List of Documents

Foreword, by Adrian Randall


Note on Texts and Citation


     Midlands Luddism,

     Northwestern Luddism,

     Yorkshire Luddism,

Midlands Documents

Northwestern Documents

Yorkshire Documents






THE LUDDITE DISTURBANCES OF 1811-12 have long held a place in the public imagination unmatched by any other episode during the industrial revolution. Yet these disorders formed only part of a continuum of popular protest against new technology in the industries concerned. Frame breaking, characteristic of East Midlands Luddism, had a long history in the hosiery trade, while attacks on cloth finishing machinery, the focus of Yorkshire Luddism, had disturbed the woolen industry in both the West of England and the West Riding of Yorkshire from the 1790s. In Lancashire new cotton spinning technologies had met with violent resistance in 1768 and 1779, while weavers’ battles over wages had led to widespread violence in 1808. Nor did antimachinery disturbances end in 1812. Renewed attacks on both stocking frames and finishing machinery took place in both the Midlands and the West of England in 1816, while the extensive power loom riots in Lancashire in 1826 proved far more violent than earlier Luddite actions in the county, mobilizing whole communities across the region, something Luddism failed to achieve. Moreover, the Swing riots of 1830 in southern England, many of which targeted labor-saving machinery, extended over a far wider geography than Luddism and resulted in much harsher retaliation by government. Yet it is the Luddite disturbances that catch the imagination and retain a firm, if inchoate, grasp on popular historical understanding. In this, history reflects the impact that Luddism made at the time.

One reason for this was the ubiquity of the name. Previous labor struggles had failed to give rise to a name or an emblem that stuck. Those involved had rarely given themselves a title and were generically labeled by the authorities simply as “depradators,” “the disaffected,” or, more frequently, “the mob.” Yet the machine breakers of 1811-12 were referred to almost from the start as “Luddites,” the name they gave themselves. This self-depiction as the followers of “Ned Ludd,” who was soon promoted to “General,” merits some consideration. After all, the perhaps apocryphal Ned was, at first sight, hardly a heroic figure. An apprentice stocking-frame knitter, he had, the story ran, been criticized for making his hose too loose. He was therefore instructed to “square his needles,” namely to adjust the mechanism of his frame. Ned allegedly took this instruction literally and, with a hammer, flattened the entire workings. Frame breaking certainly characterized the East Midland disturbances in 1811, but the targets were only the “wide” frames that produced “deceitfully wrought” hose, not frames in general. Naming oneself after such a figure at the least indicates a sense of irony and self-deprecation that is remarkable, perhaps reflecting the way in which Burke’s scornful ascription of the common people as “the swinish multitude” was turned into a badge of honor by plebeian radicals in the 1790s. Certainly, in no time Ned acquired a fame that set him above a far more famous local hero:


Chant no more your old rhymes about bold Robin Hood, 

His feats I but little admire

I will sing the Atchievements of General Ludd 

Now the Hero of Nottinghamshire.*

*“General Ludd’s Triumph,” sung to the tune “Poor Jack”: HO 42/119. This song summarized the aim of the East Midland Luddites, and indeed the aspiration of many other trades, namely that “full-fashioned work at the old fashioned price” should be “established by Custom and Law.” The capitalization of Custom and Law was original and deUberate, signifying the importance of both to artisans everywhere.


Robin had famously robbed the rich to give to the poor and defended the weak against arbitrary baronial power. But Ned Ludd epitomized the right of the poor to earn their own livelihood and to defend the customs of their trade against dishonorable capitalist depredators. While Robin, a displaced gentleman, signified paternal protection, Ned Ludd evidenced the sturdy self-reliance of a community prepared to resist for itself the notion that market forces rather than moral values should shape the fate of labor. Ned Ludd was not only a symbol of plebeian resistance; he was an ideological figure as well, one who reflected the deep sense of history that underpinned the customary values of working communities in the manufacturing districts.

The Luddite name, one might almost say the Luddite brand, proved fecund. As the outbreaks of industrial violence died down in the Midlands and new disturbances broke out in both the West Riding of Yorkshire and in industrial Lancashire, participants there took the name to heart and in turn pronounced themselves supporters of General Ludd. How far this reflected simple mimicry—we might wonder in this case why men in different regions and different industrial contexts saw fit to appropriate the name—or a calculated decision, we cannot know. But the choice proved effective. The authorities were in any case alarmed by the extension of the disorders, especially because they occurred against a back- drop of war with Napoleonic France. However, the spread of Ludd’s name to new regions suggested to those in power that they faced a great conspiracy, one that threatened not merely new technologies and the property of those who introduced them but the very security of the state. Defining Luddism—fixing its character and understanding its generation and development—are, then, not merely arcane historical questions: they were questions of moment to the rulers of Regency England. In tackling these questions the historian is sent back to the texts. Here Luddism is comparatively rich in material, as Kevin Binfield’s excellent collection shows. In these texts Luddism both defined itself and was defined by others.

