How the Industrial Revolution Gave Rise to Violent 'Luddites'

How the Industrial Revolution Gave Rise to Violent 'Luddites'

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On a late January night in 1812, a mob hell-bent on violence stormed through the door of George Ball’s textile workshop on the outskirts of Nottingham, England. With handkerchiefs tied around their faces, the men slammed their targets with sledgehammers and fled, leaving behind five shattered knitting machines.

The early 1800s was a time of economic upheaval for English hosiers, croppers and weavers. The decade-old Napoleonic Wars had halted trade and caused food shortages. And a change in men’s fashion from stockings to trousers had crippled England’s hosiery industry. On top of it all, the Industrial Revolution sweeping across the English countryside brought with it disruptive technology that allowed workers to produce knitted goods about 100 times faster than by hand.

Claiming to take their orders from a “General Ludd,” the “Luddites” emerged as a violent force against changes in the textile industry. Raids on textile workshops became a nearly nightly occurrence in Nottingham since a labor uprising by highly skilled textile artisans began in November 1811.

“The stocking knitters and lace workers in Nottingham were working in industries that were largely in decline,” says Kevin Binfield, an English professor at Murray State University and editor of Writings of the Luddites. “The masters were slow to react and used the opportunity to reduce wages.” Hit by the economic downturn, merchants cut costs by employing lower-paid, untrained workers to operate machines as the textile industry moved out of individual homes and into mills where hours were longer and conditions more dangerous.

Artisans who had spent years perfecting their craft in apprenticeships protested the use of untrained workers who generally produced inferior products. Many were willing to adapt to the mechanization of the textile industry as long as they shared in the profits. However, they watched as the productivity gains from technology enriched the capitalists, not the workers.

READ MORE: The Industrial Revolution

English textile workers consistently found their efforts to negotiate for pensions, minimum wages and standard working conditions rebuffed. Unable to legally form trade unions or strike, the laborers instead wielded sledgehammers to strike a blow against industrial capitalism in what historian Eric Hobsbawm called “collective bargaining by riot.”

The Legend of 'General Ludd'

Nottingham’s textile workers claimed to be following the orders of a mysterious “General Ludd.” Merchants received threatening letters addressed from “Ned Ludd’s office, Sherwood Forest.” Newspapers reported that Ludd had been a framework knitting apprentice who had been whipped at the behest of his master and took his revenge by demolishing his master’s machine with a hammer.

Ned Ludd, however, was likely no more real than another legendary denizen of Sherwood Forest who fought against injustice, Robin Hood. Mythic though he may have been, Ned Ludd became a folk hero in parts of Nottingham and inspired verses such as:

Chant no more your old rhymes about bold Robin Hood

His feats I but little admire

I will sing the Achievements of General Ludd

Now the Hero of Nottinghamshire

From Nottingham, the Luddite revolt spread during 1812 to the wool industry of Yorkshire and the cotton mills of Lancashire. As the labor movement expanded, it also lost its cohesion and the purity of its economic message. “It differentiated according to region, and even within regions it differed among people in different trades,” Binfield says.

Luddite Protests Grow Violent

The protest also blossomed into violence as it grew in size. In addition to smashing machines, Luddites set mills ablaze and exchanged gunfire with guards and authorities dispatched to protect factories. Four Luddites were shot dead in April 1812 after breaking down the doors of the Rawfolds Mill outside Huddersfield. Weeks later, the laborers exacted revenge by murdering mill owner William Horsfall, who had expressed “his desire to ride up to the saddle girths in Luddite blood,” by shooting him as he rode his own horse.

READ MORE: Are We Living in the Gilded Age 2.0?

With the uprising turning deadly, the British government dispatched 14,000 soldiers to the heart of England to protect factories and quell the violence. More British soldiers were mobilized against their fellow citizens than were in the Duke of Wellington’s army fighting Napoleon on the Iberian Peninsula. After Parliament decreed machine-breaking a capital offense, two dozen Luddites were sent to the gallows, including a 16-year-old boy who had acted as a lookout. Dozens more were banished to Australia.

The measures worked, and the Luddite movement began to dissipate in 1813. Their name, however, endures more than two centuries later. “Luddite” has now become a catch-all term synonymous with “technophobe,” but Binfield says that is a mischaracterization.

“They didn’t object to the use of a new kind of machine," he says, "but to the use of existing machines in ways that reduced wages and produced shoddy clothing."

The rise of the machines: lessons from history on how to adapt

Disruptive technologies are dictating a new future for humankind. Almost every day we hear of new advances that blur the lines between the realms of the physical, the digital and the biological. Robots are now in our operating rooms and fast-food restaurants. It’s possible, using 3D imaging and stem cell extraction, to grow human bone from a patient’s own cells. 3D printing is creating a circular economy - rather than the linear model of making things then throwing them away - by altering how we use and recycle raw materials.

This tsunami of technological change is clearly challenging the ways in which we operate as a society. Its scale and pace are profoundly changing how we live and work, and signposting fundamental shifts in all disciplines, economies and industries.

In what we now call the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we will see the confluence of several technologies that are coming of age, including robotics, nanotechnology, virtual reality, 3D printing, the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced biology.

Although at different stages of development and adoption, as these technologies bed in, becoming more widespread and convergent, we will see a radical shift in the way that individuals, companies and societies produce, distribute, consume and re-use goods and services.

