This year marks the 200th year anniversary of the high point of the the “Luddite” revolt (November 1811-February 1813).
The Luddite revolt was a quasi-insurrectionary movement of textile workers taking action against their employers by breaking machinery, setting light to factories and other acts of “violence”. The revolt started in Nottinghamshire and spread to the wool districts of Yorkshire and the cotton mills of Lancashire.
“Luddism” is a pejorative term today, meaning backward-looking hostility to new technology. But that distorts the historical meaning of the Luddites’ struggle. This was a heroic movement for working-class rights, which, by the standards of the time, was a coherent challenge to the profit system.
Objection to particular new machines may have been a common and even central impetus in the struggles of 1812. But the form of their action — machine breaking — has to be understood in historical context.
Machine-breaking first started being used by groups of workers sometime in the seventeenth century. The last incident took place in the 1830s. Some incidents throughout that period had nothing to do with hostility to new machines, but were a form of “collective bargaining”, conducted to win demands on completely different issues.
In an era when trade union organisation was illegal, “machine breaking” was a logical and sometimes effective form of action. Smashing machines at night-time was much safer than striking and trying to organise pickets.
The Luddite movement was part of the tradition of machine breaking but it was much more organised. For that reason Luddism has been aptly described as a quasi-underground trade union movement.
The precise details of how new machinery was affecting the workers in 1812 differed from place to place. In Nottinghamshire new machines were deskilling the work in the stocking trade and the quality of the goods was diminishing. In the West Riding the specialised (finishing ) work of a particular and powerful group of textile workers was under threat from new machinery.
A more general factor — trade depression, induced by conditions created by the Napoleonic Wars — was important. It was widely believed (even by some members of the ruling class), that conditions could have been (but weren’t) ameliorated by the government.
In the West Riding more than a third of all manufacturers were forced out of business in 1811-12. Employers were cutting wages and laying off workers. New machinery was being brought in, in the West Riding at least, not just to enable capitalist expansion as it had been in the boom years before the War, but as a defensive measure, in order to safeguard profit.
At the same time the degree of control over the labour process that some trades had enjoyed was being undermined. For example, legislation deregulating the apprenticeship system was introduced in 1809. E P Thompson argues that the workers felt a loss of rights, a diminished status and a sense of injustice, and this was the single most important factor behind the movement.
In short, technological innovation, when and where it happened, was linked to smashing up the power of the workers.
The machine breaking and rioting which took place in 1812, was not just spontaneous elemental workers’ protest. The movement adopted guerrilla, even “terroristic”, tactics — the lives of some bosses and their families were threatened, one boss was killed. This was class war, fought with the means that were available to our class at that time.
How the Luddites saw themselves will never be known as no records of Luddite meetings remain. This was not because Luddites were illiterate. It was because they had to keep their affairs secret, for fear of penetration by spies and informers. Some historians argue the Luddites may have wanted to organise a general uprising. The movement must have been inspired by notions of justice and democracy, put into currency by the French Revolution and the English Jacobin movement (enthusiasts for the which had been active in the north of England. If the Luddites were “insurrectionary” in their aspirations, this too had to remain secret.
In February 1811 workers in the Nottinghamshire stocking industry began destroying knitting frames. A depression had gripped the hosiery trade, as it had other trades. The nature of the work was changing. Knitted cloth of poorer quality could now be made by relatively unskilled workers using bigger machines. The bosses took on cheap labour by employing apprentices to do the work of qualified workers. The skilled workers, whose conditions and wages had been undermined decided to take action.
In a three week period over two hundred stocking frames were destroyed. By March, 1811, several attacks were taking place every night. The Home Office sent in regular cavalry to “quieten” the area.
On 4 November 2011 machine breaking action resumed in Bulwell (near Nottingham) against a hated hosiery boss, Edward Hollingsworth. Workers from several villages gathered and, so the story goes, were led by a military-style commander who called himself “Ned Ludd”.
The name was a pseudonym for a local leader, and had probably been used before, maybe as early as 1779. It would be used again and again. The Bulwell workers were to become part of a generalised revolt and were disciplined; they moved in formation and were armed. They surrounded Hollingsworth’s barricaded house, but he had guns and killed one of the workers. The group moved on to attack Hollingsworth’s workshop, destroying only the new knitting frames.
