Feb 272018

On this date in 1812 Lord Byron gave a speech in the House of Lords as part of a debate on the proposed Frame Breaking Act which sought to suppress the Luddite movement which was engaged in smashing factory machinery as part of a general revolt against the policies of factory owners and government which served to make the rich richer, and impoverish the working class. Byron denounced what he considered to be the plight of the working class, the government’s inane policies and their ruthless repression of workers. His full speech is here: http://www.luddites200.org.uk/LordByronspeech.html  A small excerpt makes his point:

I have been in some of the most oppressed provinces of 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 word “Luddite” is now used to disparage someone who is seen to be opposed to technological development in principle, which is a complete perversion of what the original Luddites stood for. The machines in question, generally textile weaving  equipment, were not the main issue. The central problem was that factory owners were replacing skilled workers with machines which produced finished goods for sale at cheaper prices than could be produced by manual workers. But, as Byron notes:

These machines were to them [factory owners] an advantage, inasmuch as they superseded the necessity of employing a number of workmen, who were left in consequence to starve. By the adoption of one species of frame in particular, one man performed the work of many, and the superfluous labourers were thrown out of employment. Yet it is to be observed, that the work thus executed was inferior in quality, not marketable at home, and merely hurried over with a view to exportation.

The machines were not the main issue. The factory owners were content to produce machine-made goods that were inferior because they could employ fewer people, and, therefore, make bigger profits. The quality of the goods they made, and the poverty that they condemned their previous workers to were not important. I am always going to be on the side of the Luddites, and proud to call myself a Luddite.

Although the origin of the name Luddite is uncertain, the movement was said to be named after Ned Ludd, an apprentice who allegedly smashed two stocking frames in 1779 and whose name had become emblematic of machine destroyers. Ned Ludd, however, was completely fictional and used as a way to shock the government. The name evolved into the imaginary General Ludd or King Ludd, who, like Robin Hood, was reputed to live in Sherwood Forest.

The working class of the 18th century, generally speaking, were not openly disloyal to the king or government. Overall, violent action was rare because punishments were harsh. The majority of individuals were primarily concerned with meeting their own daily needs. The shift towards aggression in the 19th century was an intrinsic part of the rise in English working-class discontent due to the Industrial Revolution. The Luddites were not afraid of technology and did not attempt to eliminate technology out of fear. Luddism was a prototypical, insurrectionary labor movement which was only loosely organized.

The insurrectionary movements of the early 19th century must be viewed in the context of the hardships suffered by the working class during the Napoleonic Wars, rather than as an absolute aversion to machinery. Irregular rises in food prices provoked the Keelmen working on Tyneside to riot in 1710 and tin miners to steal from granaries at Falmouth in 1727. There was a rebellion in Northumberland and Durham in 1740, and an assault of Quaker corn dealers in 1756. Skilled artisans in the cloth, building, shipbuilding, printing and cutlery trades organized friendly societies to peacefully insure themselves against unemployment, sickness, and in some cases against intrusion of “foreign” labor into their trades, as had been common among guilds.

Without unions, machine-breaking was one of the few mechanisms workers could use to increase pressure on employers, to undermine lower-paid competing workers and to create solidarity among workers. An agricultural variant of Luddism, centering on the breaking of threshing machines, occurred during the widespread Swing Riots of 1830 in southern and eastern England. The Luddite movement began in Arnold, Nottingham on 11 March 1811 and spread rapidly throughout England over the following two years. Handloom weavers burned mills and pieces of factory machinery. The Luddites met at night on the moors surrounding industrial towns to practice drills and maneuvers. Their main area of operation began in Nottinghamshire in November 1811, followed by the West Riding of Yorkshire in early 1812 then Lancashire by March 1813. They smashed stocking frames and cropping frames among others. There does not seem to have been any political motivation behind the Luddite riots and there was no national organization. The men were merely attacking what they saw as the reason for the decline in their livelihoods. Luddites battled the British Army at Burton’s Mill in Middleton and at Westhoughton Mill, both in Lancashire. The Luddites and their supporters anonymously sent death threats to, and possibly attacked, magistrates and food merchants. Activists smashed Heathcote’s lacemaking machine in Loughborough in 1816. He and other industrialists had secret chambers constructed in their buildings that could be used as hiding places during an attack.

Later interpretation of machine breaking (1812), showing two men superimposed on an 1844 engraving from the Penny magazine which shows a post-1820s Jacquard loom. Machine-breaking was criminalized by the Parliament of the United Kingdom as early as 1721, the penalty being penal transportation, but as a result of continued opposition to mechanization the Frame Breaking Act 1812 made the death penalty available. The British Army clashed with the Luddites on several occasions. At one time there were more British soldiers fighting the Luddites than there were fighting Napoleon on the Iberian Peninsula. Three Luddites, led by George Mellor, ambushed and assassinated mill owner William Horsfall of Ottiwells Mill in Marsden, West Yorkshire at Crosland Moor in Huddersfield. Horsfall had remarked that he would “Ride up to his saddle in Luddite blood.” Mellor fired the fatal shot to Horsfall’s groin, and all three men were arrested.

The British government sought to suppress the Luddite movement with a mass trial at York in January 1813, following the attack on Cartwrights mill at Rawfolds near Cleckheaton. The government charged over 60 men, including Mellor and his companions, with various crimes in connection with Luddite activities. While some of those charged were actual Luddites, many had no connection to the movement. Although the proceedings were legitimate jury trials, many were abandoned due to lack of evidence and 30 men were acquitted. These trials were certainly intended to act as show trials to deter other Luddites from continuing their activities. The harsh sentences of those found guilty, which included execution and penal transportation, quickly ended the movement.

Parliament made “machine breaking” a capital crime with both the Frame Breaking Act of 1812 and the Malicious Damage Act 1861. Lord Byron opposed this legislation, becoming one of the few prominent defenders of the Luddites after the treatment of the defendants at the York trials. In 1867 Karl Marx wrote that it would be some time before workers were able to distinguish between the machines and “the form of society which utilizes these instruments” and their ideas. “The instrument of labour, when it takes the form of a machine, immediately becomes a competitor of the workman himself.”

There used to be a pub called the King Ludd on Ludgate hill in London – now closed. Ludgate is not named for Ned Ludd but for Lud (Welsh: Lludd map Beli Mawr), who according to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s legendary History of the Kings of Britain and related medieval texts, was a king of Britain in pre-Roman times who founded London and was buried at Ludgate. I presume that the confluence of names led to the naming of the pub. It had decent pub lunches eons ago, and since then there have been a few eateries named for Ned Ludd, including one in Portland Oregon. This video shows brunch at the Ned Ludd – not a machine in sight. I have nothing against machines in the kitchen. I have a food processor, immersion blender, and mixer. But quite often I put them away and do things by hand.