When 'Luddites' Attack: Destroying Machines To Save Their Jobs

Today, it's an insult to call someone a Luddite. But that's not fair to the original Luddites — cloth workers who launched a war against the machines that were taking their jobs.

Computers handle lots of jobs that used to be done by people.

Travelocity and Kayak have replaced neighborhood travel agents.

BLOCK: We use TurboTax to file our own taxes.

SIEGEL: Possibly soon, the truck next to you on the highway will be driven by computer.

BLOCK: People who complain about these changes are sometimes dismissed as Luddites. But as Jacob Goldstein and David Kestenbaum of our Planet Money podcast report, the original Luddites had a point.

DAVID KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: The original Luddites are famous for smashing machines with sledgehammers during the Industrial Revolution.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: But they didn't start out angry. The people who would become the Luddites worked in the cloth business. And around 1800 in England, making cloth was a fantastic job.

JOEL MOKYR: They really worked whenever they felt like it and didn't work when they didn't feel like it.

GOLDSTEIN: This is Joel Mokyr, an economic historian.

MOKYR: They had an institution, for instance, called St. Monday. Basically what happened was that, at the weekend, particularly on Sunday, they celebrated and drank themselves into a stupor, and then on Monday, they were all hung over and didn't work. And that was known as St. Monday.

KESTENBAUM: The jobs paid well, but the fact that they paid well - that was their undoing. If you were the person paying the workers, at some point you started thinking, there has got to be a cheaper way to do this. So inventors in England created machines to spin fiber into yarn and machines to weave the yarn into cloth.

GOLDSTEIN: The workers saw this and launched a kind of underground war against those machines. They were following a mysterious general named Ned Ludd. People called them the Luddites.

KESTENBAUM: In 1811, these letters started appearing in village squares and newspapers.

GOLDSTEIN: Here's one. (Reading) To Mr. Smith, shearing frame holder at Hill Yorkshire.

Shearing frames, by the way, are machines that cut the fuzz off of cloth.

KESTENBAUM: (Reading) Sir, you are a holder of those detestable shearing frames. If they're not taken down by the end of next week, I will detach one of my lieutenants with at least 300 men to destroy them.

GOLDSTEIN: The letter is signed by the general of the Army of Redressers, Ned Ludd.

KESTENBAUM: Ned Ludd, the rebel leader, the mastermind. In fact, Ned Ludd - not a real guy.

MOKYR: Sorry to disappoint you. He never existed apparently. There are some stories that there was a man like that in the 1780s who broke a few machines, but it's very poorly documented, and most people think he was just about as historical a figure as Robin Hood.

KESTENBAUM: Somehow, having a nonexistent general in charge helped unify people. The workers sent threatening letters in Ludd's name, and if they didn't get a response, they would march on the factory.

MOKYR: They would have some people with rather primitive rifles. Many of them would have knives. Quite a few of them carried sledgehammers, and they would break into a factory, overpower any guards if any were there, and they would basically break the machinery and leave.

GOLDSTEIN: Suddenly, Ned Ludd was everywhere. Luddites destroyed knitting machines in Nottinghamshire. They burned factories in Manchester. When a factory owner walked down the street, kids shouted at him, I'm Ned Ludd. No, I'm Ned Ludd.

KESTENBAUM: The Luddites wanted Parliament to pass a law banning the machines. Instead, Parliament passed a law that made destroying machines punishable by death. The Army sent thousands of soldiers to fight the Luddites.

GOLDSTEIN: In a climactic battle, about 150 Luddites marched on a cloth factory. The owner of the factory was expecting the attack, and he had armed guards waiting inside.

KESTENBAUM: As the Luddites approached, the guards started shooting. Two Luddites were killed, and not long after, the government arrested dozens of Luddites. Some of the men got executed. They got hanged. Mokyr says that sent a message.

MOKYR: People saw what happened to the Luddites. These people were hanged in public. In fact, they made the scaffolds doubly high so that everybody could see them.

GOLDSTEIN: The industrial revolution the Luddites were fighting was one of the great events in human history. It gave us the modern world. It gave us new kinds of jobs no one could have imagined. It's tempting to shout back across history to the Luddites, trust me, things are going to get better.

KESTENBAUM: But the truth is, for the Luddites, things did not get better. Things didn't even get better for their kids. For 50 years, as England built the first high-tech economy on the planet, average wages for workers barely budged.

GOLDSTEIN: A few people made a lot more, but Bob Allen, an economic historian, says lots of people made less.

BOB ALLEN: The winners won and the losers lost, and that was all there was to it.

KESTENBAUM: Were the Luddites right then?

ALLEN: Well, it was certainly, I think, in their interest to wreck machines. They were acting rationally, and I think to say that they were irrational and opponents of progress is a big mistake.

KESTENBAUM: We're living now in a second machine age. It's computers and software this time, not weaving machines, but some of the same things are happening. People talk about the rise of the 1 percent, about how income for ordinary people is stagnant. That is partly due to technology.

GOLDSTEIN: The traditional economic response is these problems are temporary. Technology makes everybody better off in the long run. But one of the things the Luddites have to teach us is the long run can be really, really long. Jacob Goldstein.

