"It is the mob that labour in your fields and serve in your houses, that man your navy and recruit your army, that have enabled you to defy all the world - and can also defy you, when neglect and calamity have driven them to despair."
It is in the nature of the people and subjects I have chosen for discussion that there is a great deal of contemporary writing against. But the Luddites are unusual in that there is, at the time, also much writing for: some by Luddites themselves, of course,in poems, letters and manifestos; but also by political and social commentators of the time, such as William Cobbett; by novelists, such as Charlotte Brontë; and by poets, such as Lord Byron and Shelley.
Collectively, they give us a sense of the zeitgeist, the issues prevailing at a time when England was going through profound social, economic and political upheavals, compounded by the French wars.
Charlotte Brontë would have heard about Luddite riots from her father, a representative in Yorkshire of the authorities, and the event she describes in Shirley is the attack of William Cartwright's mill at Rawfolds near Huddersfield, in which two of the attackers were killed. In this passage, William Farren, whose job is in danger from Robert Moore’s modernization of cloth production at Hollow Mill addresses the man responsible:
“Ye see we're ill off - varry ill off: wer families is poor and pined. We're thrawn out o' work wi' these frames: we can get naught to do: we can earn naught. What is to be done? Mun we say, wisht! and lig us down and dee? nay: I've no grand words at my tongue's end, Mr Moore, but I feel that it wad be a low principle for a reasonable man to starve to death like a dumb cratur' ... I'll make as big a din as ever I can. Invention may be all right, but I know it isn't right for poor folks to starve."
William Cobbett, in The Political Register, in 1819, has the grand words necessary to express a similar point of view:
“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 exist 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 if dissolved.”
Echoes here, you may think, with the Levellers and their reliance on the law of nature. But although Cobbett is sympathetic to the plight of the Luddites, he takes issue with them on the root cause of their poverty. In his Letter to the Luddites of 1816, he argues for machines, without which “men cannot live in a civilized state” and blames poverty on low wages and high taxes. He gives a short lesson on capitalism. “Your distress, that is to say, that which you now more immediately feel, arises from want of employment with wages sufficient for your support. The want of such employment has arisen from the want of a sufficient demand for the goods you make. The want of a sufficient demand for the goods you make has arisen from the want of means in the nation at large to purchase your goods. This want of means to purchase your goods has arisen from the weight of the taxes co-operating with the bubble of paper-money. The enormous burden of taxes and the bubble of paper-money have arisen from the war, the sinecures, the standing army, the loans, and the stoppage of cash payments at the Bank.”
And mad, bad and dangerous-to-know Byron?
Byron loves the sheer chaos, the anarchy of it all. “Such marchings and countermarchings!” he tells the House of Lords. “From Nottingham to Bulwell, from Bulwell to Banford, from Banford to Mansfield! And when at length detachments arrived at their destination, in all the ‘pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war’, they come just in time to witness the mischief which had been done, and ascertain the escape of the perpetrators – to collect the spolia opima, in the fragments of broken frames, and return to their quarters amidst the derision of old women and the hootings of children.”
But he also strikes a more serious note: “The perseverance of these miserable men in their proceedings tends to prove that nothing but absolute want could have driven a large and once honest and industrious body of the people into the commission of excesses so hazardous to themselves, their families, and the community.”
Concluding, he attempts to shame and embarrass his fellow lordships: “I have been in some of the most oppressed provinces in Turkey; but never, under the most despotic of infidel governments, did I behold such squalid wretchedness as I have seen since my return, in the very heart of a Christian country.”
The years of the Luddites
The term “Luddite’ today is used pretty much as a synonym for a technophobe, anyone who is opposed to technology (or, actually, anything associated with the present or the future). In our case, Luddite refers to a specific group of artisans in the English textile industry (stockingers, AKA framework-knitters, and lace-makers), in a specific part of the country (Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire initially and then Yorkshire and Lancashire) at a specific time (1811 to 1813).
They are not the first weavers to destroy machines. Similar activities have taken place in Spitalfields in 1675, in Nottingham in 1778, in Manchester in 1792 and then, sporadically, throughout the country, particularly in London and particularly from 1799 onwards.
But the Luddites are different. Different because of the sheer intensity of their actions, their formidable organization, their commitment and their support in the community.
