From the Beginning of Steam Power
to the Luddite Riots
1785 - 1812
Chapter XII from: The Story of British Trade and Industry (1904)
by James Burnley
[p.165] THE close of the American War found Great Britain in an embarrassed condition. Commerce had been crippled, over £100,000,000 had been added to the National Debt, and, in the eyes of Europe, England was a weakened power. The French Revolution increased the national confusion, and there was much in the aspect of things generally to cause grave anxiety. The recuperative capacity of the country, however, was strikingly displayed in the renewed activity which took place in commerce and industry on the restoration of peace. There was naturally some interruption in the trade between England and America, but both countries had such need of each other’s markets that only a very short time elapsed before jealousies and animosities gave way to a favourable interchange of trading privileges, and America again became one of Great Britain’s best customers. Nor was this the only trade advantage which England gained during this short period of respite from war. In 1786 she entered into a commercial treaty with France which contained valuable trading concessions to both sides, and was framed in a spirit of wise liberality, resulting in an immediate improvement in the trade between the two countries. The commercial outlook was more than favourable, and between 1785 and [p.166] 1793 there was increased prosperity all round.
The steam engine was gradually extending its sway, thanks to the business ability brought to bear upon it by Watt’s partner, Matthew Boulton. Contemporaneously, other inventors were at work endeavouring to adapt steam power to navigation. In 1788 three clever Scotsmen - Miller, Taylor, and Symington - constructed a steamboat that demonstrated the feasibility of the idea, and on Christmas Day of the following year Miller and Symington made a trip on another steam-propelled boat on the Forth of Clyde Canal, attaining a speed of seven miles an hour.
The cotton manufacture was now in the first flush of its prosperity. The various inventions before mentioned had lifted it into an industry of leading importance. It attracted both capitalists and operatives in ever-increasing numbers, and transformed Lancashire into a vast hive of manufacturing industry, causing an increase of population in that county in the latter half of the century of from under three hundred thousand to nearly seven hundred thousand. So rapid had been the expansion that in 1788 there were 143 cotton mills in active operation in Great Britain, representing an investment of over a million sterling. Everywhere the water-wheels were being superseded by steam engines. The imports of raw cotton into the country increased in value from less than £5,000,000 in 1775 to £56,000,000 at the end of the century, while the exports of manufactured cotton goods showed an advance in value of [p.167] from £800,000 in 1785 to £5,000,000 in 1850; by which time America had entered the list of cotton-growing countries, and was making rapid progress in its cultivation. The expiration of Arkwright’s patent in 1785 had a good deal to do with the rapid extension of the cotton trade, inasmuch as it made the invention free to all who liked to adopt it. Valuable improvements were also introduced about this time in calico printing and dyeing, all of which tended to the advancement of the trade.
The woollen industries in the first few years of this period were seriously affected by the fact that Spanish merino wool was fetching a much higher price than English wool because of its superior quality, and there was much agitation and some foolish protective legislation on the subject. Nothing, however, could prevent the extension of the woollen manufactures, especially in Yorkshire, that county alone producing nearly £8,000,000 worth of cloths of various kinds (including worsteds) in 1799. By this time similar machinery practically to that of the cotton trade was in use in the woollen manufactures, and it was estimated that the improvements enabled ten persons to get through as much work in 1800 as it would have taken 450 to execute in 1785.
Some new industries had also been introduced. Birmingham became an active centre for gun-making; the glass manufacture was slowing progress; while the discovery of an improved process of making cast steel was doing much to increase the cutlery trade of Sheffield.
In the seven years between 1785 and 1792 [p.168] there was a very marked increase in British trade with foreign countries, the exports showing an advance of from £16,000,000 to £25,000,000, while the imports for the same period rose from £16,000,000 to £20,000,000.
