This article was first published in the May 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine
Luddism, a protest movement that arose from the textile trade in Britain 200 years ago, first emerged during 1811, in the Midlands, as a reaction to the replacement of skilled craftsmen with new labour-saving technology. A pattern of public petitioning quickly emerged, which was followed by machine breaking and violence across Britain’s main textile areas – Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Lancashire – as discontented craftsmen attacked the men and the factories that they deemed to be ‘illegally’ stealing their livelihoods.
Richard Jones, a research student in economic and financial history at the University of Cambridge, says: “The word Luddite has now entered everyday usage to describe those who dislike technology, oppose innovation or who are generally resistant to change. In my opinion, however, this is a misreading of the original Luddite motivation.
“Luddites were motivated by a desire to protect the status quo of their established skilled trades and their positions within
those trades. These workers served an arduous and demanding seven-year apprenticeship at the start of their careers. They saw their part of the industry, requiring their specific skills, as their livelihood, and one which they would expect to hold for the rest of their lives. When machinery displaced them, they naturally reacted very strongly.”
The movement took its name from the mythical figure of General Ned Ludd. Ludd’s name was used in conjunction with many of the attacks on factories and machinery, particularly in the Midlands, and he emerged as a figurehead for the entire movement.
“Ned Ludd is key to understanding the cultural longevity of the movement,” says Jones. “He was also at the centre of Luddite attempts to claim the legal high ground by drafting lawsuits and petitions – signed by General Ludd or his ‘solicitors’ – and then presenting them to factory owners. This practice distinguished the uprising from other types of industrial unrest during the period.”
The Luddite movement (such as it was a single movement) was neither large nor widespread. In fact, Jones believes that less than 2,000 people were involved nationwide, with probably only around 200 committed Luddites active in each of the three regions. The government’s response to the threat, therefore, is all the more surprising. It deployed huge numbers of troops to put down the movement, and empowered local magistrates to recruit and retain large numbers of special constables, together with the militia.
Says Jones: “The authorities greatly feared the Luddite uprisings. The government took various steps in London to try and quell the unrest, with one particularly important provision, the Frame Breaking Act of February 1812, making a specific criminal offence
out of attacking textile technology. In fact, evidence shows that more troops were deployed to these industrial areas than were given to Wellington to fight the Peninsular campaign against Napoleon!”
Worried that more people might join them, but also anxious that the Luddites’ desire to preserve their own status quo by committing acts of violence could threaten the existing status quo, the government set up a number of special commissions across the country to try those involved with the violence.
“Punishment, however, was rather piecemeal,” claims Jones, “and, considering the initial government response, was at times a damp squib.” In Nottinghamshire, for example, at a trial in the assizes of March 1812, only nine Luddites were convicted – specifically for charges of frame breaking. Their punishment was transportation. In other areas, the special commissions were also used to clear a backlog of more general crimes.
The Luddites were always destined to fail, argues Jones, who believes the uprisings had ceased to be a major issue as early as May 1812 – months before trials at York Castle in January 1813 after which 17 Luddites were executed.
“The distances between the various Luddite groups – who, incidentally, never joined forces – together with a lack of overall leadership and an influx of government troops to the areas affected, all contributed to the failure of the movement to achieve its objectives.
“What’s more, the Luddites did not appear to have the backing of the people. Government acts making attacks on machinery a criminal offence would no doubt have dissuaded many from actively supporting the movement, while a fall in prices for industrially produced textiles would have made products cheaper for the everyday worker. Technology had its benefits.”
New technology had already replaced many unskilled workers in the decades leading up to the Luddite uprisings. This may also have led to a lack of sympathy among the wider public.
Despite this, concludes Jones, Luddism does have a legacy. “Although the Luddites may have ultimately failed,” he says, “the movement was, in my opinion, a precursor to the trade union movements. It should not be seen simply as part of the sweep of English radical history – something that others have come dangerously close to suggesting.
“The movement was ferociously conservative in its desire to protect the customs and established practice of the textile industry, as well as the social and economic position of textile workers.”
8 placed linked to the Luddites
Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire
Where the mythical General Ludd had his headquarters
Sherwood Forest provided the Luddites with a place from which individuals and groups of Luddites could send letters to factory owners and authorities, and issue public petitions and addresses.