The hallmark of Luddism, as with the Swing riots later, was the threatening letter. We might note that such letters were in no way a Luddite innovation. The pages of the eighteenth-century London Gazette demonstrate that the threatening letter had long been not only the recourse of the disgruntled but also a typical tool of effective negotiation in all sorts of labor disputes. Such letters enabled workers to present demands in a form that protected individuals from the sorts of employer retaliation that face-to-face meetings risked. Although historians have been inclined to see such letters as indicative of an essential weakness in bargaining position, this is not entirely true. Even skilled workers often conducted negotiations in this way. The croppers, highly organized into a combination, the Brief Institution, which linked men in the trade across the country, saw advantages in announcing their demands in this form to recalcitrant and hostile employers. But for outworking trades, such as the framework knitters and cotton weavers, the threatening letter provided their main means of dealing with employers who rejected customary practice.

The purpose of threatening letters was, of course, intimidation. In 1811-12, as in earlier years, they might well be supplemented by further sanctions. The Wiltshire shearmen had made extensive use of incremental industrial violence in their campaign to resist finishing machinery ten years before Luddism. At first they supplemented their letters by cutting down sapling trees and by setting fire, in turn, to a dog kennel, six hay ricks, a stable, and a barn. They also broke a large number of windows. It was only when such minor demonstrations of force failed to ensure compliance with their demands that they progressed to attacks on mills and houses. And it was only when their campaign to safeguard the old legislation, which they believed protected their trades, had been effectively defeated that they had recourse to direct personal attacks upon the leading employers. This same pattern was repeated, if on a much larger scale, in the Midlands in 1811 and in Yorkshire in 1812.

Threatening letters, therefore, were in themselves a significant weapon. However, Luddite letters carried an additional power and authority, because Ludd’s imprimatur suggested the presence of a coordinated force whose ultimate strength could not easily be discerned. This opacity of Luddism, the community solidarity that prevented the authorities from obtaining any effective information concerning the perpetrators of the attacks, the ubiquity of the name across so extensive a geography, and the way in which Ludd’s men seemed to strike at will all reinforced the sense of alarm that gripped both magistrates and government ministers. In such a context Luddite letters created a cultural space filled both by protesters in enlarging their demands for change and by the authorities in their attempts to come to terms with what seemed to them a many-tentacled underground conspiracy.

Luddite letters, however, were by no means confined to threats to employers. A variety of proclamations, poems, songs, and other statements emanated from the pens of General Ludd himself, his lieutenants, and supporters. These articulated, Kevin Binfield argues, three essential styles of discourse: petitioning, seeking the support from the respectable classes and local and national authorities for the regulatory model that Luddites demanded; economic analysis, expounding a Luddite moral economy that asserted the rights of labor within a framework of custom, as seen in “Declaration; Extraordinary,” a notice posted in Nottingham in November 1811; and political analysis, propounding the views of radical and even revolutionary politics. The Luddite “text” was rich and complex, varying from region to region and from context to context.

This brings the reader to the question of whether there was an “authentic” voice of the true Luddites, a question that continues to vex historians. As Kevin Binfield demonstrates in this valuable collection, there were many authentic voices. And, because General Ludd’s message was promulgated through oral and literary channels, the process of transmission allowed for further variation in both “text” and “reading.” Binfield’s reconstruction of the derivation of the song “Welcome Ned Ludd” shows this clearly. His researches show that the earliest version, “Well Done, Ned Ludd,” proves to be in the handwriting of Charles Sutton, the editor of the Nottingham Review, a paper that initially tended to sympathize with the stockingers’ complaints. Yet it seems unlikely, to this writer at least, that Sutton was the song’s author. Rather, as a journalist he recorded the version that he had heard. Different versions, dependent on the preferences or memories of different singers, may have been recorded elsewhere. Other elements might have been changed according to the “reading” that other “recorders” placed upon the “text.” Historians, too, are not innocent of slanting the reading, as Binfield indicates when examining the famous letter sent by the Yorkshire Luddites to “Mr Smith Shearing Frame Holder at Hill End Yorkshire.” The readers of this volume may judge for themselves how far an inserted word changes the “meaning” of this source.

Given that there was no monolithic Luddite “movement” but a series of overlapping protests, Luddism allowed differing voices access to a wider community while deriving the legitimacy that was seen to come from General Ludd’s reassertion of customary moral values. Ludd’s imprimatur might therefore be called upon not only by those seeking what they saw as the reassertion of customary economic rights but also by those who demanded political rights as well. Here historians disagree most strongly, inasmuch as the text offers no easy delineation between “trade” and “radical” discourses. Here context was all. In the Midlands, the framework knitters saw in their “Charter” a legal bastion that they hoped might be supported by the authorities to safeguard their trade. Here too there were at least some employers who preferred customary regulation to a market free-for-all. In Yorkshire there was little hope that any support might be forthcoming from the authorities. In the wake of the repeal of the old woolen statutes in 1809, the croppers had only their industrial muscle to fall back upon. Moreover, they felt betrayed at the way in which their “rights” had been so cavalierly thrown over. With their campaign of direct action stalling, they may well have found the solutions of the radicals increasingly convincing. In Lancashire the weavers had long sought to effect a legal framework to safeguard their trade, without success. Here the local authorities showed no disposition toward compromise. Here, too, insurrectionary politics had struck deep roots since the later 1790s. Yet .............


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