John Mitchinson lifts the lid on why the Luddites weren’t really ‘Luddite’

On 11 March 1811, a group of stocking-knitters from Nottingham assembled outside the town of Arnold. By the end of the evening, 63 knitting frames had been destroyed with sledgehammers. Their actions kickstarted a wave of copycat attacks which spread across the north of England, and which soon found a powerful name: Luddite.

It’s a name which has evolved to mean someone who dislikes or fears technology, but the original Luddites were skilled machine operators. Their protest was about the effect new technology and working practices were having on prices and profits. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm has described it, this was “collective bargaining by riot”. 

What had provoked their protest was the dire state of the British economy. After a decade of war with Napoleon, trade was at a standstill and the price of food and essential items was rocketing. Add to this the change in popular fashion – men’s trousers were beginning to replace stockings – and the textile industry found itself in a full-blown crisis.

The merchant capitalists of the time, competing with one another to implement Adam Smith’s laissez-faire economic theories, were determined to cut costs which – then as now – meant cutting wages. 

The quickest way of doing this was to introduce new machinery – in particular the wide stocking frame which allowed weavers to produce stockings six times faster. Instead of being woven in a single ‘fully-fashioned’ piece by a skilled weaver, the wide frames were used to create a large sheet of hosiery that could be cut-up into individual stocking pieces and sewn together. Cut-ups were poor quality and prone to falling apart, but they could be made by ‘colts’ – younger, cheaper workers who had not served their seven-year apprenticeship. 

The problem was that making this shift during a recession meant more profit for the manufacturer, but not necessarily the craftsman. As Kevin Binfield, the editor of the Writings of the Luddites describes it, the protestors “were totally fine with machines… They just wanted machines that made high-quality goods, and they wanted these machines to be run by workers who had gone through an apprenticeship and got paid decent wages”.

The challenge for the craftsmen was getting the masters’ attention. Their solution was bold and highly effective. The Luddites were quick to recognise the value of stealth and symbolism.

Stories of their oath of secrecy and night-time training sessions soon circulated through the taverns. As the attacks escalated, they blackened their faces and dressed in women’s clothing both for disguise and perhaps to reinforce the carnivalesque ‘world turned upside down’ power of their message. 

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John Mitchinson

Most significant of all was the creation of a leader – Ned Ludd, General Ludd or sometimes even King Ludd – signing his name to open letters, often written in mock legalese, used to intimidate the manufacturers.

The original Ned Ludd was supposedly a hot-headed young weaver from Leicestershire who’d smashed his frame in a fit of pique. But this apocryphal figure was only the departure point for a rich mythology that grew around Ludd, the elusive guerrilla commander, which drew deep on the legends of Robin Hood (letters were sent ‘from Sherwood Forest’), and whose achievements were soon being celebrated in songs and ballads.

“If the Luddites themselves began the process of making Luddism, they did so through myth-making symbolic acts as much as through economically significant sabotage,” the cultural historian Steven Jones argues in Against Technology

Nonetheless, the sabotage was significant. By February 1812, a thousand machines had been attacked at a cost of £16,000 (about £1.2 million today). Retribution was swift. Frame-breaking was made a capital offence and 14,000 troops were despatched to the north to restore order – a larger number than Wellington was commanding in his Peninsular campaign. 

By the middle of 1813, 24 Luddites had been hanged publicly, two dozen were imprisoned and 51 were transported to Australia. The Luddite protests ended as swiftly as they had begun.

The original Luddites are often seen as a failure – the very name carries within it the sense of futile protest against economic inevitability. But a more accurate way of viewing the Luddites is as the precursors of almost every subsequent protest in which a small community attempts to stand up to the depredations of global capitalism and the ‘invisible hand of the market’. 

They weren’t fighting against machines – they were fighting for a way of life. And they did so with a sense of wit and symbolic potency that we can still learn from. 

After all, as the British economy again teeters on the edge of recession and economic inequality deepens, it’s worth remembering that the Luddites may not have won, but they were right. As their great supporter Lord Byron put it: So we boys, we / Will die fighting, or live free / And down with all kings but King Ludd!

John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher and co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was one of the founders of BBC’s ‘QI

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