The Luddites and Charlotte Brontë eText - Primary Source

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The Luddites

Various documents attributed to the Luddites

Delivered in 1811

Charlotte Brontë

Excerpt from Shirley, a Tale

Published in 1849

"Misery generates hate."

—Charlotte Brontë

The introduction of newly invented water- or steam-powered machinery into England's textile industry, starting in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, had a major impact on workers right from the beginning. People skilled at making yarn or fabric with traditional hand-operated spinning machines or looms soon discovered that with the new equipment, one or two workers could produce the same amount of yarn or cloth as a dozen or more workers using the old machines. With fewer workers needed to produce the same amount of goods, jobs in textiles became harder to find. In 1811 near Nottingham, England, a group of workers who made knee-high stockings that were commonly worn with short trousers (called breeches) reacted to these changes by breaking into factories and wrecking the new machines. The vandals came to be known as "Luddites," a word that has come to mean people who reject technical innovation.

The original Luddites also criticized owners of the new machines for replacing highly skilled workers with people with far less training or experience, even though the machines had taken over some of the skilled tasks needed to make yarn and fabric by hand. (In their letters of protest, the Luddites often referred to the new equipment as "frames," a reference to the fact that fabric looms looked like the outside edges of a hollow box, on which yarn was strung for weaving or knitting. Knitting and weaving are two different techniques for making fabric from yarn.) Unskilled people were willing to work for lower wages than the skilled workers, which resulted in a reduction in wages for everyone in the textile industry.

At first, factory owners ignored the protests. In frustration, some workers turned to violence, destroying the new machines they blamed for their economic problems. The vandals sent letters signed with the name "General Ned Ludd" (or variations of this name, such as Nedd Lud and Edward Ludd). Some historians think Ned Ludd was the name of an actual person, a man of limited intelligence who lived in the area of Leicestershire, England, around 1779. According to a story told about him, after being teased by village boys he chased his tormentors into a house. There, in frustration, he wrecked two machines used for making stockings. Other historians say that Ned Ludd was a real person involved in the antimachine riots. Still others insist that Ned Ludd was a fictitious character, a pseudonym (false name) used to disguise the identity of the letter writers.

What the authors of the Luddite letters had in common was an evidently limited education, which was not surprising since children as young as eight often stopped school and went to work helping their parents spin yarn at home, or later, to operate machines in the newly built factories. The Luddite letters reflect a degree of illiteracy and irregular spelling. In some cases, they are attempts to mimic formal legal documents.

Although the Luddites could not write perfect English, they were well organized. Their attacks on factories were not just random riots; they were planned, and often factory owners received threats in advance.

This collection of documents illustrates several sides of the Luddites. The first document is a threat against a specific owner of new textile machines. It is written to sound like an official document, perhaps the writer's notion of a formal legal indictment (accusation), even though it was doubtless drawn up by workers who had no official standing.

The second document is a Luddite oath. Many of these documents were collected by local officials and sent to the British parliament in London as a warning that trouble was brewing among textile workers. The oath indicates that the Luddites were an organized group that had specific goals, including keeping the names of members a secret.

The third document is from a fragment of a paper that was delivered as a threat against a factory owner. It shows both the intent of the Luddites and the limited education of most workers in the era. (Because it is only a fragment, it contains some breaks that do not make immediate sense.)

The fourth document is a letter from unemployed knitters to hosiery manufacturers in Nottingham, England. It was written early in the Luddite uprising and lays out the complaints of the workers.

The fifth document is a fragment of a follow-up letter, purportedly written by Ned Ludd, one month after the previous letter from the knitters, warning that unless the stocking makers take action, they will have to face the consequences.

