This week we hear from guest author Mike Harwood, who tells the fascinating story of Luddite activities in Liversedge, part-way between Leeds and Huddersfield – a story that “should be of interest to anyone interested in West Yorkshire – especially its industrial history”…
‘”You’re a Luddite, Mr Brook,” said the headmaster.’
And The Chambers Dictionary has this to say of Luddites: ‘One of a band of protesters against unemployment who destroyed machinery in English factories about 1812-18, hence any opponent of technological innovation, etc.’
More crudely it’s is now commonly used to mean anyone opposed to progress – but in the nineteenth as in the twenty-first century different people may have different notions of what is to be seen as progress? But the Luddites should be of interest to anyone interested in West Yorkshire – especially its industrial history. Take a trip to Liversedge – not far from Huddersfield – an hour’s bus-ride from Leeds. There, walk up the Halifax Road and you will come to a pub – The Shears Inn – and on its outside wall find a plaque. This is in part what it says:
‘THE SHEARS INN
This historic pub stands on an ancient route: a Roman road, then a packhorse way, and by 1740 the turnpike from Wakefield to Halifax….
Owned by the Jackson family whose cropping shop was further up Halifax Road, the building became an alehouse in 1803. Landlord James Lister was also a Sherriff’s Officer. The Shears’ beer was popular with thirsty croppers. When newly-invented machines replaced their skilled manual jobs, some croppers met in an upstairs room here. They took the Luddite oath of secrecy and plotted to destroy the machinery to save their livelihood.’
Most famously, in Yorkshire, in April 1812 Luddites attacked Cartwright’s mill at Rawfolds (just up the road from the pub. The attack failed…. On 22 January 1813, 14 Luddites were hanged outside the gates of York Castle, in two batches of seven at a time, five of them for their part in the attack on Cartwright’s Mill. In total, within two weeks, 17 were charged, tried and hanged; and 7 transported. The plaque concludes: ‘Their families were left destitute. By 1820 the job of cropping by hand had gone but “to come a cropper” and “Luddite” live on.’
Perhaps, all the struggle of the Luddites achieved on the face of it, was to highlight what the historian E P Thompson has called, ‘a sad end to an honourable craft’, to ‘a skill that was simply extinguished’. And, he writes, quoting an 1841 source, ‘In 1814, there were 1,733 croppers in Leeds, all in full employment, and now, since the introduction of machinery, the whole of the cloth is dressed by a comparatively small number, chiefly boys at from 5s to 8s.’ The croppers were driven to seek employment at anything they could get to do: some acting as bailiffs, water-carriers, scavengers, or selling oranges, cakes, tapes and laces. 
There is now a statue some 400 yards down the road from the pub, erected by the Spen Valley Civic Society, on a corner in Sparrow Park, in commemoration of the Luddites. A plaque there notes:
‘At a time when to be out of work meant starvation workers met in secret at the Shears in Hightown and made their plans for smashing machinery. Croppers [shearers]were central to this. They used hand-held shears to trim the nap from cloth. But a machine could do the work of four men. This statue depicts a defiant cropper in Jackson’s Cropping , ‘shop’ at the corner of Aquila Lane (Hare Park Lane – as it is now). A family man, he has just heard that William Cartwright has ordered more of the infernal shearing frames for his Rawfolds Mill. Around midnight 12th April 1812 all hell broke loose when 150 Luddites attacked the mill with hammers and axes. Two men were shot and the attack was repulsed. Men carrying their wounded may have fled via Knowler Hill. Seventeen Luddites were later hanged at York.’
An information board next to the statue tells what life was like for a worker such as a cropper, even when there was work – poor, cramped housing with no electricity, gas, tap water or bathroom; the toilet ‘a wooden seat over a hole in the ground with ashes to cover your poo’; education for their children confined to bible reading in Sunday School until a National School was built in 1818 and even then the child was more likely to be working in the mill or down the pit than attending school. The board gives some figures: ‘In 1812 more than a million children worked, a third of whom were seven to ten-year. Many worked six days a week up to 12 hours a day, from as young as five…..Until 1842, some children under ten worked underground in coal mines. Children could be hurriers ….pulling the heavy tubs of coal…[And young boys having to climb up and down chimneys as sweeps was not just a jolly fantasy of Charles Kingsley in The Water Babies]. And so it goes on; the diet of these workers, their danger from disease, travel for the poor by walking; and graphically on. Come and read it for yourselves. With the pay which they received when there was work, there were no savings for the even harder times; if a worker lost his job there was no social benefit of any kind; beyond charity and his family and friends (no doubt in the same position), real destitution for him and his family threatened.
The term ‘Luddite’, some might think, could alternatively be seen to signify something like ‘one who acts in defence of family and way of life’.
