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Not to be confused with Ludites.
For the EP by Grotus, see Luddite (EP).
The Leader of the Luddites, engraving of 1812

The Luddites were 19th-century English textile workers (or self-employed weavers who feared the end of their trade) who protested against newly developed labour-economizing technologies, primarily between 1811 and 1816. The stocking frames, spinning frames and power looms introduced during the Industrial Revolution threatened to replace them with less-skilled, low-wage labourers, leaving them without work. The Luddite movement culminated in a region-wide rebellion in Northwestern England that required a massive deployment of military force to suppress.

Although the origin of the name Luddite (/ˈlʌd.t/) is uncertain, a popular belief 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.[1][2][3] The name evolved into the imaginary General Ludd or King Ludd, a figure who, like Robin Hood, was reputed to live in Sherwood Forest.[4][a]


The movement can be seen as part of a rising tide of English working-class discontent in the late 18th and 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.[7] [b] The Luddites' goal was to gain a better bargaining position with their employers. They were not afraid of technology per se, but were "labour strategists".[11]

Spasmodic rises in food prices provoked Keelmen in the port of Tyne to riot in 1710[12] 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 organised friendly societies to insure themselves against unemployment, sickness, and in some cases against intrusion of "foreign" labour into their trades, as was common among guilds.[13][c]

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 movement began in Arnold, Nottingham on 11 March 1811 and spread rapidly throughout England over the following two years.[14][15] Handloom weavers burned mills and pieces of factory machinery.


Prior to 1811[edit]

Textile workers were destroying industrial equipment during the late 18th century, prompting acts such as the Protection of Stocking Frames, etc. Act 1788.

Luddite acts 1811–1813[edit]

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.[citation needed] Luddites battled the British Army at Burton's Mill in Middleton and at Westhoughton Mill, both in Lancashire.[16] Rumours abounded at the time that local magistrates employed agents provocateurs to instigate the attacks.[citation needed] Using the pseudonym King Ludd, the Luddites and their supporters anonymously sent death threats to—and even attacked—magistrates and food merchants.

Isolated incidents post 1814[edit]

Activists smashed Heathcote's lacemaking machine in Loughborough in 1816.[17] He and other industrialists had secret chambers constructed in their buildings that could be used as hiding places during an attack.[18]

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.[citation needed]

Government response[edit]

Later interpretation of machine breaking (1812), showing two men superimposed on an 1844 engraving from the Penny magazine which shows a post 1820s Jacquard loom.[d] Machine-breaking was criminalised by the Parliament of the United Kingdom as early as 1721, the penalty being penal transportation, but as a result of continued opposition to mechanisation the Frame Breaking Act 1812 made the death penalty available: see "criminal damage in English law".

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.[19][e] 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, following the attack on Cartwrights mill at Rawfolds near Cleckheaton. 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.[20][21]

Parliament subsequently made "machine breaking" (i.e. industrial sabotage) a capital crime with the Frame Breaking Act[22] and the Malicious Damage Act.[23] 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.

Several decades later, in 1867, Karl Marx referred to the Luddites in Capital, Volume I, noting that it would be some time before workers were able to distinguish between the machines and "the form of society which utilizes these instruments" and their ideas "The instrument of labour, when it takes the form of a machine, immediately becomes a competitor of the workman himself. " [24]

In modern thought[edit]

The term has since developed a secondary meaning: a "Luddite" is one opposed to industrialisation, automation, computerisation or new technologies in general.[25]

In 1956, a speech in Parliament said that "organised workers were by no means wedded to a Luddite Philosophy".[26]

More recently, the term Neo-Luddism has emerged to describe opposition to many forms of technology.[27] According to a manifesto drawn up by the Second Luddite Congress (April 1996; Barnesville, Ohio), Neo-Luddism is "a leaderless movement of passive resistance to consumerism and the increasingly bizarre and frightening technologies of the Computer Age." [28]

