Rage against the machine... how Luddites fought new technology

THIS year marks the 200th anniversary of the Luddite rebellion in West Yorkshire, in which cloth workers smashed the machines they feared were ruining their livelihoods.

A wave of violence spread throughout the north of England in 1812 and the protesters, who came to be known as the “Luddites”, were eventually crushed by thousands of soldiers and their leaders hanged.

To mark the anniversary of the uprising, West Yorkshire Archive Service (WYAS), working with Huddersfield University and Kirklees Museums, has produced a major display focusing on these tumultuous events.

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The rebellion, which inspired poets like Lord Byron and Shelley, is seen by many as the symbolic start of western industrialisation and also marked the beginning of the end of a way of life that had changed little in centuries.

The WYAS display focuses on key local leaders, such as Sir Joseph Radcliffe and the Reverend Hammond Roberson, Luddite figures like the informant, Benjamin Walker, as well as the personal suffering of the widows and children of Luddites who were visited by the Quaker, Thomas Shillitoe, and whose account of these visits has survived.

The Luddites were mainly croppers, a small and highly skilled group of cloth finishers, who, faced with deepening poverty and rising wheat prices, turned their anger on the new cropping machine which they feared would put them out of work.

In 1812, there were numerous violent clashes in and around Huddersfield, including an attack on Rawfolds Mill on April 11 and the ambush and murder of a mill owner, William Horsfal, later that month. This violence led to a crackdown against the protesters culminating in a string of executions at York the following year.

The archive project is being shown at various venues including Halifax Central Library and the Red House Museum, in Gomersal, this month.

“The events of 1812 brought the West Riding into the national spotlight and it is said that at one time there were more troops sent to quell the Luddites than were fighting Napoleon on the Iberian Peninsula,” says Graham Hebblethwaite, chief officer of West Yorkshire Joint Services, which oversees the work of the Archive Service.

Dave King, co-ordinator of forum group Luddites 200, says the Luddites were important for a number of reasons. “There was massive change going on in Britain, we were moving from an agricultural to an industrial economy that displaced a million people. Most protests were about politics but this was about technology and the way the world worked.

“There is this myth that technology means progress and the Luddites challenged this. They have been rubbished by history as idiots and fools for being opposed to progress but that’s not true, they were opposed to ‘all machinery hurtful to commonality’, as their slogan said, but not all machines.”

He believes attitudes have changed in recent years.

“I think the Luddites are being seen in a more sympathetic light. Many people feel that computers and mobile phones have taken over our lives and there has been a re-evaluation of the Luddites. They challenged technology and the way it’s used and that has something to tell us about our own society.”

For more information visit www.archives.wyjs.org.uk