Title: A People’s Histreh of Nottingham: The Luddites
The original Luddites were an early 19th century social movement of British textile workers engaged in destroying specific types of looms in the name of a ‘Ned Ludd’. The first and fiercest wave of Luddist activities occurred in 1811-12, followed by further direct action during the following few years. Hosiers, law enforcers and other ‘respectable people’ regarded these events as extreme threats to law and order and eventually the East Midlands became the scene of a massive military operation.
The direct action was taken by persons from families of framework knitters, i.e. artisans working in a system of domestic production. In these everyone worked, regardless of gender or age. The reformist newspaper Nottingham Review stated in November 1811 that ‘a Man that has full employ […] can by no means support a Family with any degree of Comfort’ and all those without ‘full employ’ live in ‘pinching Poverty and pining Want.’ Although it accredits the family wage to the patriarch, this source exemplifies why the phrase ‘As poor as a stockinger’ had been around since the mid-eighteenth century: the living and working conditions of framework knitters were miserable even at the best of times.
The years following the turn of the century had been anything but good times. Framework knitting had been hit hard by a slump in demand, causing an on-going depression which was to become the defining feature of the trade. This had many reasons, foremost a vicious circle of overproduction, causing rates to fall and inciting a further increase in production in an attempt to compensate these losses, resulting in yet another fall of rates. This underlying dilemma was worsened by the on-going wars, first against revolutionary, then Napoleonic France which also interrupted international trade, greatly damaging the hosiery trade.
Before this background of a yet unknown level of deprivation the introduction of new machinery, producing more and cheaper ‘cut-ups’, increasing production further whilst requiring less labour sparked what became known as Luddism. Groups of people engaged in highly organised cloak and dagger-style operations, targeting very specifically those new machines perceived to further decrease their living conditions. Letters signed by ‘Ned Ludd’ or ‘King Ludd’ were sent to various officials and hosiers, primarily demanding them to stick to set rates, allowing stockinger families a minimal and calculable income. The success of the frame-breakers and the inefficieny of the local law enforces led to a military operation tying up thousands of troops. The pressure by the repressive forces, backed up by the 1812 Act of Parliament making frame breaking a capital offence proved effective and Luddism ‘lost its momentum’. The economic situation of the framework knitters deteriorated further over the coming decades until domestic production was gradually superseded by large scale industrial production.
Framework knitters, engaging in what became known as Luddism, have been described as ‘casualties of history’, depraved workers in an industry which was already dying by the beginning of the nineteenth century. As such, Luddism, this ‘brief, though stormy phase in Nottinghamshire’s history’ may have been forgotten but it still is referred to occasionally. For some the term is used with contempt to describe opposition against technological progress. For others this very myth is the reason to idealise the Luddites and their struggle, interpreting them not as opponents to technology as such but rather as bold defenders of an absurdly romanticised artisan lifestyle, with Luddites being opposed to technology harming a not further defined ‘common good’. Often such interpretations compare the historical events without much further deliberation to modern controversial technologies, ignoring that genetic engineering and the introduction of redesigned but still manually operated wooden frames is quite different on a number of levels (not least as one thing happened in a still largely pre-industrial society and the other in what has been described as a post-industrial society).
However, engaging in an analysis of the Luddites can be very interesting and relevant without reverting to mystification. Historical research can always be used to enrich any analysis of contemporary society by understanding its genesis as well as being equally rewarding and useful in itself. The superficial research which resulted in this article already generated two theses which could become the basis of an analysis which could be used to work towards both of the aforesaid aims. Firstly it would be interesting to examine Luddism as a crucial episode in the decline of the system of domestic production and its replacement by industrial production, i.e. in the process of the genesis of what later became the Victorian proletariat. Secondly gender apparently played a major role in the event as there is evidence that Luddism also has to be understood as an attempt to defend a certain concept of masculinity, i.e. that of the artisan patriarch.
The upcoming 200th Anniversary of the first declaration, written in the name of Ned Ludd, will be an excellent opportunity to research and revaluate the Luddites, be it in trying to understand them within their historical context or in debating their legacy and relevance for us.
The next year will most likely see a number of events dedicated to Luddism – See you then.
PLEASE SEE BELOW for a more detailed deliberation of my yet vague ideas/theses/research question(s):
Firstly, Luddism strikes as being a crucial episode in the decline of the system domestic production of commodities and its replacement by industrial production. It is therefore crucial in an analysis of a process described as ‘proletarisation’, basically meaning the gradual loss of access to any ressources necessary to reproduce one’s labour other than wage labour. Whereas e.g. smallholders users’ rights to common fields helped contribute to satisfy basic needs such as fuel and food, a Victorian factory ‘hand’ was totally dependent to satisfy these needs with wages, procured by selling her/his labour. Domestic production is a mode of production differing from both forms. The workers are not yet proletarians as they do not sell their labour but commodities produced in their homes or small workshops whilst having limited access to other resources, e.g. tiny plots of land in rural areas. But they are far from being able to sustain self-sufficiency even for the most basic needs. They also did not own any means of production necessary to produce e.g. hosiery commodities. The frames were far too expensive to buy, forcing framework knitters to rent frames from hosiers who ‘controlled virtually every aspect of the hosiery trade’ and often even owned the families’ homes.
Secondly, it seems to be highly interesting to research the gender dimension of the Luddites. According to a letter to the Home Office, part of the grievances voiced by male framework knitters was the employment of women to operate the new frames in workshops, whereas before women and children would often spinning yarn and finish the hose whilst their husbands/fathers were operating the frames. To these men female workers operating the frames may have been challenging their construct of masculinity as it can be assumed that the very same was partly based on the (self-)perception as a ‘skilled’ worker, distinguished from their wives and children performing ‘unskilled’ tasks. It could also be interesting to evaluate whether or not two other patterns can be observed in these historical events which occurred in other industries which seized to be ‘men’s work’: a decrease in wages and a decrease of the occupational status. Printing and administrative work are two classic examples in which gender changes occurred, in the former industry the pendulum even swung twice, first seizing to be men’s work and then becoming it again. But this comparison has to be used cautiously, as the workforce in both fields of employment already was fully proletarised (unlike framework knitting – see above). In both industries the occupational status decreased when suddenly perceived as ‘women’s work’. This phenomenon could have influenced discourse regarding the hosiery trade and the arguments of Luddites themselves which lengthily referred to the low quality ‘cut-ups’ decreasing the status of the trade and not being the result of proper skilled work (good quotes needed). It would have to be established whether the relative decrease in the income of framework knitters can also be connected an increase in the number of women operating frames. Research already undertaken clearly demonstrated the vast gender gap in rates paid in the trade.