The Myths of Ned Ludd
There are several accounts of a mythical leader figure allegedly responsible for the Luddite uprisings in the early nineteenth century. Through these pages, the myth will be brought to life through a series of not too serious short sketches, historical facts and tasks. Our aim is to appeal to younger historians, particularly Key Stage 2 school children. A teacher worksheet can be downloaded.
There are several accounts of a mythical leader figure allegedly responsible for the Luddite uprisings in the early nineteenth century. Such is the extent of the myth that the ‘Luddites’ and their leader ‘Ned Ludd’, from whom supposedly the term Luddites is derived, provide a problem of definition, with regional variations, explanations and descriptions.
The name is said initially to have emerged and used first by a group of Nottingham stocking-frame breakers, as reported in the Nottingham Review of 1811. Historian John Blackner offered the explanation that they were a group who obtained their name after a youth in Leicestershire, called Ludlam, who after an order from his factory worker to square his needles on his framework knitter, promptly ‘took a hammer and beat them into a heap’ The Luddite term became a label to describe those who objected to the creation of labour saving devices. Whenever any machinery was smashed, the claim “Ned Ludd must have done it” became a catchphrase and so the association with the myth and legend grew.
There are many differing regional identities associated with the mythical leader of the Luddites. The fact that there are so many disguises, names, regional and time differences for the character of the so called Luddite Leader adds to the charm and romance of the myth. However, there are more sinister undertones to the myth, as the Luddites and their leader became associated with a greater movement of dissatisfaction and protest against changing working conditions.Many letters, threats and demands made by the Luddites were signed General, Captain or King Ludd, to reflect and emphasise their threatening nature.
As developing technology threatened the very existence and livelihoods of craftsmen, the hostility felt led to more militant and sinister activities giving rise to the referral to military ranks, Captain and General, becoming more prevalent. These military ranks also associated the movement with Napoleon and France, who were at war with Britain at the time, who were perhaps intent on causing as much civil unrest as possible to disrupt Britain’s war effort. The military association could also have been a direct response, if not challenge, to the substantial military activity that was put in place to reduce the threat that the Luddite leader posed. However, they may have also just been names to give to someone who, as their supposed leader, simply told them what to do!
The Luddites were said to have been active over most of Northern England, but gained notoriety in especially Yorkshire. Some identified George Mellor, a cropper, as ‘King Ludd’ following his role in the infamous Rawfolds Mill attack, but there are other reports of Mellor being ‘The General Ludd of Yorkshire’ emphasising the divergence of the myth.
It is unlikely there was ever a single Ned Ludd, which adds to the power of his myth and legend, as clearly he appeared under many disguises, in many places, for many reasons and at many times. The variations in the differing regions may have come about because of the variations in circumstances, but nonetheless he supposedly commanded and led a form of militia and whilst men such as Mellor were suspected, no one individual was identified as Ludd and so his identity remained a mystery.
To highlight the extent to which the term has been associated with social uprising, there are women involved in the 1812 food protests in Leeds reputedly calling themselves ‘General Ludd’s wives’ , with one claiming to be their leader under the name of ‘Lady Ludd’.Later, there were associations with leader of the 1830 agricultural Swing Riots in rural England, who protesting over threats to livelihoods and wages.
The Luddite leader had songs, poems and letters written about him and allegedly by him. He was no doubt the subject of many lively and interesting discussions, conversations and much correspondence throughout the north of England. In Bolton, Lancashire he was known as the grand administrator of impious, rebellious, oaths, and gained further infamy in Yorkshire, Cheshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. The legendary and mythical status attached to him in Yorkshire existed two hundred years ago, which may be largely forgotten but maybe some of him exists in some of us today and it is hoped he will now be brought back to life!
Malcolm I.Thomis, The Luddites: Machine Breaking in Regency England (Newton Abbott, 1970) p.11.
Nicols Fox, Against the Machines: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art and Individual Lives (Washington DC, 2004) p.30.
John Rule, The Labouring Classes in Early Industrial England 1750-1850 (London,1986) p.159.
E.P.Greenleaf and J.A.Hargreaves, The Luddites of West Yorkshire, (Huddersfield,1986) p.13.
Miles Taylor, ‘Ludd, Ned (fl. 1811–1816)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/40127, accessed 15 Jan 2012
Thomis, The Luddites, p.22.
Thomis, The Luddites, p.116.
Thomis, The Luddites, p.144.
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