Luddites were a social
movement of British textile artisans in the
early nineteenth century who protested—often by destroying
mechanized looms—against the changes produced by the Industrial Revolution, which they felt
were leaving them without work and changing their entire way of
The Leader of the Luddites,
engraving of 1812
This English historical movement should be seen in the context of
the era's harsh economic climate due to the Napoleonic Wars
, and the degrading working
conditions in the new textile factories. Since then, however, the
term Luddite has been used derisively to describe anyone opposed to
The Luddite movement, which began in 1811 and 1812 when mills and
pieces of factory machinery were burned by handloom weavers, took
its name from the fictive Ned Ludd
. For a
short time the movement was so strong that it clashed in battles
with the British Army
. Measures taken by the
government included a mass trial at York in 1812 that
resulted in many executions and penal transportation.
The principal objection of the Luddites was against the
introduction of new wide-framed automated looms that could be
operated by cheap, relatively unskilled labour, resulting in the
loss of jobs for many skilled textile workers.
The original Luddites claimed to be led by one "King Ludd" (also
known as "General Ludd" or "Captain Ludd") whose signature appears
on a "workers' manifesto
" of the time.
was based on the earlier Ned Ludd, who some
believed to have destroyed two large stocking frames in the village of Anstey,
Leicestershire in 1779.
At that time in England, machine
breaking could lead to heavy penalties or even execution, which
might have led some to use fictious names for protection.
Research by historian Kevin Binfield is particularly useful in
placing the Luddite movement in historical context – as organised
action by stockingers had occurred at various times since 1675, and
the present action had to be seen in the context of the hardships
suffered by the working class during the Napoleonic Wars.
movement began in Nottingham in 1811 and spread rapidly throughout England in
1811 and 1812.
and cotton mill
destroyed until the British government suppressed the movement. The
Luddites met at night on the moors surrounding the industrial
towns, practising drills and maneuvers, and often enjoyed local
support. The main areas of the disturbances were
Nottinghamshire in November 1811, followed by the West Riding of Yorkshire in early
1812 and Lancashire from March 1813. Battles between
Luddites and the military occurred at Burton's Mill in Middleton, and at Westhoughton Mill, both in Lancashire.
It was rumoured at the time that agents provocateurs
employed by the
magistrates were involved in provoking the attacks. Magistrates and
food merchants were also objects of death threats and attacks by
the anonymous King Ludd and his supporters. Some industrialists
even had secret chambers constructed in their buildings, which may
have been used as hiding places.
breaking" (industrial sabotage) was
subsequently made a capital crime by
the Frame Breaking Act (Lord Byron, one of the
few prominent defenders of the Luddites, famously spoke out against
this legislation), and 17 men were executed after an 1813 trial in York.
others were transported as
. At one time, there
were more British troops fighting the Luddites than Napoleon I on the Iberian
Luddites, led by George Mellor, ambushed and assassinated a
mill-owner (William Horsfall from Ottiwells Mill in Marsden) at Crosland
Moor, Huddersfield, Mellor firing the shot to the groin which would,
soon enough, prove fatal.
Horsfall had remarked previously
that he would "Ride up to his saddle in Luddite blood". The
Luddites responsible were hanged in York, and shortly thereafter
the movement can also be seen as part of a rising tide of English
working-class discontent in the early 19th century (see also, for
example, the Pentrich
Rising of 1817, which was a general uprising, but led by
an unemployed Nottingham stockinger, and probable ex-Luddite,
agricultural variant of Luddism, centering on the breaking of
threshing machines, was crucial to the widespread Swing Riots
of 1830 in southern and eastern
In recent years, the terms Luddism and Luddite or Neo-Luddism
and Neo-Luddite have become
synonymous with anyone who opposes the advance of technology
due to the cultural and socioeconomic
changes that are associated with it.
Criticism of Luddism
The term "Luddite fallacy
become a concept in neoclassical
reflecting the belief that labour-saving technologies
(i.e., technologies that increase output-per-worker) increase
unemployment by reducing demand for labour. The fallacy lies in
assuming that employers will seek to keep production constant by
employing a smaller, more productive workforce instead of allowing
production to grow while keeping workforce size constant.
In his work on English history, The Making of the
English Working Class
presented an alternative view of
Luddite history. He argues that Luddites were not opposed to new
technology in itself, but rather to the abolition of set prices and
therefore also to the introduction of the free market
Thompson argues that it was the newly-introduced economic system
that the Luddites were protesting. Thompson cites the many
historical accounts of Luddite raids on workshops where some frames
were smashed whilst others (whose owners were obeying the old
economic practice and not trying to cut prices) were left
untouched. This would clearly distinguish the Luddites from someone
who was today called a luddite; whereas today a luddite would
reject new technology because it is new, the Luddites were acting
from a sense of self-preservation rather than merely fear of
The Luddites in fiction
Accessed 4 June 2008.
- BBC NEWS | England | Leicestershire |Workmen
discover secret chambers
- Hobsbawm, Eric (1964) "The Machine Breakers" in Labouring
Men. Studies in the History of Labour., London, Weidenfeld and
Nicolson, page 6. Hobsbawm has popularized this comparison and
refers to the original statement in Darvall, Frank Ongley (1969)
Popular Disturbances and Public Order in Regency England,
London, Oxford University Press, page 260.
- Bailey, Brian J., The Luddite Rebellion (1998), New
York : New York University Press, ISBN 0814713351.
- Binfield, Kevin. Writings of the Luddites, (2004),
Johns Hopkins University Press, ISBN 0-8018-7612-5
- Fox, Nicols. Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite
History in Literature, Art, and Individual Lives, (2003),
Island Press ISBN 1-55963-860-5
- Jones, Steven E. Against Technology: From Luddites to
Neo-Luddism, (2006) Routledge, ISBN 9780415978682
- Perlman, Fredy. Against
His-tory, Against Leviathan, (1983) Black and Red, ISBN
- Sale, Kirkpatrick. Rebels
Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial
Revolution, (1996) ISBN 0-201-40718-3
- Watson,David. Against the Megamachine: Essays on Empire and
its Enemies , (1998) Autonomedia, ISBN 1570270872 .
- Hunt, Lynn, Thomas R. Martin, Barbara H. Rosenwein, R. Po-chia
Hsia, and Bonnie G. Smith. The Making of the West. 3rd ed. Edited
by Mary Dougherty. Vol. C of Since 1740. Boston: Bedford/St.