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The Original Luddites Raged Against the Machine of the Industrial Revolution

January 4, 2019 in History

By Christopher Klein

Uprisings against changes brought on by the technological advances of the 1800s gave rise to a movement—and to the insult “luddite.”

On a late January night in 1812, a mob hell-bent on violence stormed through the door of . “The masters were slow to react and used the opportunity to reduce wages.” Hit by the economic downturn, merchants cut costs by employing lower-paid, untrained workers to operate machines as the textile industry moved out of individual homes and into mills where hours were longer and conditions more dangerous.

Artisans who had spent years perfecting their craft in apprenticeships protested the use of untrained workers who generally produced inferior products. Many were willing to adapt to the mechanization of the textile industry as long as they shared in the profits. However, they watched as the productivity gains from technology enriched the capitalists, not the workers.

READ MORE: The Industrial Revolution

English textile workers consistently found their efforts to negotiate for pensions, minimum wages and standard working conditions rebuffed. Unable to legally form trade unions or strike, the laborers instead wielded sledgehammers to strike a blow against industrial capitalism in what historian Eric Hobsbawm called “collective bargaining by riot.”

The Legend of ‘General Ludd’

Nottingham’s textile workers claimed to be following the orders of a mysterious “General Ludd.” Merchants received threatening letters addressed from “Ned Ludd’s office, Sherwood Forest.” Newspapers reported that Ludd had been a framework knitting apprentice who had been whipped at the behest of his master and took his revenge by demolishing his master’s machine with a hammer.

Ned Ludd, however, was likely no more real than another legendary denizen of Sherwood Forest who fought against injustice, Robin Hood. Mythic though he may have been, Ned Ludd became a folk hero in parts of Nottingham and inspired verses such as:

Chant no more your old rhymes about bold Robin Hood

His feats I but little admire

I will sing the Achievements of General Ludd

Now the Hero of Nottinghamshire

From Nottingham, the Luddite revolt spread during 1812 to the wool industry of Yorkshire and the cotton mills of Lancashire. As the labor movement expanded, it also lost its cohesion and the purity of its economic message. “It differentiated according to region, and even within regions it differed among people in different trades,” Binfield says.

Luddite Protests Grow Violent

The protest also blossomed into violence as it grew in size. In …read more


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