Luddites Destroy Industrial Machines Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

At the height of Great Britain’s involvement in the Napoleonic Wars, an epidemic of machine breaking and industrial sabotage swept textile industries in northern England. Claiming allegiance to the mythical “General Ludd,” workmen took up arms against the Industrial Revolution. Never a coordinated movement, Luddism had minimal impact on English society, but it survives in popular imagination as a model of futile opposition to progress.

Summary of Event

On March 11, 1811, a band of armed English workers attacked a stocking factory in Arnold, near Nottingham. Claiming to be under the direction of a leader named “General Ludd, ” they proceeded to destroy knitting machines, or frames, of a new type designed to produce wide fabric for cheap seamed stockings. Through the months that ensued, their action was repeated in forays of escalating scope and violence, first in the hosiery shops around Nottingham, then in the woolen mills of the West Riding of Yorkshire, and finally in the cotton mills around Manchester. Slow to react at first, the British government eventually dispatched some thirteen thousand troops to restore order. By December of 1812, the main wave of frame-breaking had subsided, partly because of vigorous suppression and partly because of improved economic conditions. However, isolated incidents of industrial sabotage by Luddites continued to occur until 1816, and Luddism—in the more general sense of violent opposition to technological change—experienced a resurgence among British agricultural workers in 1830. Industrial Revolution;and Luddites[Luddites] Luddites England;Luddites Textile industry;and Luddites[Luddites] Textile industry;English [kw]Luddites Destroy Industrial Machines (Mar. 11, 1811-1816) [kw]Destroy Industrial Machines, Luddites (Mar. 11, 1811-1816) [kw]Industrial Machines, Luddites Destroy (Mar. 11, 1811-1816) [kw]Machines, Luddites Destroy Industrial (Mar. 11, 1811-1816) Industrial Revolution;and Luddites[Luddites] Luddites England;Luddites Textile industry;and Luddites[Luddites] Textile industry;English [g]Great Britain;Mar. 11, 1811-1816: Luddites Destroy Industrial Machines[0520] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar. 11, 1811-1816: Luddites Destroy Industrial Machines[0520] Mellor, George Henson, Gravener Maitland, Sir Thomas

Several factors contributed to severe economic distress among textile workers in the north of England in 1811. The previous two decades had seen an exponential expansion in the cotton and hosiery industries that was due to the mechanization of spinning. Cheap cotton thread opened up a tremendous domestic and export market for cotton cloth, stockings, and lace, all of them made on hand-operated machinery in small workshops. Men flocked to the textile trades. As long as markets were expanding, modest innovations increasing worker productivity passed without protest. In the woolen industry, power-operated cropping frames and gig mills used in finishing cloth had existed since the mid-eighteenth century, but skilled workmen and operators of small shops had succeeded in blocking their adoption.

Great Britain had been at war with revolutionary France since 1793. In 1809, in response to Napoleon’s Continental System, the British parliament adopted the Orders in Council, effectively cutting off any continental export trade and straining trade relations with the United States. The Americans retaliated with the Non-Intercourse Act (1809) Non-Intercourse Act of 1809[NonIntercourse Act of 1809] . Goods piled up in warehouses. Factories laid off workers and cut the wages of those still working to the point where they could not afford basic necessities. Poor harvests in 1810 and 1811, coupled with barriers to importation, caused food prices to skyrocket. New machinery was only one of the factors making the life of textile workers unbearable, but it was a convenient available target in a country where working men could not vote and strikes were illegal.

Because many of the Luddite attacks were individually well coordinated, demonstrating a knowledge of military tactics, and because incidents were accompanied by threatening letters and proclamations issued in the name of “General Ludd,” the Home Office, successively under the direction of Dudley Ryder and Lord Sidmouth, Sidmouth, First Viscount had good reason to fear a coordinated movement abetted by the French. Despite an extensive network of spies, no French connection was found, and only the Yorkshire croppers had an identifiable local leader. As for General Ludd, said to have been an apprentice named Ned Ludlum who initiated the movement by smashing a wide stocking frame in his father’s shop, he was never apprehended and probably never existed.

Luddism has been equated in the popular imagination with opposition by workers to the Industrial Revolution, but this association applies strictly only to the disturbances in Yorkshire. The machines smashed in Nottingham were of Elizabethan design, and, although workmen were invariably the agents of destruction, competition between mill owners may have been a factor, especially in the destruction of John Heathcote’s lace mill in 1816. Because of a wide franchise and a radical town council, Luddites who were apprehended fared better in Nottingham than elsewhere. Nottingham workmen also had an effective leader in Gravener Henson Henson, Gravener , who was committed to legal avenues of redress and succeeded in getting Parliament to consider a bill prohibiting some of the most obnoxious manufacturing abuses. (Henson is sometimes incorrectly supposed to have been General Ludd.)

