Government & Military Response
The Luddites were an organised group of skilled workers who protested against the introduction of new machinery which threatened their position of relative privilege. Their protest took the form of destroying new machinery and attacks on specific mills and mill owners.
Luddism began in the Midlands of England and spread later to the West Riding. Huddersfield and the surrounding area was a stronghold of Luddism.
This project will look at the huge response of the authorities involving a combination of professional troops, militia, spies and informants. It will also discuss the militaristic nature of the Luddites' organisation, with the mythical military-style leader, General Ludd.
By the time of the Luddite activity in Yorkshire, the Napoleonic Wars had been raging in Europe for nine years. Britain was entrenched in the battle against the French Emperor and his allies by 1812, and Napoleon was building his grand army in preparation for the invasion of Russia.
This was an era of change, where the old orders felt keenly how precarious their positions were. The American War of Independence had taken place just over thirty years ago, and was within living memory for the government and its military leaders. For example, General Thomas Maitland, who commanded the troops against the Luddites, was a junior officer during the War of Independence.
The authorities were alarmed by the Luddite activities, most notably after the murder of Militia Captain and later Major William Horsfall – shot twice by pistol, including in the groin. The following letter captures the mood of those opposed to the Luddites.
The government was forced to utilise soldiery to quell disturbances and assigned General Maitland in charge of Yorkshire. The total force used was significantly larger than Wellington’s army in Portugal and six times greater than any used in previous domestic unrest.
By May 1812, 14,400 men had been dispatched from London, with 1,000 soldiers stationed in Huddersfield alone. Dragoons and government cavalry were employed on multiple occasions to back up militia, but were often ineffective against Luddite guerrilla tactics.
In addition to the large scale armed military response, the authorities countered Luddism through more subtle means. The basis of this was utilizing spies and encouraging individuals to turn King’s Evidence for financial reward.
The communities where Luddism was strong were mainly small and isolated. In order to penetrate these communities effectively the authorities needed inside help and decided to pay individuals handsomely for going against their neighbours and local community. An important example of this was William Hall who turned King’s Evidence regarding the murder of Horsfall and in the attack on Cartwright’s mill betrayed sixteen fellow participants.
The militia were responsible for quelling disorder, but they were an amateur force whose enlisted members held other primary jobs elsewhere. The attendance of privates in William Horsfall's militia company was poor. Further, these were untrained men and could not be relied on to avoid either overreacting, or sympathising with the Luddites.
For this reason, militia units from the Devon area and elsewhere were brought into Yorkshire. Even these did not have the desired effect, and mill owners complained to the magistrate, Joseph Radcliffe, who gradually oversaw the replacement of the militia with the regular army. A letter from Joseph Radcliffe discusses the activities of the authorities in response to the Luddite threat. Use was made of appointing special constables to supplement the regular army and militia, such as William Cartwright, below.
Tensions between the Luddites, local communities, and the coordination of the government response were rife. Local people had grievances over possible dangers the Luddites were exposing them to, whilst both hated informers. One interesting account of such a suspicion is the experience of John Hinchliffe near Huddersfield.
Frictions between the militia and government troops were prominent during the reaction of the authorities. Time and again, General Maitland informed magistrates that the army’s job was to prevent serious public disorder – not to protect private property. Many also saw the use of the army as unconstitutional: a ‘subjugation of the people.’
The Luddites brought military techniques and language into their protest. They were not a disordered mob who attacked everyone and everything, but a group who targeted specific individuals and machines. They had structure to their grievances with military styled drilling on the West Riding moors at night.
The Luddites organised themselves into companies of between thirty and fifty men and were involved in daring but planned night raids on smaller workshops scattered across moorlands around Huddersfield. Two of the adopted terms used for the mythical leader of Luddism showed a further military connection – General Ludd and Colonel Ludd.
Project by: Tom Chappelow, Jamie Fosbrook & Chris Jones. With special thanks to David Pinder.
For the full range of sources used, click the link below to view our bibliography.