The term Luddite fallacy is used by economists in reference to the fear that technological unemployment inevitably generates structural unemployment (and is consequently macroeconomically injurious). If a technological innovation results in a reduction of necessary labour inputs in a given sector, then the industry-wide cost of production falls, which lowers the competitive price and increases the equilibrium supply point which, theoretically, will require an increase in aggregate labour inputs.[29]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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.[5][6]
  2. ^ Research by Kevin Binfield and other researchers 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.[8][9][10] Malcolm L. Thomis argued in his 1970 history, "The Luddites," that without the structure of a union, machine-breaking was one of the only mechanisms workers could use to increase pressure on employers, to undermine lower-paid competing workers, and to create solidarity among workers, "These attacks on machines did not imply any necessary hostility to machinery as such; machinery was just a conveniently exposed target against which an attack could be made."[10]
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ The Penny Magazine 1844, p.33
  5. ^ Hobsbawm has popularised this comparison and refers to the original statement in Frank Ongley Darvall (1969) Popular Disturbances and Public Order in Regency England, London, Oxford University Press, page 260.


  1. ^ Anstey at Welcome to Leicester ( 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."
  2. ^ Palmer, Roy, 1998, The Sound of History: Songs and Social Comment, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-215890-1, p. 103
  3. ^ 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
  4. ^ "The National Archives Learning Curve | Power, Politics and Protest | the Luddites". The National Archives. Retrieved 19 August 2011. 
  5. ^ "Hobsbawm, Eric, 'The Machine Breakers', Past and Present 1 (1952), 57-70". 2009-07-04. Retrieved 2013-10-04. 
  6. ^ Autor, Frank; Levy, David and Murnane, Richard J. "The Skill Content of Recent Technological Change: An Empirical Exploration" Quarterly Journal of Economics (2003)
  7. ^ Harrison. The Common People. pp. 249–253
  8. ^ Binfield, Kevin (2004). Luddites and Luddism. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 
  9. ^ Rude, George (2001). The Crowd in History: A Study of Popular Disturbances in France and England, 1730-1848. Serif. 
  10. ^ a b Thomis, Malcolm (1970). The Luddites: Machine Breaking in Regency England. Shocken. 
  11. ^ Merchant, Brian. "You've Got Luddites All Wrong". Vice (magazine). Retrieved 13 October 2014. 
  12. ^ "Historical events - 1685 - 1782 | Historical Account of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (pp. 47-65)". 2003-06-22. Retrieved 2013-10-04. 
  13. ^ Charles Wilson, England's Apprenticeship, 1603-1763 (1965), p. 344-5. PRO, SP 36/4/22.
  14. ^ Beckett, John. "Luddites". The Nottinghamshire Heritage Gateway. Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire. Retrieved 2 March 2015. 
  15. ^ Conniff, Richard. "What the Luddites Really Fought Against". Retrieved 18 June 2013. 
  16. ^ Dinwiddy, J.R. (1992). "Luddism and Politics in the Northern Counties". Radicalism and Reform in Britain, 1780-1850. London: Hambledon Press. pp. 371–401. 
  17. ^ Sale 1995, p. 188.
  18. ^ "Workmen discover secret chambers". BBC News. Retrieved 31 December 2012. 
  19. ^ Hobsbawm, Eric (1964) "The Machine Breakers" in Labouring Men. Studies in the History of Labour., London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, page 6
  20. ^ "Luddites in Marsden: Trials at York". Retrieved May 12, 2012. 
  21. ^ Elizabeth Gaskell: The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Vol.1, Ch 6, for contemporaneous description of attack on Cartwright.
  22. ^ "Destruction of Stocking Frames, etc. Act 1812" at
  23. ^ "The Malicious Damage Act, 1812 at
  24. ^ Karl Marx, Capital Vol. I, Ch. 15, Sect. 5.
  25. ^ "Luddite" Compact Oxford English Dictionary at Accessed February 22, 2010.
  26. ^ Sale 1995, p. 205.
  27. ^ Jones, Steve E. (2006). Against technology: from the Luddites to neo-Luddism. CRC Press. p. 20. ISBN 978-0-415-97868-2. 
  28. ^ Sale, Kirkpatrick, America’s new Luddites. URL=
  29. ^ Jerome, Harry (1934). Mechanization in Industry, National Bureau of Economic Research. pp. 32–35. 

Further reading[edit]

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