The last document is an excerpt from the 1849 novel Shirley, a Tale, by Charlotte Brontë (1816–1855). This fictional account, written almost forty years after the attacks by the Luddites, describes a nighttime raid by disaffected workers, and the determination of a factory owner to protect his property. The main characters in the story are Robert Gerard Moore, who owns a textile factory, and Shirley Keeldar, a woman Moore is courting at least partly to gain access to her inherited fortune. The other two characters in this passage are Mr. Malone, a curate (assistant clergyman), and Caroline Helstone, a teenage friend of Shirley Keeldar. In the passage, Moore is waiting for some new machines to be delivered, ready to protect them from an attack by Luddites. Shirley and her friend Caroline are at home, not far from the factory, listening to the sounds of the attack that soon came.

Things to remember while reading various Luddite documents and the excerpt from Charlotte Brontë's Shirley, a Tale:

  • At the time of the Luddite movement, England was fighting a war against Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821), the emperor of France who was intent on spreading French power and influence throughout Europe. This war had a negative effect on the English economy and made the conditions of textile workers even more difficult. The promise of the new machines was to sell more cloth to customers worldwide, but trading opportunities were limited during the war against France. The result was widespread unemployment among textile workers, who blamed their woes on the new machines rather than on the restraints on foreign trade caused by the war with France.
  • Britain's war with France made the Luddites seem especially threatening. The French Revolution (1789–99) had advocated equality for all men, whereas political power in England was still limited to property owners. Some people in England saw the Luddites as people who wanted to stage a revolution similar to the French Revolution, and for that reason the government was quick to come down hard on the Luddites, dispatching troops to maintain order.
  • Many, or most, textile workers in 1811 did not know how to read or write. This illiteracy is reflected in some of the Luddite documents reproduced here. On the other hand, some of the documents reflect an effort to mimic legal documents, using terms such as whereas, enjoin, adjudge, and forfeited. The original spelling and appearance of the documents has been preserved here.

Luddite letter threatening an owner of textile machines

Declaration; Extraordinary.


Death, or Revenge.

To our well-beloved Brother, and Captain in Chief, Edward Ludd.

Whereas, it hathbeen represented to us: the General Agitators, for the Northern Counties, assembled to redress the Grievances of the Operative Mechanics, That Charles Lacy, of the Town of Nottingham, British Lace Manufacturer, has been guilty of divers fraudulent, and oppressiv, Acts—whereby he has reduced to poverty and Misery Seven Hundred of our beloved Brethren; moreover, it hath been represented to us that the said Charles Lacy, by making fraudulent Cotton Point Nett, of One Thread Stuff, has obtaind the Sum of Fifteen Thousand Pounds, whereby he has ruined the Cotton-Lace Trade, and consequently our worthy and wellbelovd Brethren; whose support and comfort depended on the continuance of that manufacture.

It appeareth to us that the said Charles Lacy was actuated by the most diabolical motives, namely to get rich gain riches by the misery of his Fellow Creatures, we therefore willing to make an example of the said Charles Lacy, do adjudge the said Fifteen Thousand Pounds to be forfeited, and we do hereby authorise, impower, and enjoin you, to command Charles Lacy to disburse the said sum, in equal shares among the Workmen, who made Cotten Nett in the Year 1807, within ten Days from the Date hereof.

In default whereof, we do command that you inflict the Punishment of Death on the said Charles Lacy, and we do authorise you to distribute among the party you may employ for that purpose the Sum of Fifty Pounds, we enjoin you to cause this our Order to be presented to the said Charles Lacy without Delay,

November 1811—By Order Thos Death

A Luddite Oath

I, AB, of my own free will and accord do hereby promise and swear that I will never reveal any of the names of any one of this secret Committee, under the penalty of being sent out of this world by the first Brother that may meet me. I furthermore do swear, that I will pursue with unceasing vengeance any Traitors or Traitor, should there any arise, should he fly to the verge of—I furthermore do swear that I will be sober and faithful, in all my dealings with all my Brothers, and if ever I decline them, my name to be blotted out from the list of Society and never to be remembered, but with contemptand abhorrence, so help me God to keep this our Oath inviolate.

Signed Thomas Broughton.

