Were the Luddites justified in attacking new technology?

Britain was rapidly becoming two nations, rich and poor, because of the Industrial Revolution. During the long war against revolutionary France and Napoleon, Pitt’s government had imposed tough laws against protest and rebellion. Lord Liverpool kept these laws after the wars had ended, and a peace-time army of 25,000 soldiers was used to keep the people in check. This was after all, the age before police.

In 1811 a group of workers formed a secret organisation led by a mysterious ‘King’ Ned Ludd of Sherwood Forest. Whether a man named Ludd existed or not is unknown. Their targets were the wide-frame stocking machines which were causing falling wages and unemployment in the Midlands. Letters were sent to machine owners, demanding the removal of the things.

In the first year of the riots, 1811, over a thousand machines were smashed. The movement spread from Nottinghamshire to Lancashire and Cheshire and later Yorkshire. In March 1812 the desperate authorities sentenced seven Luddites to transportation for life. Force was also used to protect machines – soldiers fought with Luddites at William Cartwright’s mill near Huddersfield, killing two rioters. 12,000 troops were stationed in the west riding of Yorkshire and government agent spied on everyone.

The Leeds Mercury reported that only the machines of owners who had lowered wages were broken. Discipline was strict – the groups had to be secret and free from informers. However the government liked to portray the Luddites as mindless vandals. What else were the machine-breakers to do?

Fourteen Luddites were hanged by 1813. more were transported to Australia and thousands of people were fined. The sever disturbances died down, and the troops were gradually withdrawn, but machine-breaking continued until 1817. Violent action remained an option – one former Luddite, Jeremiah Brandreth, led a rising in Pentrich, Derbyshire in 1817. This was put down with ease by the government and the ringleaders executed.

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