Celebrating the Luddites’ 200th anniversary

November 2011 – January 2013 is the 200th anniversary of the Luddite uprisings: a “great opportunity to celebrate this struggle for workers’ and working-class rights, and to redress the wrongs done to them and their name”. In a guest post, David King introduces the history of the Luddites in Manchester and Lancashire and highlights some of the upcoming events in the commemoration.

In the case of the Luddites, history has been written by the victors. Nowadays the word ‘Luddite’ means someone opposed to all technology and progress. In fact, the Luddites opposed only technology ‘hurtful to Commonality’, (i.e. the common good): they destroyed some machines whilst leaving others alone. The current meaning was invented in the 1950s when Britain was shifting its economy away from manufacturing and towards high technology. The aim was to stigmatise those with valid concerns about issues like nuclear power, and automation in the workplace.

In Lancashire the Luddites were fighting the introduction of power looms to the cotton industry, which were undercutting the cloth produced by handloom weavers, who largely worked in their own cottages. As in other parts of the North and Midlands, the weavers were suffering severely from a depression in trade, caused by the wars with France, and a series of bad harvests which had drastically increased food prices. The weaving communities around Manchester had petitioned Parliament repeatedly in the period before 1811, asking for measures to relieve their situation, but were ignored by Tory governments obsessed with the then-new free market economic doctrines.

In Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire the Luddite raids followed a guerrilla warfare pattern, involving night raids by small bands of disciplined men. However in Lancashire, Luddism involved large riots, with much more violence on both sides. This was partly because the new industrial production in Lancashire was based in massive mills, with hundreds of machines that could not be easily destroyed by small groups, except by burning the whole mill. The Luddite riots in Lancashire often took place in the daytime and involved hundreds of people from many different trades, including women. Because there were fewer large mills to defend, the thousands of troops that the government had stationed throughout the North (more soldiers than were currently fighting with Wellington in Spain) were able to defend the mills more easily, and this led to a great deal of bloodshed, most notoriously at the Burton mill in Middleton, where up to thirty people were killed.

In May 1812 at the Assizes in Chester 10 were hanged, 38 transported and 18 imprisoned. Overall, the Luddite attacks were less successful, with one mill (at Westhoughton) largely destroyed, and one warehouse burned. Thus, although Lancashire Luddism involved more sound and fury than in Yorkshire or Nottinghamshire, it was considerably less effective. It burned brightly between February and April 1812, but then died away.

The Luddites200 group is aiming to encourage local celebrations of the Luddite uprisings around the country, because we believe that this is an extremely important episode in English social history, and as EP Thompson argued, a key stage in the creation of the English working class. It also has important lessons for today as, for example, technology continues to be deployed in order to implement the public sector cuts. Workers, from librarians to court stenographers and even coastguards are being replaced by digital machines.

We were very surprised to find that, whilst in Yorkshire a consortium of local museums and archives and Huddersfield University are organising a programme of activities to celebrate the anniversary, there is very little happening in Lancashire. In particular, we were astonished that the People’s History Museum, the obvious place for such activities, has no plans to celebrate the anniversary, and no permanent exhibits on the Luddites. In fact, they have a timeline of the development of trade unions and the movements for parliamentary reform in the 19th century, that has a large blank space exactly where the Luddites should be.

How can this be? It is difficult to come to any other conclusion than that the PHM, like much of the conventional Left, shares the popular misconception of the Luddites as reactionary, as well as somehow not ‘really’ being part of the organised working class. Despite the efforts of Marxist historians like EP Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm to situate the Luddites firmly within working class and trade union history, many still subscribe to these outdated misconceptions. The Luddites can hardly be blamed for not forming trade unions, since they were illegal at the time, but like the Yorkshire croppers and Nottinghamshire framework knitters, the cotton weavers maintained a well organised quasi-legal organisation for petitioning parliament, and were often highly politicised, sometimes going so far as to openly and seditiously support the revolution in France. As Hobsbawm has pointed out, this tradition of ‘collective bargaining by riot’ and machine breaking had a long history in the labour disputes of the 18th century, and was often a highly effective method of forcing employers to accede to workers’ demands.

Luddites200 will be holding a workshop at the Manchester & Salford Anarchist Bookfair on December 3rd, where you can learn more about the history of the Luddites and their significance for debates about technology today. We hope you will be able join us.

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One thought on “Celebrating the Luddites’ 200th anniversary

  1. Pingback: Luddites and York: Why Remember? | York's Alternative History

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