From 1784 the East India Company was under Imperial control, and a great increase of trade resulted. At the same time the trade with the West Indies was being developed, the exports of Jamaica alone reaching the sum of £2,200,000. In connection with the East and West Indian trade the traffic in slaves had grown to such dimensions that in the interests of humanity it became necessary that some legislative interference should be brought about, and it was in 1788 that Wilberforce brought in his Bill for the abolition of the slave trade, and, although the Bill was defeated at that time, through the influence of the men engaged in the trade, the agitation which had been evoked was too strong to be allayed, and gathered force in subsequent years, unti1 it ultimately attained its object.
Coming to the year 1793, we enter upon a long period of successive calamity and disaster, caused by our wars with France, which lasted, with but little intermission, from that date up to 1815. Already the French Revolution had thrown its shadow across the prospect of British commerce, and much uncertainty and confusion prevailed, but such a sudden trade depression as supervened when England threw down the gauntlet to the new republic, and stood forth as the champion and protector of Europe generally, had never been imagined. There [p.169] was a general panic among the business houses of the country, failure succeeded failure, many banks stopped payment, and commercial chaos prevailed. To meet the cost of the war heavy burdens of taxation were imposed, and the working classes were plunged into distress. So serious was the aspect of affairs that Pitt hastily put a Bill through Parliament authorising an advance of exchequer bills to persons who were solvent, and only temporarily embarrassed, the sum of £5,000,000 being set apart for this purpose; but, as it turned out, matters were not quite so serious as had been supposed, only 238 persons applying for advances, and only £2,200,000 being lent to them. The effect of the measure, however, was salutary, inasmuch as it inspired new confidence, and the panic shortly afterwards abated.
When it was seen that England was able to stand against the storm which had so rudely broken in upon its dream of commercial prosperity, the alarm gradually subsided, and, in spite of the drafts that were being made upon all classes of the community, to supply fighting men and bear the cost of the immense armaments, the country rallied bravely to the cause, and upheld the commerce and industries of the nation as well as the disturbing circumstances of the moment would admit. For a time there was, of course, an entire cessation of trade between France and England, the treaty which had promised so well was at an end, and the difficulties of keeping up commercial relations with the other countries of Europe were increased. Holland, with which we had done a [p.170] considerable trade, was annexed by France, France made an alliance with Prussia, Spain declared war against England, and from one cause and another the ports of Europe were practically shut against British merchandise. But there was a brighter side even to this dark story. For if the trade with the countries coerced by France fell off, there was a more than counterbalancing increase of trade with America, Russia, Germany, and the East and West Indian possessions. Still the drain upon the country was so terrible that trade distress and financial embarrassments showed a deplorable increase. There had been such a drain of specie from the Bank of England that, although that institution was in a perfectly solvent condition, it was deemed necessary to suspend cash payments, and bank notes became the regular currency for commercial transactions. There was a gratifying recovery in commerce generally, due in a considerable measure to the splendid service of our naval forces in protecting the trade routes between England and distant ports, but, although trade in the bulk suffered so little, the high prices of provisions and the excessive taxation threw the working population into deep distress, causing riots and outrages in many parts of the country. Out of a total population of ten millions, about six millions were engaged in trade and manufactures, and it was the operative classes in the industries that were the chief sufferers.