A Luddite threat

Mr H—[illegible]

at Bullwell


Sir if you do not pull don the Frames

or stop pay [in] Goods onely for work

extra work or m[ake] in Full fashon

my Companey will [vi]sit yr machines

for execution agai[nst] you—

Mr Bolton the Forfeit—

I visitd him—

Ned Lud

Kings [illegible]

An address from the framework knitters to the gentlemen hosiers of the town of Nottingham

Nottinghm—Novembr 28 1811

GENTLEMEN,—At a time like the present, so big with Calamityand Distress, we think it right to solicit your Advice, Aid, and Direction, as we know no Reason why our Business, which is looked upon as the staple Trade, and principal Support of the Community at large, should be exposed to so many Evils, without any suitable means of defence; or if [there are] any, why [they are] not brought forward into exercise. As we have nothing in view but a reciprocal Advantage in the Trade, both for ourselves and you, and a mutual good Understanding in all our Actions, we solicit your Advice, Aid, Direction, and Support, in this time of our Calamity and Distress, and we think we have a humble Claim upon you for it. On account of the great rise of all the Necessaries of Life, a Man that has full employ, with all his industry, and a Woman, with all her care and economy, can by no means support a Family with any degree of Comfort. If this is the Case (which it really is) how deplorable must the situation of those be, that have but a small portion of Employ, and at very low Rates; but still worse, what must the situation of those be that have none at all, which is the Case with incalculable numbers at this time. Destitute of all the Comforts of Life, our only acquaintance is pinching Poverty and pining Want. We wish to live peaceably and honestly by our Labour, and to train up our Children in the paths of virtue and rectitude, but we cannot accomplish our wishes. Our Children, instead of being trained up by a regular course of Education, for social life, virtuous employments, and all the reciprocal advantages of mutual enjoyment, are scarce one remove from the Brute,are left to all the dangerous Evils attendant on an uncultivated Mind, and often fall dreadful Victims to that guilt, which Ignorance is the parent of. But, Gentlemen, we forbear, as we think it would be insulting both to your judgments and feelings, were we to attempt a description of all our Calamities, which you so well know, and which we so much experience. Our request, Gentlemen, is that you will favor us with your best Advice, respecting as Address to Parliament, for the better Regulation of our Trade, and means of defence against future Impositions. Being well assured that the most suitable means lie in the compass of your breasts, we wish to pay all deference to your superior judgments, and are now waiting for your decision, which we hope you will favor us with as soon as possible; that if it meets your views, the Business may be conducted peaceably and in good order, to our mutual Comfort and Advantage.

Follow-up letter (fragment) allegedly written by Ned Ludd, appearing one month after the above communication

Ned Lud Gives Notic, to the Coperation [Ned Ludd Gives Notice to the Corporation]

if the Coperation does not take means to Call A

Meeting with the Hoseiars about the prices Being—

Droped Ned will asemble 20000 Menn together in a few Days

and will Destroy the town in Spite of the Soldiers—

no King—

Excerpt from Charlotte Brontë's Shirley, a Tale

The "Orders in Council," provoked by Napoleon's Milan and Berlin decrees, and forbidding neutral powers to trade with France, had, by offending America, cut off the principal market of the Yorkshire woollen trade, and brought it consequently to the verge of ruin. Minor foreign markets were glutted, and would receive no more: the Brazils, Portugal, Sicily, were all overstocked by nearly two years' consumption. At this crisis certain inventions in machinery were introduced into the staple manufactures of the north, which, greatly reducing the number of hands necessary to be employed, threw thousands out of work, and left them without legitimate means of sustaining life. A bad harvest supervened. Distress reached its climax. Endurance, overgoaded, stretched the hand of fraternity to sedition. The throes of a sort of moral earthquake were felt heaving under the hills of the northern counties. But, as is usual in such cases, nobody took much notice. When a food riot broke out in a manufacturing town, when a gig-mill was burnt to the ground, or a manufacturer's house was attacked, the furniture thrown into the streets, and the family forced to flee for their lives, some local measures were or were not taken by the local magistracy; a ring-leader was detected, or more frequently suffered [allowed] to elude detection; newspaper paragraphs were written on the subject, and there the thing stopped. As to the sufferers [workers], whose sole inheritance was labour, and who had lost that inheritance—who could not get work, and consequently could not get wages, and consequently could not get bread—they were left to suffer on; perhaps inevitably left: it would not do to stop the progress of invention, to damage science by discouraging its improvements; the war could not be terminated, efficient relief could not be raised: there was no help then; so the unemployed underwent their destiny—ate the bread and drank the waters of affliction.