KESTENBAUM: David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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Reforms Implemented due to Social Conditions

Until the publication of the Sadler Report in 1833, the poor social conditions in Britain went largely ignored by the ruling classes. It was commissioned in 1832, and the Sadler committee undertook a great investigation into the various aspects of life for the working classes, hearing testimony from members of the working class. The Sadler Report eventually found evidence of human rights abuse and terrible working conditions, suggesting that reform had to be implemented to avoid general social unrest (Haberman).

Before the Report, governments were averse to the implementation of reforms based on their strict policy of laissez-faire, a large part of the liberalism that the government found sacred. After its publication, however, the British government was forced to act. Following is a list of the various reforms implemented due to the social and working conditions in Britain.

The Industrial Revolution: A Critique on Why the Luddites Matter

During mid-18 th century England, cotters (farm laborers) dominated the culture. These rural folks produced their food—their subsistence—on small farms, and they worked from home or cottage. They were skilled workers who were mostly weavers, combers, and dressers of wool, as well as artisans in the cotton trades. They were craftsmen who passed down their knowledge and skills through the generations. The country weavers were able to manufacture cloth more cheaply than their city counterparts because of their ability to get part of their living from their small farms or gardens. Their lives were in tune with the rising and setting of the sun. They were not conditioned to the sound of alarms or bells or clocks. They were not awakened or annoyed by the sound of the iron horse (train) or its loud whistle. Their ears were filled with melodies and chirps from the lungs of birds. They were not bothered by the discord of repetitious machines.

Before the Industrial Revolution, people were able to take in the fresh air and the sun and were able to be closer to nature. They were able to free themselves from worldly engagements simply by “sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields” as Henry David Thoreau described in his essay Walking . Countryside folk may not have had a lot, but they had enough. Cotters would only take their produce to market when they had enough to subsist on for their families. Carts and wagons would go in and out of the marketplace to supply stalls selling fruit and vegetables as well as small agricultural implements, fabrics, and more. Markets were where the scattered population of people would gather to meet one another, form relationships, barter, and socialize. It was simplicity at its finest. It was the essence of self-sufficiency.

It is true that the cotter’s life was not completely free of difficulty or toil. Long hours were worked at times and some agricultural laborers worked at the whim of the farmer while some cottage weavers worked for merchants. But then again, there was no time clock to punch. When times were good, it was possible to lay back, and when work was slow, they could focus on their garden. They always followed the culture of honesty and fairness, whether in the workplace or marketplace. If the culture of their villages and strong communities was violated or disturbed, they wanted no part of it. A society based on honesty and integrity was fundamental to them. They valued their independence and their culture much more than inanimate objects, especially those technologies that disrupted their way of life and commonality. These skilled workers were their own masters who were proud of their work.

Enter the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution began in England around 1760. Machines started to take over what was once done by hands, with the steam engine leading the way. Towns became cities cities became epicenters. Factories were built in these expanding cities to house these machines and workers who migrated for industrial work. Over the course of the mid-18 th century through the early 19 th century, the Enclosure Acts were passed (bills by Parliament by which millions of acres of commonly held lands, open fields, meadows, wetlands, forests, and unoccupied “waste” lands were privatized for the sole purpose of commerce) forcing rural populations to decline. Lives were now run by clocks and bells. The first industry to be affected by the Industrial Revolution was textile manufacturing. Many rural people were skilled in this craft to make cloth. Before the Industrial Revolution, merchants bought wool and linen from farmers and then brought these to skilled workers. The merchants then paid the workers for their work. These were the first workers to be replaced when the Industrial Revolution began.

Machines such as the spinning jenny, the water frame, the cotton gin, the spinning mule, the flying shuttle, and the power loom were used and replaced hundreds of thousands of workers. The rise of the factory became the turning point of society. As the demand for British goods increased, the factory provided a cheaper method of production. In order for people to now earn a living, they had to leave home for a crowded slum district in order to operate machines. This, in turn, caused a massive decline in skills being passed down from generation to generation and triggered a new level of oppression.

When somebody needed a textile worker to make cloth, there was a sense of internal devotion to providing the one in need with a product that was made with honesty, integrity, value, and worth. These skilled workers were able to do this work from home where they could be around family and friends, be in an environment that was calm and serene, and be able to work the hours that suited them the best. Before the Industrial Revolution, workers were able to still live in accordance with nature, which the human body seeks to do but becomes unbalanced, frustrated, angry, and unfulfilled when it cannot do so for a great deal of time.

The Industrial Revolution changed family dynamics. Women and children were forced to work in the factories as well. Easier to exploit, women and children were paid lower wages. Families were now relegated to be consumers and spenders. They were turned into machines of production to feed the machine of economy and British colonialism. Because worker housing was built near factories, the lives of workers were now regulated by time schedules, factory bells, and production standards. Workers were told what to do, when to do it, and when to take a break. Typically, many workers were spending at least 12 to 14 hours a day six days a week working monotonously at the pace set by the machines, and they were allowed only one day off, Sunday. Some working days were up to 16 hours. Working conditions were atrocious and dangerous, and wages were never enough for a decent living. With the Industrial Revolution, pride in their skill was lost, especially when unskilled workers were obtaining the same wages.