In Yorkshire, the Luddites were led by George Mellor Mellor, George , a skilled workman who made his living cropping, that is, using massive shears to finish woolen cloth. He organized his fellow croppers to smash cropping frames and went one step further, advocating the assassination of recalcitrant factory owners. He and two others actually ambushed and killed a manufacturer, William Horsefall, and went on to lead a band of one hundred men in an attack on William Cartwright’s fortified mill in Rawlfolds on April 11, 1812. Brought to trial for both crimes at the York Assizes on January 6, 1813, Mellor was convicted and executed along with sixteen other men convicted of crimes related to Luddism. This brutal retribution shocked many at the time and now seems utterly disproportionate to the crimes of those who only damaged property.

In the cotton-manufacturing areas, Luddism was only one ingredient in a mass of unrest ranging from food riots England;food riots spawned of sheer desperation to middle-class political radicalism. Factories housing power looms became targets, not so much because power looms were seen as a threat to individual workmen as because these were the largest establishments. In Lancaster, a sort of female Robin Hood led a mob that seized provision carts on their way to market and sold the food at bargain prices in Manchester. The decision at the 1812 Lancaster Assizes to execute her for her crime passed into folklore as “hanging a poor starving woman for stealing potatoes.”

Although the government dispatched large numbers of troops to the north under the command of the able and brutal Sir Thomas Maitland Maitland, Sir Thomas , the military was of limited use against Luddite raids. Luddites assembled in secret, struck at night, and fled before troops could be deployed. Neither spies nor accused men provided much useful information, mainly because the movement was so decentralized and indefinite in extent.

Economic factors sparked the outbreak of Luddism, and economic factors hastened its decline. A good harvest in 1812 brought food prices down. The war against Napoleon, which had seemed interminable at the beginning of 1811, was well on the way to being won by the middle of 1813. Military orders, reopened export markets, and general optimism revived the textile business. It is noteworthy that rates of property crimes in general peaked in the same period, declined, and then peaked again during the postwar depression of 1816-1817, coinciding then with outbreaks of violent political radicalism.

Significance

Luddism caught the popular imagination, but its immediate impact was not great. A total of forty-eight people died, including two managers and eleven attackers killed in raids and thirty-five people executed. Half of those executed had committed property crimes such as looting that were probably incidental to actual anti-industrial sabotage. The economic impact of property destruction was dwarfed by larger economic cycles relating to the export market. Unlike the disturbances of 1816-1817 and 1819, Luddism failed to provoke a strong response in Parliament; laws specifically against frame-breaking were passed, but there was no general and systematic erosion of personal liberty. Luddism did lend fuel to the successful campaign to repeal the Orders in Council in 1812, but even this supposed victory for the northern manufacturing interests failed to achieve its aim of preventing war with the United States.

The main impact of Luddism lay in its utter failure to achieve its main aim of derailing the progress of mechanization in industry. The term “Luddite” became in subsequent generations emblematic of misguided attempts by production workers to prevent erosions of their livelihood brought on by increases in efficiency—from agricultural laborers who burned ricks and destroyed farm machinery during the Swing Riots Swing Riots (1830-1831) in southern England in 1830-1831 to disgruntled downsized white-collar professionals who propagate computer viruses in the twenty-first century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bailey, Brian. The Luddite Rebellion. New York: New York University Press, 1998. A clear nonscholarly account with numerous illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Binfield, Kevin, ed. Writings of the Luddites. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. A collection of anonymous letters, petitions, and manifestoes, with a lengthy, informative introduction and annotations explaining the context in which they appeared.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carpenter, Kenneth, ed. The Luddites: Three Pamphlets, 1812-1839. New York: Arno Press, 1972. One of the pamphlets is the complete proceedings of the 1813 Luddite trials in York. A critical primary reference.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reid, Robert William. Land of Lost Content: The Luddite Revolt, 1812. London: Heinemann, 1986. Aimed at the general reading public. Core of the book is a narrative description of the disturbances in Yorkshire, with emphasis on individuals on both sides of the conflict.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sale, Kirkpatrick. Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution—Lessons for the Computer Age. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1995. Emphasizes the role of technological change and draws parallels with the present day.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomas, Malcolm I. The Luddites: Machine-Breaking in Regency England. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1993. Emphasizes economic factors and discusses origins of Luddism in the eighteenth century.

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