Who were the Luddites?

The Luddites were skilled textile workers, mainly from Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire, whose livelihoods were threatened by the introduction of automated looms and knitting frames to their workplace in the early 19th century – a result of the Industrial Revolution.


What did the Luddites want?

In short, they wanted to get rid of the machinery that was taking their jobs and return to how things had been before, including a reversal of wage reductions. They also wanted to see the removal of unskilled youths who were being employed to run the new machinery, which they felt produced inferior goods. At the beginning of the 19th century, there were around 30,000 knitting-frames in England, of which around 25,000 were located in the Midlands. Small wonder that skilled, and slower, weavers – most of whom worked at home – saw their trades slipping away.

What did the Luddites do?

The movement began in Arnold, Nottinghamshire, in 1811, and soon disgruntled textile workers across the country had joined in protests against industrial changes and the government’s refusal to implement a minimum working wage.

Threatening letters were sent to employers warning them to remove the machinery from their premises. If they refused to comply, bands of Luddites – usually masked and acting under the cover of night – broke into factories and mills, smashing and burning textile frames.

As the sword is the worst argument that can be used, so should it be the last
Lord Byron, in protest of the Frame-Breaking Act

The movement was organised and effective, with bands often meeting on the moors at night to practise drills and manoeuvres, all in the hope that the government would agree to impose a ban on the use of textile machinery.

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One attack took place on 20 March 1812, when a Stockport warehouse belonging to William Radcliffe – one of the first manufacturers to use the power-loom – was attacked by a band of Luddites.

"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," reported the Manchester Gazette.

Did the Luddites deliberately set out to injure or kill their employers?

It’s difficult to say, and probably varied from group to group. Certainly, most of the Luddite violence was aimed at the machinery rather than against people, but death threats were sent to some employers. Deaths and injuries seem to have taken place where attempts were made to defend the machinery and factory premises.

One of the most violent attacks took place in April 1812, in West Riding, when William Horsfall, an outspoken anti-Luddite who had replaced many of the skilled workers at his mill with shearing frames, was killed in cold blood as he rode to inspect some cloth. According to the Leeds Mercury, four men "inflicted four wounds in the left side of their victim, who instantly fell from his horse, and the blood flowed from the wounds in torrents". Horsfall's death shocked the country, including many in government.

How did the government respond to the Luddites?

Despite the relatively small numbers involved in machine breaking, and the fact that it was confined mainly to the Midlands and Yorkshire, government in London took the Luddite threat very seriously. In February 1812, the Frame-Breaking Act was passed, which went a step further than previous acts that had made frame-breaking a criminal offence: it now carried the death penalty. Thousands of parliamentary troops were sent to restore order, with more men deployed to the Midlands and the north of England than were fighting Napoleon in Spain.

In October 1812, Huddersfield Luddite George Mellor and two others were arrested for the murder of William Horsfall, and were hanged in York along with 14 more in January 1813. The public execution of these 17 Luddites was designed to deter others from taking action, and marked the beginning of the end for the movement.

Where did the name 'Luddite' come from? What does Luddite mean?

The movement is said to have been named after the likely fictional character of Ned Ludd, an apprentice who smashed part of a stocking frame in 1779. The mythical Ludd supposedly carried a weapon at his side at all times, and possessed the power to summon Luddites to his aid whenever he needed them.


This content first appeared in the December 2017 issue of BBC History Revealed