The Luddites were 19th-century English textile artisans who protested against newly developed labour-saving machinery from 1811 to 1817. The stocking frames, spinning frames and power looms introduced during the Industrial Revolution threatened to replace the artisans with less-skilled, low-wage labourers, leaving them without work.
Although the origin of the name Luddite (//) is uncertain, a popular theory is that the movement was named after Ned Ludd, a youth who allegedly smashed two stocking frames in 1779, and whose name had become emblematic of machine destroyers. The name evolved into the imaginary General Ludd or King Ludd, a figure who, like Robin Hood, was reputed to live in Sherwood Forest.[a]
The movement can be seen as part of a rising tide of English working-class discontent in the early 19th century. An agricultural variant of Luddism, centering on the breaking of threshing machines, occurred during the widespread Swing Riots of 1830 in southern and eastern England. Research by Kevin Binfield asserts that, since organised action by stockingers had occurred at various times since 1675, the movements of the early 19th century must be viewed in the context of the hardships suffered by the working class during the Napoleonic Wars, rather than as an absolute aversion to machinery.
Spasmodic rises in food prices provoked Keelmen in the port of Tyne to riot in 1710 and tin miners to plunder granaries at Falmouth in 1727. There was a rebellion in Northumberland and Durham in 1740, and manhandling of Quaker corn dealers in 1756. More peaceably, skilled artisans in the cloth, building, shipbuilding, printing and cutlery trades organized friendly societies to insure themselves against unemployment and sickness and sometimes, similar to guilds, against intrusion of 'foreign' labour into their trades.[b]
The Luddite movement emerged during the harsh economic climate of the Napoleonic Wars, which saw a rise in difficult working conditions in the new textile factories. The principal objection of the Luddites was the introduction of new wide-framed automated looms that could be operated by cheaper, less skilled labour, resulting in unemployment among skilled textile workers. The movement began in Nottingham on 11 March 1811 and spread rapidly throughout England over the following two years. Handloom weavers burned mills and pieces of factory machinery. Many wool and cotton mills were destroyed before the British government suppressed the movement.
The Luddites met at night on the moors surrounding industrial towns, where they would practise drills and manoeuvres. Their main areas of operation were Nottinghamshire in November 1811, followed by the West Riding of Yorkshire in early 1812 and Lancashire by March 1813. Luddites battled the British Army at Burton's Mill in Middleton and at Westhoughton Mill, both in Lancashire. Rumours abounded at the time that local magistrates employed agents provocateur to instigate the attacks. Using the pseudonym King Ludd, the Luddites and their supporters anonymously sent death threats to—and even attacked—magistrates and food merchants. Activists smashed Heathcote's lacemaking machine in Loughborough in 1816. He and other industrialists had secret chambers constructed in their buildings that could be used as hiding places during an attack. In 1817, an unemployed Nottingham stockinger and probable ex-Luddite named Jeremiah Brandreth led the Pentrich Rising, which was a general uprising unrelated to machinery, but which could be viewed as the last major Luddite act.
The British Army clashed with the Luddites on several occasions. At one time, more British soldiers were fighting the Luddites than were fighting Napoleon on the Iberian Peninsula.[d] Three Luddites, led by George Mellor, ambushed and assassinated a mill owner named William Horsfall from Ottiwells Mill at Crosland Moor in Marsden, West Yorkshire. Horsfall had remarked that he would "Ride up to his saddle in Luddite blood." Mellor fired the fatal shot to Horsfall's groin, and all three men were arrested.
The British government sought to suppress the Luddite movement with a mass trial at York in January 1813. The government charged over sixty men, including Mellor and his companions, with various crimes in connection with Luddite activities. While some of those charged were actual Luddites, many had no connection to the movement. These trials were not legitimate judicial reckonings of each defendant's guilt, but show trials intended to deter other Luddites from continuing their activities. By meting out harsh consequences, including, in many cases, execution and penal transportation, the trials quickly ended the movement.
Parliament subsequently made "machine breaking" (i.e. industrial sabotage) a capital crime with the Frame Breaking Act and the Malicious Damage Act. Lord Byron opposed this legislation, becoming one of the few prominent defenders of the Luddites after the treatment of the defendants at the York trials.
In contemporary thought
In modern usage, "Luddite" is a term describing those opposed to, or slow to adopt or incorporate into their lifestyle, industrialisation, automation, computerisation or new technologies in general.
- Historian Eric Hobsbawm has called their machine wrecking "collective bargaining by riot", which had been a tactic used in Britain since the Restoration, as the scattering of manufactories throughout the country made large-scale strikes impractical.
