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Episodes

Chapter 24: The Luddites

As capitalists invested in machine technology, they put many of their traditional competitors out of business, forcing them into the factories as de-skilled workers. Then, between falling incomes and rising prices, those began to strike back. And the Luddites – a shadowy network of militant 20-somethings, led by a man who probably never existed – went to war with the machines and their owners. This is their story.

Sources for this episode include:

Allitt, Patrick N. “The Industrial Revolution.” The Great Courses. 2014.

Randall, Adrian. Before the Luddites: Custom, Community and Machinery in the English Woollen Industry, 1776-1809. Cambridge University Press. 1991.

Stearns, Peter N. The Industrial Revolution in World History. 4th Edition. Westview Press. 2013.

The Luddites: The History and Legacy of the English Rebels Who Protested Against Advanced Machinery During the Industrial Revolution. Charles River Editors. 2018.

Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. Vintage. 1966.

Wilson, Tracy V. and Holly Frey. “The Luddites.” Stuff You Missed in History Class. July 3, 2013. https://www.missedinhistory.com/podcasts/the-luddites.htm


Full Transcript

In 1794, an entrepreneur by the name of John Bell bought a small, wool clothmaking mill outside Bath, England. Over the next five years he grew the business and erected a small factory. This factory included new machines – a gig mill and possibly some shearing frames – which would scale production so his cloths could be sold at a lower price than those of his local competitors.

Those local competitors didn’t exactly have the capital Bell had to build such factories for themselves. And now, through no fault of their own, they were losing their livelihood to Bell’s machines.

In 1799, Bell received a letter, reading:

“I send you this to inform you that we – the cloth workers of Trowbridge, Bradford, Chippinham, and Melkshom – are almost (or the greatest part of us) out of work and we are fully convinced that the greatest of the cause is your dressing work by machinery. And we are determined, if you follow this practice any longer, that we will keep some people to watch you about with loaded blunderbuss or pistols, and will certainly blow your brains out. It is no use to destroy the factories but put you damned villains to death.”

The letter goes on to warn Bell that he’d burn in Hell for eternity and suggest that they may kill his mother too.

For over thirty years now, the first Industrial Revolution had slowly but surely upended life in Great Britain. In the old days, if you were willing to work hard, you would be rewarded for it. And if you weren’t rewarded – if you did go hungry – it was usually because of forces outside of human control. Disease or famine would disrupt your economy and your life – it typically wasn’t because of other people.

But now that was starting to change. Many folks were working harder and longer than their parents or grandparents, with food more affordable and abundant than ever, and yet they were struggling to survive.

Allow me to read from E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class.

“In the 1790s, something like an “English Revolution” took place, of profound importance in shaping the consciousness of the post-war working class…

“In the decades after 1795 there was a profound alienation between classes in Britain, and working people were thrust into a state of apartheid whose effects – in the niceties of social and educational discrimination – can be felt to this day.

“England differed from other European nations in this, that the flood-tide of counter-revolutionary feeling and discipline coincided with the flood-tide of the Industrial Revolution; as new techniques and forms of industrial organization advanced, so political and social rights receded. The “natural” alliance between an impatient radically-minded industrial bourgeoisie and a formative proletariat was broken as soon as it was formed.”

A social structure of inequality had existed since the Stone Age. There were rulers and bishops and nobles, and then everybody else. But a new, entirely economic structure of inequality was forming too, between those in that “everybody else” category. And eventually, the pot started boiling over, as the people at the bottom of the structure started going after the people – and the machines – that created it.

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This is the Industrial Revolutions

Chapter 24: The Luddites

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Now, it wasn’t the 1790s when workers started revolting against machines. That had been going on for centuries. Ever since the stocking frame – a humble machine, by our standards, for weaving textiles – was invented in the 16th Century, protests or riots against it would break out from time to time. The 17th Century is full of such risings, especially after the Levelers and the Diggers of the English Civil War popped onto the scene.

Things calmed down for a while in the 18th Century, but when John Kay invented his fly shuttle – which, you’ll recall from Chapter 5, kick-started this whole culture of mass production in the 1730s and 40s – he (apparently) had to be carried out of his village in a burlap sack to escape the angry local weavers.

