The businessman who received the following note from Ned Ludd would have been in no doubt that the writer intended to do serious harm.
Sir if you do not pull don the Frames
or stop pay [in] Goods onely for work
extra work or m[ake] in Full fashon
my Companey will [vi]sit yr machines
for execution agai[nst] [y]ou–
Mr Bolton the Forfeit–
I visitd him–
Nottinghm—Novembr 8 1811
It was one of many similar semi-literate threatening letters sent to factory owners and employers of weavers by Ned Ludd. The letter commands Mr H to stop paying his weavers in ‘truck’, meaning in poor quality goods instead of cash, one of the frequent complaints of the workers. Or else…
Another letter from a Nottinghamshire knitter was sent to Richard Dennis, farmer and framework knitter, in 1819:
If you keep that Rouge in you house Ned shall viset you and we shall be acpt too give you A little could led and you cattle too if you dont get shoot ove him very soon and Need will set you all on Fire And you Promess Need will send them too Hell and Hall ove you too and you sheep Ned will ham string And if you don thay will send me word in the course ove of day
March the 12
I GENRALL LUD.
But Ludd, also sometimes titled ‘General Ludd’, as here, and ‘Captain Ludd’, did not exist. He was a mythical leader of a diffuse group of mainly northern English insurrectionaries angry at the threat to their livelihoods posed by the introduction of labour-saving machines into the framework knitting industry. ‘Luddites’, as they came to be known, formed clandestine groups who swore secret oaths and destroyed and damaged the feared new machines that were taking their jobs. The sabotage tactics of the Luddites failed, many were executed, imprisoned or transported. But their actions, and consequences, did bring their plight to the attention of the wider public.
In 1830, much the same situation, this time in agriculture, triggered the most serious rioting, mostly across southern England. Led by a ‘Captain Swing’, rural workers rose in large numbers to break threshing machines and to demand what they thought were their rights. They also said so in caustic correspondence, such as this note delivered to King’s College, Cambridge on December 8, 1830:
The college that thou holdest shalt be fired very shortly. Thou shalt here further from me when it is in flames.
A more detailed and oddly polite letter detailing the rioters’ grievances arrived at the Goodwood estate of the Duke of Richmond in December 1830:
We beg to say that if the sentences of the men in kent & all others for rioting is not reduced to 3 months imprisonment & all those taken heairafter to 1 months ditto all the woods to a hedge stick on the duke of richmans estate with that of the other ministere [of] the crown lands magestrates constables &C engaged in takeing & triing the said men shall be all burnt up even to a furse bush but we promis faithfully if you comply with our request we will refrain from it all we want is Work & fair wages don’t think that the reward will induse our party to split we have all put our hands to the match so we cannot fear each other and are determind to carry on or have our starveing Contramen at liberty there is only 2 things to be done & then we shall have pease & plenty that is machinery put down and the Clergy paid out of the publick revenew and an income tax put on to take this burden of the farmer in lieu of the tithes’
These revolts were all put down with the ruthless force usually unleashed by the British establishment against those who dared challenge it. Rioters were perceived and presented as dangerous revolutionaries and criminals rather than starving workers. Some were shot, some hanged, many imprisoned and transported. Mechanisation of their livelihoods proceeded apace.
Neither Ned Ludd or Captain Swing existed. They were convenient fictions drawn from the traditions of underclass revolt stretching back to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 in which a shadowy character named ‘Jack Straw’ appeared. At least one of the rebels in this revolt took this name, but historians are uncertain if such a person ever existed. His name is certainly suspiciously folkloric!
To some extent, the threatening letters, the dressing up and the blackened faces of the rioters can be seen as part of the ‘theatre of protest’. This does not mean that the rioters’ issues were not genuine and serious, but that there was an underlying assumption that the societal ties between workers and their employees would deliver justice. Naïve as this seems, a ‘moral economy’ as historian E P Thompson famously perceived, underlay the economic transactions between workers and employers.
The tragedy of this perception by the rioters – weavers or farm labourers – was that it was no longer true (if it ever was in any effectual rather than symbolic sense). Their bosses had moved on from the traditions and assumptions that underlay the moral economy ideal and embraced the improving agrarian mode of capitalism. Now, workers were no longer essential parts of a rural community but simply one element in a broader, more predatory economy in which calculations were made on the basis of profit and loss and not any obligation that the better-off might once have had towards their less affluent neighbours.
Home Office archive (HO 42/118
The Nottingham Review 6 August 1819 – the sender of the letter had a grudge against the ‘Rouge’ mentioned
National Archives Catalogue ref: HO 52/6
‘Swing Riots letter’, 2 Dec 1830, West Sussex Record Office, Goodwood Mss 1446 fA18