It all happens very quickly and, from the point of view of the authorities, unexpectedly. In February, stockingers had broken into shops and removed crucial components from wide knitting frames, rendering them useless. But on 11 March 1811, there is an attack on a shop in the village of Arnold in Nottinghamshire. It is the first time that the frames themselves have been damaged. And the first time that the name Ludd is mentioned. There are more broken frames in villages around Nottingham in the coming days, in March and April the Nottingham Journal reports almost nightly attacks, but no arrests. The summer sees a cessation in activity, a bad harvest helps to re-ignite the campaign.in the autumn.
It’s Monday 4th November. In Bulwell, a small village north of Nottingham, and the home of a master weaver named Hollingsworth, a group of men, with blackened faces and/or scarves over their faces, “march” to Hollingsworth’s house and, breaking in via shutters, destroy six or eight frames. Afterwards, they disband in military fashion, having answered a roll-call which identifies them by numbers. It is a first for ‘General’ Ludd.
The following Sunday, Hollingsworth is attacked again. This time, he has sent all bar seven of his frames into safe storage and recruited neighbours with muskets to stand sentry. One man, a weaver called John Westley, is shot. His comrades carry him to the edge of the wood and return “with a fury irresistible by the force opposed to them” to destroy the frames and house contents and set fire to the house. They are never identified, never arrested, never charged. But the authorities have other events to worry about. The same night, a dozen frames are destroyed in Kimberley, a few miles away. On the Tuesday, men with blackened faces stop a cart which is transporting ‘eight or nine’ looms from Sutton, destroying the machinery with hammers, bending the metal out of shape and burning the wood. Official reports estimate that more than 100 frames are attacked in November and another 150 or more in December as news spreads from tavern to tavern, village to village, moving from Nottinghamshire south to Leicestershire, north to Yorkshire, east to Derbyshire, Cheshire and Lancashire. It’s known as the Luddite Triangle.
There is panic. In the face of what EP Thompson calls “sheer insurrectionary fury” that “has rarely been more widespread in English history”, Nottingham magistrates speak of “an outrageous spirit of tumult and revolt”. Letters are sent requesting military aid because “2000 men, many of them armed” are “riotously traversing the County of Nottingham”. As Byron points out, the military aid, when it comes, is risible, even though it is said that no less than 12,000 troops are mobilized, more than on Wellington’s first expedition to the peninsula. But the ‘intelligence’ of local communities is too much for them. When soldiers protecting a mill outside Bolton leave on 24 April 1812, it takes merely an hour before a successful attack on the now undefended mill is carried out. According to the Annual Register, “the whole of the Building, with its valuable machinery, cambrics, &c, were entirely destroyed”.
But often, they do not need “insurrectionary fury”. Merely the threat of it. They post flyers on the doors of the offending shops, demanding they concede to the demands of General Ludd. Usually, this is sufficient. Ned Ludd is a serious threat.
Ned Ludd is apocryphal. Well, probably. But John Blackner, a local historian from Nottingham (and also editor of the radical daily The Statesman, who has been linked by JD Chambers with the Luddites), explains that “the framebreakers assumed this appellation from the circumstances of an ignorant youth, in Leicestershire, of the name Ludlam, who, when ordered by his father, a framework-knitter, to square his needles, took a hammer and beat them into a heap”.
Adopting this youth as a symbol is typical of the taunting, teasing, character of of the Luddites: they may be a secret society which made each recruit swear an oath of silence - it's called "twisting in" - but they have a personality, and a sense of humour. They send letters written in a pastiche of official-ese, using phrases such as “Whereas by the Charter … " and signing them from “Ned Lud’s Office, Sherwood Forest”. It’s been pointed out that its community base means that the young black-faced men were probably friends from birth, spending their childhood playing similar games. They dress up in women’s clothes and marched through the streets as “General Ludd’s Wives”. They sing songs, referencing Nottingham's own Robin Hood and proclaiming that they are his successors:
"Chant no more your old rhymes about bold Robin Hood,
His feats I but little admire.
I will sing the achievments of General Ludd
Now the hero of Nottinghamshire."
