The Luddites

In the early months of 1811 the first threatening letters from General Ned Ludd and the Army of Redressers, were sent to employers in Nottingham. Workers, upset by wage reductions and the use of unapprenticed workmen, began to break into factories at night to destroy the new machines that the employers were using. In a three-week period over two hundred stocking frames were destroyed. In March, 1811, several attacks were taking place every night and the Nottingham authorities had to enroll four hundred special constables to protect the factories. To help catch the culprits, the Prince Regent offered £50 to anyone "giving information on any person or persons wickedly breaking the frames".

Luddism gradually spread to Yorkshire, Lancashire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire. In Yorkshire, croppers, a small and highly skilled group of cloth finishers, turned their anger on the new shearing frame that they feared would put them out of work. In February and March, 1812, factories were attacked by Luddites in Huddersfield, Halifax, Wakefield and Leeds.

In February 1812 the government of Spencer Perceval proposed that machine-breaking should become a capital offence. Despite a passionate speech by Lord Byron in the House of Lords, Parliament passed the Frame Breaking Act that enabled people convicted of machine-breaking to be sentenced to death. As a further precaution, the government ordered 12,000 troops into the areas where the Luddites were active.

On of the most serious Luddite attacks took place at Rawfolds Mill near Brighouse in Yorkshire. William Cartwright, the owner of Rawfolds Mill, had been using cloth-finishing machinery since 1811. Local croppers began losing their jobs and after a meeting at Saint Crispin public house, they decided to try and destroy the cloth-finishing machinery at Rawfolds Mill. Cartwright was suspecting trouble and arranged for the mill to be protected by armed guards.

Led by George Mellor, a young cropper from Huddersfield, the attack on Rawfolds Mill took place on 11th April, 1812. The Luddites failed in gain entry and by the time they left, two of the croppers had been mortally wounded. Seven days later the Luddites killed William Horsfall, another large mill-owner in the area. The authorities rounded up over a hundred suspects. Of these, sixty-four were indicted. Three men were executed for the murder of Horsfall and another fourteen were hung for the attack on Rawfolds Mill.

Throughout 1812 there were attacks on Lancashire cotton mills. Local handloom weavers objected to the introduction of power looms. On 20th March, 1812 the warehouse of William Radcliffe, one of the first manufacturers to use the power-loom, was attacked in Stockport.

Wheat prices soared in 1812. Unable to feed their families, workers became desperate. There were food riots in Manchester, Oldham, Ashton, Rochdale, Stockport and Macclesfield. On 20th April several thousand men attacked Burton's Mill at Middleton near Manchester. Emanuel Burton, who knew that his policy of buying power-looms had upset local handloom weavers, had recruited armed guards and three members of the crowd were killed by musket-fire. The following day the men returned and after failing to break-in to the mill, they burnt down Emanuel Burton's house. The military arrived and another seven men were killed.

Poster published in 1811
Poster published in 1811

Three days later, Wray & Duncroff's Mill at Westhoughton, near Manchester, was set on fire. William Hulton, the High Sheriff of Lancashire, arrested twelve men suspected of taking part in the attack. Four of the accused, Abraham Charlston, Job Fletcher, Thomas Kerfoot, and James Smith, were executed. The Charlston's family claimed Abraham was only twelve years old but he was not reprieved. It was reported that Abraham cried for his mother on the scaffold. A local part-time journalist, John Edward Taylor, investigated the case and claimed that the attack had been the result of action taken by spies employed by Colonel Fletcher, one of Manchester's magistrates.

In June 1812 John Knight organised a meeting for weavers at a public house in Manchester. As the meeting was coming to an end Joseph Nadin, Deputy Constable of Manchester, arrived and arrested Knight and thirty-seven other weavers. Knight was charged with "administering oaths to weavers pledging them to destroy steam looms" and they were accused of attending a seditious meeting. At their subsequent trial all thirty-eight were acquitted.

In the summer of 1812 eight men in Lancashire were sentenced to death and thirteen transported to Australia for attacks on cotton mills. Another fifteen were executed at York. This was followed by further sporadic outbreaks of violence but by 1817 the Luddite movement had ceased to be active in Britain.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) The attack on Burton's Mill in Middleton was reported in the Leeds Mercury in April, 1812.

A body of men, consisting of from one to two hundred, some of them armed with muskets with fixed bayonets, and others with colliers' picks, who marched into the village in procession, and joined the rioters. At the head of the armed banditti a man of straw was carried, representing the renowned General Ludd whose standard bearer waved a sort of red flag.

