In December 1811 Crich had unwelcome visitors – Luddite frame breakers.
They entered homes that had knitting frames and ‘broke’ them so they could not be used. “Breaking a machine” conjures up an image of gangs of men smashing the frames with huge hammers. This was generally not so. Usually the ‘jack-wires’ were removed, rendering the frame useless until they were replaced. It was a quick and easy way of rendering the machine immobile. It was also quiet so that they could do their damage and escape undiscovered.From the Derby Mercury of 12th December 1811
The secrecy and precaution with which the persons engaged in these practices carry on their operations hitherto rendered, it is a matter of impossibility to take them in the fact. They go out in small parties disguised with their faces besmeared, and stationing sentinels at the doors accomplishing their purpose without the least noise: they communicate with each other by means of a watch-word, and the firing of a pistol, or gun, is generally the signal of danger, or of retreat.
The Luddites were named after a General Ludd, a figurehead leader of the textile workers. The origins of the name are shrouded in mystery.
Why were the Luddites breaking frames? The stocking trade was in a state of great recession and to cut their losses unscrupulous employers used ‘wide frames’ to make pieces of cloth that were cut up into gloves and socks. The raw edges were then stitched together and, unlike properly knitted goods, the edges unravelled after the customer had bought the item. These goods were known as ‘cut-ups’ and were very bad pieces of work; they represented the real target of the Luddites. Only wide frames could produce these cut-ups, because a large piece of cloth was needed to be cut up and sewn together. The cut-up was then passed off as having been knitted in one piece (what is known even today as fully fashioned). Only those owners who were engaged in ‘cut-up’ work should have been the targets and only those who had wide frames could do the shoddy work. So, it was not only the new technology that the Luddite attacked, but also the unscrupulous undermining of the reputation and quality of their trade.
Frame breaking only began after abortive appeals to Parliament to regulate the dishonest practices. Some employers agreed to maintain all the practices demanded by workers if they would “join in bringing up the under-paying masters to the same standard”. This was practically an invitation to break frames, for the men had no other powers.
Following a cut in wages, the first militant act of frame breaking occurred in March 1811 in the Nottingham area and rapidly spread over into Derbyshire.
Towards the end of 1811 Derbyshire became most affected, although many frames had been broken earlier in the year. The local militia of Derbyshire, numbering about 4,000 in five regiments, proved insufficient to control the outbreak of Luddism; not that it was too small, but it was impossible to protect the scattered frames. Betrayal was rare because the breakers were usually part of the local community. Luddism operated rather as a guerrilla force, with groups usually operating swiftly under the cover of night.
A correspondent from Crich warned the Home Secretary in a letter that a dreadful winter lay ahead unless something was done. Indeed at the end of 1811, Luddism re-emerged with full vengeance: “There is an outrageous spirit of tumult and riot, houses are broken into by armed men, many stocking frames are destroyed, arms are seized, haystacks are fired and private property destroyed.”
A curfew was placed on drinking houses.From the Derby Mercury
We are happy to state that the utmost tranquillity prevails both in this town & its immediate environs, which the Borough Magistrates have taken the most active means to reserve. The following order to the Innkeepers and Publicans of the Borough, are required and strictly enjoined not to suffer any person or persons to remain tippling or assembled together in their respective houses after the hour of ten o’clock at night. And they are further required to give notice to the Magistrates of all improper or suspicious persons who shall enter their several houses.
(Licensing hours for pubs did not come in until 1914.)
Although action was against the ‘wide frame’ there were many cases where any frame was wrecked, even those that belonged to owners paying the correct rate. Some mob rule had taken over. Heage in particular suffered in this way.
An anti-framebreaking law was passed and a very severe piece of legislation it was.
The death penalty was to be used against those found guilty of destroying machinery.
During the debate in Parliament, the poet Lord Byron was to the fore in opposing the Bill. Byron warned Parliament not to be complacent: “You may call the people a mob, but do not forget that a mob too often speaks the sentiments of the people.”
The anti-framebreaking law was not a huge success, for if convictions were rare when the penalty was transportation for14 years, it would be unlikely that information would be provided on the Luddites if it would mean death.
There is an article about Framework Knitting in Crich by D. M. Howarth Read more...
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