This week it is the 200th anniversary of one of the most destructive Luddite attacks in the history of the movement – and it took place in the village I grew up in.
The Luddite movement was primarily among textile workers, in revolt against the introduction of machinery that essentially replaced them, because it was able to do the same work more quickly and cheaply and required minimal manpower. The semi-organised movement was characterised by threatening behaviour, machine-wrecking and general disorder. It is generally considered to have begun in 1811 in Nottinghamshire, and by early 1812 had spread to West Yorkshire. The movement took its name from Ned Ludd, the ‘anonymous’ and semi-mythical leader of the movement.
Following a direct threat to Mr Joseph Foster, on the night of 9 April 1812, Foster’s Mill at Horbury Bridge came under attack from between 300 and 600 men. They had come from all over the surrounding area and were well organised. They were either masked or their faces were blackened, to protect their identities, and they carried weapons. They also surrounded the Fosters’ house. They forced the sons of the mill owner (who was not at home) to let them into the mill, and proceeded to wreck the place. They particularly focused on the shearing frames, but also on other modern machinery, as well as more traditional tools and even the cloth itself. They then set fire to the warehouse, and left two of the Foster boys tied up. The men got away over Grange Moor towards Huddersfield, or through Horbury itself and along Wakefield Road . On 14 April soldiers were sent to guard the other mills in and around Horbury,
Similar riots continued in the area throughout April. One attack left two of the Luddites fatally injured, following which the events became much more violent, and one mill owner was murdered. The Luddite movement continued, spreading into Lancashire. It finally came to an end in early 1813, following a mass trial at York Castle, which resulted in the execution of seventeen men, and the transportation of several others. The machinery against which they had protested was here to stay, and the number of skilled croppers in the area decreased dramatically.
I have to say, I don’t know of a direct connection to my ancestors. However, what I do know is that they were definitely living in Horbury at the time, and so they would have been first-hand witnesses to the events, whether they were supporters of the Luddite cause or simply living in fear of the unruly mob that was roaming their streets. John Phillipson was born in Horbury just three years after the Luddite attacks and went on to be a woollen spinner. His father, also John, was a weaver, though whether he was originally from Horbury I don’t know. On the other hand James Wade, who was a stonemason and so not directly involved in events, and his wife Mary, were almost definitely living here at the time of the attack.
There is some debate about the Luddite movement. Is it a simple industrial dispute, albeit a very violent one, among a contained group of workers? Or, does it represent something more – an organised revolt against capitalism? An alternative political movement? These arguments are something that I am still considering, but I hope to write a blog post on them later in the week – partly as an exercise in constructing an historical essay, something which I haven’t really done since I left university nearly four years ago!
I remember learning about the Luddites at school. To be honest, at the time this sort of industrial history didn’t really grab me. I don’t remember ever being told that my own village was such an important part of that history, if we were told, I don’t believe that the teacher really took advantage of the fact in order to teach the history. Had she done so I think we might have been much more engaged by what we were learning.
I have been following the Luddite movement here. This blog posts relevant documents and some narrative of its own date-by-date, to show the progression of the Luddite movement as it happened 200 years ago – a brilliant idea that brings the history to life!