Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Who Were the Luddites?

A couple of months ago in a fashion forecast I mentioned the last Luddite uprising, and decided that a little back-tracking to discuss this important moment in industrial history might be useful.

So…who were the Luddites?

The Industrial Revolution of the later 18th and early 19th centuries ushered in numerous changes in how goods were manufactured, the rise of the factory, and the whole concept of mass production. Textile production of course was one of the industries especially affected by these changes. The old home-based skilled hand-loom weavers were being replaced by factories of wider, power-driven looms that could be operated by relatively unskilled laborers and produced much more fabric, though of a lower quality.

Needless to say, the weavers were not happy about seeing their whole way of life made obsolete. Their skills were no longer valued, because just about anyone could run the new machines…and where before they had been their own bosses, now they were employees, at the whim of factory overseers and owners. Add to it the difficult economical times during the years of war with Napoleon, and something had to happen.

What happened involved hammers and a lot of angry men. Because the Combination Act of 1799 prohibited workers from gathering together to negotiate with employers, they had little way to discuss their concerns with factory owners. Violence first broke out in Nottingham in November 1811, where a factory was broken into and the power-looms smashed. Perhaps it was the old Robin Hood associations in that area that led to the creation of a outlaw-type figurehead for the angry workmen known as King (or General, or Captain) Ludd, in whose name they would meet in secret. The name is possibly thought to have been borrowed from an earlier loom smasher named Ned Ludd.

Luddite violence quickly spread over the course of the next months, moving to the western part of Yorkshire and to Lancashire. Shortly, though, the Luddite movement became about more than just the grievances of weavers; people who wanted to see a republican revolution in England along the lines of France’s soon joined in, hoping to destabilize the government. The Army was called in, and pitched battles took place in Lancashire.

In 1813, Parliament passed legislation making machine-breaking a capital offence. Though dozens were executed and many more transported to Australia, the violence continued until well into 1813, when a factory owner was shot by three Luddites in Yorkshire. After their execution, the movement seemed to lose some steam and began to wane…though it didn’t die out entirely until a few years later, in 1817. And though the Combination Act was repealed in 1824, a new one was passed in 1825 that wasn't much better. The moment for organized labor had not yet arrived.

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