Inventions like the stocking frame and fly shuttle made production of cloths more efficient and the cloths themselves more affordable. Which would have been great if all the weavers using these machines could actually afford them.

Instead, they usually needed to rent their stocking frames from merchants who contracted them and who pocketed most of the profits. To build a fly shuttle for their cottage required cash they didn’t usually have. Those who could afford to buy their own machines got rich and those who couldn’t got squeezed out of the market.

For the traditional grain millers of London, who we discussed last week, lower bread prices were a bad thing. For traditional weavers across England, lower textile prices were a bad thing. They had been the first profession given guild status in the year 1100, as a means of stabilizing their incomes. Now they were getting so poor that many gave up and went into the factories of the burgeoning capitalists.

And as they entered the factories, they were producing goods with machines owned by their employers – a striking departure from the rest of history. Additionally, there was little opportunity for advancement, little upward mobility in the new factory system. For every one worker who moved up the ladder, dozens or even hundreds of others stayed behind. Many were literally abused by their bosses, who whipped them or forced them to wear lead weights around their neck for infractions as trivial as whistling on the job. And many of these workers were children, under the age of 10. If the child workers tried to escape, bounty hunters would catch them, bring them back, and they would face even harsher punishments.

Outside the factories, in the old days, workers had the guilds to look out for them. But in 1799 and 1800, Parliament passed the Combination Acts, making it illegal for factory workers to combine themselves into bargaining units. Labor unions wouldn’t become legal in Britain for more than 20 years.

So there was little that workers could do, but many took to small forms of resistance. Some embraced the concept of the “lump o’ labor” – where they would work only as long and hard during the day as they were getting paid to, no more. If they saw an opportunity to increase productivity, they didn’t tell the boss.

Others took to outright industrial sabotage. They stole tools and materials, dirtied the equipment, took days off without telling their employer. And one legendary worker started a movement when he destroyed the boss’s machine.

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In 1779, there was boy apprenticed to a cottage industry weaver in the village of Anstey near Leicester, England. His job was to operate the stocking frame. This was a boring, monotonous job, and he started slacking off. As a punishment, his master whipped him and demanded he picked up the pace. So incorrigible was the situation that the boy, in a fit of rage, found a hammer and smashed the stocking frame to pieces.

His name was Edward Ludd. (Ned, for short.)

Ned Ludd took off. He may not have been the smartest boy, but he was determined to end the tyranny of the stocking frame and other machines. Hiding in the nearby Sherwood Forest – like the infamous Robin Hood had so many centuries earlier – he would go from town to town and destroy the increasingly industrial machines of the age.

At least that’s the legend.

Truth-be-told, there probably was no Ned Ludd. Or, if there was, there’s no reliable historical record of him. That didn’t stop the story from spreading, though. In the three-plus decades following his legendary exploits, workers across England would occasionally take to destroying the machines they worked with. And when it happened, they would (perhaps jokingly) blame it on Ned Ludd.

Adding to the legend were supposed sightings by those who feared Ludd – mill owners and militiamen. One described him as “a towering, strapping figure with a ‘ghostly white’ complexion, brandishing ‘a pike in his hand, like a sergeant’s halberd,’ and a sinister look in his beady eyes.”

Destruction of stocking frames, engines, mills, manufacturing equipment, and other tools and machines became such a problem that in 1788, Parliament passed the Protection of Stocking Frames, etc. Act. If you were a worker who deliberately damaged your boss’s machine, you were subject to fines or even imprisonment. Total destruction of the machine was a felony, and guilty parties would be exiled to Australia for 7 to 14 years.

And yet, no one was prosecuted under this law. The problem continued.

In May 1807, six thousand angry weavers marched in Manchester to protest the unlivable 8 shillings per week they were earning for an 80-hour work week. The crowd was broken up, but grew to 15,000 the next day, and cavalrymen there to keep the peace fired into the crowd, killing one and injuring dozens. Illegal worker strikes followed and meetings were held. Dragoons would come to break up the meetings and arrest those who participated in labor action.

So, workers retaliated by attacking the local factories and mills. They smashed windows and dumped corrosive sulfuric acid over power looms, rendering them useless. While some were horrified by the violence and destruction of property, most of the public sympathized with and even supported the weavers. It was snowballing into a full-fledged movement.

