Who were the Luddites?

ON the night of January 19, 1812, a large group of men attacked and managed to burn down part of Oatlands Mill in Leeds.

Soon the local papers were full of reports of large numbers of men drilling at night with pikes and muskets. The militia armoury at Sheffield was smashed and most of the regiment’s arms stolen. These men were Luddites - but who were the Luddites?

England in 1812 was in a desperate situation.

The American colonies had been lost some 30 years before.

The French Revolution had panicked most European governments and now Napoleon was rampaging across Europe, destroying the old order; and many in England were Republican sympathisers.

Both France and Britain had imposed trade blockades on each other, with America moving on the French side and threatening to invade Canada, Even closer to home the great Irish Wexford Rebellion in the 1790s had only been suppressed with great difficulty.

To cap it all, there had been several years of very bad harvests and Britain was still a largely agricultural economy – the bread needed to feed a small family was costing more than the average weaver earned in that week.

The trouble had begun in Nottingham when the stocking trade began to switch from hand-made stockings to those which could be made by machine.

This meant that unskilled labour could be used and understandably the stocking knitters feared for their jobs. This was not helped by the fact that men’s fashion was changing from knee-breeches to full length trousers - which negated the need for long fancy stockings.

Having tried, with the help of Lord Byron amongst others, unsuccessfully, to fight their case through Parliament, they switched to destroying the machines.

There was already a joke amongst these men concerning a certain Edward Ludd, a young apprentice who had been punished for slack work and who, in rage, had gone back to his machine and smashed it. Hence forward whenever something didn’t work, men would swear at their machine and threaten to ‘Ned Ludd it!’

Machinery was being installed in other industries throughout the Midlands and the North and so machine-smashing soon spread across the country – not least in the West Riding of Yorkshire and on January 19, 1812, the ‘Luddites’ first made their presence felt in this area.

n David Pinder is a local historian with particular interest in the Luddites.