The Luddites

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The Luddites, 1811-1816

Between 1811 and 1816, towards the end of and after the wars with the French, there was a large increase in social, political and economic problems in England. The fear and discontent caused by these upheavals resulted in a series of events, one of these was the emergence of Luddism.

The Luddites took their name from the mythical individual, Ned Ludd who was believed to live in Sherwood Forest. The Luddites were trying to save their livelihoods by smashing industrial machines developed for use in the textile industries of the West Riding of Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire. Some Luddites were also active in Lancashire. They smashed machinery such as stocking frames. The motivation behind the riots appear to be more social than political and there was no national organisation. The men were attacking what they saw as the reason for the decline in their livelihoods.

However, early outbreaks of Luddism occurred during the Napoleonic Wars and were seen by the government as clear evidence of disaffection. In 1812 the government probably had reason to be fearful:

  • a large part of the army was overseas, mainly in the Spanish Peninsular with the Duke of Wellington.
  • the country was fighting not only the French but also the Americans.
  • England was experiencing the worst trade depression since the 1760s and people were suffering great hardship.

This period was not the first time that England had machine-breaking had taken place. In 1779 the failure of a Bill to regulate the frame-knitting industry had resulted in 300 frames being smashed and thrown into the streets.

Between March 1811 and February 1812 they smashed about a thousand machines at the cost of between £6,000 and £10,000. In April 1812 the Luddites burned the West Houghton mill in Lancashire.

The authorities were incapable of stopping the attacks so the government introduced special legislation. At the Nottingham Assizes in March 1812, seven Luddites were sentenced to transportation to a penal colony for life.

In April 1812, the Luddites attacked William Cartwright's mill at Rawfolds near Huddersfield. Cartwright and a few soldiers held the mill against about 150 attackers, two of whom were killed. The following week an attempt was made to kill Cartwright and on 28 April William Horsfall, another manufacturer, was killed.

In January 1813 three men were charged at York for the murder of Horsfall. They were found guilty and were hanged. Fourteen others involved in the attack on Cartwright's mill or related activities were hanged a week later.

Direct action in the form of strikes or machine breaking continued despite the special legislation and severe repression. A Bill was introduced to parliament to regulate the stocking knitting trade and especially to prohibit the cheap, nasty 'cut-ups' that were being sold, but was rejected by the House of Lords. The textile workers then tried to form a Trade Society to promote their demands but it was deemed to be illegal under the Combination Acts and it collapsed.

In 1816 there was a revival of violence and machine breaking following a bad harvest and a downturn in trade. On 28 June the Luddites attacked Heathcote and Boden's mill in Loughborough, smashing 53 frames at a cost of £6,000. Troops were used to end the riots and for their crimes, six men were executed and another three were transported to penal colonies.

After the trials, Luddism decreased in Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. At the same time, 'Swing' riots broke out in the countryside as a protest against low wages, unemployment and the Game Laws , but that's another story.

You can read more about the Luddites at

Answer the questions, then click on the Show answer button to compare your answer with the answer given.

1.Where did the Luddites get their name from?
2.Who were the British at war with at the beginning of the nineteenth century?
3.How many frame-knitting machines were destroyed in 1779?
4.What did the Luddites burn down in April 1812?
5.Where were many Luddites transported to?
6.Who was William Horsfall?
7.What happened to the Trade Society formed by textile workers?
8.What caused a revival of violence in 1816?
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