Due to the adoption of laissez-faire, this doctrine offered the workers absolutely no protection, leading to exploitation, inadequate health and safety standards in the workplace, insecure employment, and low purchasing power. Factory owners regulated working conditions however they wanted and imposed strict labor discipline. This led to continued problems with long, inflexible working hours, low wages, daily accidents, and working with dangerous machines. Textile mills were unhealthy places, with extremely high temperatures, crowded floors, high noise levels (many people would have to read lips to communicate), pollution, and accidents at work. Injured or ill workers had no protected rights. Workers lived in misery, were housed in filthy conditions in filthy overcrowded cities, were ravaged by diseases such as tuberculosis, cholera, smallpox, typhus, and by social ills such as alcoholism, leading to a dismal, shortened life expectancy. Many people were forced to leave the beautiful countryside where serenity, beauty, and simplicity ruled for choked-filled air, blackened sky and rivers, and endless monotonous toil. As the countryside became deserted, the human spirit was also left behind. In his poem, “The Deserted Village,” published in 1770, Oliver Goldsmith described the transition from the beauty and simplicity of the village the innocence, humbleness, and honesty of the agrarian villagers and living in accord with nature, to a desolate village, succumbed to economic and political change where nature was left in ruin and man’s soul decayed by the accumulation of wealth and lust for consumerism.

Enter the Luddites. Within the triangle of middle England that encompassed Lancashire, Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, and Cheshire, a group of people called the Luddites rose up to protest what was to become our ultimate downfall. These were the same areas that encompassed the legend of Robin Hood, except we know that the Luddites were real.

In 1811, after failed attempts to convince the government that factories and certain machines were taking away the livelihood and skills of the people, that the quality of goods was of no match, that the wages were unfair, and families were starving, the Luddites were left with no other option but to fight, to wage war against what was “hurtful to commonality,”—commonality meaning the common good. For example, the framework-knitters had grievances against the new wide frames, which produced goods that were inferior in quality and cheap. The reputation of their trade was being destroyed, and the wide frames caused low wages and used unskilled labor.

The Luddites, foreshadowing our modern condition, were fighting not just to maintain their livelihood to put food on the table, but fighting for humanity as we know it. The Luddites’ main tactic was sending letters to factory owners to remove “those detestable Shearing Frames” from their factories. These letters were typically signed by their leader General Ludd (who did not exist), who was spawned from an apprentice weaver named Ned Ludd, who, after his master had beaten him, smashed a power loom in a rage. If the owners did not comply, the Luddites, typically during night raids, smashed their machines. The Luddites smashed these machines with great hammers. The name that the Luddites gave to these great hammers was “Enoch.” As Binfield explained in Writings of the Luddites , “The hammers were named after Enoch Taylor, a metalsmith . . . who produced not only hammers but also the shearing frames that threatened the croppers’ trade. The choice in the early weeks of Yorkshire Luddism to name the hammers “Enoch” marks a discourse of local contentment and communal, internal regulation—that is, the idea that both problems and solutions can come from within a community.”

The Luddites were willing to give up their lives or even deportation to Australia if caught, which affirmed their strength and desire to hold on to their freedom and to live their lives according to their own terms and conditions without being exploited and undermined. They were not going to let the industrial system trample their family, community, and trade so that the government could obtain its wealth from the slavery of its own citizens.

Machines in the factory system came to be more important than human beings because these machines were more productive and goods were made cheaper. However, no matter how big the factory or how many machines the factory had, the industrial model was not making life any better. Gone were dignity, customs, community, and freedom. The Luddite mobs expressed the people’s frustration and anger from the injustices against their lives introduced by the Industrial Revolution. But government made its people yield to force and enacted harsher laws against rioting, machine breaking, and oath giving, by sending a military force to maintain order in Luddite areas this government effort was sure to squash any threat of a feared impending revolution and used an army that was the largest in its history. The Luddites’ attacks on machines, factories, homes of factory owners, acts of arson on warehouses and mills, and robberies lasted only about 15 months. The government used tactics of “might makes right” and imprisoned, executed, or deported dozens of Luddites until the violence and voices of disapproval were silenced.

It was not so much that the Luddites were against all technology. It was the anger and frustration that the lives of people were to be forever changed by an economic system based on the implementation of certain machines and technology in which the exploited ceded to docility all in the name of “progress.” What they wanted was government protection against those machines that took their livelihood away. They wanted their traditional liberties regained as they expressed this with their appeals to the House of Commons and letters that they wrote to specific people and the general public.

It is only by looking back on what the Luddites were fighting for that one can see that they were truly fighting for the future of all mankind. It was (and still is) all about increasing productivity, exploiting workers, exploiting the earth, exploiting animals, and creating wants, all for the wealth of the few. Yet, the conditions of society caused by the oppression of industrial capitalism have created numerous social problems. In turn, more technology is created for the solution, thus creating more products for corporations to sell. Rinse and repeat. But technology has been forced on society relentlessly without any concern for the consequences. If certain technologies bring about the marginalization of a people, causes vast destruction to nature, disrupts communities, causes more social ills and disease, or loss of independence, then who is for it? Thomas Carlyle offered, “We call it a Society and go about professing openly the totalest separation, isolation. Our life is not a mutual helpfulness but rather, cloaked under due laws-of-war, named “fair competition” and so forth, it is a mutual hostility. We have profoundly forgotten everywhere that Cash-payment is not the sole relation of human beings we think, nothing doubting, that it absolves and liquidates all engagements of man.”

