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The Luddite Riots of 1811-1816

In the spring of 1811 a series of labor riots started in Nottingham and spread throughout England. The rioters were mainly textile workers. They were protesting the knitting machines that they believed were responsible for putting them out of work and worsening their working conditions.

The rioters caused a lot of damage but they had a sense of humor, at least at first. They claimed they were working under the direction of General Ludd (or even King Ludd), a made-up personage most likely based on the name of a young mill worker who smashed a knitting machine in a burst of anger in 1779. The rioters called themselves Luddites, and they often adopted women’s clothing as part of their rioting gear.

Leader of the Luddites? An 1812 illustration.

Like their namesake, the Luddites smashed machines, too, particularly the shearing frames used in the production of cloth. From 1811 to 1816 there was rioting and frame-breaking across England. The protesters' grievances included more pay and a guarantee that workers would be hired only after completing an apprenticeship.

There was violence on both sides of the protests, but the rioters had the worst of it. During this period, one mill owner was ambushed and killed by rioters, and many knitting machines were destroyed and mills damaged. However, the British government acted quickly and decisively to quell the rioting. The British Army was called in, and rioters were beaten and in some cases shot.

Frame-breakers smashing a knitting loom machine.

Later, under new laws passed by Parliament that made frame-breaking a capital crime, at least 14 rioters were executed by the Crown. Many more were arrested and faced “transportation” - exile to a far-flung British colony such as Australia.  

At one time during this period there were more troops dedicated to quelling the labor riots than there were troops stationed with Wellington to fight Napoleon on the Iberian Peninsula. But as a result of the efforts of the British government and its military the Luddite riots were over by 1816.

Plaque commemorating the burning of Westhoughton Mill in 1812

The rioters were not entirely without supporters among the upper classes. In 1812 when the House of Lords was deliberating the Frame-Breaking Act, which made frame-breaking punishable by death, at least one lord spoke out against such harshness.

That dissenting lord was none other than Lord Byron, the famous Romantic poet and scandal-plagued heartthrob of the Regency.  In his first-ever speech to his fellow peers Byron showed compassion for the rioting laborers, despite their actions:

"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 . . .  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," he went on, "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."

Byron concluded his plea for leniency regarding the Luddites with these words:

"As the sword is the worst argument that can be used, so should it be the last . . . 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."

Lord Byron, portrait by Richard Westall

I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to say that the “proper meetings” Byron described eventually took place and formed the basis of trade unions, both in Great Britain and the United States.

And although the term “Luddite” has come to mean someone who resists all forms of technological progress and the changes it brings, in my view the Luddites of the Regency period weren't against new technology in their industries. They just wanted to find a way to use the new machines and still make a decent living.

Coincidentally, I got a great insight into what textile mills must have been like during the 19th century from a DVD of a 2004 British TV miniseries I found in my local library. North and South is based on a book of the same name published in 1855 by Elizabeth Gaskell. The story revolves around the culture shock a young woman raised in the rural south of England experiences when she is uprooted by her father to live in the industrial north.

This clip from the first episode depicts the working conditions inside a cotton mill. The owner of the mill (our hero) brutally reprimands a worker for smoking inside the mill. Our heroine sees this behavior and is appalled. Later we find out that the mill owner had previously witnessed the deaths of 300 workers - men, women and children - due to a fire in a mill.

Incidentally, on one of the many blogs discussing the current season of Downton Abbey, I've read several comments suggesting that Richard Armitage (the actor who plays the mill owner) would make a worthy addition to the cluster of beaus surrounding Lady Mary. (Speaking of DA, Brendan Coyle, who plays Bates on the show, has a significant role in North and South as a mill worker.)

I have to agree with the general opinion about Armitage. Watch the clip and see if you think he'd make a good potential suitor for Mary, too. Maybe we can get Julian Fellowes to consider adding Armitage to next season's cast!

Sources for this post include:


  1. Fun idea! Looks like Lord Byron was a good guy too--very sensitive to the plight of the worker. xo Jennifer

  2. Thanks, Jennifer! I think Byron was a good guy, too, even if he was a bit of a rake. :)


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