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
Brave Ludd was to measures of violence unused
Till his sufferings became so severe
That at last to defend his own Interest he rous’d
And for the great work did prepare.
Ned Ludd, aka Captain, General or King Ludd, first turned up as part of a Nottingham protest in November 1811, and was soon on the move from one industrial centre to the next. This elusive leader clearly inspired the protesters. And his apparent command of unseen armies, drilling by night, also spooked the forces of law and order.
Government agents made finding him a consuming goal. In one case, a militiaman reported spotting the dreaded general with “a pike in his hand, like a serjeant’s halbert,” and a face that was a ghostly unnatural white. In fact, no such person existed. Ludd was a fiction. According to one story, 22 years earlier in Leicester a young apprentice named Ludd or Ludham was working at a stocking frame when a superior admonished him for knitting too loosely. Ordered to “square his needles,” the enraged apprentice instead grabbed a hammer and flattened the entire mechanism. The story eventually made its way to Nottingham, where protesters turned Ned Ludd into their symbolic leader. The origin of “Ludd” is unknown and there is no foundation to the story that was put out by The Nottingham Review on 20 December 1811. It is more likely that the local Nottingham speech had an expression similar to the one in Cornwall, where “sent all of a lud” meant “struck all of a heap”, or smashed.
In the early months of 1811 the first threatening letters from General Ned Ludd and the Army of Redressers, were sent to employers in Nottingham. Workers, upset by wage reductions and the use of non-apprenticed workmen, began to break into factories at night to destroy the new machines that the employers were using. In a three-week period over two hundred stocking frames were destroyed. In March, 1811, several attacks were taking place every night and the Nottingham authorities had to enrol four hundred special constables to protect the factories. Luddism gradually spread to Yorkshire, Lancashire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire. In Yorkshire, croppers, a small and highly skilled group of cloth finishers, turned their anger on the new shearing frame that they feared would put them out of work. In February and March, 1812, factories were attacked by Luddites in Huddersfield, Halifax, Wakefield and Leeds. Parliament passed the Frame Breaking Act that enabled people convicted of machine-breaking to be sentenced to death. As a further precaution, the government ordered 12,000 troops into the areas where the Luddites were active. Lord Byron, eloquently opposed the state’s repression:
“Is there not blood enough upon your penal code, that more must be poured forth to ascend to Heaven, and testify against you’? How will you carry the bill into effect? Can you commit a whole country to their own prisons? Will you erect a gibbet in every field and hang up men like scarecrows’? Or will you proceed (as you must to bring this measure into effect) by decimation?… Are these the remedies for a starving and desperate populace?”
The word “Luddite” turns up in our daily language in ways that suggest we’re confused about who the original Luddites were and what being a modern one actually means. Despite their modern reputation, the original Luddites were neither opposed to technology nor inept at using it. Many were highly skilled machine operators in the textile industry. Nor was the technology they attacked particularly new. It wasn’t actually an anti-technology movement. It was basically a labour movement. Traditional craftsmen, such as wainwrights and blacksmiths, were their own masters, able to work whatever hours they wanted as long as they delivered their products on time. Industrialization reduced their crafts to menial labor that could often be performed by unskilled workers. If the artisans tried to make the transition, they were faced with lower wages and fixed working hours — something referred to as “wage-slavery”. The Luddites were just protesting against changes they felt would destroy their way of life. Rebellion, if not revolution, seemed to be in the air. A Lancashire general thought the Luddites were aiming at “nothing more or less than the subversion of the government of the Country and the destruction of all Property.”
Moreover, the idea of smashing machines as a form of industrial protest did not begin or end with them. One technology the Luddites commonly attacked was the stocking frame, a knitting machine first developed more than 200 years earlier by an Englishman named William Lee. Right from the start, concern that it would displace traditional hand-knitters had led Queen Elizabeth I to deny Lee a patent. Lee’s invention, with gradual improvements, helped the textile industry grow—and created many new jobs. But labour disputes caused sporadic outbreaks of violent resistance. Episodes of machine-breaking occurred in Britain from the 1760s onward, and in France during the 1789 revolution. Because the Luddites exposed industrial capitalism they have been subjected to ridicule, and have been painted not just as another bunch of upstart troublemakers, but as opponents of progress who ‘want to go back to the stone-age’. Yet capital intensification, ie. the displacement of labour by capital (machines) relentlessly continues to create unemployment. So breaking machines was not necessarily a protest against progress or even the machine itself but actually an attempt to alter or oppose the economic and ultimately political power relations within which the machinery was introduced.“The Luddites were rebelling not against machines, but against ‘The Machine’ ” the American radical, Kirkpatrick Sale, explained
As the Industrial Revolution began, workers naturally worried about being displaced by increasingly efficient machines. But the Luddites themselves “were totally fine with machines,” says Kevin Binfield, editor of the 2004 collection Writings of the Luddites. They confined their attacks to manufacturers who used machines in what they called “a fraudulent and deceitful manner” to get around standard labor practices. “They just wanted machines that made high-quality goods,” says Binfield, “and they wanted these machines to be run by workers who had gone through an apprenticeship and got paid decent wages. Those were their only concerns.”
In Nottinghamshire the ‘framework-knitters’ or ‘stockingers’ who produced hosiery using stocking frames had a number of grievances, including wage-cutting, the use of unapprenticed youths for the same purpose, and the use of the new ‘wide frames’, which produced cheap, inferior quality goods. The fact that the stockingers objected to the latter because they were destroying the reputation of their trade illustrates the conflict between skilled artisans and the industrial capitalist mass production mindset.