And as it did, the myth of Ned Ludd gathered steam and was romanticized. Not only was he a great outlaw in popular imagination, but a great leader. He’d be referred to as “King Ludd” or “General Ludd”. Ballads were written about him, including “General Ludd’s Triumph”.

Chant no more your old rhymes about bold Robin Hood,
His feats I but little admire
I will sing the Atchievements of General Ludd
Now the Hero of Nottinghamshire
Brave Ludd was to measures of violence unused
Till his sufferings became so severe
That at last to defend his own Interest he rous'd
And for the great work did prepare

Now by force unsubdued, and by threats undismay'd
Death itself can't his ardour repress
The presence of Armies can't make him afraid
Nor impede his career of success
Whilst the news of his conquests is spread far and near
How his Enemies take the alarm
His courage, his fortitude, strikes them with fear
For they dread his Omnipotent Arm! 

The guilty may fear, but no vengeance he aims
At [the] honest man's life or Estate
His wrath is entirely confined to wide frames
And to those that old prices abate
These 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
 

And when in the work of destruction employed
He himself to no method confines
By fire and by water he gets them destroyed
For the Elements aid his designs
Whether guarded by Soldiers along the Highway
Or closely secured in the room
He shivers them up both by night and by day
And nothing can soften their doom

He may censure great Ludd's disrespect for the Laws
Who ne'er for a moment reflects
That foul Imposition alone was the cause
Which produced these unhappy effects
Let the haughty no longer the humble oppress
Then shall Ludd sheath his conquering Sword
His grievances instantly meet with redress
Then peace will be quickly restored

Let the wise and the great lend their aid and advice
Nor e'er their assistance withdraw
Till full fashioned work at the old fashioned price
Is established by Custom and Law
Then the Trade when this ardorous contest is o'er
Shall raise in full splendor its head
And colting and cutting and squaring no more
Shall deprive honest workmen of bread.

Then, beginning in March 1811, mill owners and local newspapers began receiving letters from General Ned Ludd and his “Army of Redressers.” And suddenly, hundreds of young men in secretive, roaming terror squads began breaking into textile mills and destroying the machines.

The British press dubbed them “Luddites.”

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In 1789, the inventor Edmund Cartwright patented a power loom – an automated weaving machine that could be powered by a water mill or a steam engine – and it could weave twice as fast as a handloom weaver.

To the weavers, the stocking frame and the fly shuttle had been bad enough. The power loom was devastating. It was first adapted in 1790 by a Manchester firm that installed 30 of the machines before the factory was burned to the ground – possibly by under-employed local weavers.

Nevertheless, the power loom got better and better as engineers tinkered with it, and by 1803 there were about 2,400 in Great Britain – putting already-weary weavers out of work and reducing incomes for those weavers still working. Those weavers still working were, more and more, working de-skilled jobs.

On top of that, the prices of everyday resources (like food, soap, and coal) were increasing, as those resources were being redirected to the war effort against Napoleon and in short supply for the domestic market. At the same time, exports to the Continent came to a standstill, hindering economic growth.

The first Luddite attack came on March 11th, 1811, when a band of newly-unemployed weavers broke into the most prominent textile mills in the village of Arnold near Nottingham. In just hours they destroyed 63 machines. Over the next three weeks, they attacked more mills and dismantled 200 more stocking frames.

Who were these Luddites?

Nobody really knows. They were incredibly secretive. But they were an enormous movement – organized, disciplined, and militant. It seems that most of them were men in their early-to-mid 20s, hailing from the lower classes of northern England. To join up, they needed a fiery passion and unbreaking loyalty to the movement.

Recruits went through an initiation ceremony in which they were blindfolded and escorted to a secret location on the edge of town – somewhere they weren’t familiar with – and led by ten elders wearing burlap sacks to conceal their faces.

Then the blindfold was removed, and they would recite an oath of secrecy: “I never will reveal to any person…under the canopy of heaven the names of the persons who compose this Secret Committee, their proceedings, meeting, places of abode, dress, features, connections, or anything else that might lead to a discovery of [the brotherhood]…swear that I will use my best endeavors to punish by death any traitor.” To seal the oath, they would kiss a leather-bound Bible – a rite they called the “Kissing of the Book.”

