The Age of George III

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The Luddites 1811-16

After the end of the French Wars, it became increasingly clear that England was suffering from great social, economic and political upheavals. These problems collectively became known as the 'Condition of England Question'. Many of these problems would have occurred eventually but had been speeded up by the effects of the French Wars on the country. Most of the major changes were the direct result of the French Wars. Others came from natural growth and change. The distress and discontent caused by these enormous changes were manifested in a series of events in the period 1811-19. One of these was the upsurge in Luddism.

Luddites were men who took the name of a (perhaps) mythical individual, Ned Ludd who was reputed to live in Sherwood Forest. The Luddites were trying to save their livelihoods by smashing industrial machines developed for use in the textile industries of the West Riding of Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire. Some Luddites were active in Lancashire also.They smashed stocking-frames and cropping frames among others. There does not seem to have been any political motivation behind the Luddite riots; equally, there was no national organisation. The men merely were attacking what they saw as the reason for the decline in their livelihoods.

However, early outbreaks of Luddism occurred during the French Wars and were seen by the government as clear evidence of disaffection. In 1812 the government probably had reason to be fearful:

The only person who seems to have appreciated the problems faced by ordinary people was the Earl Fitzwilliam, Lord Lieutenant of the West Riding of Yorkshire. He said, 'outrage and conspiracy ... are the offspring of distress and want of employment ... fostered and rendered formidable by nothing but the want of trade'.

This period was not the first time that England had experienced occurrences of machine-breaking. In 1779 the failure of a Bill to regulate the frame-knitting industry had resulted in 300 frames being smashed and thrown into the streets. However, by 1810 the Orders in Council and a change in fashion had led to a deterioration in the standard of craftsmanship required in stocking making and a consequent cheapening of the trade. It was the attempt to intimidate some masters who brought in the new machines that caused Nottingham stocking knitters to smash the machines.

Stocking knitting was predominantly a domestic industry, the stockinger renting his frame from the master and working in his own 'shop' using thread given to him by the master; the finished items were handed back to the master to sell. The frames were therefore scattered round the villages; it was easy for the Luddites to smash a frame and then disappear. Between March 1811 and February 1812 they smashed about a thousand machines at the cost of between £6,000 and £10,000.In April 1812 the Luddites burned the West Houghton mill in Lancashire. Samuel Whitbread, an MP, said of the event

As to the persons who had blackened their faces, and disfigured themselves for the purposes of concealment, and had attended the meeting on Deanmoor, near Manchester, it turned out that ten of them were spies sent out by the magistrates... These spies were the very ringleaders of the mischief, and incited the people to acts which they would not otherwise have thought of. [Parliamentary Debates, lst Series, Vol. 23, Col.1000, (l8l2)]

The authorities were incapable of stopping the attacks so the government felt obliged to put in place special legislation. Machine-breaking had been made a capital offence in 1721; in 1811 a special Act was passed to secure the peace of Nottingham. At the Nottingham Assizes in March 1812, seven Luddites were sentenced to transportation for life; two others were acquitted.

In April 1812, the Luddites attacked William Cartwright's mill at Rawfolds near Huddersfield. The event was described by Charlotte Brönte in her novel Shirley. Cartwright and a few soldiers held the mill against about 150 attackers, two of whom were killed. The following week an attempt was made on Cartwright's life and on 28 April William Horsfall, another manufacturer, was killed.

In June 1812 Lord Sidmouth became Home Secretary, by which time the outbreaks of Luddism had begun to diminish. However in July, parliament set up Secret Committees for the examination of evidence from the 'disturbed areas'.Information had been given to Major Searle, the commander of the South Devon Militia, which was stationed in Sheffield. The informant was not identified. Part of the Report said

It is the opinion of persons, both in civil and military stations, well acquainted with the state of the country, an opinion grounded upon various information from various quarters now before your committee, but which, for obvious reasons, they do not think proper to detail, that the views of some of the persons engaged in these proceedings have extended to revolutionary measures of the most dangerous description.

