Hurrah for General Ludd
With the specter of the guillotine looming in the background, domestic unrest in England during the Napoleonic war era generally resulted in the government treating the offenders with a harshness that seems brutal, even by the standard of the times. Such was the case with the agitators known as the Luddites—a group that plays a prominent part in FROM WAIF TO GENTLEMAN’S WIE.
WHO WERE THE LUDDITES AND WHAT DID THEY WANT?
In early 1811, Nottingham stocking manufacturers began to receive letters signed by "General Ned Ludd and his Army of Redressers." Ludd probably did not exist, although some thought the name was derived from that of a Leicestershire farm laborer who had destroyed some stocking frames about 1782. Legends soon grew up proclaiming Ned Ludd to be a Nottingham youth who, like Robin Hood, fought injustice from his headquarters in Sherwood Forest.
For at least three hundred years the weavers in and around Nottingham had enjoyed the status and rewards accorded to fine craftsmen, producing hand-made lace and stockings that dominated the English markets and were prominent in the export trade. Apprenticeships, family tradition and community values insured a product of high quality.
The introduction of stocking frames and power looms into the textile industries of the West Riding of Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire threatened the long-standing way of life of the skilled weaver. Because the new equipment produced goods that were much less expensive, the craftsmen found the market for their wares overtaken by the cheaper goods mass-produced in factories, goods they considered to be of shamefully inferior quality. Faced with the lost of their independence, rebelling against the infamy of being forced into low-paying, unskilled factory jobs, they struck back at what they saw as the cause of their distress—the machines.
In Yorkshire, croppers, a small and highly skilled group of cloth finishers, also joined the movement, turning their wrath on the new shearing frame that they feared would put them out of work.
Shortages of grain, huge increases in the price of bread and potatoes compared to wages and the food riots that erupted in many towns throughout the period certainly helped swell the ranks of the dissenters. Though there was no national organization nor any purely political reason behind the smashing of stocking and cropping frames, the government tracked down and severely prosecuted the organizers and participants in Luddite disturbances.
Though some, like the Earl Fitzwilliam, Lord Lieutenant of the West Riding of Yorkshire, identified the problem as stemming from the ‘distress and want of employment ... fostered and rendered formidable by nothing but the want of trade' due to the worst trade depression since the 1760’s, with two wars raging (with France and with the new United States of America) and many of the able-bodied men away with the army, the government was fearful the uprisings might disintegrate into the sort of mass movement that led to the excesses of the French Revolution. Determined to exterminate the uprisings as quickly as possible, Parliament passed a series of Acts making frame-breaking a capital offense.
1811-1812: LUDDITE VIOLENCE BEGINS
Stocking knitting was predominantly a domestic industry, the stockinger renting his frame from the master and working in his own 'shop.' As the machine frames began to appear, scattered as they were among homes in the villages, the Luddites found it easy to rush in, destroy the frame and then disappear. Between March 1811 and February 1812 they smashed about a thousand machines.
However, Luddites also went after the factories in which the new machines were housed in greater numbers. In February and March, 1812, cropper-led Luddite groups attacked mills in Huddersfield, Halifax, Wakefield and Leeds. In April 1812, they burned the West Houghton mill in Lancashire.
Also in April 1812, the Luddites attacked William Cartwright's mill at Rawfolds near Huddersfield. The following week an attempt was made on Cartwright's life and on April 28, William Horsfall, another manufacturer, was killed.
Throughout April, attacks continued at Shude Hill in Manchester, Burton’s Mill at Middleton near Oldham, Wray and Duncroff at Westhoughton near Bolton.
By the time Lord Sidmouth became Home Secretary in June 1812, the attacks had begun to diminish. Despite the fact that investigations revealed that many of the organizers of these outbreaks were actually incited by government spies sent out to infiltrate and stir up the groups, (as was alleged in Ned’s case in FROM WAIF TO GENTLEMAN’S WIFE)in July 1812, parliament set up Secret Committees to investigate the 'disturbed areas'.
Based on the evidence gathered by these committees, 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.
Although another committee of Parliament was also hearing evidence about the distress among workers in the cotton industry, the hold of the “Laissez-Faire” theory of economy was so strong that it was believed that tampering with the system to try to improve the lot of the workers would likely result in more harm than good for the people whose sufferings such intervention was meant to ease.
So nothing was done, and repression of the disturbances was again the method chosen to bring an end to the discord.
REPRISALS FOR LUDDITE VIOLENCE
Twelve people were arrested and four executed for the torching of the Wray and Duncroff mill—one a boy, Abraham Charlston, listed on the official records as sixteen but said by some to be only twelve. (As described in WAIF, he was said to have cried for his mother on the scaffold.) In January 1813, the three men found guilty of the murder of mill owner William Horsfall were hanged. Fourteen others involved in the attack on Cartwright's mill or related activities were hanged a week later.
