What/Who Is A Luddite?

Who Were the Luddites?

The "Leader of the Luddites"

The “Leader of the Luddites”

“Few groups have been more misunderstood and have had their image and name more frequently misappropriated and distorted than the Luddites,” according to literary scholar Kevin Binfield.  In his book, Writings of the Luddites, he describes them as “artisans…primarily skilled workers in the textile industries” who, for over two years starting in March 1811, rioted over a large area of England against factory owners and machines.

Binfield believes that Luddites resented the use of steam-powered looms and new stocking frames because these machines replaced much of the need for human labor while producing “large amounts of cheap, shoddy stocking material that was cut and sewn into stockings rather than completely fashioned (knit in one piece without seams).”

Luddites were also infuriated at the use of “colts,” who were less-skilled laborers that had not completed required seven-year apprenticeships.  The experienced cloth workers felt that their employers were actively trying to “drive down their wages and to produce inferior goods…thereby damaging their trades’ reputations.”  Their desperation was exacerbated by famine and rises in food prices, which required more and more of their dwindling earnings.   The machines would become “simply the most accessible targets for expressions of anger and direct action.”

The rioting started on March 11, 1811 in Nottinghamshire, with an attack on knitting frames.  Attacks occurred almost nightly for several weeks; this first wave, reported in the Nottingham Journal, was successful and none of the attackers were apprehended. The tensions would die down over the summer, but a bad harvest in the fall caused tempers flare once more.  The government was asked to provide military support, for “2000 men, many of them armed, were riotously traversing the County of Nottingham.”

Negotiations with the workers and their employers failed, and frame breaking continued. [1] In February 1812, it was proposed by the government that machine-breaking should become a capital offence, punishable by death. Although it was opposed by Lord Byron in the House of Lords, Parliament passed the Frame Breaking Act and 12,000 troops were ordered into the areas where the Luddites were active.  In February and March, 1812, factories were still being attacked by Luddites in Huddersfield, Halifax, Wakefield and Leeds.

Luddism gradually spread to Yorkshire, where one of the worst outbreaks of violence would occur.  Textile workers known as “Croppers” were suffering unemployment and decreased wages, and blamed that upon the gig mill, a machine which made it easier to shear cloth.[2]  The owner of Rawfolds Mill, had been using cloth-finishing machinery since 1811 and after local croppers began losing their jobs to this new technology, he suspected trouble, hiring guards to protect the factory.  The attack on Rawfolds Mill took place on 11th April, 1812.  Led by George Mellor, a young cropper from Huddersfield, the Luddites tried to force their way into the factory but were repelled. Seven days after the Rawfolds Mill incident, another local mill owner was attacked and killed.  In time, over a hundred suspects were rounded up; sixty-four were indicted.  Three men would be executed for the murder of mill owner, while fourteen were hung for the attack on Rawfolds Mill.  Days later, a mill near Manchester was set on fire and twelve were arrested on suspicion.  Four of the accused were executed, including Abraham Charlston, only twelve years old. Even though riots, executions, and deportations still took place throughout the summer, Luddism began to wane after the failed Rawfolds Mill attack; by 1817 the Luddite movement was no longer active in Britain. [3]

The true meaning of the movement is lost to most as, media historian Matthew Lasar writes in his article: You know the name, but just who were the Luddites? He acknowledges that “the popular image of them as an anti-technology movement fumbles upon a close look at their lives.”[4]  Luddism was, more than anything, a labor movement; frustrated workers, as Binfield puts, “wrecking the offensive machines and terrorizing the offending owners in order to preserve their wages, their jobs, and their trades.”[5]  They weren’t anti-capitlists by any means: they made their goods to be sold in the market.  They were upset by wage reductions, competition for jobs brought by unapprenticed workers, and new technologies that weakened the quality of their craft. According to Lasar, “what these artisans fought was a completely unregulated economy that regarded their destruction as a minor blot on the larger page of progress…(they) didn’t oppose technology; they opposed the sudden collapse of their industry, which they blamed in part on new weaving machines.”[6]

a.jpg

 

Bibliography

Binfield, Kevin. Writings of the Luddites. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. Extract: http://campus.murraystate.edu/academic/faculty/kevin.binfield/Luddites/LudditeHistory.htm (accessed December 31, 2009).

Lasar, Matthew. “You know the name, but just who were the Luddites?” Ars Tecnica, http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2009/10/if-you-are-reading-this-post-you-are-not-a-luddite.ars (accessed December 31, 2009).

Spartacus Educational. “The Luddites.” http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/PRluddites.htm (accessed December 31, 2009).

http://www.cottontimes.co.uk/luddo02.htm

http://www.learnhistory.org.uk/cpp/luddites1.jpg

[1] Kevin Binfield, Writings of the Luddites (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004). Extract: http://campus.murraystate.edu/academic/faculty/kevin.binfield/Luddites/LudditeHistory.htm (accessed December 31, 2009).

[2] Lasar, Matthew. “You know the name, but just who were the Luddites?” Ars Tecnica, http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2009/10/if-you-are-reading-this-post-you-are-not-a-luddite.ars (accessed December 31, 2009).

[3] Spartacus Educational. “The Luddites.” http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/PRluddites.htm (accessed December 31, 2009).

[4] Lasar.

5 Binfield.

[6] Lasar.

Related Post

2 thoughts on “What/Who Is A Luddite?

Leave a Reply