To return to the name itself. The name and organisation of the Luddites is shrouded in some secrecy and mystery: hardly surprising when the possible consequence of involvement, as we have seen, is considered. The movement was led by ‘Ned’, sometimes ‘King’, sometimes General Ludd, as in the Luddite song:
‘Though the Bayonet is fixed they can do no good
As long as we keep up the rules of General Ludd.’
But there is no such person now identifiable by the name ‘Ludd’. One suggestion has been that the name was taken from that of a weaver, from Anstey, near Leicester, who, in 1779, being whipped by his master for idleness, smashed two knitting frames in a fit of passion.
The obscurity of the Luddite organisation was aided by the Luddite oath of secrecy. The use of such an oath was much commoner in that more religious period, when its divine sanctification was widely accepted; especially relied upon by an organisation such as the Luddites, widely infiltrated by government spies, its breach more likely to be punished by fellow workers; and public identification possibly the first step on the way to the gallows or transportation.
The Luddites had no chance of halting the march of the Industrial Revolution as it came to known and which was then in full swing. They did hope, a hope perhaps often enough found in present-times of rapid technological change, to gain a more sensitive implementation of the changes such as the replacement of men by machines.
In Shirley, Charlotte Bronte’s novel which is set in the times of and includes scenes inspired by the attack on Cartwright’s (Robert Moore’s) mill, the following earlier confrontation takes place between Moore and one of the workers:
‘Ye’re a raight hard un’ returned the workman. ‘Willn’t ye gie us a bit o’time? Willn’t ye consent to mak your changes rather more slowly?’
‘Am I the whole body of clothiers in Yorkshire? Answer me that.
….If I stopped by the way an instant, while others are rushing on, I should be trodden down. If I did as you wish me to do, I should be bankrupt in a month.’
The Luddites were driven on by two sentiments: first, as we have seen by the attempt to give themselves and their families some protection against the possibility of actual destitution. Secondly, at a more pervasive level, the development of the factory system of mass production – perhaps the central feature of the Industrial Revolution, made possible by all the other inventions and developments – was seen to be an attack on the very ethical and social basis underpinning society and which had been the understanding for hundreds of years. In the words of E P Thompson, perhaps one of the first historians to give a part on the stage of history to ordinary workers:
‘In this light, the conventional picture of the Luddism of these years as blind opposition to machinery as such becomes less tenable. What was at issue was the “freedom” of the capitalist to destroy the customs of the trade, whether by new machinery, by the factory system, or by unrestricted competition, beating down wages, undercutting his rivals and undermining standards of craftsmanship. ….The tradition of the just price and the fair wage lived longer among “the lower orders” than is sometimes supposed.… They could see no natural law by which one man, or a few men, could engage in practices which brought manifest injury to their fellows.’
11 February 2018
Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class, (Pelican Books, Middlesex,1968)
Reid, Robert Land of Lost Content The Luddite Revolt, 1812, (Heinemann, London, 1986)
Peel, Frank The Risings of the Luddites Chartists and Plug Drawers, , (4thed, 1968. Frank Cass & Co, London); Introduction by E P Thompson.
Thomis, Macolm I The Luddites Machine-breaking in Regency England, (David & Charles, 1970, Newton Abbot, Devon)
Bronte, Charlotte Shirley (Wordsworth Classics, Ware Hertfordshire, 2009)
Fearn, Christy Framed: A historical novel about the revolt of the Luddites, (2013, Open Books)
 Common Ground, Andrew Cowan [1997, Penguiin Books, London]
 Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd, Edinburgh, 2003
 The croppers were not the only workers, nor Yorkshire the only area, involved in the Luddite struggles; see for example ‘Framework Knitting to Nottingham Lace: https://www.frameworkknittersmuseum.org.uk/about-us/history/
 See Land of Lost Content; The Luddite Revolt, 1812, Robert Reid (Heinemann, London, 1986), p 266. The Destruction of Stocking Frames Act of 1812, passed in response to the Luddite activity, made the damaging of frames and entering property with intent to damage frames into capital offences, though all the death sentences were imposed under existing laws.
 See E P Tompson The Making of the English Working Class [Penguin Books, 1982, London], pp 600 -603.
 Shirley, Charlotte Bronte (Wordsworth Classics, 2009) pp 104, 105.
 E P Thompson (Above, note 5) p 600.
3 Comments Add yours
The Brontes father was a curate in the area and the unrest left a lielong impression on him so much so that he fired a pistol outside before retiring to bed every night
Spen Valley Civic Society have produced a Luddite Trail leaflet which takes in the locations mentioned in the blog.
Download it hrere: https://www.kirklees.gov.uk/leisure/countryside/pdf/routes/SpenValleyLudditeTrailPart1and2_2015.pdf
Thank you ever so much for the link to that trail leaflet – we’ve printed it out and will add it to our stock here (we have a strong Yorkshire collection, as well as our main Leeds stock). It’s especially interesting to myself, having grown up in Roberttown, just down the street from the Star Inn!
Leeds Central Library