In the textile region between Lancashire, Yorkshire, and Nottinghamshire – which the authorities dubbed the “Luddite Triangle” – the vandals built their movement, conducting drills in the woods with hundreds of men, preparing for nighttime raids. They would be stealthy, quick, and methodical. The Luddites smeared their faces in coal dust or wore their scarves up to their eyes, so as not to be recognized. They carried every imaginable weapon – pistols, hammers, axes, swords, and clubs. They stayed physically fit and practiced ways to rapidly dismantle a stocking frame and power loom, created a form of sign language, and memorized cues. For example, a lookout would watch for the authorities – and when they’d come, he’d fire a pistol, shouting “Ned Ludd!”, and the men would sneak out into the shadows, undetected.

The Luddites would plaster strongly-worded posters on the doors of textile factories, protesting the “crimes” of the owners. Before they attacked, they would notify the victim or the local press ahead of time, giving the machine owner the opportunity to reform his business first. The letters would always be signed by Ned Ludd – sometimes as King Ludd of Nottingham, or as General Ludd and his Army of Redressers, or from the Office of Ned Ludd in Sherwood Forest.

The public, who sympathized with the plight of the weavers, loved what was happening. The government, not so much. After the first attack, hundreds of special constables were sent to northern England to protect mills that were potential targets. Huge cash rewards were offered – one of which by the Prince Regent – to anyone who could inform on any of the Luddites.

In November that year, about a dozen Luddites attacked the home and mill of Edward Hollingsworth, who woke up to the sounds of them prying the iron bars off the mill building before smashing in the door of his house. But when they returned a week later to finish the job, they found Hollingsworth had hired armed security.

What came next was a gun battle. A young Luddite named John Westley was shot and cried “Proceed, my brave fellows, I die with a willing heart!” Instead, his comrades scooped him up and fled into the woods. Hollingsworth’s men cheered. But about an hour later, the Luddites returned, blinded by rage. They subdued the guards, destroyed all the equipment in the mill, destroyed the Hollingsworth family’s furniture and set their house on fire. They took off into the woods yet again and were never found.

Luddite attacks continued across the region in the weeks that followed, and even included a march on London, when hundreds of Luddites set out from an alehouse in Nottinghamshire to destroy some 70 stocking frames all those miles away. As they marched, they sang songs about their mythical general, Ned Ludd.

As news of the attacks spread across the country, so did the movement. As one local official described, “Almost every creature of the lower order both in town and country are on their side.” By the end of 1811, another 150 stocking frames were destroyed in various village mills and cottages.

Some of the Luddite demands were more realistic than others. Often times they wanted business owners to abandon their power looms and bring back handlooms. Others advocated for the advance of power looms to simply slow down. Still others suggested a system of profit sharing or redistribution in the mega-factories. In the face of Luddite popularity, several business owners actually conceded or willingly negotiated. Others would laugh in their faces and stock up on security.

Among the latter was William Radcliffe in Stockport, outside Manchester. On the afternoon of March 20th, 1812, a pistol rang outside his factory, giving the signal for 2,000 Luddites to attack. They threw stones, smashing the factory windows. An armed guard fired, hoping to scare off the Luddites. But then the other guards started firing, and soon, three people died and 10 were wounded.

A week later, Luddites attacked a mill in Middleton and four were shot dead by snipers on the roof. Then hundreds of men marched through the streets Middleton to join the rioters. They carried muskets, mining picks, and a straw man representing General Ludd, waving a red flag.

The government vastly increased the presence of the army, militias, and special constables throughout the country. At least 12,000 troops were sent to the Luddite Triangle. Never before had so many British soldiers gone to quell a domestic uprising. Hundreds of spies were sent to infiltrate the Luddites, but they could never break the shell of the tight-lipped society.

In March, Parliament passed the Destruction of Stocking Frames, etc. Act of 1812, significantly upping the penalties for the crimes laid out in the 1788 bill. Now the destruction of stocking frames was a crime punishable by death. Four months later, the government decreed that anyone who took illegal oaths would be immediately sentenced to hanging.

In response, the Office of Ned Ludd issued a declaration, which they sent to the Nottingham Review in December. “[T]he frame work knitters do hereby declare the aforesaid Act to be null and void to all Intents and Purposes…By order of King Ludd, Nottingham.”

