On a late January night in 1812, a mob hell-bent on violence stormed through the door of George Ball’s textile workshop on the outskirts of Nottingham, England. With handkerchiefs tied around their faces, the men slammed their targets with sledgehammers and fled, leaving behind five shattered knitting machines.
The early 1800s was a time of economic upheaval for English hosiers, croppers and weavers. The decade-old Napoleonic Wars had halted trade and caused food shortages. And a change in men’s fashion from stockings to trousers had crippled England’s hosiery industry. On top of it all, the Industrial Revolution sweeping across the English countryside brought with it disruptive technology that allowed workers to produce knitted goods about 100 times faster than by hand.
Claiming to take their orders from a “General Ludd,” the “Luddites” emerged as a violent force against changes in the textile industry. Raids on textile workshops became a nearly nightly occurrence in Nottingham since a labor uprising by highly skilled textile artisans began in November 1811.
“The stocking knitters and lace workers in Nottingham were working in industries that were largely in decline,” says Kevin Binfield, an English professor at Murray State University and editor of Writings of the Luddites. “The masters were slow to react and used the opportunity to reduce wages.” Hit by the economic downturn, merchants cut costs by employing lower-paid, untrained workers to operate machines as the textile industry moved out of individual homes and into mills where hours were longer and conditions more dangerous.
Artisans who had spent years perfecting their craft in apprenticeships protested the use of untrained workers who generally produced inferior products. Many were willing to adapt to the mechanization of the textile industry as long as they shared in the profits. However, they watched as the productivity gains from technology enriched the capitalists, not the workers.
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English textile workers consistently found their efforts to negotiate for pensions, minimum wages and standard working conditions rebuffed. Unable to legally form trade unions or strike, the laborers instead wielded sledgehammers to strike a blow against industrial capitalism in what historian Eric Hobsbawm called “collective bargaining by riot.”
The Legend of 'General Ludd'
Nottingham’s textile workers claimed to be following the orders of a mysterious “General Ludd.” Merchants received threatening letters addressed from “Ned Ludd’s office, Sherwood Forest.” Newspapers reported that Ludd had been a framework knitting apprentice who had been whipped at the behest of his master and took his revenge by demolishing his master’s machine with a hammer.
Ned Ludd, however, was likely no more real than another legendary denizen of Sherwood Forest who fought against injustice, Robin Hood. Mythic though he may have been, Ned Ludd became a folk hero in parts of Nottingham and inspired verses such as:
Chant no more your old rhymes about bold Robin Hood
His feats I but little admire
I will sing the Achievements of General Ludd
Now the Hero of Nottinghamshire
From Nottingham, the Luddite revolt spread during 1812 to the wool industry of Yorkshire and the cotton mills of Lancashire. As the labor movement expanded, it also lost its cohesion and the purity of its economic message. “It differentiated according to region, and even within regions it differed among people in different trades,” Binfield says.
Luddite Protests Grow Violent
The protest also blossomed into violence as it grew in size. In addition to smashing machines, Luddites set mills ablaze and exchanged gunfire with guards and authorities dispatched to protect factories. Four Luddites were shot dead in April 1812 after breaking down the doors of the Rawfolds Mill outside Huddersfield. Weeks later, the laborers exacted revenge by murdering mill owner William Horsfall, who had expressed “his desire to ride up to the saddle girths in Luddite blood,” by shooting him as he rode his own horse.
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With the uprising turning deadly, the British government dispatched 14,000 soldiers to the heart of England to protect factories and quell the violence. More British soldiers were mobilized against their fellow citizens than were in the Duke of Wellington’s army fighting Napoleon on the Iberian Peninsula. After Parliament decreed machine-breaking a capital offense, two dozen Luddites were sent to the gallows, including a 16-year-old boy who had acted as a lookout. Dozens more were banished to Australia.
The measures worked, and the Luddite movement began to dissipate in 1813. Their name, however, endures more than two centuries later. “Luddite” has now become a catch-all term synonymous with “technophobe,” but Binfield says that is a mischaracterization.
“They didn’t object to the use of a new kind of machine," he says, "but to the use of existing machines in ways that reduced wages and produced shoddy clothing."