Rage against the machine

April 11, 2012
Ned Ludd. Ned Ludd, the mythical Luddite leader, in an 1812 depiction at the height of the rebellion.

April 2012 marks the bicentenary of the high-water mark of the Luddite rebellion – but new research suggests that the movement may be celebrated for the wrong reasons.

New research marking the bicentenary of Luddism – a workers’ uprising which swept through parts of England in 1812 – has thrown into question whether it really was the moment at which working class Britain found its political voice.

April 11 will mark the 200th anniversary of what was arguably the high-point of the Luddite rebellion; an assault by some 150 armed labourers on a Huddersfield mill, in which soldiers opened fire on the mob to stop them breaking into the premises, fatally wounding two attackers.

It was, perhaps, the most dramatic in a series of protests which had begun the year before in Nottinghamshire, then spread to Yorkshire, Lancashire and other regions. The Luddites were angered by new technologies, like automated looms, which were being used in the textile industry in place of the skilled work of artisans, threatening their livelihoods as a result.

Invoking a mythical leader, “Ned Ludd”, the insurgents broke into factories and wrecked the offending equipment. At its most incendiary, the rebellion saw exchange of fire between soldiers and workers as well as the notorious murder of a Yorkshire mill-owner, William Horsfall. It also led to the use of the word “Luddite” to describe technophobes.

For historians, the revolt has traditionally been seen as a watershed moment in which the industrial working classes made their presence felt as a political force for the first time. This supposedly laid the ground for later reform movements, such as Chartism, as well as the Trade Unions.

The great social historian, EP Thompson, even saw Luddism as something close to the workers’ equivalent of the peasants’ revolt. His definitive study, The Making Of The English Working Class, linked the insurrection to the birth of a left-wing working class movement in Britain.

Now a study by Richard Jones, a research student at the University of Cambridge, suggests that Luddism may be celebrated for the wrong reasons. He argues that it was not a movement which represented the concerns of the working classes at all – rather those of privileged professionals with disparate, local concerns. In a British textile industry that employed a million people, the movement’s numbers never rose above a couple of thousand.

“For historians, the Luddites have traditionally been seen as a phenomenon of social history,” Jones said. “They are viewed as workers dispossessed by economic advances, frozen out of existing structures and doing whatever they could to make their voices heard. But these were not downtrodden working class labourers – the Luddites were elite craftspeople.”

Focusing in particular on Yorkshire, Jones has examined oral testimonies, trial documents, Parliamentary papers and Home Office reports to establish who the Luddites were, how they operated, and what their chief motivation was.

His findings, some of which will be published in History Today next week, suggest that for a movement representing the birth-pains of a politicised working class, the numbers were peculiarly low. While as many as 150 may have stormed Rawfolds Mill in Huddersfield on April 11, 1812, most of the machine-breaking acts involved groups of four to 10.

Jones believes that this smallness of scale reflects the fact that Luddism was far from a genuinely pan-working class movement. Instead, Luddites were skilled workers – a relatively “elite” group, whose role had traditionally been protected by legislation regulating the supply and conduct of labor.

This centuries-old body of laws had also laid down rules for access to certain professional roles, such as the “croppers”, or cloth dressers, who led the rebellion in Yorkshire. These skilled workers had to spend seven years in apprenticeships before they could take up their chosen profession. At the end of it, they tended to feel that they were owed a living.

New machinery in the textile sector was starting to deny them this. For the real working classes, however, that was an old story – many unskilled jobs had long-since been displaced by technological advances and there was little reason for these groups to get involved in an uprising in 1811/12.

Critically, Jones also challenges the idea that the Luddites were organised into any sort of national movement – in fact, the form of rebellion varies considerably from place to place. In Nottinghamshire, for example, there was less violence, with workers simply removing the jack-wires from new knitting frames so that they collapsed. In Lancashire, however, handloom weavers plugged into radical movements in the densely-populated industrial areas around Manchester, leading to full-blown riots.

The study of Yorkshire reveals that local grievances lay at the heart of the attack on William Cartwright’s Rawfold’s Mill, and the assassination of William Horsfall, near Huddersfield, on April 28th. Both had made themselves deeply unpopular with the local workforce already, and the assaults appear to have been linked to this reputation.

Similarly, there is little indication that Yorkshire Luddism, in spite of its explosive high-points, was part of a hierarchical or organized criminal fringe linking up on a national scale. Its leaders met in local pubs, and their grievances similarly represented community concerns.

In spite of this, Luddism succeeded in becoming a cause célèbre in the region, not least because it was picked up in 19th-Century fiction which presented it as the precursor to later, nationalised reform movements like the Chartists.

“Luddism remains an important aspect of local identity in the regions where it was most active,” Jones added. “The problem with this is that sometimes a fictional interpretation of events can slip into the historical analysis. We can only understand the lessons of history if we look at it properly. Two centuries after the Luddite uprising, it is surely time to ask exactly whose views they represented, and exactly what the movement was about.”

Two articles by Richard Jones based on his current research on Luddism will be published in the next few weeks: “At War With The Future” (History Today, May 2012) and “Where History Happened: Luddites” (BBC History Magazine, May 2012).

Explore further: The true story behind William Wallace’s rising against the English

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