Byron, himself a Nottinghamshire landowner, may have enjoyed this kind of thing, this thumbing of the nose at the establishment, but few others of his rank do. The authorities up the ante. On 5 March, 1812, a bill is introduced in the Lords to make frame breaking a capital offence, i.e. punishable by death rather than 'merely' 14 years deportation. Byron is moved to makes his maiden speech:
“Suppose one of these men, as I have seen them meager with famine, sullen with despair, careless of a life which your lordships are perhaps about to value at something less than the price of a stocking-frame. Suppose this man surrounded by those children for whom he is unable to procure bread at the hazard of his existence, about to be torn for ever from a family which he lately supported in peaceful industry, and which it is not his fault that he can no longer so support. Suppose this man – and there are ten thousand such from whom you may select your victims – dragged into court to be tried for this new offence, by this new law – still there are two things wanting to convict and condemn, and these are, in my opinion, twelve butchers for a jury, and a Jefferies for a judge!”
It is passed. Only Byron opposes it. And it's just the start. Or rather, the beginning of the end.
A Declaration of War
Within 6 weeks, there are 14,400 soldiers – including cavalry and artillery – operating in the Luddite Triangle. Plus an estimated 20,000 members of the voluntary militia. Plus special constables – 4,000 in Manchester, with another 1500 in Salford and 1000 in Nottingham. Plus secret agents. The numbers of these are, by definition, not known, but they seem to be everywhere.
Samuel Whitbread MP tells the Commons that “as to the persons who had blackened their faces, and disfigured themselves for the purposes of concealment … it turned out that ten of them were spies sent out by the magistrates. These were the very ringleaders of the mischief, and incited people to acts which they would not otherwise have thought of.”
So not just the army, the police, and spies, but agents provocateurs are involved, and it achieves its objective of putting pressure on the Luddite organization, so much so that it feels the need to justify itself. One letter, written on behalf of General Ludd from Yorkshire, responds: “He wishes me to state that though his troops here are not at present making any movement that is not for want of force – as the organization is quite strong in Yorkshire – but that they are at present only devising the best means for the grand attack”.
Whether this is an empty threat or not, there is certainly evidence of a move within the Luddite movement to broaden the struggle by arming itself with more than sledgehammers.
Reports from the “disturbed areas” to the parliamentary Secret Committees, set up by the new Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, in July 1812 itemize “seizures of arms”, with Vice-Lieutenant Wood claiming that “some hundreds of cases” lead him “to fear it would all end in open rebellion against the government of the country”.
Another report records that “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.”
Certainly, there was a move towards violence not solely against machines but against people. The attack on Cartwright’s Mill, described by Charlotte Brontë in Shirley, which results in the death of two of the Luddites prompts an attempt on the life of Cartwright. This fails, but they are successful in assassinating William Horsfall, another prosperous mill owner and an outspoken opponent of Luddite activity.
Gordon and Enid Mintner, in Discovering Old Huddersfield, tell the story:
“[The Luddites] had no great difficulty in selecting a victim. William Horsfall, an outspoken opponent of the Luddite cause, had gone so far as to install a cannon at his mill to defend his machines from attack. More importantly, perhaps, once a week his journey to and from the market at Huddersfield took him past the Luddite headquarters at Longroyd Bridge and so put him within their reach.
On that fateful Tuesday afternoon, the millowner called for his usual drink at the Warren House Inn after which he continued up the turnpike towards the Dryclough area. Unknown to him four armed men had concealed themselves in ambush behind the wall of a plantation on the left hand side of the road. The four, George Mellor, William Thorpe, Thomas Smith and Benjamin Walker had a great deal in common: they were enthusiastic Luddites, they were croppers by trade, three of them worked at Wood's cropping shop and one at Fisher's shop close by, they had all taken part in machine breaking attacks and they were all under twenty-five years old.
As Mr. Horsfall approached the plantation several shots were fired and he was severely wounded. Seeing their victim fall forward onto his horse's neck the assassins made their escape along Dry Clough Lane. Mr. Horsfall was assisted back to the Warren House where, despite medical attention, he died some thirty-six hours later. His last words are reputed to have been 'These are awful times'.
On the day after the attack, George Mellor and William Thorpe promptly silenced all possible informers by forcing them at pistol point to swear on the Bible that they would reveal nothing of what they knew, and so the secret held until October 1812.”
That it held so long despite the offer of a reward of £2000 is an indication of the strength of the Luddites within the community. But George Mellor, Thorpe and Smith are eventually arrested, charged and tried at York in January 1813.