The Luddites understood these technological consequences and decided that the best action to take was to become active, not passive, and that economic sabotage was better than doing nothing. They were completely justified in these acts. They were not looking to intentionally hurt anyone. Smashing machines, arson and threatening letters, do not hurt anyone. Smashing shearing frames and burning factories in the middle of the night are acts against inanimate objects. Their purpose was economic sabotage. Their purpose was to call an end to an unjust economic system. What were they to do: Stand outside holding signs? Wait for the government to take action? When the government is a part of the injustice, pacifism is not an option. Their actions were an essential part of their activism. The only way the Luddites could conquer the injustices enforced upon them against their will was by the use of direct action.

After more than two centuries of the Industrial Revolution, factory system, and global corporations running the lives of mankind, after all the technological developments, what progress has been made? Industrial capitalism has only worsened societal problems on a global level. People still feel the same today as when the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Have we become so desensitized, marginalized, and docile that the last major uprising against this corrupt social system has been the Luddites? I see no difference in the long hours being worked. I see families being torn apart from the social ills brought about by industrialism. I see increased population. I see increased over-crowdedness. I see weakened communities. I see increased wealth disparity. I see increased dependency on technology and machines to do things for us and think for us. I see increased diseases. I see increased waste. I see increased starvation rates. I see increased debt. I see increased global climate change that is threatening the very existence of life on earth.

Although there are some people and organizations that have fought against this destructive “progress,” the Luddites were really the only group that threatened to put an end to the industrialism that we are suffering from today. The Luddites “evidenced the sturdy self-reliance of a community prepared to resist for itself the notion that market forces rather than moral values should shape the fate of labor,” summarized Randall in Writings of the Luddites . Although they did not win, the spirit of the Luddites has stood the test of time and is still strong all over the world in the hearts and minds of those who oppose the systems of obtaining wealth at the expense of the earth, the animals, family, community, honesty, and livelihoods. So long as people are repressed, marginalized, and subjugated by the corrupt social system of Industrialism, Luddism becomes more important in the fight for freedom of oppression. It is more important now than ever. As the majority of the world suffers and slaves away while the few benefits on the backs of the majority, let us finish what the Luddites started. It is never too late to fight for justice.

As the Liberty lads o’er the sea
Bought their freedom, and cheaply, with blood,
So we, boys, we
Will _die_ fighting, or _live_ free,
And down with all kings but King Ludd!

When the web that we weave is complete,
And the shuttle exchanged for the sword,
We will fling the winding sheet
O’er the despot at our feet,
And dye it deep in the gore he has pour’d.

Though black as his heart its hue,
Since his veins are corrupted to mud,
Yet this is the dew
Which the tree shall renew
Of Liberty, planted by Ludd!

Timeline of the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution took place from the eighteenth century up until the mid-nineteenth century, marking a process of increased manufacturing and production which boosted industry and encouraged new inventions ad innovations.

Headquarters of the East India Company, London, 1828

1600- The formation of the East India Company. The joint-stock company would later play a vital role in maintaining a trade monopoly that helped increase demand, production and profit. The company helped Britain compete with its European neighbours and grow in economic and trading strength.

1709- Abraham Darby leases the furnace which he successfully uses for the first time. Darby was able to sell 81 tons of iron goods that year. He would become a crucial figure in industry, discovering a method of producing pig iron fuelled by coke rather than charcoal.

1712- Thomas Newcomen invents the first steam engine.

1719- The silk factory is started by John Lombe. Located in Derbyshire, Lombe’s Mill opens as a silk throwing mill, the first successful one of its kind in England.

1733- The simple weaving machine is invented by John Kay known as the Flying Shuttle. The new invention allowed for automatic machine looms which could weave wider fabrics and speed up the manufacturing process.

1750- Cotton cloths were being produced using the raw cotton imported from overseas. Cotton exports would help make Britain a commercial success.

1761- The Bridgewater Canal opens, the first of its kind in Britain. It was named after Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater who commissioned it in order to transport the coal from his mines in Worsley.

1764- The invention of the Spinning Jenny by James Hargreaves in Lancashire. The idea consisted of a metal frame with eight wooden spindles. The invention allowed the workers to produce cloth much quicker thus increasing productivity and paving the way for further mechanisation.

1764- Scottish inventor James Watt is commissioned to carry out repairs to a Thomas Newcomen steam engine and quickly recognises ways that it can be modified to operate much more efficiently. By changing the way the cylinder was heated and cooled the amount of coal used in heating the water to produce the steam could be reduced by more than 60%.

1769- James Watt was granted his first British patent (No. 913) for the unique design of his new steam engine. To quantify the enormous power of his new engines, James Watt also invented a new unit of measurement: The Horsepower. James Watt’s steam engines would literally set the world in motion… through the introduction of steam powered railway locomotives and steam ships… transportation would be completely revolutionised. His steam engines would also go on to power the new mills that were starting to appear in the Industrial North.

1769- The yarn produced by the new Spinning Jenny was not particularly strong but this soon changed when Richard Arkwright invented the water frame which could attach the spinning machine to a water wheel.

1774- The English inventor Samuel Crompton invented the Spinning Mule which would combine the processes of spinning and weaving into one machine, thus revolutionising the industry.

