The coming of industrialisation brought the coming of the end for skilled craftsmen working in cottage industries. Great machines were made that would do the work of many men and women. In a very short space of time, the Industrial revolution had happened and the past had been consigned to history.
Faced with poverty, and with no trade unions yet permitted to represent them (though the likes of Gravenor Henson were campaigning for government reform), these workers turned to direct methods, which targeted these new machines and the industrialists who utilised them in their factories and mills.
Machine-breaking was not new, but the scale of the sabotage occurring in England between 1811 and 1816 was unprecedented. Those involved were called ‘Luddites’, a name which may be based upon the legend of Ned Ludd, who is said to have smashed part of a stocking frame in temper in the previous century, or a reference to an Ancient British king named Lud.
The Luddite became the enemies of progress and were therefore the enemies of mankind. In case modern readers still don’t realise, mankind has two very different groups: there are those who own and those who are disowned. These two groups have roughly stayed the same since the Norman Conquest. I am pleased to say that I belong to the latter group thought I am not pleased to have to share its unfortunate inheritance; being disadvantaged, having to follow the rules to make even a modest living, and having to follow the whims of the ruling classes who decide so that the rest of us can follow.
So why am I writing about this when I live in the digital dystopia of the twenty-first century. Exactly! I am a has-been teacher with nothing better to write. I draw parallels between unconnected aspects of history and present them as a fait accompli. I am also a Yorkshireman who loves the traditions of a county that has given itself over to insurrection when a compelling case presents itself.
I am a Luddite.
I have seen the revolution of industry turn its face towards teaching. It has broken down the skills into easily understood, yet indigestible, segments and has driven off the hand-made knowledge of a previous generation. Teaching has become a sequence of tick-boxes, a quality-assurance scenario that encourages the finitely skilled to participate in a production line that will eventually produce standard packets of pupils who are neither very good nor very bad. Along the way, it will have changed education from a system that seeks to rebalance the unfair advantage of the rich to a system the propagates the rights of the achievers; the possible new ruling classes.
And it is systems, frameworks, and deceit that will lead the way.
Look at the past:
Around the early 1800s Luddite attacks began in Yorkshire, where the opposition was directed at the machinery itself, as a labour-saving device. As well as being somewhat divided in their grievances, there were few links between the Luddites in the Midlands and the North, and the main periods of activity in each region were detached, demonstrating further a lack of coordination.
The Government responded to the rebellion with the Frame-Breaking Bill, which passed through the House of Commons in February 1812. It proposed transportation or the death penalty for those found guilty of breaking stocking or lace frames (thus focussing on the events in the Midlands). In its second reading in the House of Lords, the poet and social campaigner Lord Byron spoke against the Bill, arguing that the value of life was being placed at “something less than the price of a stocking-frame”. It was passed nevertheless.
Rather than acting as a deterrent, however, the Frame-Breaking Act led to increased Luddite activity, as some protestors threw caution to the wind and resorted to violence and the use of arms, with the popular rhyme being “you might as well be hung for death as breaking a machine”.
The climax of the Luddism in Yorkshire occurred in April 1812 near Dewsbury. Mr Cartwright, the owner of Rawfolds Mill, had anticipated an attack, and defended his premises so well that the perpetrators withdrew. A local vicar, Patrick Brontë, presumably recounted the event to his daughter, Charlotte, for it provided the backdrop to her novel Shirley.
Two Luddites had been killed in the attack on Rawfolds Mill, though the verdict of ‘justifiable homicide’ led to riots across the North. Mr Cartwright would survive an assassination attempt, though fellow mill-owner Mr Horsfall was not so lucky, as he was shot and killed on his way home from Huddersfield on 18 April.
In London, the forming of a new Cabinet following the assassination of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval in May 1812 was a turning point in the authorities’ response to the rebellion, with mass arrest, trials and harsh sentencing following. The unrest continued, but machine-breaking declined. However, by the end of the year, frame-breaking erupted again in Nottinghamshire.
Three suspects in the murder of Mr Horsfall were tried at York Assize Court in January 1813. Even before the trial, permission had been given for their bodies to be given to surgeons for dissection, so that it is hardly surprising that they were found guilty. They were hanged outside York Castle (Clifford’s Tower), a large crowd of onlookers watching in silence.
On 15 January, another fourteen men (five of whom had been involved in the attack on Rawfolds Mill) were hanged for crimes associated with Luddism, the largest number ever hanged in a day at York Castle. A further seven were sentenced to transportation.
Around fifty-seven children were left fatherless as a result of the York trials. This was partly on account of the misuse of the Frame-Breaking Act by the authorities, since these attacks were not actually associated with the breaking of stocking or lace frames. Nevertheless, these punitive methods had the desired effect; there would be no more machine-breaking in Yorkshire.