Here is The Times of 12 January 1813. I’m going to quote it in full, all 900 odd words of it, not only for its eye-witness account of the proceedings, but also for its drawing of conclusions and, for me at least, its tone of voice; the note of sadness and sympathy. It is headlined ‘EXECUTION of the MURDERERS of Mr. HORSFALL, at YORK’:
“During the whole of the trial, and even while the solemn sentence of the law was passing, not one of the prisoners shed a tear, but their behaviour was perfectly free from any indecent boldness or unbecoming levity. The proceedings of the Court were conducted with unusual solemnity, and the behaviour of the spectators was strictly decorous and becoming. From amongst the numerous relatives and friends of the unhappy malefactors, an expression of anguish frequently reached the ear, but it was deep, not loud; and in that part of the auditory that was connected with them only by a common nature, abhorrence at their enormous crime was not unmixed with commiseration at the premature fate of these early victims of a lawless confederacy.
“At the opening of the Court on Thursday morning, the Jury recommended Thomas Smith to mercy; and an application was, we understand, made to the Judges to have the sentence of the law, on such of the murders as they might think proper to order for execution, carried into effect, not at the usual place of execution, but on the spot where one murder was perpetrated; but, we hear, it was not thought expedient to comply with this application.
“In the interval between the trial and execution, the prisoners behaved very penitently, though they refused to make any confession either in the prison or at the place of execution. Thorpe, on being asked if he did not acknowledge the justice of his sentence, said, ‘Do not ask me any question’. Mellor declared, ‘that he would rather be in the situation he was then placed in, dreadful as it was, than have to answer for the crime of their accuser; and that he would not change situations with him, even for his liberty and two thousand pounds’; but with all his resolution, he could not conceal the agonies of his mind, for on the night before the execution, he fell to the ground in a state of insensibility, and it was thought he would have died in his cell; but he soon recovered, and in the morning his health was perfectly restored.
“The execution of these unhappy men took place, yesterday, at nine o’clock, at the usual place behind the castle, at York. Every precaution had been taken to render a rescue impracticable. Two troop of cavalry were drawn up in front of the drop, and the avenues to the castle were guarded by infantry. Five minutes before nine o’clock, the prisoners came upon the platform. After the Ordinary had read the accustomed forms of prayer, George Mellor prayed for about ten minutes – he spoke with great apparent fervency and devotion, confessing in general, the greatness of his sins, but without any allusion to the crime for which he suffered. The surrounding multitude were evidently affected. William Thorpe also prayed, but his voice was not so well heard. Smith said little, but seemed to to join in the devotion with great seriousness.
“The prisoners were then moved to the front of the platform, and Mellor said, ‘Some of my enemies may be here; if there be, I freely forgive them, and all the world, and I hope all the world will forgive me’. Thorpe said, ‘I hope none of those who are now before me, will ever come to this place’. The executioner then proceeded to perform his fatal office, and the drop fell. They were executed in their irons. they appeared slightly convulsed for a few moments.
“The number of people assembled was much greater than is usual in York, on these melancholy occasions; but not the slightest indication of tumult prevailed, and the greatest silence reigned during the whole of this solemn and painful scene.
“Such has been the issue of that fatal system, which, after having produced in its progress great terror and alarm, and much mischief to the community, has at length terminated in the death of those who were its most active partizans: and thus have perished, in the very bloom of life, three young men, who, had they directed their talents to lawful pursuits, might have lived happy and respected. They were young men on whose countenances nature had not imprinted the features of assassins.
“On the fate of these malefactors, and on the dangerous tendency to themselves of the association of which they were members, one observation presents itself too important to be omitted at the close of the melancholy details that we have felt it our details to lay before the public. We will from hence appear, hat men confederated for the commission of crimes, can have no well-grounded confidence in each other – not even when their pact is confirmed by oaths and cemented in blood. If this be admitted, and the history of every age and country confirms the truth of the observation, the inference is irresistible, that all those persons who may in future be invited to become members of such confederacies should resist such invitations, as they would avoid the greatest calamity; and all those who may have been so far infatuated as to become members of such societies, should, from this moment, and by one common consent, desist from taking another step in furtherance of their objects. They must now see that they are stood on the brink of a frightful precipice, and that their step might have plunged them into that gulph which has overwhelmed their less fortunate associates.”
