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Machinery Riots

From: The Romance of Invention: Vignettes From The Annals of Industry and Science (1886)
Chapter XIX
by James Burnley

[p.293] In the early days of mechanical invention every new machine that restricted manual operations, or affected wide interests unfavourably, was the object of violent opposition. Nearly all the leading inventions up to within the last half century have literally had to be fought into popular acceptance.

The bow-men of the Middle Ages resisted the introduction of the musket; the old sedan-chairmen of Paris would not permit the employment of hackney carriages when they were first brought out; and the stagecoach proprietors would fain have blocked the passage of the locomotive, but it was too mighty a power for them to tackle conveniently. When, in 1707, Dr. Papin sent to England his first idea of a steamboat—his petite machine d’un vaisseau ΰ roues—it was seized and destroyed by the boatmen at Mόnden, who imagined that, if successful, it would deprive them of their livelihood. Then there was great obstruction manifested towards the ribbon loom when it was originally made known, both in England and on the Continent. So violent was the feeling against it in Germany [p.294] that the Imperial authorities were prevailed upon to prohibit ribbons through the whole of Germany, and the Council of Hamburg ordered a loom to be publicly burnt. The first prohibition took place in 1676, and it was not until the middle of the next century that the prohibitive decrees were withdrawn.

The stocking-loom, invented by Lee about the end of the sixteenth century, was kept back for many years by opposition; and nearly all the inventors of new machines for the cotton trade—Hargreaves, Kay, Arkwright, Crompton, and Cartwright —had to suffer from the attacks of workpeople who thought the machines would take their bread out of their mouths. Kay was mobbed, and had to escape from Lancashire when he attempted to introduce his fly-shuttle; Hargreaves had his spinning frame destroyed by a Blackburn mob; Crompton had to hide his great invention away in a lumber room for a year or two for fear of its meeting with a similar fate; Arkwright was denounced as the enemy of the working-classes when he introduced his new method of spinning, and a mill that he built near Chorley was entirely destroyed by a riotous mob; Jacquard narrowly escaped being thrown into the Rhone by a furious crowd of weavers when his new loom was first put into operation; Heathcoat, the inventor of the bobbin-frame for lace-making, had his factory and machinery destroyed in 1816, by a body of rioters, who set fire to the place with torches in the open day; and Dr. Cartwright had to abandon his power-loom for many years because of the bitter animosity of the people towards it.

The most serious outbreak of machinery rioters occurred in the early part of the present century. [p.295] This was the period when some of the chief labour-saving machines were being introduced in the factories of this country, and the working population were seized with the sudden impulse of destruction. The long and costly war which England had waged, and was still waging, with Napoleon, had reduced the people to the verge of starvation. Heavy taxation, dearness of provisions, and scarcity of employment, had crushed the hope out of the hearts of the labouring classes, and they were ready to wreak their resentment upon almost any object that presented itself. They watched with strong discontent the increasing power of machinery, which seemed to threaten them with extinction, and at last, unable to bear the prospect any longer, they began to plot and conspire to prevent any further encroachment upon their imagined rights.

It was in Nottingham that the first manifestation of violence was displayed, the stocking-weavers of the ancient town rising in determined opposition to the new loom, which was then being largely introduced. Riots were organised, under the leadership of a mysterious but not altogether mythical personage called General Lud, and attacks were made upon the various factories in which the obnoxious frames had been adopted. Over a thousand looms were destroyed in Nottingham. So desperate were the rioters that they quickly spread themselves over the whole of the manufacturing districts of the North, and wherever they went carried destruction with them.

Nowhere did the agitation bear more bitter fruit than in the West Riding of Yorkshire, where it spread with relentless force. The rioters used to assemble by [p.296] night on the moors and commons, and there determine their plans of attack. They administered a fearful oath to all who joined them, each member being sworn never to reveal “to any person or persons under the canopy of heaven” the names of those who composed the secret committee, “their proceedings, meetings, places of abode, dress, features, connections, or anything else that might lead to a discovery of the same, either by word, or deed, or sign, under the penalty of being sent out of the world by the first brother,” who should meet him, and having his name and character “blotted out of existence, and never to be remembered but with contempt and abhorrence.”

