Luddites and the Law

Over the last couple of decades as the rate of change in information technology has accelerated, it’s become fashionable for some to claim with pride and others to award with scorn the title of Luddite. As it happens, this March marks the bicentennial of the real Luddite uprising in the north of England. Richard Conniff has written a piece, “What the Luddites Really Fought Against,” that’s available on Smithsonian.com, correcting the misunderstandings that most of us have about who these followers of Ludd actually were and why they took to breaking machines.

Some facts surprised me: there was no Ludd — he was a mythical person adopted by the protesters as an elusive general and an effective propaganda weapon; Luddites often paraded in women’s clothing, styling themselves General Ludd’s Wives; and they used specially-made sledge hammers to break up the weaving frames, both made by the same man, Enoch. There’s a peculiarly Yorkshire sense of humour and irony running through much of what the Luddites did, even though they were dead earnest in their aims.

I had some notion that the protesters were upset at the mechanization of the textile factories where they worked, but I didn’t know that the Luddites were themselves quite adept at the use of cloth-making technology: this wasn’t a struggle about hand-made versus machine-made fabric, but rather, as I should have guessed, a fight about factory owners’ bad labour practices at a time of general privation. And a fight it was: at one point the British government had more of the army arrayed against the protesters than it did in the field against Napoleon.

So concerned was the government that it produced legislation making the breaking of textile machinery an offence punishable by death. I was curious about this draconian statute, the Frame Work Act of 1812 (28 Geo 3 c.55); and in case you are, too, you can examine it in various formats: the original photocopied; legible, i.e. modernized, text of the original; and, just below, the legible text arranged by me into blocks to compensate for the lack of paragraphing:

    An Act for the more exemplary Punishment of Persons destroying or injuring any Stocking or Lace Frames, or other Machines or Engines used in the Framework knitted Manufactory, or any Articles or Goods in such Frames or Machines; to continue in force until the First Day of March One thousand eight hundred and fourteen.

    28 G. 3. c. 55.

    Cutting or destroying Framework knitted Pieces, &c. or Machines used in Manufacture.
    Death.

    WHEREAS the Provisions of an Act of the Twenty eighth Year of the Reign of His present Majesty, intituled An Act for the better and more effectual Protection of Stocking Frames and the Machines or Engines annexed thereto or used therewith, and for the Punishment of Persons destroying or injuring of such Stocking Frames, Machines or Engines, and the Framework knitted Pieces, Stockings, and other Articles and Goods used and made in the Hosiery or Framework knitted Manufactory, or breaking or destroying any Machinery contained in any Mill or Mills used or in any way employed in preparing or spinning of Wool or Cotton for the Use of the Stocking Frame , have been found ineffectual:

    And whereas such Outrages have for some time past been carried on to an alarming Extent;

    it is therefore necessary that more effectual Provisions should be made against such unlawful Practices, and for preventing such Outrages, and bringing Offenders therein to exemplary Justice; and that such Provisions should be extended to the Frame- work Lace Manufactory, against which similar Outrages have been committed:

    May it therefore please Your Majesty that it may be enacted; and be it enacted by the King’s Most Excellent Majesty, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the Authority of the same, That

    • if any Person or Persons

      • shall, by Day or by Night, enter by Force into any House, Shop or Place,

        ▫ with an Intent to cut or destroy any Framework knitted Pieces, Stockings or Lace, or other Articles or Goods being in the Frame, or upon any Machine or Engine thereto annexed, or therewith to be used or prepared for that Purpose;

        ▫ or with an Intent to break or destroy any Frame, Machine, Engine, Tool, Instrument or Utensil, used in and for the working and making of any such Framework knitted Pieces, Stockings, Lace, or other Articles or Goods in the Hosiery or Framework knitted Manufactory; or

      • shall wilfully and maliciously, and without having the Consent or Authority of the Owner, destroy, or cut with an Intent to destroy or render useless, any Framework knitted Pieces, Stockings, Lace, or other Articles or Goods being in the Frame, or upon any Machine or Engine as aforesaid, or prepared for that Purpose; or

      • shall wilfully and maliciously, and without having the Consent or Authority of the Owner, break, destroy or damage with an Intent to destroy or render useless any Frame, Machine, Engine, Tool, Instrument or Utensil used in and for the working and making of any such Framework knitted Pieces, Stockings, Lace, or other Articles or Goods in the Hosiery or Framework knitted Stocking, or Framework Lace Manufactory; or

      • shall wilfully and maliciously, and without having the Consent or Authority of the Owner, break or destroy any Machinery contained in any Mill or Mills used or any way employed in preparing or spinning of Wool or Cotton, or other Materials for the Use of the Stocking or Lace Manufactory,

    • every Offender being thereof lawfully convicted shall be adjudged guilty of Felony , and shall suffer Death, as in cases of Felony without Benefit of Clergy.

It happened that Lord Byron made his maiden speech in the House of Lords opposing this legislation. As you might imagine, it makes for interesting reading. I’ve set out the last few sentences here:

Sure I am from what I have heard, and from what I have seen, that to pass the Bill under all the existing circumstances, without enquiry, without deliberation, would only be to add injustice to irritation, and barbarity to neglect. The framers of such a Bill must be content to inherit the honours of that Athenian lawgiver whose edicts were said to be written not in ink but in blood. But suppose it past; suppose one of these men, as I have seen them,—meagre with famine, sullen with despair, careless of a life which your lordships are perhaps about to value at something less than the price of a stocking-frame—suppose this man surrounded by the children for whom he is unable to procure bread at the hazard of his existence, about to be torn for ever from a family which he lately supported in peaceful industry, and which it is not his fault that he can no longer so support, suppose this man, and there are ten thousand such from whom you may select your Victims, dragged into court, to be tried for this new offence, by this new law; still, there are two things wanting to convict and condemn him; and these are, in my opinion,—Twelve Butchers for a Jury, and a Jefferies for a Judged!

From what I understand, no one was ever convicted under this act, even though it was kept in force past the “sunset” date provided for in the original; though a fair number of protesters were hanged under other laws and, of course, many were shot by soldiers.

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Comments

  1. This is great – thanks for it. Can’t help but imagine a universe where more Parliamentarians had Lord Byron’s rhetorical skill; question period would be far more entertaining.

  2. A slight correction: note that the Frame Work Bill (which was signed into law as the Destruction of Stocking Frames, etc. Act 1812) has the index “52 Geo 3 c.16″.

    “28 Geo 3 c.55″ in fact refers to the previous Act referred to in the preamble of the newer Act (specifically the Protection of Stocking Frames, etc. Act 1788).