(2) Archibald Prentice, wrote about the Luddite disturbances in April 1812, in his book Historical Sketches and Personal Recollections of Manchester.

On Saturday, the 18th April, a numerous body of women, chiefly women, assembled at the potato market, Shude Hill, where the sellers were asking 14s. and 15s. per load (252 lbs.) for potatoes. Some of the women began forcibly to take possession of the articles; but the civil and military power interposing, to fix a sort of maximum, for eight shillings per load, at which they were sold in small portions. On Monday a cart carrying fourteen loads of meal was stopped, and the meal carried away. On 27th April a riotous assembly took place at Middleton. The weaving factory of Mr. Burton and Sons had been previously threatened in consequence of their mode of weaving being done by the operation of steam. The factory was protected by soldiers, so strongly as to be impregnable to their assault; they then flew to the house of Mr. Emanuel Burton, where they wreaked their vengeance by setting it on fire. On Friday, the 24th April, a large body of weavers and mechanics began to assemble about midday, with the avowed intention of destroying the power-looms, together with the whole of the premises, at Westhoughton. The military rode at full speed to Westhoughton; and on their arrival were surprised to find that the premises were entirely destroyed, while not an individual could be seen to whom attached any suspicion of having acted a part in this truly dreadful outrage.

(3) Lord Byron, speech in the House of Lords (27th February, 1812)

During the short time I recently passed in Nottingham, not twelve hours elapsed without some fresh act of violence; and on that day I left the the county I was informed that forty Frames had been broken the preceding evening, as usual, without resistance and without detection.

Such was the state of that county, and such I have reason to believe it to be at this moment. But whilst these outrages must be admitted to exist to an alarming extent, it cannot be denied that they have arisen from circumstances of the most unparalleled distress: the perseverance of these miserable men in their proceedings, tends to prove that nothing but absolute want could have driven a large, and once honest and industrious, body of the people, into the commission of excesses so hazardous to themselves, their families, and the community.

They were not ashamed to beg, but there was none to relieve them: their own means of subsistence were cut off, all other employment preoccupied; and their excesses, however to be deplored and condemned, can hardly be subject to surprise.

As the sword is the worst argument than can be used, so should it be the last. In this instance it has been the first; but providentially as yet only in the scabbard. The present measure will, indeed, pluck it from the sheath; yet had proper meetings been held in the earlier stages of these riots, had the grievances of these men and their masters (for they also had their grievances) been fairly weighed and justly examined, I do think that means might have been devised to restore these workmen to their avocations, and tranquillity to the country.

(4) The Manchester Gazette (2nd May, 1812)

On Monday afternoon a large body, not less than 2,000, commenced an attack, on the discharge of a pistol, which appeared to have been the signal; vollies of stones were thrown, and the windows smashed to atoms; the internal part of the building being guarded, a musket was discharged in the hope of intimidating and dispersing the assailants. In a very short time the effects were too shockingly seen in the death of three, and it is said, about ten wounded.

(5) John Edward Taylor wrote an article in 1819 about the Luddite Riots in Manchester during 1812.

The Middleton riots originated in severe distress, exasperated by a short-sighted prejudice against the introduction of newly-invented machinery. The attack of the mob upon the factory, and the destruction of the house of one of its owners, were crimes of the greatest enormity. But at Westhoughton, where a steam-loom factory was set on fire and burnt down, the case was widely different. This outrage was debated at a meeting which took place on Dean Moor, near Bolton, the 9th of April, 1812, sixteen days before the scheme was put in practice. At this meeting there were present, during the greater part of its duration, and up to the time of its close, not more than about forty persons, of whom no less than ten or eleven were spies, reputed to be employed by Colonel Fletcher. The occurrence of circumstances like these, sixteen days before the burning of the factory took place, renders it not a matter of presumption, but of absolute certainty, that that alarming outrage might have been prevented, if to prevent it had been the inclination of either the spies or their employers.

(6) Archibald Prentice, Historical Sketches and Personal Recollections of Manchester (1851)

At Accrington, on the evening of Tuesday, April the 18th, a mob of probably two thousand persons assembled round the steam-loom factory of Messrs. Sykes, and proceeded to break the windows. The manager, who went out to address" the misguided multitude, was assaulted and treated very roughly, and, fears being entertained that still greater violence would be resorted to, the military were sent for. On the following evening, w^en the market coach from Manchester arrived at Blackburn, it was assailed by a crowd of people, who showered stones upon it, and some of the manufacturers, who were in and upon it, received severe bruises.