Most of us have never heard the word Luddite unless it’s been used as an insult to those who hate progress and technology. Paperback lovers may be derided as Luddites for their dislike of ereaders. The historical truth of the Luddites is much more complex. They fall somewhere between insurrectionists, homeland terrorists and early labor union activists.
I recall being a freshman in college and learning about a strange group of radicals from the 1790-1820s who were opposed to the progress of technology in Great Britain. The advent of what we now call the Industrial Revolution was replacing the need for their jobs with machines, affecting their livelihood. Riots and violence ensued. The course was a global history survey from 1500 to present and so we spent about ten minutes on the subject. The year was 2004 and I did not yet own a cell phone…or a functioning car but that’s a story for a different time.
Although things have definitely progressed and moved forward just in my life, it’s really hard for me to try and comprehend a world where something like the image below was earth shattering and revolutionary. When was the last time my entire life was revolutionized by a piece of technology and it threatened my job and ability to provide for my family? Well, for me never. It’s only made things easier as I sell most of my books as digital copies instead of print. The print I have sold are easier and, therefore, cheaper to distribute and sell as an independent publisher now than they would have been twelve years ago.
Perhaps that is what made my most recent research on those early 19th century radicals, called Luddites, so interesting for my upcoming release. All I had really intended was that I could have George Wickham and the Militia leave Meryton and fight the Luddites in the North earlier than they moved to Brighton in the original. Instead, the more I researched, the more I wanted to understand this world.
William Lee invented the stocking frame in 1589, which had parts that copied the movements of hand knitters. He showed it to Elizabeth I, who refused to grant a patent for it as she worried about its affects on the knitter community. A decade later he had made several improvements to the machine which could also knit silk stockings. He applied to King James I for a patent and was declined. Lee then moved to France, found it unprofitable and died there. His workers were mostly French Huegonots who then went to London, with their new frames. An assistant of his made another improvement to the frame and finally in 1663 a Charter was granted at last. The 1720-1750s saw many other small inventions and improvements in the textile industry but it was the Spinning Jenny in 1764 and Richard Arkwright’s water frame in 1769 that really began the revolution. Additionally, the frames were growing so expensive individuals could not afford them. Instead, wealthier men bought them and provided knitters with the goods, then bought the materials and sold them. It was only a matter of time before they left working in the cottages and worked on even larger equipment in factories.
As you’ll see in the images below, they sought to broke into the factories and at the very least break the machines. Legend had it that a young man in a fit of rage named Ned Ludd broke the first one and others followed suit, calling themselves part of General Ludd’s Army. History doubts such a man ever existed, but rumor at the time said that Ned Ludd evaded capture by hiding in women’s clothing. Not all of the attacks had guards present to defend the factories, but in the situations where there were true battles, the Luddites always sustained heavier losses than they managed to inflict, which was typically none.
Alas, matters continued to escalate. On February 14, 1812, several Members of Parliament along with the Prime Minister Spencer Perceval submitted a bill that would make stockframe breaking executable- the severest punishment until then being transportation to a colony. In April, a group of Luddites assassinated a mill owner on the road. They were executed in January 1813 and attacks dwindled.
The politics and economics behind the motivations of the Luddites were complex, made all the worse by the Napoleonic Wars. I hope I do them justice while not losing the heart of my story. Here’s an excerpt from Sufficient Encouragement which should release in February. Darcy is at his club in London and having a rousing political discussion.
“Well, transportation for the crimes is not nearly enough. These are mad men! They are not satisfied with merely breaking the machinery. They want to kill the owners.”
“You would have compassion on them if you saw what their life has become with factories stealing their livelihood,” a young man about Bingley’s age that Darcy did not recognize said.
“Be silent, Byron,” Lord Peters said and Darcy understood the man to be Lord Byron, who although he had inherited his barony at age ten, had spent years traveling. “Your soft heart will be the ruin of us all. Do you want to encourage rebellion like in France? There must be rule and order.”
Rather than continuing to listen to insults, Lord Byron left and Darcy considered his tenants. Many of them contributed to their income with crafting textile goods. He sold the wool from the sheep on his home farm to mills he invested in with Bingley, and had a keen interest in their welfare, but many of his tenants harvested their wool and spun it in their homes. Even more, he knew of many estates that were losing farmers as young people increasingly chose to live in the cities and hoped to work their way up in the factories.
Bingley’s great-grandfather had been the son of a small freeholder and weaver but became a manufacturing inventor. He was among many and managed to patent his creations through money won in a card game. From there his innovations proved invaluable. His son moved from the factory floor to an overseer and invested in several successful mills. Bingley’s father removed himself from daily overseeing the functions and intended to purchase his own estate but did not live to do it. The task now fell to Bingley.
The Bingley success story, and several like it, filled the imaginations of many ambitious factory workers. For them, this was an exciting era to live in and full of opportunity. However, for the men before Darcy, they only felt the fear of changing winds. Fewer tenant farmers meant less rental income for the landowners. Many attempted to adapt by investing in industry and yet dissatisfied cottage workers could destroy all of that with the toss of a match. Loss income always equated to a loss of power and there would always be men desperate to keep their scrap of it.
“To you it is a matter of pounds and pence,” Darcy said, “but you forget that to the workers on both sides it is a matter of the ability to live. We must learn to live in harmony. Consider why the frame breakers feel the loss of income so acutely. They are not living in the lap of luxury.” His eyes drifted to the buttons that strained against Lord Peters midsection. It was an expensively made suit and yet the man would soon need a new wardrobe, again, if he did not restrain his gluttony.
What happens with Darcy, Bingley, Wickham and the Luddites? Well, you’ll have to read to find out!