These documents, which were usually signed by, or on behalf of the mythical General Ludd, adopted a legal persona that can be traced back to the various legal protections trades had previously enjoyed.
“What this seemed to be,” says Jones, “was a constitutional attempt on behalf of the Luddites to resolve their issues without resorting to violence. When this failed, attacks on factories and local industrialists became more common.”
One of the most famous documents issued by the Luddites was the Declaration of the Framework Knitters, dated 1 January 1812 and signed by General Ludd, Sherwood Forest.
Says Jones: “It is unclear how well known a figure Robin Hood was at the time, but it is hard not to draw comparisons: the connotation that these were victims of changing circumstances standing up for what they thought was right is definitely there. Given the proximity of Sherwood Forest to Nottingham, we can be confident that some Luddites, at some stage at least, moved through the area.”
Sherwood Forest Country Park is open 364 days a year.
Dumb Steeple, Mirfield, West Yorkshire
Where a group of Luddites gathered before an attack on Rawfolds Mill
The attack on Rawfolds Mill on 12 April 1812 was the most serious example of violence against industrialists in Yorkshire during the period.
Interestingly the attack was not specifically directed at machinery, but instead at a water mill that provided the power to drive the machines that had replaced the skilled craftsmen. The mill and factory were owned by William Cartwright, widely thought of among local craftsmen as a contemptuous and dangerous individual who was infamous for his lack of empathy with the plight of the workers his machines had replaced.
Anticipating an attack on his factory, Cartwright fortified the building, reinforcing the door and employing armed guards. On the night of the attack, five members of the Cumberland militia were also present. Faced with such defences, the 100 or so Luddites who launched an assault on the factory were unable to even break down the door, let alone destroy any machinery inside.
Some 140 shots were fired at the invading party, killing two and injuring others. “The Luddites’ failure at Rawfolds Mill led to the almost immediate failure of Luddism in Yorkshire,” says Jones.
Nothing now remains of Rawfolds Mill, but the Dumb Steeple, a local landmark where the Luddite forces congregated before their attack on the mill, still stands.
Middleton, Rochdale, Greater Manchester
Where Lancashire experienced its most significant Luddite attack
Lancashire, known for its thriving cotton industry during the period, experienced its most serious Luddite attack over two days in April 1812 after a raucous public meeting at Middleton market resulted in five people being shot.
Although the mob soon dispersed, the following day saw around 200 people return to the site and set fire to the nearby Burton Mill and the adjacent house. “Rumours in the county at the time whispered that an agent provocateur had been used by the local magistrate to stir the mob up in order to justify harsh responses to the Luddite uprisings,” says Jones. “However, the exact circumstances remain unclear.”
Middleton was also home to the radical writer Samuel Bamford, who published much about industrial change during the 19th century, drawing on his own life in the town. A memorial obelisk to Samuel Bamford was unveiled at Middleton cemetery in October 1877, where he is buried, and a garden and plaque mark the site of his former house.
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Higher Hillgate Street, Stockport, Greater Manchester
Where Radcliffe’s Mill was once a hive of industrialisation
On 20 March 1812 the Luddites launched an attack on the warehouse of weaver William Radcliffe, one of the first manufacturers to use the power-loom – a machine that reduced the need for skilled handweavers. Around 500 people are said to have gathered outside Radcliffe’s factory, sited on Higher Hillgate Street, smashing windows and attempting to burn the building down. A letter addressed to Radcliffe from the “solicitor to General Ludd” and sent prior to the attack warned the factory owner that he “may Expect General Ludd, and his well organised Army to Levy it [his property] with all Destruction possible”.
Like many other factory owners of the day, Radcliffe held little sympathy for the workers, as a letter he wrote after the attack shows: “Every proper attention has been paid to the distresses of the weavers and measures taken for their alleviation – I did not expect gratitude neither could I anticipate violence.”
Higher Hillgate Street stretches about three-quarters of a mile south from Stockport town centre and was once the main road through the town. The road is still there, although Radcliffe’s Mill no longer stands.
