that regarded their destruction as a minor blot on the larger page of progress.

"Let the wise and the great lend their aid and advice," one of their songs exclaimed. "Nor e'er their assistance withdraw / Till full-fashioned work at the old fashioned price / Is established by Custom and Law."

With the end of the European war, improved trade, lower food prices, and some short term employer concessions slowed the Luddites down. So did massive repression. Luddism, the British historian E.P. Thompson wrote in 1966, was "a violent eruption of feeling against unrestrained industrial capitalism," and the powerful responded without restraint as well.

Give the Luddites some credit for effective organizing, at the least it took the biggest army the British government had ever assembled in response to a domestic uprising to stop General Ludd and his followers: 12,000 armed men—more than some of the divisions sent to maintain control over India.

Are we all Luddites now?

So can modern mobile warriors consider themselves descendants of this cause? If you are reading this essay on your laptop or iPhone, chances are that you aren't an unemployed weaver staring starvation in the face. You may be intimidated or annoyed by Twitter, Facebook, or the latest mobile phone application, but that doesn't make you a Luddite. The stocking artisans of early nineteenth century England had nothing in common with our daily anxieties about devices unimaginable in their time.

On the other hand, many people today still fear a world in which technology and the free market both run rampant without any oversight from "the wise and the great" (or from the rest of us, for that matter). To that extent, we can claim at least a strain of Luddite ancestry.

But only a strain. Let's be grateful that we live in a more open society where we can debate labor and technology problems via peaceful and democratic means, and remember General Ludd's Army as the product of a time when others couldn't do the same.

"Chant no more your old rhymes about bold Robin Hood,
His feats I but little admire.
I will sing the Achievements of General Ludd,
Now the Hero of Nottinghamshire."

The Luddites: 1775-1825 (Classroom Activity) - History

Please create a poster encouraging people to join either the Luddites or the Swingers. Remember that these were secret organizations, so they would not meet publicly! Their symbol was often a large hammer (the Luddites called theirs 'Old Enoch')

  • 8A2 - Wednesday 6 May 2009
  • 8A3 - Friday 8 May 2009
  • 8B3 - Monday 18 May 2009
  • 8B4 - Tuesday 5 May 2009

8A1 History - The Luddites

Please complete all of the questions at the end of the play we looked at in class about the Luddites (including the poster!)

You can find the play at the link below:
Luddites Play

8A4 - Random History lesson!

    to look at the Union Flag as it is today. Can you name the parts that relate to the different countries?
  1. To find out about the making of the Union Flag we're going to do a short online lesson. Click here to access the lesson and do the quiz!
  2. Play this Fling the Teacher! game about the Making of the UK.
  3. Create your own arcade game using ClassTools.net. The questions should all be about what you have learned today! :-)

19th century factories - diary entry

Please complete the diary entry you started as a 13 year-old working in a factory during the Industrial Revolution. This is due week beginning 27 April 2009.

Below are the relevant Powerpoint slides from the lesson and pages from the textbook. :-)

(click on images to enlarge)

The Domestic System - storyboard

Please complete the storyboard you began in this week's lesson. This is due for the first lesson back after the Easter holidays!

Here are the resources you had in the lesson to help you:

(click on images to enlarge)

Analysis of Domestic System source

You need to use the 3C's strategy:

Content - what can you see in the image? (just describe the source!)

Context - what was happening at the time this source was made? (what do you know from your own knowledge that will help?)

Comment - what is the Content saying about the Context? (did the person who made this source think the Domestic System was a good or a bad idea?

Great Fire of London

Please finish off the work we started today on the Great Fire of London (1666).

Resources (click to enlarge):

Year 8 History - Great Plague of 1665

Please finish off the work from today's lesson if it is still incomplete.

1. Copy and label the image of a plague doctor into your exercise book (click on the image below for a larger version):

2. What did people at the time think caused the plague? Use the information below and your own knowledge from the lesson.

4. Use the evidence from Samuel Pepys' diary to answer question 2 (both below)

Watch the video: NHD Documentary 2017: The Luddites (May 2022).