Monday, February 25, 2013

The Worker Revolt Against Progress or Just Standing up for the Little Guy? The Luddites

The Industrial Revolution, a product of the concerted application of "natural philosophy" and engineering, did not please everyone in England. Indeed, in the early years, some productivity gains associated with this economic shift led to such instability that thousands of troops were fielded to suppress discontent. Such was the case with the Luddites.

In early 1811, stocking factories in Nottingham started receiving letters from "General Ned Ludd and his Army of Redressers." Among other general wage grievances, these letters outlined threats against employers over the use of stocking frames--an early type of semi-automated knitting machine. The advance of the Industrial Revolution had spread various types of textile processing machines throughout northern and mid-England. While these machines allowed the cheaper production of textiles, they also hurt the livelihood of traditional handloom weavers. Even when the automation process didn't completely eliminate jobs, they still resulted in a severe downward pressure on wages and longer hours. Other general economic issues contributed to the climate of discontent. Thus, the Luddites quickly gained a great deal of popular support among the working classes.
The Luddites started breaking into factories and destroying stocking frames. The discontent and destruction spread. Soon, the newly established Prince Regent was offering reward money for information on these so-called "frame-breakers" and "frame-smashers."

So, who was General Ned Ludd? The historical evidence suggests there likely was no such man. Instead, the name was likely inspired by a 1782 incident involving an angry farm laborer who smashed some frames. Whether there was a real General Ludd didn't seem to matter much. The Luddites weren't a tightly organized movement as much as various different groups of agitated workers arising in different locations. Many of their clashes with authorities were more riots than anything else. This was one of the reasons they would initially prove hard to suppress. There was no head of the dragon to cut off. The factors leading to their discontent weren't things that the government and authorities could do much to directly address in an efficient manner.

The Luddite cause spread throughout the industrial areas of England, including Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Lancashire, and Leicestershire. Although it had started with the weavers, other textile workers vented their wrath on various machines threatening their jobs and their general frustration over increasing concerns about economic inequity.

The chaos would continue to spread. Seemingly constant frame breaking and attacks on mills escalated into occasional attacks on mill guards, mill owners, and others opposing the Luddite cause. Though there were some arrests for murder and execution, the responses of local authorities did little to quell the decentralized movement. A combination of several factors, including the on-going Napoleonic Wars on the Continent, contributed to exploding wheat prices in 1812. This general poor economic climate combined with concern over food led to even greater militarization of many workers. Despite the passionate opposition of a small minority of Luddite-sympathizing politicians, such as the controversial Lord Bryon, Parliament passed the Frame-Breaking Act, which made frame-breaking in of itself a capital crime. In addition, troops were sent into the areas suffering from Luddite trouble.

By 1813, the show of force succeeded in bringing the Luddites to heel. Mass trials were followed by executions and transportation to Australia for many. Though Luddite-related riots, frame-breaking, and violence would sputter back into life over the next few years, by 1817 the Luddite were finished as an movement, even if their name would live on as a slur directed at anti-technology people.

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J.A. Beard is a scientific editor and the author of a Regency paranormal romance, A Woman of Proper Accomplishmentswhere a different sort of natural philosophy advance threatens the social status quo of late Georgian England.