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Ever been called a “Luddite?” It’s an insult nowadays, but in the 19th Century they were considered heroes by most of the population. The Luddite Rebellion began in 1811, in Nottingham and gradually spread to Yorkshire, Lancashire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire. They opposed the new machinery which had led to the growth of factory production methods. The cause attracted thousands of followers under the banner of “Luddites” though Ned Ludd, was in fact a mythical invention based on the character of Robin Hood.

The growth of factories  using the new textile and power generation technology took away the need for skilled artisans who worked largely at home. They were rapidly replaced by unskilled workers employed in factories. These textile workers, faced with increasing unemployment, falling wages and hunger, attacked the factories and smashed machines in the vain hope that they could change what was happening, or as history has interpreted it, halt “progress.”

In questioning why the Luddites opposed progress it’s important to consider how that “progress” was affecting people’s lives. The new machines did not require skilled operators. They were easy enough for a child to operate. In fact children from the age of five upwards made up between two thirds and three quarters of the workers in the average textile factory. This naturally increased adult unemployment and depressed wages. The children worked the same 13 hour day (from 6am to 7pm) as the adults, but they were considerably cheaper to employ. While adults might be paid 7 shillings per week, a child under 11 was more likely to be paid 1 shilling, if they were paid at all.

With levels of unemployment as they were, many families were dependent on the money their children earned. But factory work was hard, the hours long, the machinery dangerous and the air thick with tiny fibres and pollutants that got into the lungs. Many parents would not allow their children to work in factories even if it meant “going without.”

Faced with the difficulties of recruiting sufficient cheap child labour the factory owners commonly resorted to buying children from orphanages and workhouses. In some cases they were even paid to take the children who were known as pauper apprentices. The children were made to sign contracts that made them virtually the property of the factory owner. Pauper apprentices were also cheaper to house than adult workers. While it might cost, a £100 to build a cottage for a family, an apprentice house for 100 children could be built for £300.

As the Luddite Rebellion grew, the attacks on factories and the destruction of machinery increased and grew in ferocity. Thousands of machines were destroyed. The Government responded with the “Frame Breaking Act” in February 1812, making the breaking of machines a capital offence which carryied the death penalty. They also deployed twelve thousand troops to the areas where the Luddites were active, to protect the factories and to apprehend offenders.

To add to the problems of the textile workers, in 1811 the wheat harvests failed, driving up the price of bread, the staple diet of the poor. Unable to feed their families, there were food riots in Manchester, Oldham, Ashton, Rochdale, Stockport and Macclesfield in 1812. These people did not have the vote, but they nevertheless petitioned the Government for help. This was the response of the Parliamentary Committee which considered their petition:-

“While the Committee fully acknowledge and most deeply lament the great distress of numbers of persons engaged in the cotton manufacture, they are of opinion that no interference of the legislature with the freedom of trade, or with the perfect liberty of every individual to dispose of his time and of his labour in the way and on the terms which he may judge most conducive to his own interest, can take place without violating general principles of the first importance to the prosperity and happiness of the community, without establishing the most pernicious precedent, or without aggravating, after a very short time, the pressure of the general distress, and imposing obstacles against that distress ever being removed.”

In other words the Government refused to intervene, preferring to do nothing, adopting a “laissez-faire” approach, or in modern parlance opting to – “Let the Market decide.”

The Luddite Rebellion as an organised movement was largely over by 1813, but in 1816 (again following a bad harvest and increase in bread prices) the Luddites attacked Heathcote and Boden’s mill in Loughborough. They smashed 53 weaving frames which had cost £6,000. Troops eventually quelled the riot and arrested some of the rioters. For their crimes, six men were executed and another three were transported.

Some historians believe that the Luddite Rebellion was the closest Britain had come to a full scale revolution since the Civil War in 1642, yet it achieved very little, if anything,  in terms of change. It was not until 1833 that the government passed the “Factory Act” prohibiting children under 9 from working. The use of child labour became commonplace in the factories of the Industrial Revolution.  It took until 1888 for Parliament to pass the “Factory and Workshops Act” preventing children under 10 from working.

The Luddites  are now predominantly remembered as “technophobes” and opponents of progress. The word “Luddite” is commonly used as a term of abuse. But before judging the Luddites it’s worth remembering that thousands of men and women were willing to risk their lives for the Luddite cause and that the “progress” they opposed, adversely affected their lives and the lives of their children, and their children’s children. Surely it is the way that technological advancement is implemented that determines whether or not it represents progress?

Perhaps what being a Luddite was really about is best summed up by the journalist, William Cobbett, who wrote at the time:-  

“Society ought not to exist, if not for the benefit of the whole. It is and must be against the law of nature, if it exists for the benefit of the few and for the misery of the many. I say, then, distinctly, that a society, in which the common labourer . . . cannot secure a sufficiency of food and raiment, is a society which ought not to exist; a society contrary to the law of nature; a society whose compact is dissolved.”

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