In Yorkshire, the Luddites were led by the croppers, highly skilled finishers of woollen cloth who commanded much higher wages that other workers, and were highly organised. For the past decade they had petitioned Parliament to enforce obsolescent legislation enforcing apprenticeship, and against ‘gig mills’, machines invented in the 16th century which could do part of the croppers’ job. But the greatest threat to them was a more recent invention, the hated shearing frame which eventually almost entirely displaced them over the next ten years. In 1809, under pressure from the manufacturers, Parliament repealed all the old legislation, thus removing the artisans’ last hope of redress for their grievances by legal and democratic means.
The Lancashire cotton weavers and spinners were, like the stockingers, mainly out-workers, producing cloth on hand looms in their own homes and paid by the piece. Their overall conditions and status as artisans had been eroding for several decades, partly as a result of a huge influx into the trade of unapprenticed workers, many of whom had been forced off the land by the Enclosures. The factory system, with its vast mills and steam-powered looms, its long hours of dangerous work and its cheaper cloth that undercut the cottage weavers, was exacerbating their decline.
All these groups of artisans were resisting the ways in which the industrial system degraded the dignity of their trades, turning them into mere factory “hands”. Although they were out-workers, paid by the piece, for a long time they had managed to maintain a modest and frugal lifestyle in which they had their own independence and other sources of subsistence, eg their own vegetable gardens, and a strong community ethic of mutual aid. This world is sometimes romanticised, and had already been destroyed to a considerable extent by the Enclosures: no doubt their life was far from idyllic. But the strength with which they resisted the industrial system is a measure of how much better it was compares to the harsh new world of factory wage slavery.
The Luddite disturbances started when British working families at the start of the 19th century were enduring economic upheaval and widespread unemployment. A seemingly endless war against Napoleon’s France had brought “the hard pinch of poverty.” Food was scarce and rapidly becoming more costly. Then, on March 11, 1811, in Nottingham, a textile manufacturing centre, British troops broke up a crowd of protesters demanding more work and better wages. That night, angry workers smashed textile machinery in a nearby village. Similar attacks occurred nightly at first, then sporadically, and then in waves, eventually spreading across a 70-mile swath of northern England from Loughborough in the south to Wakefield in the north. When the Luddite explosion came, the willingness of thousands of people to risk hanging or transportation to Australia is a measure of the desperation of those communities, and their feeling that they had nothing to lose.
The Luddites were neither as organised nor as dangerous as authorities believed. They set some factories on fire, but mainly they confined themselves to breaking machines. In truth, they inflicted less violence than they encountered. In one of the bloodiest incidents, in April 1812, some 2,000 protesters mobbed a mill near Manchester. The owner ordered his men to fire into the crowd, killing at least 3 and wounding 18. Soldiers killed at least 5 more the next day. Earlier that month, a crowd of about 150 protesters had exchanged gunfire with the defenders of a mill in Yorkshire, and two Luddites died. Soon, Luddites there retaliated by killing a mill owner, who in the thick of the protests had supposedly boasted that he would ride up to his britches in Luddite blood.
After the crushing of the Luddite revolt, the factory system, with all its horrors could no longer be resisted and generations of working class men and women and children were forced to work 12 hours or more per day for a pittance, their lives running according to the rhythm of the machines, their deaths often caused by them. Above all, the destruction of the Luddites by the state established the principle that capitalism had the right to continually impose new technology, without any process of negotiation, either with the people who have to operate it or with society at large.
But as General Ludd faded, soon after, the equally fictitious Captain Swing made his appearance in the countryside as a protest against low wages, unemployment and the Game Laws (a new law made even suspected poachers liable to transportation.) The Enclosure Movement from 1770 had took some 12 million acres of shared common lands into private hands. After the end of the Napoleonic wars 250,000 soldiers and sailors were demobilized in 1815 and swamped the labour market and with the increased use of threshing machines, introduced during the war years, farmers cut their demands for labour. At the same time, because the wartime boom in prices had come to an end farm-labourers often had their wages cut.
Protests by farm-workers took place across a wide swath of agricultural England, from Sussex in the south to Kent in the east. The main targets were landowners whose threshing machines they destroyed or dismantled, and whom they petitioned for a rise in wages. The major landowners were concerned for their own farms and due to their influence were able to get military assistance in putting down the riots. Throughout England, 600 rioters were imprisoned, 500 sentenced to transportation, 19 were executed and 9 were hanged.
Luddism and the Captain Swing Riots were expressions of revolt against mechanisation. Capitalism is quite prepared to let working class people starve and suffer abject poverty, and we can clearly see this in the Luddite Revolt and the Captain Swing riots. The world wasn’t ready for socialism in the early 1800s but they helped the working class to learn new ways of organising and gave it confidence in its challenges to capitalism, leading to the Chartists. Ludd and Swing were the best that could be done in the conditions that then existed at the time. Luddism and the Swing Riots were desperate tactics in the class struggle and not necessarily a rejection of progress. Movements acting out of rage and outrage are often formless and vague about goals, desires and possibilities. They lack durability and permanence and are unable to be maintain continuity under the State’s iron heel and jack-boots. The lesson of the Luddite and Captain Swing experience is the importance of working out a common analysis, a desirable future and united strategies.
Song for the Luddites
As the Liberty boys o’er the sea
Bought 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 pour’d.
Though black as his heart its hue,
Since his veins are corrupted to mud,
Yet this is the dew
Which the tree shall renew
Of Liberty, planted by Ludd!
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 before hand. 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 than 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 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:
“Suppose 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!”
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 never forgotten.