This Day in Labor History: March 11, 1811
On March 11, 1811, the Luddite movement began in Arnold, Nottingham, England, when textile workers destroyed the machines where they worked as a protest against the oppression they felt as workers. This highly misunderstood early movement of workers is primarily used today by technological futurists to justify their own positions and attack those who aren’t true believers in technology’s ability to do whatever its purveyors claim, regardless of the cost. This is ahistorical and incorrect. We need to take these people seriously today. Or at the very least, understand who they actually were.
The story goes that an apprentice named Ned Ludd smashed two stocking frames in a protest against the conditions of his life in 1779. This is apocryphal and Ludd never existed. He’s a Robin Hood character created by actual Luddites in 1811, who even wrote documents placing his office in Sherwood Forest. But the British army and industrialists believed he was real for awhile, leading shady armies drilling at night for revolution. This was a massive freakout by the forces of order, not a real person.
The Industrial Revolution began in England in the mid-18th century and completely transformed life in that nation. Small towns became enormous filthy cities of degraded workers. People, impoverished but used to hard work on the farms, entered an entirely new era of hard labor. But once the textile economy was established, there were few other options for these workers. Conditions were literally Dickensian, but what else were you going to do? By the early 19th century, the growth in class consciousness combined with growing hard times for workers during the Napoleonic Wars and technological advancements to threaten the few skilled workers making decent money. Workers had significant control over their work lives and leisure and this was being stripped by employers after 1800. It wasn’t so much that workers were opposed to machines as that they felt they were being turned into machines. They worked 14-hour days while facing merchants seeking to cut costs through automation. Those machines produced shoddy stockings, but as stockings were beginning to go out of fashion anyway, workers feared that people would stop buying their products period if the overall quality of stockings went down.
The attacks on machinery were not about being anti-technology. Many of the participants in this movement in fact were fluent in the most advanced industrial technologies which with they worked. As historians have argued, the machines were just something owned by employers that could be targeted. Workers didn’t have unions yet and the notions of working-class solidarity was in its nascent state. The better analogy to Luddites are perhaps late 19th and early 20th century miners who blew up the mines in their labor actions than people who oppose technology. In fact, being anti-technology had little or nothing to do with the Luddites at all. These were acts about declining livelihoods of already poor people. Yes, they attacked some technological innovations, but they made a sharp line between reasonable innovations and employers who used them in “a fraudulent and deceitful manner” to undermine workers. In fact, according to Kevin Binfield, who edited a 2004 collection of Luddite writings, ““They just wanted machines that made high-quality goods and they wanted these machines to be run by workers who had gone through an apprenticeship and got paid decent wages. Those were their only concerns.”
The first acts of machine breaking seem to have been in the late 18th century, leading to Parliament passing the Protection of Stocking Frames Act in 1788. But from 1811-1817, there were several actions, beginning on this date in 1811. Over the next couple of years, they spread around industrial England, not just with machinists destroying their frames but hand weavers burning their looms. They didn’t have a broader political agenda but these actions were still seen as treason against the state by the British elite. Moreover, they were effective, as at their peak, they broke about 200 machines a week at a cost of about $2 million in today’s money, as best as that can be calculated for such a long time ago. Thus, the military was sent out against them and there were at least two battles in Lancashire. There were definitely acts of real violence by Luddites, including the murder of mill owner William Horsfall. But even this was in response to two Luddites being killed at his mill. Moreover, Horsfall had bragged that he would “ride up to his britches in Luddite blood.” In April 1812, a mill owner near Manchester ordered the security forces he put together to open fire on 2,000 workers threatening his factory. They killed at least 3 and injured 18. Soldiers killed five more the next day.
Some British elites saw this for what it was–the acts of desperate workers leading miserable lives. Lord Byron said “I have been in some of the most oppressed provinces of Turkey; but never, under the most despotic of infidel governments, did I behold such squalid wretchedness as I have seen since my return, in the very heart of a Christian country.” But the government commenced a mass trial of Luddites in 1813, when around 60 men were charged with crimes. Some were actual Luddites, such as Horsfall’s killers. Others were workers who had nothing to do with the movement. They were show trials, intended to dissuade other workers from rising up. But the trials were also a farce and lacked evidence. About half had all charges dismissed. But others were executed and others sent to penal colonies such as Australia. Parliament made machine breaking, or “industrial sabotage” as it was called, a capital crime in 1812. Overall, 24 Luddites were publicly hanged. This effectively ended the active Luddite movement. It also went far to create the triumph of the free market economy in Britain, where workers had no rights to speak of, particularly when they competed with their employers’ privileges.
The last Luddite act took place in 1817, when Jeremiah Brandreth led a worker rebellion known as the Pentrich Rising. He was probably someone who had previously been an active Luddite and while this action included no machine smashing, it’s usually considered part of the same broader movement.
The use of the term “Luddite” to mean anti-technology seems to have be a recent phenomenon. In 1956, a member of Parliament defended unions by saying they were not “wedded to a Luddite philosophy” while a few anti-technology cranks began embracing the term in the 1990s. You can contribute to stopping idiocy by not defaming the name of a workers’ movement to serve your own technological futurism.
This is 260th post in this series. Previous posts in this series are archived here.