Milnsbridge House, Huddersfield
West Yorkshire: Where anti-Luddite magistrate Joseph Radcliffe lived
Another industrialist well known for being unsympathetic to unemployed textile workers was William Horsfall. Jones believes that Luddites targeted him for this very reason.
Horsfall was riding home from Huddersfield’s Warren House Inn, where he had stopped for a drink, when four men dressed in dark clothing attacked him. Horsfall was shot, but remained alive long enough to be taken back to the Warren House Inn for treatment, before succumbing to his wound two days later.
George Mellor, Thomas Smith and William Thorpe were hanged on 8 January 1813 at York Castle after being found guilty of Horsfall’s murder. Benjamin Walker gave evidence against them and escaped punishment.
Visitors to Huddersfield today can still see Milnsbridge House, which was once home to the notoriously anti-Luddite magistrate Sir Joseph Radcliffe who helped track down many of those accused of Luddism in Yorkshire.
Palace of Westminster
London: Where Spencer Perceval was assassinated
“The atmosphere in Britain during the early 19th century was highly charged,” says Jones, “a mood not helped by the war with Napoleon and, in the aftermath of the French revolution, fears of an insurrectionary threat that, it was thought, could rear its head at any moment.”
It is therefore not surprising that Luddism was viewed with a certain amount of hyperbole and hysteria, and that the movement was blamed for a number of incidents during the period, not least the assassination of Spencer Perceval on 11 May 1812.
Perceval’s murder, which took place as he made his way into the House of Commons, was in fact carried out by a man with no connections to Luddism at all. However, far from trying to play down any links to the incident, Luddites in Nottinghamshire actually tried to claim credit for the assassination. A number of pamphlets from 1812, signed by General Ludd, warned that if factory owners did not change their behaviour, they would face a similar fate.
You can arrange tours of the Palace of Westminster, including the lobby in which Perceval was shot, via the parliament website.
You’ll find a memorial to Perceval in the nave of Westminster Abbey.
Chester Castle, Cheshire
Where 14 Luddites were sentenced to death
In May 1812, a special commission was convened at Chester Castle to try 44 people accused of Luddism, of whom only 28 stood trial. Fourteen were sentenced to death but only two were actually hanged.
Says Jones: “Despite being convened specifically to address crimes associated with Luddism, the special commission at Chester was used for general criminal proceedings. The two men who were hanged were found guilty of theft, and not machine breaking at all. Luddism, it would seem, could be rather a porous judicial concept.”
Benjamin Walker, one of the four men involved in William Horsfall’s assassination, was held at Chester Castle before serving as a witness in the special commission at York in January 1813 (see box 8). The castle is still open to the public.
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York Castle, York, North Yorkshire
Where 17 Luddites hanged in January 1813
The most high-profile trial of the Luddite uprising took place at York Castle in January 1813, where those accused of the murder of William Horsfall (see box 5) went before the judge and jury. The case was treated as a conventional murder trial – something that would have been recognised at the time.
Although it was clear that George Mellor had fired the shot that killed Horsfall, it was deemed that two of the group were accessories to the same crime and should be tried as such. The jury needed 20 minutes to find the men guilty, and the executions took place just 36 hours later, outside what is now the entrance to the castle museum.
The special commission continued for a week or so after the executions and a further 14 men were hanged on 16 January. Witnesses reported that some of the men, who were executed in two batches of seven, went to the gallows singing Behold the Saviour of Mankind.
“As in Chester, the special commission tried a number of cases not related to Luddism”, says Jones, “implying that the occasion was used to clear a backlog of other, more general, criminal cases.” One such case was that of John Swallow, John Bateley, Joseph Fisher and John Lumb, who were accused of “burgariously entering the house of Samuel Moxon of Upper Whitley and stealing therefrom several promissory notes,
12 shillings in silver and a quantity of butter on fourth July last”.
Luddism in Yorkshire had, in fact, died out months before the crime took place and there was no machine-breaking involved at all. York Castle prison, where the condemned Luddites were held, and the castle museum are open to the public.
Words: Charlotte Hodgman. Historical advisor: Richard Jones, research student on municipal finance and government in 19th-century Britain at the University of Cambridge