The Luddites were textile workers in Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire, skilled artisans whose trade and communities were threatened by a combination of machines and other practices that had been unilaterally imposed by the aggressive new class of manufacturers that drove the Industrial Revolution.
In Nottinghamshire, where the Luddite attacks began in November 1811, the ‘framework-knitters’ or ‘stockingers’ who produced hosiery using stocking frames had a number of grievances, including wage-cutting, the use of unapprenticed youths for the same purpose, and the use of the new ‘wide frames’, which produced cheap, inferior quality goods. The fact that the stockingers objected to the latter because they were destroying the reputation of their trade illustrates the conflict between skilled artisans and the free-market/industrial mindset. The undermining of wages and the use of unskilled labour clashed with the existing ‘social contract’ between workers and masters that prescribed ‘customary’ wages that had been maintained by tradition over many decades. Many of the smaller master hosiers supported the stockingers’ demands and some are thought even to have refused to name to the authorities men they knew were involved in the Luddite attacks.
In Yorkshire, the Luddites were led by the croppers, highly skilled finishers of woolen cloth who commanded much higher wages that other workers, and were highly organised. For the past decade they had petitioned Parliament to enforce obsolescent legislation enforcing apprenticeship, and against ‘gig mills’, machines invented in the 16th century which could do part of the croppers’ job. But the greatest threat to them was a more recent invention, the hated shearing frame which eventually almost entirely displaced them over the next ten years. In 1809, under pressure from the manufacturers, Parliament repealed all the old legislation, thus removing the artisans’ last hope of redress for their grievances by legal and democratic means.
The Lancashire cotton weavers and spinners were, like the stockingers, mainly outworkers, producing cloth on hand looms in their own homes and paid by the piece. Their overall conditions and status as artisans had been eroding for several decades, partly as a result of a huge influx into the trade of unapprenticed workers, many of whom had been forced off the land by the Enclosures. The factory system, with its vast mills and steam-powered looms, its long hours of dangerous work and its cheaper cloth that undercut the cottage weavers, was exacerbating their decline.
All these groups of artisans were resisting the ways in which the industrial system degraded the dignity of their trades, turning them into mere factory 'hands'. Although they were outworkers, paid by the piece, for a long time they had managed to maintain a modest and frugal lifestyle in which they had their own independence and other sources of subsistence, eg their own vegetable gardens, and a strong community ethic of mutual aid. This world is sometimes romanticised, and had already been destroyed to a considerable extent by the Enclosures: no doubt their life was far from idyllic. But the strength with which they resisted the industrial system is a measure of how much better it was compares to the harsh new world of factory wage slavery.
This project will include Luddites and those they spoke out or acted against, as well as sympathizers.