In 1812 England was in turmoil--Napoleon ruled Europe and English troops were engaged in a far flung, confused, and fruitless war in North America. At the same time in the cities, towns, and countryside of England the industrial revolution was drastically reshaping the fundamental nature of traditional economic and social relationships. In Nottingham, Lancashire, Leeds, and a few other parts of England, these changes met with bitter, and sporadic well-organized resistance.
For at least three hundred years the weavers from in and around the central English town of Nottingham, though commoners, enjoyed the status and rewards accorded to fine craftsmen. The weavers of Nottinghamshire produced lace and stockings that dominated the English markets and were prominent items in export trade. These products were hand made, often in the weaver's home. Today, it would be called a cottage industry. The weavers worked mainly as independent contractors, not as employees of a factory owner. Apprenticeships, family tradition and community values insured a product of high quality. The weavers of Nottingham could afford to practice their craft with care; prices for their products, as well as for their expenses and the support of their families did not vary with the market conditions, but were governed by tradition. And the weavers had the additional protection of an ancient royal charter restricting certain kinds of textile production in England to within ten leagues of the town of Nottingham. The weavers and their families were reasonably secure in their modest lifestyle.
In the first years of the 19th century stocking frames and the early automation of the power loom threatened this long-standing way of life. Because the new equipment was expensive, the weavers could not afford to purchase it themselves and the balance of power shifted away from the weavers to the factory owners. Simultaneously the Tory government adopted a laissez-faire economic policy. For the weavers, this meant that they were asked to endure a drastic decrease in income and to submit to the regimented and unpleasant atmosphere of a factory, while the price for their food, drink, and other necessities of life increased. The weavers complained bitterly that the machines made mass produced products of shamefully inferior quality. Naturally, the weavers saw the new technology as the most powerful tool of their new oppressor, the factory owner. A vulnerable tool.
Legend has it that about this time, a "feebleminded lad" by the name of Ned Ludd broke two stocking frames at a factory in Nottingham. Of course he meant no harm, and could hardly be punished for his innocent act of clumsiness. Henceforth, when an offending factory owner found one of his expensive pieces of machinery broken, the damage was conveniently attributed to poor Ned Ludd.
During a short period climaxing in the spring of 1812, inspired perhaps by the French Revolution and the writings of Thomas Paine, the weavers formed into something akin to a guerrilla army and took substantial control over the territory near Nottingham and several neighboring districts. Their army was a secret army. They controlled the night, they knew the back trails between villages. If threatened by government troops they would simply disappear into the same hills and forests that fostered the legend of Robin Hood. Most of all, they enjoyed almost universal support of the local people.
The Luddites often appeared at a factory in disguise and stated that they had come upon the orders of General Ned Ludd. These demands included restoration of reasonable rates of compensation, acceptable work conditions, and probably quality control. Faced by the intimidating numbers and the surprisingly disciplined actions of the Luddites, most factory owners complied, at least temporarily. Those that refused found their expensive machines wrecked. At the outset, the Luddites scrupulously avoided violence upon any person.
The non-violent period of Luddism ended at Burton's power loom mill in Lancashire on April 20, 1812. A large body of Luddites, perhaps numbering over a thousand attacked the mill, mostly with stick and rocks. The mill was defended by a well armed privately hired group of guards. The guards repulsed the attack, and the Luddites instead burned the owners house. They were met up with by the military and several were killed. A government crackdown ensued, and many suspected Luddites were convicted, imprisoned, or hanged.