But the movement had reached its peak. In April, 1812, 150 Luddites marched on the Rawfields Mill in Yorkshire, planning to destroy 50 water-powered wool shearing frames. They beat down the front door with sledgehammers and broke the windows with rocks. The mill owner and ten of his workers grabbed their guns, set up a barricade of furniture, and sounded an alarm bell to alert a nearby cavalry unit – an alarm bell installed just a few days earlier for this exact scenario.

For the next 20 minutes, the two sides exchanged gunfire, as the mill workers kept the Luddites at bay. As the cavalry approached, the Luddites fled into the thick fog in the woods. Two wounded Luddites – Samuel Hartley and John Booth – remained behind, dying. The cavalrymen demanded they surrender the names of their comrades, but they kept silent.

A clergyman was sent for, to offer an opportunity to the men to confess their sins before they died – a tactic they cavalry hoped would lead to some information. When the clergyman offered this opportunity to Booth, the shivering, wounded man asked him, “Can you keep a secret?” The clergyman nodded enthusiastically and leaned in. “So can I,” Booth said, grinning. He died moments later.

But while the commitment to secrecy was impressive, the attack had failed. The furious Yorkshire Luddites then decided to wreak violence not just on machines, but machine owners as well.

In particular, they targeted one William Horsfall – a successful industrialist with a terrible reputation – who would tell anyone willing to listen how he wished to “ride up to his stirrups in Luddite blood.” They stalked him for weeks, diligently recording his every move to learn his habits and routines. Then on April 28th, 1812, as Horsfall was riding his horse, four Luddites appeared from the bushes with rifles and assassinated him. As he laid dying, several local residents passed him by, unwilling to help the man they believed was an oppressor of the poor.

Over the next eight months, the government rounded up workers suspected of Luddite sympathies and tortured them, extracting the names of about 100 men – most of whom probably weren’t Luddites – who they arrested and tried in a mass 10-day trial. Seventeen men were sentenced to death – three for the murder of Horsfall and 14 for the raid on Rawfields Mill.

After the Horsfall assassination, the Luddite raids started dying down. The last few attacks came as late as 1813 and then petered out, although several Luddites would go on to participate in other militant worker uprisings over the next decade.

But the heavy-handed government response must have been an effective deterrent, and chances are the public’s sympathies for the Luddites (and perhaps even the Luddites’ commitment to their own cause) began to wane when they started planning assassinations.

And English workers became generally less hostile (or at least less violent) to the changing economic order as it happened, because the second generation of industrial workers – practically raised from childhood in the factories – just didn’t have the memories of pre-industrial life that their parents did.

Nowadays, the word “Luddite” generally carries negative connotations. It’s used to describe someone who’s intellectually weak or grouchy about technological change they can’t keep up with. It’s a description in keeping with the propaganda used against the Luddites in the early 19th Century. It’s a slight that ignores the real sense of indignity and haplessness they were experiencing, as well as the sophisticated terrorist tactics they used.

The sense that technological advancement could put everyone out of a job never went away. Just take the legend of John Henry or the stories of I, Robot. Many economists, who argue a state of technological unemployment is unlikely, refer to this feeling as the “Luddite fallacy”. And today there are anarcho-primitivists who describe themselves as “neo-Luddites.”

Like the millers and mealmen who may have burned down the Albion Mills, the Luddites gradually faded into labor history; the extent of their war largely forgotten. The Luddites didn’t write memoirs. They mostly kept silent about their roles in the fight, still committed to that culture of secrecy. Only sometimes they passed the Luddite songs down to their children and grandchildren.

Instead, they got involved in later phases of the labor movement – like the 10 Hour campaign and Chartism, which we’ll get to in future episodes. They fought for economic security, political representation, and more. But the opposition to technological advancement died down as a practical economic or political objective.

And that was probably for the best. Because Britain and the world just kept innovating.

By the end of the 18th Century, human beings had created industrial factories for mass production, built sprawling yet dense cities, cured smallpox, and assembled coal-powered engines for their mills and modes of transportation. They had even done sometime so unnatural, so seemingly impossible, that it could only have been found before in fiction. They learned how to fly – next week, on the Industrial Revolutions.

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Dave Broker