1779- The inventor Richard Arkwright became an entrepreneur and opened a cotton spinning mill using his invention of the water frame.

1784- The ironmaster, Henry Cort came up with the idea for a puddling furnace in order to make iron. This involved making bar iron with a reverberating furnace stirred with rods. His invention proved successful for iron refining techniques.

1785- The power loom was invented, designed the previous year by Edmund Cartwright, who subsequently patented the mechanised loom which used water to increase the productivity of the weaving process. His ideas would be shaped and developed throughout the years in order to create an automatic loom for the textile industry.

1790- Edmund Cartwright produced another invention called a wool combing machine. He patented the invention which arranged the fibres of wool.

1799- The Combination Act received royal assent in July, preventing workers in England collectively bargaining in groups or through unions for better pay and improved working conditions. In the same year, on the 9th October a group of English textile workers in Manchester rebelled against the introduction of machinery which threatened their skilled craft. This was one of the initial riots that would occur under the Luddite movement.

1800- Around 10 million tons of coal had been mined in Britain.

The Trevithick locomotive

1801- Richard Trevithick, a mining engineer and inventor drove a steam powered locomotive down the streets of Camborne in Cornwall. He was a pioneer of steam-powered transport and built the first working railway locomotive.

1803- Cotton becomes Britain’s biggest export, overtaking wool.

1804- The first locomotive railway journey took place in February, the Trevithick invention successfully hauled a train along a tramway in Merthyr Tydfil.

1811- The first large-scale Luddite riot took place in Arnold, Nottingham resulting in the destruction of machinery.

1812- In response to the riots, Parliament passed a law making the destruction of industrial machines punishable by death.

1813- In a one day trial, fourteen Luddites were hanged in Manchester.

1815- Cornish chemist Sir Humphrey Davy and English engineer George Stephenson both invented safety lamps for miners.

1816- The engineer George Stephenson patented the steam engine locomotive which would earn him the title of “Father of the Railways”.

1824- The repeal of the Combination Act which was believed to have caused irritation, discontent and gave rise to violence.

1825: The first passenger railway opens with Locomotion No.1 carrying passengers on a public line.

1830- George Stephenson created the first public inter-city rail line in the world connecting the great northern cities of Manchester and Liverpool. The industrial powerhouse and landlocked city of Manchester could now quickly access the world through the Port Of Liverpool. Cotton arriving from plantations in America would supply the textile mills of Manchester and Lancashire, with the finished cloth returned to Liverpool and exported throughout the British Empire.

1833- The Factory Act is passed to protect children under the age of nine from working in the textile industry. Children aged thirteen and over could not work longer than sixty nine hours a week.

1834 – The Poor Law was passed in order to create workhouses for the destitute.

1839- James Nasmyth invents the steam hammer, built to meet the need for shaping large iron and steel components.

1842- A law applied to miners, banning children under the age of ten as well as women from working underground.

1844- The law states children younger than eight are banned from working. In the same year Friedrich Engels publishes his observations of the impact of the industrial revolution in “The Condition of the Working Class in England”.

1847- New law stating limited working hours of women and children in textile factories to ten hours a day.

Manchester – ‘Cottonopolis’ – in 1840

1848- The impact of industrialisation and creation of cities leads to a cholera epidemic across towns in Britain.

1851-Rural to urban migration results in over half the population of Britain now residing in towns.

1852- The British shipbuilding company Palmer Brothers & Co opens in Jarrow. The same year, the first iron screw collier, the John Bowes is launched.

1860- The first iron warship, HMS Warrior is launched.

HMS Warrior, now a museum ship in Portsmouth

1867- The Factory Act is extended to include all workplaces employing more than fifty workers.

1868- The TUC (Trade Unions Congress) is formed.

1870- Forster’s Education Act which takes the first tentative steps at enforcing compulsory education.

1875- New law prohibited boys from climbing chimneys to clean them.

1912- The industry of Great Britain reaches its peak, with the textile industry producing around 8 billion yards of cloth.

1914- World War One changes the industrial heartlands, with foreign markets setting up their own manufacturing industries. The golden age of British industry has come to an end.

The sequence of events placed Britain as a major player on the global stage of trade and manufacturing, allowing it to become a leading commercial nation as well as marking a huge turning point in Britain’s social and economic history.

Jessica Brain is a freelance writer specialising in history. Based in Kent and a lover of all things historical.

Byron Was One of the Few Prominent Defenders of the Luddites

Automation reached the textile makers of northern England in the early nineteenth century, fundamentally changing the fabric of their lives.

Related Content

Rather than accept their fate, Clive Thompson recently wrote for Smithsonian Magazine, some of the workers “fought back—calling themselves the ‘Luddites,’ and staging an audacious attack against the machines.”

When the textile workers (whose movement was named after anti-industrial folk hero Ned Ludd) waged war on the automation that threatened both their jobs and their way of life, they were met with the same opposition as many others who allegedly get in the way of progress.

But they also had supporters, like Lord George Gordon Byron, writes Steve Melito for On This Day in Engineering History. On this day in 1812, just months after the textile workers had begun smashing the machines that were taking their jobs, Byron stood up in the House of Lords and defended them.

Byron is best-known as a capital-r Romantic. That means he was part of “an artistic and intellectual movement that railed against the scientific rationalization of nature,” Melito writes. The later part of that movement—which Byron is associated with—was full of men and women (including Jane Austen and Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein) confronting the first phases of the Industrial Revolution in their art.