For one year - 1802 - hostilities were suspended, and again people turned with earnestness [p.171] to trade; but the country had hardly begun to feel the effect of peace ere the war was renewed in 1803, to be carried on to the bitter end, twelve years later. From this time until 1815 every nerve was strained to frustrate the power of Napoleon. “Roll up the map of Europe,” Pitt had said after the Battle of Austerlitz; “it will not be wanted these ten years.” And for a time, while Napoleon’s star remained in the ascendant, it seemed as if the Continent was to undergo such dismemberment and reorganisation as the dictator might choose to ordain. He had formed the lesser States of Germany into the Confederation of the Rhine; had brought Prussia to his feet by his victory at Jena; and when, in October, 1806, he entered Berlin in triumph one of his first acts was to issue a decree against all commercial intercourse with Great Britain, and declare the whole of the British Islands to be in a state of blockade. Wherever among the ports under his control English merchandise could be seized it was held for ransom. In many cities large quantities of confiscated English goods were publicly burned. England replied in 1807 by declaring a blockade of an the ports of France and her allies, which led Napoleon to issue a still more stringent decree against British commerce; but England was so strong on the seas, and had so much help from neutral ships, that all Napoleon’s proclamations were soon of little avail. As a matter of fact, the first few years of the nineteenth century witnessed a considerable increase in the industrial output of the country, while the population at the same time increased from [p.172] ten millions to thirteen millions. Falling prices, bad harvests, and low wages still kept the working classes in the extreme of poverty; landowners, farmers, and manufacturers were the classes that made money during this period; and in 1811 a general commercial distress set in, the exports in 1811 showing a decrease of £15,000,000 on the preceding year. A second war with the United States had lost the American market to us, and the expenditure on the war with France grew greater and greater. Parliament had found it necessary in that year to pass a further measure for the relief of the commercial classes, authorising the issue of exchequer bills to the amount of £6,000,000, for advances to embarrassed traders, to be repaid by installments, but, as before, only about one-third of the amount was applied for.
With wages at starvation level, where employment was to be had at all, with thousands unable to get any work to do, and with provisions at famine prices, the year 1812 witnessed one of the darkest chapters of English industrial history. Nearly one-half of the population of Nottingham were receiving parish relief, and in the manufacturing districts of Yorkshire and Lancashire the condition of things was but little better. A terrible period of excitement, panic, and depression ensued, and a series of disturbances began at Nottingham which spread through the whole of the manufacturing districts of England, and were everywhere serious in their consequences. The rioters formed themselves into an organisation under the title of the Luddites, so called from the fact[p.173] that one of the Nottingham leaders went by the name of Ned Ludd. Their avowed purpose was to destroy all the machinery in the country, which they regarded as the cause of their distress. They began by demolishing a number of improved stocking frames at Nottingham, and followed this by breaking up in Nottingham alone over one thousand looms. Matters assumed such a serious aspect that a law was hurriedly passed making the offence of destroying a machine punishable with death. The operations of the Luddites were carried on with so much secrecy that, in spite of all that could be done by the authorities, civil and military, to repress them, they continued their depredations for a considerable time. It is worthy of note that when the Bill making frame-breaking a capital offence was before the House of Lords, Lord Byron, in a maiden speech, spoke in defence or excuse of the rioters. He contended that the outrages had arisen from circumstances of the most unparalleled distress. “The perseverance of these miserable men in these proceedings,” said the poet, “tends to prove that nothing but absolute want could have driven a large and once honest and industrious body of the people into the commission of excesses so hazardous to themselves, their families, and the community.” Though the law was passed, it did not deter the rioters from continuing their desperate crusade, and from the destruction of machinery they were not long in getting to the sacrifice of human life.
From Nottingham the agitation spread to the manufacturing districts of the north, and the [p.174] West Riding of Yorkshire ultimately became the most prominent scene of the operations of the Luddites. The solitary moors and commons afforded convenient gathering grounds for the rioters, who used to assemble in the dead of night and debate their desperate plans, a fearful oath being administered to every member of the organisation never to reveal their secrets “to any person or persons under the canopy of heaven,” under the penalty of being “sent out of the world by the first brother” who should meet them, having their name and character “blotted out of existence, never to be remembered but with contempt and abhorrence.” The movement swelled to the proportions of a rebellion; no mill or millowner was safe from attack. Bands of military were planted throughout the districts, and encounters between the soldiers and the rioters were almost of daily occurrence. The gaols were soon overflowing with prisoners, who became so numerous that special commissions were necessary to try them. At the special commission opened at York on January 13th, 1813, sixty-four persons were put upon their trial for offences connected with Luddism, and fifteen of them were executed on the same scaffold on the morning of the sixteenth of the same month. After that the activity of the Luddites was relaxed and it gradually began to dawn upon the people that there were other causes than the introduction of machinery responsible for their distress.