Their proceedings manifest a degree of caution and organisation which appears to flow from the direction of some persons under whose influence they act... [Parliamentary Debates, 1st Series, Vol.23, Col.1036. (1812)]

On the strength of the evidence, the Secret Committees in parliament approved a Bill to preserve the public peace of the 'disturbed districts' and to give additional powers to the magistrates. It passed through parliament and remained in force until 25 March 1813. This was the only way that the government could compensate for the inefficient methods of crime prevention at the time.However, despite the government's fears, there is no evidence whatsoever that the activities of the Luddites wer politically motivated.

Another parliamentary committee heard petitions for relief from the cotton workers and reported to parliament in 1812: it is clear from this section of the report that the government would do nothing to move from the economic ideas of laissez faire:

While the Committee fully acknowledge and most deeply lament the great distress of numbers of persons engaged in the cotton manufacture, they are of opinion that no interference of the legislature with the freedom of trade, or with the perfect liberty of every individual to dispose of his time and of his labour in the way and on the terms which he may judge most conducive to his own interest, can take place without violating general principles of the first importance to the prosperity and happiness of the community, without establishing the most pernicious precedent, or without aggravating, after a very short time, the pressure of the general distress, and imposing obstacles against that distress ever being removed. [Parliamentary Debates, 1st Series, Vol. 20, (1811) Col.609].

Lord Liverpool, the PM endorsed the view of the committee when he said:

In these cases the Legislature ought not to interfere, but should leave everything to find its own level... I am satisfied that government or parliament never meddle in these matters at all but they do harm, more or less... The evils inseparable from the state of things should not be charged on any government; and, on enquiry, it would be found that by far the greater part of the miseries of which human nature complained were at all times and in all countries beyond the control of human legislation.

In January 1813 three men were charged at York for the murder of Horsfall, were found guilty and were hanged. Fourteen others involved in the attack on Cartwright's mill or related activities were hanged a week later. Sidmouth and Lord Ellenborough expected the executions to have the 'happiest effects in various parts of the kingdom'.

Direct action in the shape of strikes or machine breaking continued despite the special legislation and severe measures. A Bill was introduced to parliament to regulate the stocking knitting trade and especially to prohibit the cheap, nasty 'cut-ups' that were being sold ['Cut-ups' were tubes of stocking fabric that were cut to appropriate lengths and one end was then stitched to form the toe part of the stocking]. The legislation was rejected by the House of Lords. The textile workers then attempted to form a Trade Society to promote their demands but it was deemed to be illegal under the Combination Acts and it collapsed.

In 1816 there was a revival of violence and machine breaking following a bad harvest and a downturn in trade. On 28 June the Luddites attacked Heathcote and Boden's mill in Loughborough, smashing 53 frames at a cost of £6,000. Troops were used to end the riots and for their crimes, six men were executed and another three were transported. William Cobbett's view of events was that

Society ought not to exist, if not for the benefit of the whole. It is and must be against the law of nature, if it exists for the benefit of the few and for the misery of the many. I say, then, distinctly, that a society, in which the common labourer . . . cannot secure a sufficiency of food and raiment, is a society which ought not to exist; a society contrary to the law of nature; a society whose compact is dissolved. [Political Register, 11 September 1819]

After the trials, Luddism subsided in Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. Concurrently, 'Swing' riots erupted in the countryside as a protest against low wages, unemployment and the Game Laws.

The Tory periodical, the Quarterly Review, attacked the government's "do-nothing" policies:

Of distresses, such as now pervade the mass of the community, small indeed is the part which parliaments or governments either create or cure... But what little might have been in our power ... has unhappily, perhaps inadvertently, been thrown away. In passing from a state of war to a state of peace, the shock of the revulsion might not improbably have been lessened to all orders of society by somewhat graduating the transition... If stagnant manufactures, and languishing agriculture, and a population suddenly turned loose from the military or naval services of the country, produce a supply of hands for which there is no work, a partial and temporary remedy might perhaps have been found in undertakings of public utility and magnificence - in the improvement of roads, the completion of canals, the erection of our National Monuments for Waterloo and Trafalgar - undertakings which government might have supplied, if the means had been available. [Vol. 16, 1816, pp.276-277]

These links go to primary sources on the Luddites:

  • "Luddites Smashing a Loom, 1812"
  • "Luddite Writings
  • Luddites and Luddism Midlands Documents Contents

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    Last modified 12 January, 2016

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