What set Byron apart was that he was a lord, which gave him more say in how the country ran than your average artsy type. In this case, he used his power to stand up for the Luddites against Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, who was fighting for a bill that would make “machine-breaking” a capital offense. It was Byron’s first speech in the House of Lords, made two weeks before his first big hit, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, was published and he became famous as well as rich and powerful.

Speaking in front of the lawmakers, Byron “opposed Perceval’s efforts in the House of Lords, explaining that the Luddites’ recent acts of violence were the product of ‘circumstances of the most unparalleled distress.’ This ‘once honest and industrious body of the people,’ Byron claimed, had become ‘miserable men’ driven by ‘nothing but absolute want,'” writes Melito.

The role of defender of the Luddites likely would have appealed to Byron, whose signature character type was the Byronic hero—a passionate contrarian who fought against the prevailing beliefs of society. In true Romantic spirit, Byron put a lot of himself into his work. In fact, Childe Harold is considered to be at least semi-autobiographical.  

The Byronic hero was modeled on Byron himself, naturally. (George Harlow/Wikimedia Commons)

But the Luddites needed all the help they could get. In the end, the pleas of Byron and others were ignored, and some of the Luddites paid the ultimate price. Executions took place after an 1813 sentencing in both Lancashire and York, including the execution of 12-year-old Abraham Charlston. Other Luddites were deported to Australia (then a penal colony). In late 1816, Byron immortalized the movement in a stirring poem sent to a friend.

But progress marched forward anyway. The textile workers found themselves working in the “dark, Satanic mills” of nineteenth-century industrial Britain, in the words of another Romantic poet.

Today, the word Luddite is an insult, meaning backwards or opposed to change. It’s levelled at those who stand in the way of technological change, which is truly a case of the winners writing the history books. But recall this: As Byron said in his speech, “You may call the people a mob, but do not forget that a mob too often speaks the sentiments of the people.”

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance science and culture journalist based in Toronto.

Industrial Revolution Facts

When studying the industrial revolution it can be easy to get lost in the amount of detail from the period. Alot happened in just 150 years and it can be difficult to choose which key events are most significant. This Industrial Revolution facts page will provide you with some of the key facts of the period and give you a key overview of this significant event in British history.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed but we hope some of the facts below will help in identifying key moments for you which you can then research in further detail if required.

Our industrial revolution information portal should assist you in finding more detail on a specific subject however some of your essays or worksheets may just require some of the key points of the period.

: The Industrial revolution begin in Britain in the late 1700’s

: Before the industrial revolution manufacturing was done in peoples homes. This was commonly known as the domestic system.

: Initially Factories were commonly built near rivers so that water power could be used for the day to day running of machines.

: The Darby family discovered how to make cheap iron at their iron works in Coalbrookdale. Historians labelled them the cradle of the industrial revolution.

: In 1700 most people lived and worked in the countryside. This would change over the course of 150 years dramatically.
: Throughout the industrial revolution Britain was commonly referred to as the ‘workshop of the world’

: Three of the most significant machine inventors were James Hargreaves, Richard Arkwright & Samuel Crompton. They invented the Spinning Jenny (1765), Water Frame (1769) and the Spinning Mule (1779). These three inventions shaped the initial factors of Britain.

Samuel Crompton’s The Spinning Mule

: In 1787 Edmund Cartwright invented the power-loom. By 1829 there were over 49,000 power looms in mills across Britain.

: By 1800 there were approximately 1,250 steam engines running in Britain.

: In 1700 only 2.4 million tonnes of coal were mined in Britain however by 1900 this had risen to 224 million tonnes.

: Children as young as five years old were instructed to work long hours within coal mines as ‘trappers’

: Having been saved by the famous Darby family the iron industry grew from strength to strength within the industrial revolution and by 1850 over 2 million tonnes were made in Britain half of the worlds supply!

: Britain introduced canals within the industrial revolution to reach areas which couldn’t be reached by sea. By 1825, 1,500 Km of canal had been constructed.

: Engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel created the first steam powered ship the ‘Great Western’ which changed the way we built ships.

: By late 1700’s most towns had their own local newspaper.

: In 1840 Samuel Morse invented the Morse code to send quick messages along the wires. This is still used today.

: Anthony Ashley, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury questioned the working conditions within the factories on children and he campaigned for new laws and the first reform. He was responsible for the 1833 Factory Act.

: The 1833 factory act ruled that children couldn’t work in a factory until the age of 9 and children between 9-13 could only work 8 hour days with two hours of schooling too.

: A group led by Ned Ludd known as ‘the Luddites’ began to attack factory machines across the North between 1812-1814 in protest against the working conditions of factories. Factory bosses were threatened and in some circumstances murdered as a result.

: Seventeen of the Luddites were arrested and executed in York in 1812 with others transported to Australia.

: Trade Unions began as a way to improve wages and working conditions but were swiftly banned by the government between 1799-1824 with members persecuted.

: In 1801 the first census in Britain was taken with a population of 8,892,536 with England and Wales and another 1,608,420 in Scotland.

: To this day every 10 years a census is taken to monitor social trends and population.

: By 1851 the census recorded a huge change in population with Britain now accommodating close to 21 million people. Half of these now lived in towns or cities.

