The Luddites were 19th-century English textile artisans who protested against newly developed labour-replacing machinery from 1811 to 1817. The stocking frames, spinning frames and power looms introduced during the Industrial Revolution threatened to replace the artisans with less-skilled, low-wage labourers, leaving them without work.
Although the origin of the name Luddite is uncertain, a popular theory is that the movement was named after Ned Ludd, a youth who allegedly smashed two stocking frames in 1779, and whose name had become emblematic of machine destroyers. The name evolved into the imaginary General Ludd or King Ludd, a figure who, like Robin Hood, was reputed to live in Sherwood Forest.
The movement can be seen as part of a rising tide of English working-class discontent in the early 19th century. An agricultural variant of Luddism, centering on the breaking of threshing machines, occurred during the widespread Swing Riots of 1830 in southern and eastern England. The Luddittes goal was to gain a better bargaining position with their employers. They were not afraid of technology per se, but were “labour strategists”.
Spasmodic rises in food prices provoked Keelmen in the port of Tyne to riot in 1710 and tin miners to plunder granaries at Falmouth in 1727. There was a rebellion in Northumberland and Durham in 1740, and manhandling of Quaker corn dealers in 1756. More peaceably, skilled artisans in the cloth, building, shipbuilding, printing and cutlery trades organised friendly societies to insure themselves against unemployment and sickness and sometimes, similar to guilds, against intrusion of ‘foreign’ labour into their trades.
The Luddite movement emerged during the harsh economic climate of the Napoleonic Wars, which saw a rise in difficult working conditions in the new textile factories. The movement began in Nottingham on 11 March 1811 and spread rapidly throughout England over the following two years. Handloom weavers burned mills and pieces of factory machinery.
Luddite acts 1811–1813
The Luddites met at night on the moors surrounding industrial towns, where they would practise drills and manoeuvres. Their main areas of operation were Nottinghamshire in November 1811, followed by the West Riding of Yorkshire in early 1812 and Lancashire by March 1813. Luddites battled the British Army at Burton’s Mill in Middleton and at Westhoughton Mill, both in Lancashire. Rumours abounded at the time that local magistrates employed agents provocateur to instigate the attacks. Using the pseudonym King Ludd, the Luddites and their supporters anonymously sent death threats to—and even attacked—magistrates and food merchants.
Isolated incidents post 1814
Activists smashed Heathcote’s lacemaking machine in Loughborough in 1816. He and other industrialists had secret chambers constructed in their buildings that could be used as hiding places during an attack.
In 1817, an unemployed Nottingham stockinger and probable ex-Luddite named Jeremiah Brandreth led the Pentrich Rising, which was a general uprising unrelated to machinery, but which could be viewed as the last major Luddite act.
The British Army clashed with the Luddites on several occasions. At one time, more British soldiers were fighting the Luddites than were fighting Napoleon on the Iberian Peninsula. Three Luddites, led by George Mellor, ambushed and assassinated a mill owner named William Horsfall from Ottiwells Mill at Crosland Moor in Marsden, West Yorkshire. Horsfall had remarked that he would “Ride up to his saddle in Luddite blood.” Mellor fired the fatal shot to Horsfall’s groin, and all three men were arrested.
The British government sought to suppress the Luddite movement with a mass trial at York in January 1813, following the attack on Cartwrights mill at Rawfolds near Cleckheaton. The government charged over sixty men, including Mellor and his companions, with various crimes in connection with Luddite activities. While some of those charged were actual Luddites, many had no connection to the movement. These trials were not legitimate judicial reckonings of each defendant’s guilt, but show trials intended to deter other Luddites from continuing their activities. By meting out harsh consequences, including, in many cases, execution and penal transportation, the trials quickly ended the movement.
Parliament subsequently made “machine breaking” (i.e. industrial sabotage) a capital crime with the Frame Breaking Act and the Malicious Damage Act. Lord Byron opposed this legislation, becoming one of the few prominent defenders of the Luddites after the treatment of the defendants at the York trials.
Several decades later, in 1867, Karl Marx referred to the Luddites in Capital, Volume I, noting that it would be some time before workers were able to distinguish between the machines themselves and “the form of society which utilizes these instruments”.
In contemporary thought
The title Luddite developed a secondary meaning: a “Luddite” is a term describing those opposed to, or slow to adopt or incorporate into their lifestyle, industrialisation, automation, computerisation or new technologies in general. In 1956, there is a parliamentary speech that said ‘Organised workers were by no means wedded to a Luddite Philosophy’.
More recently, the term Neo-Luddism has emerged to describe opposition to many forms of technology. According to a manifesto drawn up by the Second Luddite Congress (April 1996; Barnesville, Ohio), Neo-Luddism is “a leaderless movement of passive resistance to consumerism and the increasingly bizarre and frightening technologies of the Computer Age.”
Economists apply the term Luddite fallacy to the notion that technological unemployment leads to structural unemployment (and is consequently macroeconomically injurious). If a technological innovation results in a reduction of necessary labour inputs in a given sector, then the industry-wide cost of production falls, which lowers the competitive price and increases the equilibrium supply point which, theoretically, will require an increase in aggregate labour inputs.