Who were the Luddites?
Luddites were weavers and other textile workers who destroyed machinery that they thought was putting them out of work.
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Background to the attacks on machinery that began
- In 1811 Britain was at war with France, a war that had been going on for eighteen years.
- On result of the war was that the quantity of Britain's overseas trade had fallen. Consequently, some emplyers had cut their workers' wages or sacked them.
- Poor harvests made a difficult situation worse and food riots took place in various parts of the country.
- In Carlisle, soldiers fired on men, women and children who had broken into a warehouse to get food. One woman was killed!
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Introducing the new machines...
- Employers had introduced new machines called stocking-frames, which could produce goods more cheaply than people could. As a result, workers lost their jobs or had their wages cut. The workers who had lost their job ganged together at night to smash the hated frames. They left threatening messages signed by General Ludd, who was rumoured to live in Sherwood Forest, although there was no such man.
- The attcks spread to Lancashire and Yorkshire. In April, 1812, 150 armed Luddites attacked Rawfolds Mill, owned by Edmund Cartwright. Cartwright had been expecting the attack. As the Luddites tried to batter down the mill doors, his men opened fire. Two attackers were killed and the rest retreated.
- The local authorities and the government horrified by the French Revolution of the 1790s feared that a revolution was about to take place in Britain.
- A law was passed making frame-breaking punishable by death. 17 Luddites were executed - they became heroes to the local people.
- Despite the government's fears there were probably few revolutionaries among the Luddites. Most were ordinary working people, frightened by poverty.
- In 1813, the economic situation was improving. Food became cheaper and trade improved, increasing the number of jobs and level of wages. Luddism faded away, although this was not the end of protests about unemployment.
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Luddism - the Main events
- 1811 - Stocking-frames smashed in Nottingham
- 1812 - March - breaking of frames in Yorkshire
- 1812 - April - attacks on mills, including Cartwright's Rawfolds mill and William Horsfall, mill owner, murdered.
- 1812 - May - Spencer Perceval, Prime minister, was assassinated. Rumours of armed men gathering on northern moors. Thousands of soldiers sent to calm areas of Luddism.
- 1813 - Seventeen Luddites executed: Three for murder of Horsfall, five for the attack of Rawfolds Mill, and nine for seizing weapons in raids on villages.
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