In 1811, men armed with hammers, pistols and a desperation to protect their livelihoods, known as the Luddites seized the imagination of the British public, and they have held on to it; two centuries later, the word 'Luddite' is still familiar all round the English speaking world, even if it isn't fully understood; Luddites were not simply a band of destructive men, who thought that by smashing the new machines in the factories of the early 1800s they would be able to uninvent the technology that threatened to take away their jobs and their social status as elite craftsmen, they were rebels with a cause.
Dictionaries often define the word 'Luddite' as anyone who fears, or loathes, technology, especially new forms of technology that threaten existing jobs; it is true that Luddites were against the new technology, but it wasn't a fear, or loathing, of the technology that they rebelled against, it was how that technology would affect their livelihood that they rebelled against, and maybe, at that time, they saw violent protest as the only way that they could effectively exert any control over the changes that were taking place in their industries and maybe Luddism should be seen as a drastic form of collective bargaining.
The Luddites would have been affected by the economic hardships that accompanied Britain’s long war with Napoleonic France; Parliament had passed the Orders of Council which stopped all trade with France; the subsequent decrease in trade meant that new jobs were scarce and the price of food had soared, and now the Luddites feared losing pay and possibly their jobs as well due to industrialisation; they may also have been influenced by the way that the French Revolution had changed things in France; no-one knows for sure what started the movement and it is still a matter of debate for historians.
A Summary of West Riding Luddism:
Machine breaking as a form of protest had been happening in England since at least the late 17th century; it gained momentum in the 1790s and again in the early 1800s, when framework knitters in Nottingham, angry at the prospect of wage cuts, took hammers to their machines; they remembered the name of a Leicestershire lad, named Ludlam maybe, who had smashed a machine in a fit of pique and from him came the semi-mythical figure of General Ludd, in whose name the protests were said to take place; machine-breaking also spread to the cotton industry of Lancashire and Cheshire.
In 1811 the Luddites, led by General Ned Ludd, rose in popularity, in the vicinity of Nottingham; they started to break into the factories at night and destroy the mechanical looms and stocking frames and over the course of the year, the Luddite mentality spread to the surrounding cities of Yorkshire, Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Lancashire.
The raids and attacks continued, becoming more and more serious, until Parliament decided the measures of increasing local police were not enough, so they passed the Frame Breaking Act in February of 1812, which sentenced anyone convicted of breaking textile manufacturing machines to death; this signaled the beginning of an even harsher conflict between the government and the Luddites.
Though, it was in Yorkshire that the most disturbing and ultimately poignant drama was played out; the violent events of 1812 in the West Riding, leading to a string of executions in January 1813, have been told and retold ever since by historians, novelists and playwrights.
The key characters in West Riding Luddism were tradesmen known as croppers, who needed great skill and strength to manipulate enormous shears with which they smoothed the surface of the woollen cloth produced in the weavers' cottages that dotted the hills and villages; unfortunately, for them a machine had been invented that could shear cloth much more efficiently and some of the new breed of Yorkshire manufacturers were installing these new machines into their new fangled factories, which were bringing all the processes of cloth production under one roof.
In January 1812 Faced with the loss of their craft, their status and their high wages, the croppers and other textile craftsmen of the West Riding took drastic action, starting with a serious arson attack on a Leeds mill; the following month saw the ambush and destruction of shearing frames destined for Rawfolds Mill, near Cleckheaton and in the Huddersfield area there were at least 13 machine breaking incidents and many late night raids by large bands of armed men, such as on the 15th March, when men with blackened faces attacked the Taylor Hill premises of manufacturer Francis Vickerman.
On the 9th April there was a large attack on Foster’s Mill at Horbury and cropping frames, made by the Marsden company run by Enoch Taylor, were smashed, using sledgehammers produced by the same firm! Hence the Luddite slogan, "Enoch hath made them, Enoch shall break them"; by this time the Luddites were causing fear and consternation among the mill owners of the West Riding, though they probably had the support of many members of the general public.
The Battle of Rawfolds:
On the 11th April, more than 100 Luddites gathered at the Dumb Steeple, a landmark near Mirfield and in the dead of night they marched on Rawfolds Mill, but its owner, William Cartwright was ready for them; the mill had been fortified and soldiers were stationed there; the Luddites were beaten off and two of them were killed; this battle led to a change in Luddite tactics, which included raids on houses, in search of money and weapons; and on the 28th April, the manufacturer William Horsfall was shot dead in an ambush at Crosland Moor as he rode back from Huddersfield to Marsden; Horsfall had earlier proclaimed that he would ride up to his saddle in Luddite blood, but it was his blood that was shed and led to the downfall of the West Riding Luddites.
The factory attacks and Luddite killings led the British government to mobilise the army to put the rebels down for good; over 12,000 troops were mobilised and stationed around various factories to stem the rebellion; the British government also hired a sizable amount of people to spy on the Luddite meetings and report their plans back to them.
The authorities, led by the energetic Huddersfield magistrate Joseph Radcliffe, stepped up their investigations; hundreds of troops were called in and even though the area hadn't been placed under martial law, it would have seemed that way whilst the hunt for Horsfall’s killers took place; eventually, a man named Benjamin Walker came forward and confessed to having taken part in the murder, along with William Thorpe, Thomas Smith and George Mellor, a charismatic cropper sometimes dubbed 'the General Ludd of Yorkshire'.
By turning King’s evidence, Walker saved his own skin, but the other three were tried and hung in York, in January 1813; 14 other men were rounded up for their part in the Rawfolds Mill attack and eight days later, were also hanged; many more were involved but never found and convicted; the mill attacks and machine breaking were capital offences, so many ex-Luddites kept quiet about their role!
The Luddite movement did not succeed and
the Industrial Revolution continued and once the Napoleonic Trade restrictions
were lifted and food prices dropped, the job market corrected itself
and the Luddite movement effectively ground to a halt.