During 1813, a further fourteen Luddites are executed having ‘plunged into that gulph’. Scores are transported to penal colonies. But thirty are acquitted by juries or trials halted for lack of evidence. They are intended to be show trials, to deter, to make examples, and they serve their purpose. Lords Sidmouth and Ellenborough record that they expect the executions to prompt “the happiest effects in various parts of the kingdom”.
The ‘archetype of the radical Judas’
Luddism fizzles out. There are sporadic and isolated outbursts here and there and from time to time but the insurrection feared by the government never materializes, nor does it ever look as if it may. Despite the best endeavours of the agents provocateurs, who are paid by results, the Luddites have run out of steam, even though, as late as December 1816, Byron is still writing stuff like his Song for the Luddites:
As the Liberty lads over the sea
Brought their freedom, and cheaply, with blood
So we, boys, we
Will die fighting, or live free,
And down with all kings but King Ludd.
When the web that we weave is complete,
And the shuttle exchanged for the sword,
We will fling the winding sheet
O’er the despot at our feet,
And dye it deep in the gore he has poured.
Though black as his heart is hue,
Since his veins are corrupted to mud,
yet this is the dew
Which the tree shall renew
Of liberty, planted by Ludd!
But six months later, in June 1817, comes what we can now identify as the final event, which takes place in a Derbyshire village called Pentrich. And it is less a Luddite action than a government set-up, although a plaque in the village celebrates what it calls the Pentrich Revolution.
An agent provocateur named William Richards AKA Oliver the Spy incites two hundred people in Derbyshire to join some 70,000 men who are allegedly marching south “like a cloud” from Scotland and Yorkshire to London.
Oliver the Spy is the man described by EP Thompson as "the archetype of the radical Judas". He is known to Luddites throughout the North and Midlands as William Oliver, the ‘London delegate’, is an employee of Lord Sidmouth, the reactionary Home Secretary. And this is widely known, but not in Pentrich. Led by one Jeremy Brandreth, some 200 set off for Nottingham, where they are met by a company of soldiers and two mounted magistrates. Forty-seven are arrested and subsequently stand trial.
Four days after the uprising, The Leeds Mercury publishes a series of articles, written by Edward Baines, which firmly places responsibility on Oliver. Use of agents provocateurs is widely regarded as not “fair play", as against the spirit of the law. On the 14th of June, no less a personage than Earl Fitzwilliam, the Lord Lieutenant of the West Riding of Yorkshire, writes to Lord Sidmouth:
“There certainly prevails very generally in the country a strong and decided opinion that most of the events that have recently occurred in the country are to be attributed to the presence and active agitation of Mr. Oliver. He is considered as the mainspring from which every movement has taken its rise. All the mischievous in the country have considered themselves as subordinate members of a great leading body of revolutionists in London, as cooperating with that body for one general purpose, and in this view to be under its instructions and directions, communicated by some delegate appointed for the purpose. had not then a person pretending to come from that body and for that purpose, made his appearance in the country, it is not assuming too much to say that probably no movement whatever would have occurred – it does not follow that a dangerous spirit could not have been found lurking in any breast, but that that spirit would not have found its way into action.”
But Lords Sidmouth and Liverpool are determined to make an example, charging those arrested with high treason. In Huddersfield, lesser charges were brought but even so, juries were appalled by the use of spies and acquitted the defendants. Not so in Pentrich.
The men are tried, in Derby, by the Lord Chief Justice and a hand-picked jury of local landowners. 23 are transported to Australia and their homes demolished and families evicted by their landlord, the Duke of Devonshire. (This is the 6th Duke, described by the Chatsworth website as "extravagant and charming".)
Four are sentenced to death, which at this time means hanging, drawing and quartering. But – an indication of the strength of feeling in the country – the Prince Regent himself commutes this to hanging followed by beheading. One of those about to die called out from the scaffold, “This is all Oliver and the government”.
Which is the generally held view. As William Cobbett writes, “The employers of Oliver might in an hour have put a total stop to preparations and blown them to air. They wished not to prevent but to produce those acts.”
But Oliver’s employers, Sidmouth and the Home Office, have achieved their objective. Oliver is spirited away to South Africa, where the Cape Colony Governor is ordered to make a grant of land to a Mr William Jones. He died as William Jones Oliver in 1827.
By which time Ned Ludd and Luddism is also dead.