Amidst the fervour of the Industrial Revolution there was a violent, albeit brief, revolution against the craft industry known as the Luddite movement. This movement is commonly misrepresented as a defiant foil to technological advancement, but instead it was a sexy bout of 19th Century vigilante guerrilla warfare.
Between 1810 and 1820 the number of textile mills in the UK rose from 2,000 to 14,000. The accession of large-scale industry beckoned the demise of home-based textile businesses, forcing a dependence on the market. Families no longer possessed the means to support themselves as they had before. The Government encouraged this progression, sacrificing domesticity for the industrial machine by that promoting the provision of cheap Irish labour, the privatisation of commons and preventing the forging of unions.
One bleak November night in 1811 a clandestine conglomerate of irate workers rose against the growing industrialisation of craftwork. They daubed their faces with soot and under the cover of night they broke into a Nottingham factory and wrought havoc. Smashing the very machinery that bound them. This was the birth of the Luddite movement.
These assaults swept like a plague through the Midlands, sometimes preceded by ominous letters signed by the enigmatic figurehead Ned Ludd.
A precise account of who Ned Ludd is may never be absent a mist of myth. Thirty years prior Ned had allegedly vandalised two stocking frames and for this he ascended to Luddite royalty. His name was often evoked through imagery of a General or a King, and he was the emblem of righteous destruction in the movement. It was even whispered that Ned shared Sherwood with Robin Hood (separated by a few centuries…).
The movement rapidly spread to Yorkshire. Attempts of interference from the Government were staunched by the support of locals, who ardently refused to betray the Luddites. The Prince Regent even offered a £50 reward for information regarding the whereabouts of any Luddite affiliate, but the money remained untouched, not even a whisper broke from the local’s lips. Guerrilla warfare continued to sweep the country.
But in January 1813 the Luddite movement came to a grim halt in York. Sixty-six men were charged by mass trial in York Castle. The majority of these sixty-six had no connection to the movement. The trial was merely a ‘show-trial’, setting a grizzly precedent for dealing with the Luddites.
Many of the men were executed and some were shipped to Australia. The trial at York was brutal and disconsolate. Lord Byron, became one of the few prominent defenders of the Luddites after the callous treatment of the defendants at the York trials.
Now 200 years on, York’s Alternative History have organised a series of events commemorating the Luddite movement aimed at dispelling the notion that Luddism was a backward looking movement concerned only with opposition to technological advancement.