Misery generates hate: these sufferers hated the machines which they believed took their bread from them: they hated the buildings which contained those machines; they hated the manufacturers who owned those buildings. In the parish of Briarfield, with which we have at present to do, Hollow's Mill was the place held most abominable; Gerard Moore, in his double character of semi-foreigner and thoroughgoing progressist, the man most abominated. And it perhaps rather agreed with Moore's temperament than otherwise to be generally hated especially when he believed the thing for which he was hated a right and an expedient thing; and it was with a sense of warlike excitement he, on this night, sat in his counting-house waiting the arrival of his frame-laden waggons. Malone's coming and company were, it may be, most unwelcome to him: he would have preferred sitting alone; for he liked a silent, sombre, unsafe solitude: his watchman's musket would have been company enough for him.…

"What are they doing now, Shirley? What is that noise?"

"Hatchets and crowbars against the yard-gates: they are forcing them. Are you afraid?"

"No; but my heart throbs fast; I have a difficulty in standing: I will sit down. Do you feel unmoved?"…

"Shirley—Shirley, the gates are down! That crash was like the felling of great trees. Now they are pouring through. They will break down the mill doors as they have broken the gate: what can Robertdo against so many? Would to God I were a little nearer him—could hear him speak—could speak to him! With my will—my longing to serve him—I could not be a useless burden in his way: I could be turned to some account."

"They come on!" cried Shirley. "How steadily they march in! There is discipline in their ranks—I will not say there is courage: hundreds against tens are no proof of that quality but" (she dropped her voice) "there's suffering and desperation enough amongst them—these goads will urge them forwards."

"Forwards against Robert—and they hate him. Shirley, is there much danger they will win the day?…"

A crash—smash—shiver—stopped their whispers. A simultaneously-hurled volley of stones had saluted the broad front of the mill, with all its windows; and now every pane of every lattice lay shattered and pounded fragments. A yell followed this demonstration—a rioters' yell—a North-of-England—a Yorkshire—a West-Riding—a West-Riding-clothing-district-of Yorkshire rioters' yell. You never heard that sound, perhaps, reader? So much the better for your ears—perhaps for your heart; since, if it rends the air in hate to yourself, or to the men or principles you approve, the interests to which you wish well. Wrath wakens to the cry of Hate: the Lion shakes his mane, and rises to the howl of the Hyena: Caste stands up ireful against Caste; and the indignant, wronged spirit of the Middle Rank bears down in zeal and scorn on the famished and furious mass of the Operativeclass. It is difficult to be tolerant—difficult to be just—in such moments.

Caroline rose, Shirley put her arm round her: they stood together as still as the straight stems of two trees. That yell was a long one, and when it ceased, the night was yet full of the swaying and murmuring of a crowd.

"What next?" was the question of the listeners. Nothing came yet. The mill remained mute as a mausoleum.

Shots were discharged by the rioters. Had the defenders waited for this signal? It seemed so. The hitherto inert and passive mill

woke: fire flashed from its empty window-frames; a volley of musketry pealed sharp through the Hollow.

"Moore speaks at last!" said Shirley, "and he seems to have the gift of tongues; that was not a single voice."

"He has been forbearing; no one can accuse him of rashness," alleged Caroline: "their discharge preceded his: they broke his gates and his windows; they fired at his garrison before he repelled them."

