Thursday, 10 March 2011

Nottinghamshire & The Midlands in 1811

It was early in the spring of 1811 that the phenomenon of Luddism first manifested itself in the Midlands and, in particular, Nottinghamshire. Yet if the popular understanding of Luddism is as a response to labour-saving technology, then what took place in Nottinghamshire does not necessarily provide a good example. In the early nineteenth century, the destruction of machinery was the response to a number of factors which were leading to the exploitation of working-class artisans in the hosiery trade at this time.

Unlike some of the other mechanical devices that Luddites in other areas attacked, the mechanical knitting machine ('stocking frame') was not a new device, having been invented over 220 years before by William Lee in the Nottinghamshire village of Calverton in 1589.

The men who worked the machines, stockingers, were skilled artisans, but their economic status was as outworkers, and that status was deteriorating. The trade was controlled by master hosiers, who acted as merchants selling the products produced by the artisans. Some of the hosiers owned factories in the town but, by and large, hosiery was a domestic system, and the stockingers either worked from home in the villages surrounding Nottingham or in the workshops of ‘small masters’. Most of them rented their stocking frames from either the hosier or independent speculators who had invested in machinery during the boom years, meaning that despite their ‘artisan’ status, in reality stockingers had relatively little autonomy.

The early 1800s saw a declining market for hosiery and lace, chiefly influenced by the closing of foreign markets with the introduction of the Orders in Council in 1807. Unemployment was severe: William Felkin1 records 4248 families receiving relief from the poor rates in Nottingham in early 1812 – a total of 15,350 people – half the population. Also in 1807, the expiry of a 20 year-old agreement between stockingers and hosiers regarding prices paid for work led to a veritable 'race to bottom' amongst hosiers, with the least scrupulous employing up to three main methods to either cheapen production or economise labour:

Truck – or payment in goods or in kind. Payment in goods was frequently via the hosier’s store, in which the price of provisions was much higher than in the marketplace. Payment in kind saw hosiers giving their stockingers material: Darvall2 has the example of one stockinger being owed two weeks ages amounting to £2 8s., being paid with cloth and buttons to the value of £2 12s. 6d., but which could only be sold for 10s 6d. In both ways, the stockinger was being exploited and had no freedom to spend their own money as they chose.

Colting – the employment of unskilled labour, or of too many apprentices, resulting in a fall in quality of the goods, which affected both the reputation of the trade and the stockinger.

Cut-ups – or the rise in production of large pieces of material on wide stocking frames which were then 'cut up' and sewn together to make stockings, rather than being formed as a tube in the case of 'full wrought' work. The result was a vastly inferior product which not only grossly offended the artisans' sense of pride in their craftsmanship, but also made his skill less necessary. Cheap techniques encouraged cheap labour.

The various grievances now coalesced around a dispute with four particular hosiers in the early months of 1811.


1. Felkin (1867, p.231)
2. Darvall (1934, p.34)

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