The movement almost swelled to the proportions of a rebellion. As time wore on the boldness of the rioters increased; no mill was safe from attack, no mill-owner but felt his life in peril, for they not only pronounced the doom of the machinery, but of all who used it. Thousands of pounds’ worth of property was destroyed in the cloth-weaving districts around Leeds, Dewsbury, and Huddersfield. Vigorous measures were adopted by the local authorities to put down the rioters, but for a long time their efforts were of little avail. Mr. Joseph Radcliffe, of Milne Bridge, was one of the most active of the Yorkshire magistracy in organising a system for the surprise and detection of the ringleaders, and he was bravely aided by the Rev. Hammond Robertson, of Hartshead (the Mr. Helstone of Charlotte Bronte’s “ Shirley”). For his services in this cause Mr. Radcliffe had a baronetcy conferred upon him. The assistance of the military had to be sought in many instances, and conflict between the soldiers and the rioters was frequent. Deeds [p.297] of murder, atrocity, and outrage were committed on all sides, and the Government were compelled to pass a special Act of Parliament with a view to checking these crimes. Arrests were made daily, and the prisoners became so numerous that special commissions for their trial were opened in the various assize towns of the North. Rewards were offered and King’s pardons to accomplices; but, though many offenders were brought to justice, the agitation did not abate. A crisis was precipitated, however, in the month of April, 1812, by the perpetration of two crimes of startling violence.

On the night of Saturday, the 11th of April, according to a preconcerted plan, a body of Luddites some hundred and fifty strong made an attack upon the mill of Mr. William Cartwright, at Rawfolds, near Liversedge. For more than six weeks previous to this night, Mr. Cartwright, four workmen, and five soldiers, had slept in the factory. The millowner knew that the Luddites were bent upon destroying his machinery, and he had determined, if possible, to prevent them. Shortly after midnight this gallant little band of defenders retired to rest, Mr. Cartwright having first assured himself that the pickets outside were at their posts. For a while all was as still as death; the first hour of the Sabbath had been entered upon with a calm peacefulness that was in harmony with the associations of the day. But the stillness was not to be of long duration. At twenty-five minutes to one, the dog in the yard began to bark furiously, and Mr. Cartwright immediately jumped out of bed. As he opened the door of the room where he had been lying down, he was startled by a crash of breaking windows and a discharge of [p.298] firearms. He also heard a loud hammering at the mill doors, and the sound of many voices. He rushed to the spot where he and his companions had piled their arms before going to bed; the workmen and the soldiers were running to the same place; and all, like himself, were without clothing, except their shirts. There was no time to be lost. Each man seized his gun. Two of the workmen ran to the top of the mill and rang the bell. Then the bell rope broke, and they rushed down again. All this time the mob without were discharging their guns and pistols at the windows, and the hammering at the door was kept up unceasingly. George Mellor, the General Lud of the district, was leading the attack, the rioters having advanced in regular military order, the musket-men first, then the pistol-men, then the hatchet-men, clubmen, and staff-men, those without weapons bringing up the rear. “Bang away, my lads!” “In with you!” “Kill them every one!” were the shouts that proceeded from the mob, as volley after volley was fired. But the half score besieged men were not to be so easily overcome. The conflict was kept up for about twenty minutes, and then, unable to effect an entrance, and having spent all their ammunition, the Luddites, repulsed and furious, retreated in the direction of Huddersfield, leaving behind them two wounded companions, who afterwards died.

This was the incident which Charlotte Bronte worked up with dramatic effect in “Shirley,” only, for the sake of picturesqueness, she described the little mill in the hollow near Haworth instead of the one at Rawfolds. Mrs. Gaskell, in a note upon this circumstance, mentions the fact that some of the rioters had threatened that if they did not succeed in [p.299] forcing their way into the mill, they would break into the house, which was near, and murder Mr. Cartwright’s wife and children. “This was a terrible threat,” she wrote, “for he had been obliged to leave his family with only one or two soldiers to defend them. Mrs. Cartwright knew what they had threatened; and on that dreadful night, hearing, as she thought, steps approaching, she snatched up her two infant children and put them in a basket up the great chimney, common in old-fashioned Yorkshire houses.” Within a week of the attack on the mill, Mr. Cartwright was twice shot at on the high road. The ringleaders were subsequently arrested and tried at York. Mr. Cartwright was presented with a sum of £3,000, subscribed by neighbouring mill-owners, as a tribute of admiration of his courageous conduct.