: Between 1801 and 1871 the population of London grew from 959,000 to 3,245,000 as a result of industrialisation.

: Disease was common within the industrial revolution due to overcrowding in cities. It is estimated that over 50% of children in Manchester died before they were 5 years old in the 1840’s as a result of disease.

: Public Health Acts began to be passed to improve sanitation and provide all towns and cities with clean drinking water.

All About The Industrial Revolution – Peter Hepplewhite & Mairi Campbell

Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution

Most studies of the origins of the Industrial Revolution in England emphasize the mechanization of textile manufacturing and the advent of steam power as key elements of the new era. Names like Richard Arkwright and James Watt highlight discussions of England’s great transformation to the modern age. In Empire of Guns, Satia takes a dramatically different stance, arguing that guns, rather than textiles or steam engines, were the primary components of British industrialization. In effect, government war demands drove the Industrial Revolution, and the British state played a key role as the catalyst of change.

Satia’s primary focus is on the city of Birmingham. Although London also dominated Britain’s gun-making community, as the empire expanded, Birmingham eventually became its most important armaments site. The city’s reputation as a leading metalworking center dated back at least to the Middle Ages. By the eighteenth century, it was well known for its versatile craft-based expertise in everything from guns and swords to shoe buckles and toys. Indeed, Satia maintains that “no other provincial town could match Birmingham’s artisanal skill and ingenuity” (164). Owing largely to its skilled working population, the city attracted mercantile and banking activities that proved critical to Britain’s growing economy and colonial expansion overseas. At the center of these activities stood arms making.

Satia describes three types of gun making—first and foremost, guns for trade in Britain’s rapidly expanding imperial system second, guns for use in unsettled frontier areas and finally, guns for military use. Each type had specific attributes. One of Satia’s particularly perceptive insights is how trade guns were considered currency and used for that purpose, especially the African slave trade. In yet another domain, guns were used in diplomatic relations as gifts and ceremonial tokens that had little relationship to their use as weapons of destruction. So far as military purposes were concerned, the “Brown Bess” musket, introduced in the early 1700s, became the standard product for British armies and, with several design iterations, enjoyed a lifespan of well over 100 years. It became the central artifact of British imperialism Birmingham became adept at making hundreds of thousands of them.

The story that Satia tells focuses on the Grafton family whose Quaker background and metalworking expertise dated back to the seventeenth century. Samuel Grafton and his son enjoyed long-standing (and lucrative) arms contracts with the British Ordnance Office, as well as other British colonial agencies, thus becoming one of the wealthiest families in Birmingham. Their approach to gunmaking focused on manufacturing some parts at their own shops in and around Birmingham and sub-contracting for others with local artisans final assembly took place in one of their central shops. Their engagement in the gun business also involved them in Britain’s expanding colonial system, most notably the slave trade. That business gave rise to strong abolitionist sentiments within the pacifist Quaker community, eventually leading to the elder Grafton being called on the carpet by Birmingham’s Society of Friends in 1795. His careful refutation constitutes an intriguing part of the book that is reminiscent of today’s Second Amendment debates.

One of the many strengths of this volume is Satia’s treatment of kinship and its implications. The Grafton family’s expanding network of marital relationships within the Quaker community sheds light on not only Birmingham’s impressive growth as a leading industrial city but also the wealthy Quaker families that stood at its center. The Grafton family’s business interests extended beyond gun making to embrace banking and other mercantile pursuits, most all of which emerged through marriages that occurred with other enterprising Quaker families. Such alliances gave the Graftons and others like them considerable economic and political influence.

Reviewers often have “wish lists” for what they would have liked authors to include in their books. One such wish in this case concerns the need for a deeper treatment of the organization, operation, and decision-making apparatus of the British Ordnance Office. Since the office’s control over military arms contracting gave it substantial influence over the entire arms business, more needs to be known about this subject for a better understanding of how the larger system actually worked.

Another wish is for an examination of what might be termed the “technological amnesia” regarding Portsmouth’s block-making machinery. Satia refers to the machinery developed at the Portsmouth Navy Yard during the early nineteenth century that, as numerous scholars have shown, was pathbreaking in its introduction of the interchangeable manufacture of pulley blocks, key components of sailing vessels and a first for world naval technology. Yet, unlike its French and American counterparts involved in interchangeable work, the British Ordnance establishment evidently had little impetus to expand its interchangeable manufacturing methods. Not until the 1850s, forty years after the introduction of block-making machinery at Portsmouth, did British authorities express interest in what they referred to as “the American system of manufactures,” resulting in the purchase of a full set of machinery for the Enfield Armory near London. Exactly why the Portsmouth approach remained closeted at there and not more broadly disseminated to technically related manufacturing operations in Britain remains unexplained.

All told, Empire of Guns is an important book with a compelling thesis about the warfare state’s role in prompting the Industrial Revolution. It also advances a telling argument about the role that Birmingham’s Quaker community played in British industrialization. From a historiographical standpoint, Empire of Guns brings a fresh perspective to our understanding of the Industrial Revolution. Although it will doubtless elicit critics who still hold to the older textile/steam power paradigm of British industrialization, it is a first-rate study that deserves a wide readership.

Watch the video: Who were the Luddites? The Battle of Rawfolds Mill 1812


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