- The Falmouth magistrates reported to the Duke of Newcastle (16 Nov. 1727) that "the unruly tinners" had "broke open and plundered several cellars and granaries of corn". Their report concludes with a comment that suggests that they were no more able than some modern historians to understand the rationale of the direct action of the tinners: "the occasion of these outrages was pretended by the rioters to be a scarcity of corn in the county, but this suggestion is probably false, as most of those who carried off the corn gave it away or sold it at quarter price". PRO, SP 36/4/22.
- The Penny Magazine 1844, p.33
- Hobsbawm has popularized this comparison and refers to the original statement in Darvall, Frank Ongley (1969) Popular Disturbances and Public Order in Regency England, London, Oxford University Press, page 260.
- Anstey at Welcome to Leicester (visitoruk.com) According to this source, "A half-witted Anstey lad, Ned Ludlam or Ned Ludd, gave his name to the Luddites, who in the 1800s followed his earlier example by smashing machinery in protest against the Industrial Revolution."
- Palmer, Roy, 1998, The Sound of History: Songs and Social Comment, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-215890-1, p. 103
- Chambers, Robert (2004), Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, Part 1, Kessinger, ISBN 978-0-7661-8338-4, p. 357
- "Who were the Luddites and what did they want?". The National Archives Learning Curve | Power, Politics and Protest | the Luddites. The National Archives. Retrieved 19 August 2011
- "Hobsbawm, Eric, 'The Machine Breakers', Past and Present 1 (1952), 57-70". Libcom.org. 2009-07-04. Retrieved 2013-10-04.
- Autor, Frank; Levy, David and Murnane, Richard J. "The Skill Content of Recent Technological Change: An Empirical Exploration" Quarterly Journal of Economics (2003)
- Harrison. The Common People. pp. 249–253
- Binfield, Kevin (2004). Luddites and Luddism. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
- "Historical events - 1685 - 1782 | Historical Account of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (pp. 47-65)". British-history.ac.uk. 2003-06-22. Retrieved 2013-10-04.
- Charles Wilson, England's Apprenticeship, 1603-1763 (1965), p. 344-5. PRO, SP 36/4/22.
- Conniff, Richard. "What the Luddites Really Fought Against". smithsonianmag.com. Retrieved 18 June 2013.
- "Workmen discover secret chambers". BBC News. Retrieved 31 December 2012.
- Hobsbawm, Eric (1964) "The Machine Breakers" in Labouring Men. Studies in the History of Labour., London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, page 6
- "Luddites in Marsden: Trials at York". Retrieved May 12, 2012.
- "Destruction of Stocking Frames, etc. Act 1812" at books.google.com
- "The Malicious Damage Act, 1812 at books.google.com
- "Luddite" Compact Oxford English Dictionary at AskOxford.com. Accessed February 22, 2010.
- Archer, John E. (2000). "Chapter 4: Industrial Protest". Social unrest and popular protest in England, 1780–1840. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-57656-7.
- Bailey, Brian J (1998). The Luddite Rebellion. NYU Press. ISBN 0-8147-1335-1.
- Binfield, Kevin (2004). Writings of the Luddites. JHU Press. ISBN 0-8018-7612-5.
- Fox, Nicols (2003). Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite History in Literature, Art, and Individual Lives. Island Press. ISBN 1-55963-860-5.
- Grint, Keith & Woolgar, Steve (1997). "The Luddites: Diablo ex Machina". The machine at work: technology, work, and organization. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-7456-0924-9.
- Jones, Steven E. (2006). Against technology: from the Luddites to Neo-Luddism. CRC Press. ISBN 978-0-415-97868-2.
- Randall, Adrian (2002). Before the Luddites: Custom, Community and Machinery in the English Woollen Industry, 1776–1809. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-89334-3.
- Rude, George (2005). "Chapter 5, Luddism". The crowd in History, 1730-1848. Serif. ISBN 978-1-897959-47-3.
- Sale, Kirkpatrick (1996). Rebels against the future: the Luddites and their war on the Industrial Revolution : lessons for the computer age. Basic Books. ISBN 0-201-40718-3.
- Thompson, E. P. (1991). The Making of the English Working Class. Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-013603-6.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Luddism.|
|Look up Luddite in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- The Luddite Link - Comprehensive historical resources for the original West Yorkshire Luddites, University of Huddersfield.
- The Uprising Series, a series of creative events marking the bicentenary of the Luddites' uprisings in West Yorkshire, led by the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield
- Is it O.K. to be a Luddite? by Thomas Pynchon
- Luddism and the Neo-Luddite Reaction by Martin Ryder, University of Colorado at Denver School of Education
- The Luddites and the Combination Acts from the Marxists Internet Archive