Luddites. Be honest. What comes to mind when you read that word? Backwards, parochial sillies from the Days of Yore who smashed up machinery because they couldn’t handle the inevitable march of progress? Or maybe you think of the modern application of the term, the sort of faux-lo-fi hippies who complain “Gosh, GPS means no-one reads maps any more” (Google Maps is a map, Phillip, it’s in the name), or “I don’t have a TV, too many screens are bad for you” (What’s that, Phillip, a laptop? On which you are watching Netflix? YOU, SIR, HAVE A TV). Well stand back, internet, for I’ve been making a live show about the Luddite Rebellion, and am here to take a sledgehammer of research to the knitting machinery of your preconceptions.
1) They liked, and used, technology.
The Luddites were predominately workers in the textile industry, specifically stocking makers who made goods on a device called a stocking frame. This machine was invented in the mid-1600s and was the same kind of machine as the ones they were destroying over the course of the Luddite Rebellion (around 1811-1817). So what the hell was all this punk-ass smashing of shit about? Well, as Eric Hobsbawm writes, the destruction of machinery actually happened a long time after, and before, the Luddite Rebellion:
“the Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire Luddites were using attacks upon machinery, whether new or old, as a means of coercing their employers into granting them concessions with regard to wages and other matters. This sort of wrecking was a traditional and established part of industrial conflict in the period of the domestic and manufacturing system, and the early stages of factory and mine. It was directed not only against machines, but also against raw material. finished goods and even the private property of employers, depending on what sort of damage these were most sensitive to.”
The Luddites were specifically targeting the assets of major industrialists, whatever they were. More Eric:
“The Lancashire machine-wreckers…distinguished clearly between spinning-jennies of twenty-four spindles or less, which they spared, and larger ones, suitable only for use in factories, which they destroyed.”
Their objection wasn’t to machines, but their use for mass production of shoddy goods, with the help of cheap labour, with the surplus value being hived off to a tiny business elite. Good thing that doesn’t happen any more, EH FOLKS?
2) They had a pretty great sense of humour (and branding)
The Luddites had a major advantage in that their leader, referred to as “General Ludd” or “King Ludd” was a fictional character, and thus he could never be captured or killed by the establishment. This didn’t stop numerous government agents and officials being completely convinced he was real, and investing phenomenal effort and energy in seeking his capture. The Luddites would stoke this paranoia as much as possible, writing letters to the authorities signed “Ned Ludd’s Office, Sherwood Forest”. The local militiamen, of which 12,000 were deployed at the peak of the rebellion, started having full-on hallucinations of his appearance. According to one account “a militiaman reported spotting the dreaded general with ‘a pike in his hand, like a serjeant’s halbert,’ and a face that was a ghostly unnatural white.” The Luddites also knew how to get the right image for the Instagram of the 1810s (which was… just looking at things), wearing black handkerchiefs over their faces like your favourite screamo-rappers and giant, matching sledgehammers named “Great Enoch” after the blacksmith who made them.
3) They liked to drag it up every once in a while
One raid in Stockport was led by two men in women’s clothing claiming to be “Ned Ludd’s Wives”. Nobody really knows why or what it meant. I just love sharing this fact.
4) Their cause was backed by Lord Byron
The bisexual, drug addled, bear-owning legend himself took part in a debate in the House of Lords over a bill to regulate the stocking trade so that shoddy goods wouldn’t flood the market place. Although he condemned the violence of the Luddites, he went on to a sweeping and impassioned condemnation of the economic and political conditions in the North of England that had caused it, claiming it to be worse than any territory under the Ottoman Empire that he’d recently visited. As he later described it: “I spoke very violent sentences with a sort of modest impudence, abused everything and everybody, put the Lord Chancellor very much out of humour, and if I may believe what I hear, have not lost any character in the experiment”. Just another day at the office for the B-man.
5) Their rebellion got quite close to civil war.
As the first restrictions on gun ownership and usage didn’t enter the British law books until the following decade, everyone and their mums were packing heat in the 1810s. The Luddites weren’t afraid to use them either: raids where merchants refused to give up their machines often broke out into gun fights. Over time, as soldiers flooded into the North, what started as (an admittedly extreme form of) collective workplace bargaining through direct action took on more and more of the shape of open revolt. Discontent hit a high-water mark in the first half of 1812, when the prime minister was assassinated, two pitched battles happened near mills in Lancashire, and riots in big cities became almost weekly occurrences. The ensuing government crackdown was as reasonable as you’d expect from Lord Liverpool, the super chill guy who once said “France is our natural enemy ; she is more so as a republic than as a monarchy”. As well as making the breaking of stocking frames a capital offence (better not accidentally knock something over at work guys), Liverpool’s government passed the Six Acts, which removed the right to bail for people under arrest, outlawed public meetings of more than 50 people, banned anti-government writings and heavily taxed newspapers. The Six Acts were not fully repealed until 2008. So in a very real way, we still live in a world the Luddites created. Fortunately, though, we’ve resolved all the issues about automation, capitalism and state power combining to create poverty and chaos, so THAT’S ALL FINE.
Jack’s aforementioned live show opens at Exeter Phoenix on the 26th & 27th of September and the Civic, Barnsley on the 29th of September. He will not be breaking any theatre lighting or sound equipment. Not deliberately, at least.