What was going on now? It seemed difficult, in the darkness, to distinguish, but something terrible, a still-renewing tumult, was obvious: fierce attacks, desperate repulses; the mill-yard, the mill itself, was full of battle movements: there was scarcely any cessation now of the discharge of firearms; and there was struggling, rushing, trampling, and shouting between. The aim of the assailants seemed to be to enter the mill, that of the defendants to beat them off. They heard the rebel leader cry, "To the back, lads!" They heard a voice retort, "Come round, we will meet you!"

"To the counting-house!" was the order again.

"Welcome! We shall have you there!" was the response. And accordingly, the fiercest blaze that had yet glowed, the loudest rattle that had yet been heard, burst from the counting-house front, when the mass of rioters rushed up to it.…

The rioters had never been so met before. At other mills they had attacked, they had found no resistance; an organised, resolutedefence was what they never dreamed of encountering. When their leaders saw the steady fire kept up from the mill, witnessed the composure and determination of its owner, heard themselves coolly defied and invited on to death, and beheld their men falling wounded round them, they felt that nothing was to be done here. In haste, they mustered their forces, drew them away from the building: a roll was called over, in which the men answered to figures instead of names: they dispersed wide over the fields, leaving silence and ruin behind them. The attack, from its commencement to its termination, had not occupied an hour.…

The mill yawned all ruinous with unglazed frames; the yard was thickly bestrewn with stones and brickbats, and, close under the mill, with the glittering fragments of the shattered windows, muskets and other weapons lay here and there; more than one deep crimson stain was visible on the gravel; a human body lay quiet on its face near the gates; and five or six wounded men writhed and moaned in the bloody dust.

Miss [Shirley] Keeldar's countenance changed at this view: it was the after-taste of the battle, death and pain replacing excitement and exertion: it was the blackness the bright fire leaves when its blaze is sunk, its warmth failed, and its glow faded.

What happened next …

In 1812 the Luddite movement spread to other areas of Britain where new looms had been introduced. The British government was quick to react. In 1812 Parliament passed the Frame Breaking Act, making wrecking of machinery a capital offense, meaning that people convicted of doing so could be executed. Twelve thousand troops were sent to the affected areas to guard factories.

Some factory owners hired armed men to guard their property. In one case, in Yorkshire, at least two Luddites were killed while attacking a factory. A few days later, the owner of another factory was killed. Fourteen workers were hanged for attacking the first factory, and three others were executed for murdering the factory owner in the second case.

Over time, the Luddite movement died out as workers became discouraged. The number of new spinning machines and looms continued to increase, and there was no evidence that wrecking them was going to slow the progress of the Industrial Revolution. The last attack connected with the Luddite movement occurred in 1817.

Did you know …

The term "Luddite" remains in use today, to describe people opposed to the rapid introduction of new technology, such as computers and the Internet or biotechnology (developing new varieties of grains, for example). Some people have adopted the term "neo-Luddite" (new Luddite) to describe themselves. They argue that new technology should not be adopted without taking into account the costs in disruption of peoples' lives.

On the other hand, some people who call themselves neo-Luddites have embraced technology, arguing that computers linked to the Internet will enable individuals to regain control over their lives, control that was lost when the Industrial Revolution forced many independent workers into factories. The role of technology in society remains a subject of intense debate.

For more information

Bailey, Brian J. The Luddite Rebellion. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Brontë, Charlotte. Shirley, a Tale. 1849. Reprint, Edinburgh, Scotland: J. Grant, 1905.

Sale, Kirkpatrick. Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1995.

Thomis, Malcolm I. The Luddites: Machine-Breaking in Regency England. New York: Schocken Books, 1972.

Web Sites

Binfield, Kevin, ed. "Texts of the Nottinghamshire Luddites" (includes Luddite letter threatening an owner of textile machines, A Luddite threat, An address from the framework knitters to the gentlemen hosiers of the town of Nottingham, and Follow-up letter [fragment] allegedly written by Ned Ludd). MSU RacerNet. (accessed on April 10, 2003).

"A Luddite Oath." A Web of English History. (accessed on April 10, 2003).