The Luddite Uprising of 1811/12

One of the least-known things about my hometown of Huddersfield is that, nearly 200 years ago, it was the absolute capital of political unrest. The Luddite Uprising of 1812 dragged Britain closer to revolution than at any other time and the peak of that movement was in Huddersfield. I’ve just come across a blog (thanks Poumista!) that tracks the revolutionary fervour of the Luddites all across their bicentenary.

It will be tempting for those on the left to celebrate the Luddites as proto-revolutionaries. But the truth, as always, in more nuanced than that. According to historian Richard Reid, in his Land of Lost Content, one of the finest history books I’ve read, the Luddites of Huddersfield, although radical, were almost certainly acting out of motives of self-interest rather than for reasons of class-consciousness.

The Luddites of Huddersfield were all croppers. These were big, strong men who could wield 50llb shears and were incredibly well paid when compared to other workers. These men had stood by as the rest of the workers in the woolen textile trade of West Riding had been impoverished by automation and they only chose to fight the rise of the machines when there own, relatively privileged, livelihoods were threatened. If the Luddites have a present day equivalent they are something more akin to road hauliers, who blockade oil refineries to complain about the cost of fuel, rather than, say, students marching for the greater common good.