Lord Byron and the Luddites

I recently had the opportunity to witness a fascinating historical re-enactment. It was the open air reading of a speech for a group of students. This reading was a reminder of how little the effects of capitalism, and the crisis that is capitalism, change. Two hundred years ago, in the midst of the trade depression during the European war against Napoleon’s France, English weavers rose up in a campaign of machine wrecking that has gone down in history as Luddism. Across Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire, groups of weavers attacked machines held by owners benefiting from the collapsing labour market.

The response of the masters was first to call in the militia and the army, and ultimately to make the very act of frame wrecking a capital offence. In the midst of this mayhem, we have another recognisable feature: the celebrity campaigner. In this case, it was the first modern celebrity himself, George Gordon, Lord Byron.

The poet used his position as the inheritor of a peerage to make a maiden speech in the House of Lords against the Frame Breaking Act. Not trusting himself to improvise a speech, he wrote it out beforehand. Although, by accounts, his delivery was poor (much as the modern re-enactment was), it is a clear example of what his hero, the poet, Alexander Pope meant when he wrote:

“True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest, What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest”

It was a finely crafted piece of prose. He used his skill with the pen to rally to the defence of those workers. He observed “As the sword is the worst argument that can be used, so should it be the last. In this instance it has been the first; but providentially as yet only in the scabbard. The present measure will, indeed, pluck it from the sheath; yet had proper meetings been held in the earlier stages of these riots, had the grievances of these men and their masters (for they also had their grievances) been fairly weighed and justly examined, I do think that means might have been devised to restore these workmen to their avocations, and tranquillity to the country.”

He was no socialist, but he had a clear sympathy for the predicament of the impoverished weavers, and the desperation that lay behind their actions: “they have arisen from circumstances of the most unparalleled distress: 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”. In fact, a socialist speaker could hardly have put the case more plainly. In countering the outcry against these ‘mobs’ he asked: “Are we aware of our obligations to a mob? It is the mob that labour in the fields and serve in your houses –  that man your army and recruit your navy – that have enabled you to defy the world, and can also defy you when neglect and calamity have driven them to despair.”

The weavers, he asserted: “were not ashamed to beg, but there was none to relieve them: their own means of subsistence were cut off, all other employment preoccupied; and their excesses, however to be deplored and condemned, can hardly be subject to surprise”. Nor was this simply the reaction of those frightened by technology but of men “willing to dig, but the spade was in other hands”.

Throughout he deployed his famed wit to skewer the masters and the originators of the law, but it was at the end of his speech he was most scathing:

“uppose one of these men, as I have seen them meagre 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 than 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 him, and these are, in my opinion, twelve butchers for a jury, and a Jefferies for a judge!” (The full speech can be found online here: http://tinyurl.com/6kgy6qf)

A year later, in 1813, such a jury of butchers was sadly found, and 17 men were executed at York. Then as now, the masters had recourse to the bayonet and the noose. Then, as now, this was not forgotten.


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