The rapidity with which the change from hand to mechanical labour had been brought [p.175] about would doubtless have produced a considerable amount of distress even had there been no war to aggravate the conditions. Capitalists, large and small, had seen in the new industrial instruments a readier means than had previously been presented of becoming rich, and in the hurry to turn the transformation to account had established systems of labour which said little for their humanity, and wrought great evil among the working classes. The factory system that was then established completely changed English industrial methods; the workers were huddled together in unhealthy factories, compelled to work from early morn till late at night; and, what was the worst feature of the system, young children of tender years were set to toil in the mills under such hard and repellent conditions that their constitutions were undermined, and a race of working people grew up stunted in body and weak of constitution. So bad had things become that in 1802 an Act was passed for the benefit of the “health and morals” of apprentices and others employed in mills, and the hours of work were reduced to twelve per day. There was much that was unspeakably revolting in the factory system as then carried on, but, fortunately, these evils excited the sympathy of a number of generous-minded men who began an agitation for the amelioration of the condition of factory workers, and eventually succeeded in breaking down the worst features of the system. In 1807 the abolition of the slave trade took the fetters of oppression away from every negro under British control, but many years had to elapse [p.176] before an equally galling slavery was terminated for the victims of the factory masters.
The distress amongst the working population at this period was severe. In addition to the direct injury to the national industries caused by the war, the restrictive action of the legislature in shutting out the trade of the neutral countries had a very serious effect. There was panic all round. Neither the Government nor the employers of labour nor the operative classes got at the true cause, and in the general impoverishment all classes lost their heads. A parliamentary inquiry resulted in the most heartrending disclosures. “We have examined above one hundred witnesses,” said Lord Brougham, speaking on the report of the committee, “from more than thirty of the great manufacturing and mercantile districts, and in all this mass of evidence there was not a single witness who denied or doubted the dreadful amount of the present distress. Take, for example, one of our great staples, the hardware, and look to Warwickshire, where it used to flourish. Birmingham and its neighbourhood -a district of thirteen miles round that centre - was formerly but one village, I might say one continued workshop, peopled with about four hundred thousand of the most industrious and skilful of mankind. In what state do you now find that once busy hive of men? Silent, still, and desolate during half the week; during the rest of it miserably toiling, at reduced wages, for a pittance scarcely sufficient to maintain animal life in the lowest state of comfort; and at all times swarming with unhappy persons, [p.177] willing, anxious to work for their lives, but unable to find employment.” A still more melancholy account was given of the position of affairs in the manufacturing districts of Yorkshire and Lancashire. Speaking of the people engaged in the cotton industry, Brougham said, “The food which now sustains them is of the lowest kind, and of that there is not nearly a sufficient supply; bread, or even potatoes, are now out of the question; the luxuries of animal food, or even milk, they have long ceased to think of. Their looks, as well as their apparel, proclaim the sad change in their situation.” These were dark days indeed, and the distress was so deep-seated that when at last war ceased it took some years to bring the various social and industrial elements into harmony again.
Nevertheless, earnest effort was being made, and the people were hopeful. The work of invention still went quietly on; manufacturers held on to their undertakings and prepared for a coming prosperity, the working classes, when they saw that no good resulted to them from their opposition to machinery, assumed a more patient attitude, and ultimately all were found working together in a more or less amicable alliance for the common good. Every year saw improvements made in one direction or another. There was a canal system practically covering the entire country; steamboats were being introduced on the principal rivers; gas lighting was being substituted for oil in the large manufacturing establishments and in the streets of London; the locomotive, though not as yet a [p.178] thoroughly practical contrivance, had been sufficiently far advanced, by the efforts of Trevethick, Vivian, Blenkinsop, and others, to foreshadow its early adoption; there had been a wonderful revolution in road construction, increasing the facilities of inland transport; shipping was vastly augmented; Australian wool was being imported into England; the steam printing press had made its appearance; and, despite the general depression, in nearly all those branches of effort which make for material prosperity the record was one of progress.