Thursday, 10 March 2011

Earlier echoes of frame-breaking

Frame-breaking was not a new form of direct action undertaken by workers within the frame-knitting industry. Felkin1 traces the history back to London in 1710, with 100 frames being broken by unemployed journeymen, protesting about the use of a large number of apprentices by a hosier named Nicholson. The tactic was successful, so much so that "none of the rioters were punished, it is said not even apprehended." But widespread rioting over similar practices led to the House of Commons making machine-breaking a capital offence in 1727.

Shortly afterwards, much of the trade moved North to Nottingham: echoing practices of over one hundred years later, speculators had bought up frames, renting them to stockingers and paying them for cheaper products which broke the standards laid down by the London Company of Frame-work Knitters. The Nottingham magistrates refused to recognise the authority of the London Company, and the speculators moved their trade there.

Predictably, the worst capitalist practices led to grievances and further direct action followed. In 1778 & 1779, the stockingers had looked to Parliament and lobbied for the introduction of a Bill to regulate prices and afford them a degree of protection. The Bills failed, in part because of the connivance of some Nottingham hosiers who enlisted the help of MPs for rotten boroughs in Cornwall.

The response from the stockingers in Nottingham and the Midlands was prolonged and violent. Between 10th-19th June 1779, frame-breaking and rioting was widespread, with the houses & mills of offending hosiers being attacked. Randall2 describes a diversionary attack being mounted against the factory of one hosier, a Mr Need, whilst another force wrecked his house and broke 50 frames in a workshop he owned in the Nottinghamshire village of Arnold, (a place we’ll return to shortly). The house of another hosier who had given evidence against the Bill before parliament, was burnt down. Felkin3 tells us that this convinced the hosiers to agree to terms: "provided an immediate cessation of violence took place, to remove every oppression from their workmen, and to bring all the manufacturers up to a fair price." 300 frames were broken during the disturbances: "rioting in fact had proved more successful than applications to Parliament"4


1. Felkin (1867, p.227)
2. Randall (2006, pp.146-147)
3. Felkin (1867, p.229)
4. Hammond, JL & B (1919, p.183)

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