The “Luddite” struggle spread around Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire, and gradually to Yorkshire and Lancashire at the beginning of 1812.
For various reasons, there had been few attempts to introduce new technology in Yorkshire. Here Luddism was initiated by the croppers. They wanted to stop the introduction of a new shearing frame to a mill near Brighouse by an up-and-coming entrepreneur, William Cartwright. They saw this as the beginning of changes by all employers in the area which would put them out of work.
The croppers had tremendous power. In 1802 they had organised a strike in Leeds against the use of “over-age” apprentices, i.e. the employment of adult workers at less than the adult rate for the job.
Eighty croppers brought out a factory of over 1,000 people. The croppers won. It was only a matter of time before one employer, or many employers, would attempt to sideline, undermine and replace an uppity group of workers by bringing in new machines.
When croppers began losing their jobs in West Riding, the croppers of the entire county began to organise. They met in secret at a pub in Halifax to plot and plan. As well as the immediate threats they would have discussed the wider issues: trade unionism, republicanism, the ideas of Tom Paine, revolution, parliamentary action and so on.
After a series of attacks around the country they set out to destroy the cloth-finishing machinery at Cartwright’s Rawfolds Mill.
The croppers’ main organiser was a young man from Huddersfield called George Mellor. He led the attack on 11 April 1812 at Rawfolds. Unfortunately the mill was protected by armed guards; two of the croppers were mortally wounded in the attack. Seven days later three men, with Mellor in command, retaliated by killing William Horsfall, a particularly obnoxious local mill-owner.
The Rawfolds events acted as a spark for demonstrations of anger in many places throughout April 1812: Ashton, Barnsley, Birmingham, Bolton, Carlisle, Cheadle, Coventry, Doncaster, Eccles, Macclesfield, Manchester, Middleton, Oldham, Rochdale, Saddleworth, Sheffield, Skipton, Stockport, Tintwistle and Wilmslow.
Moving through the countryside in heavy disguise and with blackened faces, the Luddites made swift and surprise raids. They were a highly successful “enemy within”. No one knew when they would strike next. Luddite discipline was reinforced by secret oaths and hand-signals. Such things were typical at this time when trade unions were banned. But such things also made the bourgeoisie paranoid.
1812 also saw attacks on Lancashire cotton mills. Local handloom weavers wanted to stop the introduction of power looms, and they were suffering from the massive increase in wheat prices. Food riots also took place — in Manchester, Oldham, Ashton, Rochdale, Stockport and Macclesfield.
Neither the local nor the central state had ready and sufficient forces to act to put down the Luddites. There was no police force as we know it in that time; much of the armed forces were fighting the French. But local magistrates could swear in special constables.
The weakness of the ruling class gave the Luddites enormous advantage initially. They could move around the countryside largely undetected. However the ruling class, facing an insurrectionary situation, was eventually compelled to act.
In February 1812, the Tory government made machine-breaking a capital offence. Later they sent 13,000 troops in the Luddite areas. Based in Manchester, the force effectively established martial law. They used torture and employed spies to get information. They began to make arrests.
In early June 1812, the first trial took place in Lancashire. Seven men and one woman were sentenced to death by hanging. Three of the men had stolen bread, cheese and potatoes during a riot. Four were convicted of an arson attack. The woman, Hannah Smith, had stolen potatoes, and was to be hanged for jumping on a butter cart and selling its contents to a crowd.
In West Riding the army formed special commando units to chase groups of Luddites through the countryside. They eventually managed to break up and repress the movement, Eventually Mellor and other West Riding Luddites were arrested, tried and found guilty. Seventeen were hung, seven were transported.
The Luddite revolt was not, as it has been depicted, an irrational response to “inevitable” technological change. It was an attempt by the groups of workers most affected by industrialisation to stop their livelihoods from being destroyed. They wanted the right to control the pace and the effect of innovation and change.
They wanted to kick back against the cruelty and ruthlessness of the “masters” who were asserting their right to make a profit, no matter what the social consequences.
• For information on anniversary events, see here