A few days after the attack on Rawfolds mill, Mr. William Horsfall, a manufacturer at Marsden, while riding home from the Huddersfield market, was fired at from behind a wall and killed. Four Luddites— George Mellor, William Thorpe, Thomas Smith, and Benjamin Walker—were concerned in the commission of this crime. Walker afterwards turned King’s evidence, and the other three were hanged. At the special commission opened at York in January, 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 16th of January. This severe example had the effect of repressing the agitation.

The introduction of the power-loom into the textile industries of the North, during the second quarter of the century, gave rise to what were known as the Plug Riots, so called from the fact that the rioters at all [p,300] the mills attacked forced in the plugs of the steam boilers, by which means the machinery was stopped. This was not such a serious matter as the wholesale destruction of mills and machinery which the Luddites had indulged in; still it was the cause of much inconvenience, and for a considerable period kept the manufacturing districts in a terrorised condition. These outbreaks had been threatening for some time. In 1822 a power-loom which had been secretly erected in a small mill at Shipley was got at by a party of rioters and destroyed. In May, 1826, a still more serious disturbance took place at Bradford, at which place Messrs. Horsfall, a firm of worsted manufacturers, had put several of the new power-looms into operation. An angry mob assembled and made a desperate attempt to force their way into the building, but they were met by a small protecting force which had been for some time on guard inside, and were prevented from entering. The windows were assailed with stones by the rioters, and one of them sent a shot whizzing after the missiles. This had the effect of alarming the defenders, who at once replied by firing twenty or thirty shots into the crowd, killing two persons and wounding a large number. After that the rioters dispersed, and for a time no further opposition was made to the introduction of power-looms in that locality.

In the year 1842, by which time the power-loom had become thoroughly established in the North, the factory workers were in a condition of great distress. Industrial stagnation prevailed everywhere, and, as before, the depression was attributed to the introduction of machinery. It was then that the unemployed banded themselves together in riotous combinations, [p.301] and through all the manufacturing districts of the North great mobs of plug-drawers sped from town to town, and village to village, hardly a mill escaping their attacks. The agitation threatened at one time to assume the seriousness of the Luddite disturbances, but the people had not yet recovered from the terror which had been left behind by the exemplary punishments dealt out to the chief offenders in 1813. Moreover, the authorities now acted with greater vigilance, confronting the rioters at every point, so, after a few months of disquiet, the agitation spent its force without leaving in its wake anything like the memories of crime and bloodshed which had remained from the Luddite movement. When, later on, other important labour-saving machines came to be introduced into the textile manufactures, they were permitted to be worked in peace, for by this time the economics of supply and demand had begun to teach their lesson of adjustment, and it was seen that it was useless, as well as suicidal, to attempt to stem the tide of mechanical progress. Not even when the combing-machine was brought into operation—by which was abolished at a stroke a manual industry which had existed almost from the beginning of trade, employing many thousands of persons—did the sufferers rise in resentment, but quietly betook themselves, as best they could, to other occupations—in many instances to other countries— and as combers were heard of no more.

Something very near a riot was the result of the introduction of the steam printing press, but was prevented by the admirable firmness of Mr. Walter. The pressmen had threatened both the inventor and his machine, and Mr. Walter knew there was danger in their attitude. Dr. Smiles gives the following graphic account of the way in which the proprietor of the Times overcame the opposition :—

“At length the day arrived when the first newspaper steam press was ready for use. The pressmen were in a state of great excitement, for they knew by rumour that the machine of which they had so long been apprehensive was fast approaching completion. One night they were told to wait in the press-room, as important news was expected from abroad. At six o’clock in the morning of the 29th November, 1814, Mr. Walter, who had been watching the working of the machine all through the night, suddenly appeared among the pressmen and announced that ‘the Times is already printed by steam!’ Knowing that the pressmen had vowed vengeance against the inventor and his invention, and that they had threatened ‘destruction to him and his traps,’ he informed them that, if they attempted violence, there was a force ready to suppress it; but that if they were peaceable, their wages should be continued to every one of them until they could obtain similar employment. This proved satisfactory so far, and he proceeded to distribute several copies of the newspaper amongst them —the first newspaper printed by steam!” After that there was no disturbance or destruction.

Perhaps, the last riots in connection with inventions were those which occurred in America on the introduction of Howe’s sewing machines; but they were, fortunately, not attended by any serious destruction of property, nor did they keep back the invention from general adoption.

From: James Burnley, The Romance of Invention: Vignettes From The Annals of Industry and Science (1886), Chap. XIX, 293-301. (source)

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Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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