Though Lord Sidmouth expected the executions would bring the unrest to a halt, strikes and machine breaking continued, despite the special legislation and severe measures.
When the House of Lords rejected a bill introduced to regulate the stocking trade and prohibit the manufacture of cheaply made goods, textile workers attempted to form a Trade Society. This was proclaimed to be illegal under the Combination Acts and the initiative was abandoned.
By early June 1813, 30,000 troops from the Wiltshire, Buckinghamshire, Louth and Stirling regiments were camped on Kersal Moor above Manchester, ready for action. The presence Of a large body of soldiers was a more effective deterrent than hanging or deportation and by winter, Luddite activity had all but died out.
THE WAR ENDS; LUDDITE ACTIVITY REVIVES
But with the end of the war with France in 1815, the return of thousands of unemployed soldiers followed by a bad harvest that led to soaring bread prices led to a revival of Luddite unrest.
On June 28, 1816, Luddites attacked Heathcote and Boden's mill in Loughborough, smashing 53 frames. Troops had to be called out to end the riots, for which six men were later executed and another three transported.
The unrest also took on a more political nature. Agitators Arthur Thislewood and Thomas Preston invited the celebrated reformer Henry “Orator” Hunt to speak to a group at Spa Fields about petitioning the Prince Regent to reform Parliament. Hunt urged the estimated 10,000 attendees to support a petition, which advocated universal (male) suffrage, annual elections and a secret ballot.
VIOLENCE TURNS RADICAL: THE SPA FIELD RIOTS
But disputes between the organizers halted progress on the petitions and a second Spa Fields meeting was set for December 2—a meeting that turned into what became known as the “Spa Field Riots.”
Hunt arrived to find radical organizers Thistlewood and Watson haranguing the crowd with the same exhortations used by French republican Camille Desmoulin to rally Parisians to storm the Bastille. Watson then grabbed a tricolor and headed off for the Tower of London and the Royal Exchange, followed by many of the crowd. One pedestrian was killed in the melee, but by nightfall order had been restored.
VIOLENCE CONTINUES: ATTACK ON THE PRINCE REGENT’S CARRIAGE
Fear that a revolution against the British aristocracy might be underway was strengthened when the Prince Regent’s carriage was attacked, its windows smashed by stones or pellets, after the Prince opened Parliament on January 28, 1817.
The incident led the government, still headed by Lord Sidmouth, to pass the “Gag Acts” in March 1817. Habeas Corpus was suspended, seditious meetings were prohibited and the Lords Lieutenant were ordered to apprehend all printers and writers responsible for creating and disseminating seditious material.
HUNGER AND DISTRESS CONTINUE: THE MARCH OF THE BLANKETEERS
Just before WAIF begins, in March of 1817, two radicals organized a hunger march on London. Called the March of the Blanketeers, it was made up of spinners and weavers from Manchester, where economic downturns and high bread prices were causing severe privation.
Each man wore a blanket on his back and a petition attached to his arm calling on the Prince Regent to redress the wretched conditions in the cotton industry
Between six and seven hundred men set out from Manchester, but along the way most were arrested by constables or turned back by dragoons. Only one marcher made it all the way to London to present his petition.
Despite the efforts of men like Ned (and Lord Byron, who delivered a fiery speech in Parliament denouncing the repressive legislation enacted against the protestors) the government did nothing to alleviate the distress of the impoverished farm and factory workers. Unrest continued, leading to such violence as the Pentrich Rising in June 1817 and the Peterloo Masacre in August 1819 and fueling the cries for political reform.
However, revelation of the Cato Street Conspiracy in 1820, a splinter group of Spencean radicals who truly did seek to overthrow the government, so alarmed and horrified both government and public alike that the protest movement received a severe setback. These radicals, thinking to take action during the transition between the death of King George III and assumption of power of the Prince Regent, now King George IV, planned to murder the members of the Cabinet, assassinate the King, seize the arsenal in the Tower and set up Committees of Public Safety to usher in a radical republican government.
Though the plot, once again closely monitored by a government informer, was foiled, the shocking revelations revealed about its goals as its organizers were tried and condemned brought reform agitation to a halt for nearly a decade. Not until the 1830’s would a more representative government and protection for workers finally become written into law.
History fanatic? For more on Luddites and the reform movement, check out:
THE LUDDITES: Machine-Breaking in Regency England, by Malcolm I. Thomas, New York: Schocken Books, 1970
ENGLISH COUNTRY LIFE 1780-1830 by E.W. Bovill, London: Oxford University Press, 1962