xxxxxAt the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Britain was faced with an economic slump, and this brought great hardship for working-class families living on the land or in the new industrial towns. But long before the war ended, the mechanisation of industry was depriving many skilled craftsmen of their livelihood, especially in the textile industry. It was this loss of employment that triggered off the Luddite riots in 1811. Bands of men attacked wool and cotton mills across the north of England, destroying the machines which had ruined their lives. The government took stern measures against the rioters. Many of those arrested were hanged or transported. The movement had lost its force by 1816, but it is estimated that over one thousand machines were destroyed during this organised and savage protest.



Luddites: 1812 engraving, artist unknown. Map (England): from Ludd: 1812 hand coloured etching, artist unknown – Prints and Drawings, British Museum, London. Rawfolds Mill: date and artist unknown.

xxxxxWith the ending of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Britain - faced with an enormous national debt - found itself in the middle of an economic slump. The Industrial Revolution had gathered enormous pace during the war years, but whilst its beneficial effects were slow to filter down to the working classes, its harmful effects were not. This, together with bad harvests and rising food prices - made worse by a tax on imported grain in 1815 - brought hunger and discontent to the families of the factory and the farm worker alike.

xxxxxSuch was the severity of this social discontent, that a series of radical riots broke out in 1816 and 1817, including an attack upon the Prince Regent himself. Not surprisingly, this alarmed both central and local government. Harsh legislation and, where necessary, brute force was used to clamp down on any sign of subversion. As we shall see, the inevitable came in 1819 with the so-called Peterloo Massacre, a peaceful demonstration in Manchester which was attacked by the local yeomanry, leaving eleven dead. It was not until the early 1820s that a programme of economic reform brought some improvement in living conditions, though distress on the land continued for many years.

xxxxxBut long before the war was over, the mechanisation of industry was bringing distress in its wake. Not only were the conditions in the factories deplorable - with environmental pollution and minimal safety measures - but the machines themselves were ruining the livelihoods of many skilled craftsmen. It was this loss of employment, particularly among the handloom weavers, that triggered off the Luddite riots in 1811. These aimed at destroying factory machinery, and especially knitting machines. They began in the lace and hosiery industries in Nottinghamshire, and then quickly spread to other counties across northern England, including, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lancashire and Yorkshire - all famous for their wool and cotton mills.

Click Map to EnlargexxxxxThe movement was particularly well organised and, as a consequence, was thought at one time to have been masterminded by a “General Ludd” or “King Ludd”, though this idea has since been questioned. The men generally operated at night, wearing masks to conceal their identity, and because many - but by no means all - attempted to avoid bloodshed, they enjoyed a great deal of local support. It is estimated that more than a thousand knitting machines were destroyed, and dozens of factories were ransacked, some of them burnt to the ground. In addition, homes belonging to mill owners were broken into, and local churches were looted for lead and metal with which to make ammunition. One local magistrate described the movement as “an outrageous spirit of tumult and riot”.

xxxxxThe government’s reaction was predictably harsh. Some 10,000 troops were drafted into the area, including cavalry and artillery, and virtually given free rein. In London, the Liverpool administration, via its home secretary Viscount Sidmouth, increased the summary powers of magistrates, limited rights of assembly, and suspended the habeas corpus act. At one trial alone, held in York in January 1813, fourteen Luddites were hanged and many were transported to penal colonies, including Australia. And at trials held throughout the area a similar number of sentences was handed out. Faced with such repressive measures the raids became less frequent, and by 1816 the movement had run its course, though, as noted above, it was soon followed by other outbreaks of social disorder.

xxxxxIncidentally, there are a number of versions as to the origin of the name “Luddite”. One is that it comes from a legendary boy called Ludlam who, in a fit of temper, broke his father’s knitting frame. The rioters used his name by signing their proclamations “General Ludd” or “King Ludd” of Sherwood Forest (illustrated). Another is that it comes from a mythical figure known as “Ned Ludd”, a Leicester apprentice who broke up his master’s machine. And a third version is that it comes from a Nottingham saying, based on the Cornish expression “sent all of a lud”, meaning “knocked in a heap”, or smashed. ……

xxxxx…… In February 1812 the English romantic poet Lord Byron, making his maiden speech in the House of Lords, spoke out against the treatment being meted out to the Luddites. Referring to a Commons bill which, among other repressive measures, made the destruction of a machine an offence punishable by hanging, he asked: “Will you erect a gibbet in every field and hang up men like scarecrows? …. Are these the remedies for the starving and desperate?” Their “squalid wretchedness”, he argued, could be compared with the condition of people in “the most oppressed provinces of Turkey”. ……

xxxxx…… Two months later the Luddites in Yorkshire made a raid on Rawfolds Mill near Brighouse. Four of their number were shot dead during the attack, and fourteen were later hanged for their part in the raid. An account of this event featured in Charlotte Bronte’s novel Shirley, published by the Yorkshire-born writer in 1849. ……


xxxxx…… After this particular raid, a soldier who had refused to fire on the Luddites was publicly flogged outside the mill itself. For disobeying orders he was sentenced to 300 lashes, but the punishment was stopped after 25, due, it would seem, to the entreaties of William Cartwright, the owner of the mill.