Perhaps you should take it as a compliment. Far from being lughead ignoramuses, this group of upstarts had genuine grievances about changes to their lives and work
The appellation “luddite” is, almost without exception, used in a derogatory manner. Just recently, Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, accused his Tory frenemies of being luddites, responding to their hostility toward green-friendly business initiatives. Clegg indicated, with his put-down, that this refusal to budge and fear of such innovation was pig-headed and short-sighted, irrational even. Despite the fact that Clegg may be right about his current colleagues – at least in a general sense – was he right to use that particular term? Many use it, perhaps without fully understanding its origins or context. Who were the luddites? Why are they held in such disregard? Have they been misunderstood?
I would argue that they have, indeed, been misunderstood.
More than that, they have been miscast by history, mistreated by ignoramuses and misconstrued by most. But first, let’s have a look at who they were.
Their peak was short-lived. They are, of course, known as the upstarts who, with apparently mindless aggression, attacked helpful and innovative new machinery. We’re looking at a “reign of terror” which lasted roughly from 1811 to 1813, with some acts continuing until 1817. They were essentially what we might call today “rioters”, who were supported by such luminaries as Mary Shelley and the radical poet and all-round trouble-maker Lord Byron. Known for his revolutionary politics, Byron used the privilege of his title to give voice to the Luddites in the House of Lords.
The Luddites did indeed object to modern technology. But this objection was not without qualification. It wasn’t technological innovation per se that they objected to – it was what was coming with it. In addition, they focused on particular technology: the new wide-framed automated looms for use in the textile industry. These could be operated by those with little or no textile-making skill. The Luddites viewed this as a threat to their well-being. They foresaw their replacement with cheap labour, a concern that still reverberates today.
The people who called themselves Luddites were textile workers who, it could be argued, had legitimate concerns. A few decades before, a youth named Ned Ludd had smashed two stocking frames. It seems he became an icon for the new group of malcontents. But his form and character was transformed until he eventually became the mythical “King Ludd”. The movement began in Nottingham and quickly spread into other parts of the north of England, but mainly Yorkshire and Lancashire.
They set about attacking and destroying machinery – the frames. They became such a force that the army was sent in, with more than one skirmish. Eventually, a mass trial was held, in 1813, held in York. Other trials followed, and these are nowadays seen as show trials, with many of the accused having no connection to the Luddites. Many were executed, some transported to the colonies. Machine breaking was made a capital crime, in the Frame-Breaking Bill of 1812.
Byron argued against the bill, citing the agitators’ evident desperation. 27 men were executed in all, with one of them reportedly only 12 years old. Byron wrote a poem about the movement, called Song for the Luddites. It contains the lines:
So we, boys, we
Will die fighting, or live free,
And down with all kings but King Ludd!
In these lines, Byron hints at wider concerns. Before the industrial revolution, workers more or less worked when and where they chose. It was commonplace for poor skilled workers to work for less than half the year and spend much of the rest of the time taking part in festivities and generally enjoying themselves. The issue at the heart of the matter has been – even amongst those more sympathetic to the Luddites’ cause – as one of objection to cheap labour. Although this is inarguably an important element, there is also the question of a catastrophic change in culture, in a way of life.
It seems the Luddites objected to the lifestyle change as much as the more mundane aspects of the threat such as to their specific working conditions and pay. Freelance textile workers were their own masters. They decided upon, and organised, their own work patterns, hours and levels of effort. In other words, they did not have someone leaning over their shoulders, ensuring their efforts were to the required level. Indeed, it could be argued that the Luddites were blessed with foresight. They arguably saw the writing on the wall, and didn’t like what they saw at all.