Wednesday 8 February 2012

The historical context of Luddism in Lancashire & Cheshire

In 1812, Lancashire and Cheshire were set for a perfect storm.

Unlike cotton spinning, which in 1812 was largely concentrated in factories and was effectively dead by 1830, hand-loom weaving was far from obsolete in 1812. Indeed, it was still widespread in 1820, when despite the existence of 12,000 power-looms, there were still 240,000 hand-looms in operation (Darvall, p.57).

As for the wider context, the spinning & weaving trade in Lancashire had seen the early introduction of many different innovative machines in the 80 years prior to 1812. As far back as 1733, John Kay's Flying Shuttle had halved the labour of weavers needed to operate a wide loom, and was in general use throughout the industry by 1760. Though unpopular to begin with, the high demand for cotton goods acted to deaden any egregious effect upon the workers.

James Hargreaves' Spinning Jenny of 1765 acted to increase the output of work that could be achieved by a single spinner, though the fact that the machine could be used in a domestic setting meant the pattern of work for weavers was largely unchanged.

Perhaps the most contentious innovation, and one that provided a flash-point early on, was the invention of Richard Arkwright's Water Frame in 1769. As the name suggests, this was a roller-spinning machine powered by water and implied the rapid movement of the spinning industry into factories. Arkwright was quick to introduce other innovations into weaving processes too. Unrest followed: by the mid 1770s, machine-breaking and attacks on mills were taking place. Arkwright's Birkacre Mill at Chorley was destroyed in October 1779, with attacks also being levelled at Robert Peel's factory at Altham, which was also destroyed. Mobs at Wigan, Bolton, Blackburn, Preston & Manchester sought out the large 20-plus spindle Spinning Jennies (that were not domestic machines) for destruction. There was evidence that the local authorities were not unsympathetic: there were reports that the military had watched Birkacre Mill burn, choosing not to intervene. At Wigan, the use of machinery was suspended by the magistrates. Ruling class & bourgeois solidarity was clearly fractured largely because Arkwright was so unpopular with other manufacturers.

But machine-breaking in Lancashire stopped after this outbreak because of the expansion of trade. When trade contracted in the early 19th century, machine-breaking would emerge again, but this time amongst the cotton weavers.

As Darvall pointed out (1969, p.55) the situation was so serious in the home of the cotton industry during this period that disturbances would have occurred even without the factor of the introduction of machinery.

The target of the Luddite's ire in Lancashire and Cheshire was the steam-powered loom (or 'steam loom'). Invented in 1785 by the Reverend Edmund Cartwright, it's advance has been largely been restricted because it was a clumsy, slow-to-use invention and also because the hand-loom weavers worked at such a low rate. Further innovations in the design in 1803 by William Radliffe of Stockport remedied these defects.

In spite of the new technology, hand-loom weaving remained widespread. What changed things were the economic conditions. The Orders in Council had hit Lancashire particularly hard - Darvall (1969, p.55) points out that merchants couldn't sell goods, mills were running at half time, and middlemen were giving out half the work they usually were. Wages were in decline. In Bolton in 1805, a weaver could earn 25 shillings a week, but by 1811/1812, this had declined to 14 shillings. At the same time, the price of provisions had risen due to war and the blockades had risen by approximately 33% in the space of 12 months (Darvall p.54).

Agitation by the weavers had begun 5 years earlier, with a campaign for a minimum wage seeing a massive petition signed by 130,000 weavers being presented to Parliament in February 1807. But Parliament refused even to discuss a proposed Bill to regulate weavers' wages, and the disappointment at this outcome led to rioting in Manchester. Strikes demanding a 33% increase in wages followed in the summer, with the non-damaging sabotage of machinery (i.e. the removal of shuttles from looms) being employed to ensure that 60,000 looms stood idle in Manchester alone. The strikes apparently went some way to achieving their object, albeit temporarily.

By 1810, wages had declined again and despite the short-lived success of the strikes in 1807, the weavers turned again to petitioning, with 40,000 signatures from Manchester, 7,000 from Bolton and 30,000 from Scotland being handed in to Parliament in May 1811. A Select Committee summed up the contempt of the ruling class when it concluded that the weavers should "work at lower prices or ... employ their labour in some other manner." (Hammonds, p.64)

So the stage was set for the confrontations that occurred in 1812. In particular, Stockport had been the seat of innovation with power-looms, but the physical situation of the factories in the district could not have been more provocative: in the midst of Irish immigrant hand-loom weavers who had no recourse to parish relief during hard times. It was in these circumstances that the subtle increase in power-looms became a source of added and bitter discontent.

This blog is largely based upon Chapter 4 of the Hammonds' "Skilled Labourer".

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