The Luddites: 1775-1825 (Classroom Activity)

In 1771 Richard Arkwright opened a large factory next to the River Derwent in Cromford, Derbyshire, to house several of his Spinning-Frame machines. Arkwright later told his lawyer that Cromford had been chosen because it offered "a remarkable fine stream of water… in an area very full of inhabitants".

According to Adam Hart-Davis: "Arkwright's mill was essentially the first factory of this kind in the world. Never before had people been put to work in such a well-organized way. Never had people been told to come in at a fixed time in the morning, and work all day at a prescribed task. His factories became the model for factories all over the country and all over the world. This was the way to build a factory. And he himself usually followed the same pattern - stone buildings 30 feet wide, 100 feet long, or longer if there was room, and five, six, or seven floors high."

In 1785, Edmund Cartwright, the younger brother of Major John Cartwright, invented a weaving machine which could be operated by horses or a waterwheel. Cartwright began using power looms in a mill that he part-owned in Manchester. An unskilled boy could weave three and a half pieces of material on a power loom in the time a skilled weaver using traditional methods, wove only one.

The introduction of the power loom reduced the demand for cloth produced by handloom weavers. Those who still found masters willing to employ them, had to accept far lower wages than in the past. In 1807 over 130,000 signed a petition in favour of a minimum wage. The average wage of a weaver fell from 21 shillings in 1802 to 14 shillings in 1809.

The rejection of the idea of a minimum wage was defeated in the House of Commons. This was followed by a series of industrial disputes. In May 1808, 15,000 weavers held a meeting in St. George's Fields in Manchester in support of their demands for a minimum wage. The magistrates responded by sending in the military. One weaver was killed and several were seriously injured.

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". These men became known as Luddites.

Primary Sources

Poster published in 1811
(Source 1) Engraving of Ned Ludd (1812)


(Source 2) The Derby Mercury (22nd October, 1779)

There is some fear of the mob coming to destroy the works at Cromford, but they are well prepared to receive them should they come here. All the gentlemen in this neighbourhood being determined to defend the works, which have been of such utility to this country. 5,000 or 6,000 men can be at any time assembled in less than an hour by signals agreed upon, who are determined to defend to the very last extremity, the works, by which many hundreds of their wives and children get a decent and comfortable livelihood.

(Source 3) 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.

(Source 4) In 1812 a letter signed by General Ned Ludd was sent to a factory owner in Huddersfield.

Information has just been given in, that you are an owner of those detestable Shearing Frames... I am now writing to you... that if they are not removed by the end of next week, I shall send 300 men to destroy them.

(Source 5) G. T. Warner, British History (1923)

Ned Ludd was a village idiot in a Leicestershire village. Baited one day, he pursued his tormentors into a house and broke some machines. Hence, when machines were afterwards broken, it become customary to say that Ned Ludd had broken them.

(Source 6) E. R. Chamberlain, The Awakening Giant: Britain in the Industrial Revolution (1976)

King Ludd... obtained his name... from a youth called Ned Ludlam, who smashed his stocking frame... The Luddite movement lasted for more than six years, during which it destroyed tens of thousands of pounds worth of property.

(Source 7) Archibald Prentice, Historical Sketches and Personal Recollections of Manchester (1851)

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.

(Source 8) 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 tranquility to the country.

Poster published in 1811
(Source 9) Poster published in 1811


(Source 10) 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.

(Source 11) 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.

(Source 12) William King, The Co-operator (January 1829)

If the machine that I work produces as much as a thousand men, I ought to enjoy the produce of a thousand men. But no such thing. I am working a machine which I know will starve me... At present machinery works against the poor workmen, and therefore it must be his deadliest enemy... The remedy is !i simple... Workmen must form co-operatives and accumulate capital... this will enable them to purchase these wonderful machines... Instead of sixteen hours' work, and eight hours rest, he may, when the machinery works for him, have eight I hours' work and sixteen for rest... Then the workmen will be able to shed tears of joy instead of sorrow over his machine.

Questions for Students

Question 1: Read the introduction and study source 2. Why were local men were so unhappy with Richard Arkwright in 1779?

Question 2: Compare sources 5 and 6. Give possible reasons why these accounts are different.

Question 3: Do you think source 1 is a reliable source of information on the person who wrote source 4?

Question 4: Describe and explain the views being expressed about machines in sources 4 and 12.

Question 5: In February 1812 the government of Spencer Perceval proposed that machine-breaking should become a capital offence. Did Lord Byron (source 8) agree with the government over this issue.

Question 6: Why was John Edward Taylor (source 11) critical of the authorities about the way that dealt with the actions of the Luddites in Westhoughton?

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.