The Loughborough Luddites
Enoch has made ‘em, and Enoch shall break ‘em”, was the rallying cry that rang out amongst textile workers through Yorkshire and Lancashire as the Luddite movement commenced their campaign against the introduction of power looms which threatened their livelihood. The phrase was apparently a reference to a Heartshead Moor blacksmith who made famously enormous sledgehammers as well as the frames of the power looms. There was thus a certain degree of irony in the call to action to destroy machinery which witnessed many killings, executions, damage, woundings and loss of business in the riots that occurred between 1810 and 1816
But how did the Luddites get their name and what was the history surrounding their mythical leader? To answer this question it is necessary to move a little further back in time and travel some 100 miles south to Nottingham and Leicestershire where the Luddite story really starts.
It was in 1811 that stocking manufacturers in Nottingham began to receive threatening letters concerning their use of new equipment which turned out inferior quality, but inexpensive stockings. The letters were sign by “General Ned Ludd and his Army of Redressers”; a sinecure for the workers so annoyed by looms driven by machinery and operated with unskilled labour. Ned Ludd probably didn’t exist, but there is evidence of a farm labourer of that name who destroyed some very early stocking making machinery back in 1782. By the 1800’s, the legend had already grown up that he was a Nottingham youth who lived in Sherwood Forest and his fame was elevated amongst many to that of a latter-day Robin Hood. Be it noted, however, that Anstey claims him as their own.
Whatever the truth, the actions of the Luddites across a broad swath of the north of England, driven not just by the introduction of machinery but by starvation, and dramatic changes in working practices, had a profound effect and necessitated Government action which today would be described as draconian.
So how did the Nottingham / Loughborough Luddites fare in these troubled times, and what circumstances within their industry of lace-making drove them to commit crimes that could and did result in hangings and transportation as well as acts of heroism in the face of adversity?
To better understand this it is constructive to gain a little appreciation of the state of the country at the time which was decidedly not good. The 1775-83 war with the then embryonic United States did nothing to improve matters and the lot of the British worker fell to low levels. The Napoleonic wars from 1793, which rumbled on for half a generation, then had a devastating effect on the lives of ordinary people and the 1812 -1815 war with the USA added nothing but misery. Business and trade were in chaos, food and other basic necessities were in short supply and employment was, at best, hit-and-miss. Money for the average working class family was short, and starvation loomed menacingly just over the horizon in many areas of the north and east midlands. Employment opportunities were so bad that thousands had to apply for parochial relief and then to add to the misery, several almost consecutive poor harvests between 1799 and 1811 witnessed the cost of basic food tripling in price. Some idea of the levels of deprivation can be gained from a study of some of the sparse statistics available. In just three south Nottinghamshire parishes in 1812, over 13,300 people applied for relief from the “Overseers of the Poor”. Starvation was now a very real adversary.
Lord Byron’s speech in the House of Lords early in 1812 paints a clear picture of the appalling conditions experienced by working families in the lace making areas. He commented, “These people are not ashamed to beg, but there are none to relieve them. Whilst these, (Luddite) outrages must be admitted to exist to an alarming extent, it cannot be denied that they have arisen from circumstances of the most unparalleled distress. Their own means of subsistence have been cut off and all other employment is taken. The perseverance of these miserable men in their proceedings tends to prove that nothing but absolute want could have driven a large, and once honest and industrious body of people into the commission of excesses so hazardous to themselves, their families and the community.”
By today’s standards this is indeed a flowery speech, but the message is clear, Byron understood that desperate people will resort to desperate measures because no others are available to them.
Against this appalling background, and after 800 years as a successful market town serving the Charnwood Forest and villages along the River Soar valley, Loughborough was, by the 18-hundreds on the way to becoming an industrial town. Worsted hosiery had already become a major industry and mohair spinning, using the then new power machinery, was established. As the century turned, machine lace-making came to the town, just in time to attract the attentions of the Luddites.
In such a short feature as this it is impossible to cover all the twists and turns of a situation which witnessed riots, assault, machinery breaking and cavalry charges to disperse unlawful assemblies. The circumstances of John Heathcoat and his lace-making business, however, serve to provide us with an insight into these troubled times and the experiences of the Loughborough Luddites themselves.
Entrepreneur and Inventor John Heathcoat was clearly a very clever and innovative man who invented a specialised form of knitting frame capable of making bobbin lace using the newly available thread made from cotton as an alternate to expensive Flemish Linen thread. Heathcoat called his machine the “Loughborough Frame” and it was clearly a very successful piece of equipment which permitted him to commence making lace in a three storey factory on the aptly named Mill Street. Records confirming the size of the enterprise vary significantly, but suffice to say that he possessed over fifty frames at the time of the Luddite riots which enveloped his business. Heathcoat also licensed his machines to other lacemakers and by 1815 it is recorded that there were over 1,500 lace frames operating in one small township alone.
The Luddites had been active for some years to the north of Loughborough but it was not until 1816 that Heathcoat’s mill was attacked. The reason for the attack remains unclear, but the threat of reduced rates of piece-work pay and the employment of unapprenticed and unskilled people appear to have been major factors. The biggest single factor, however, was arguably the likely impact of John Heathcoat’s licence fees. In the event, Heathcoat appeared to have had some advanced notice of the impending assault on his mill and had hired some armed watchmen to defend his property together with a small force of special constables.
Perhaps aware of this, the Luddites, who came from Nottingham it is understood, chose a more subtle method of attack, kidnapping a female resident of Mill Street and entering the mill itself through a rear entrance where only three men were working. Gunfire was exchanged and in the ensueing melee one of the guards was shot and wounded and the other guards subdued and made to lie on the floor at gunpoint. The Luddites then proceeded to smash much of the machinery and left in less than an hour making their way north using surreptitious routes to avoid detection.
The repercussions of the night’s work were swift, predictable and horrible. James Towle, the leader of the gang, and two of his accomplices were arrested within days and sent for trial at Leicester assizes. Amazing scenes occurred both outside and within the courthouse during the course of the trial. Mass demonstrations attempted but failed to intimidate the jury who, to the disbelief of many, dismissed the evidence of over 70 witnesses called in an attempt to provide Towle with an alibi. The two other men fared more favourably and, perhaps surprisingly, the cases against them were dropped. Towle was sentenced to death but appealed, unsuccessfully, his execution being set for November. He was hanged in what we would now describe as bizarre circumstances at midday on a newly built gallows on Horspool Street in Nottingham. On being lead out onto the scaffold he bowed to the assembled crowd, elected to make no address, but joined in with the chaplain and onlookers to sing a hymn. According to a report in The Leicester Journal, “he was launched into eternity and appeared to die without struggle or emotion.”
As with the very large majority of all the Luddites, Towle died without betraying any of his fellow conspirators. Time and circumstances were not kind to several of them, however, and less than a year later a prisoner arrested on an unrelated charge turned King’s evidence and named 12 of them, including Towle’s younger brother. Eight of the twelve were subsequently sentenced to death but only six faced the hangman, two of the original eight having their sentences reduced to transportation for life. Luddite activities in the Loughborough area effectively died with these six men who were hanged on a gallows erected close to the then Leicester Infirmary before a crowd of 15,000. It was reported that the condemned, accompanied by the multitude, sang a hymn before the trapdoor opened and their lives were ended.
Heathcoat himself, clearly disturbed by what had happened took the decision to transfer all his production to Tiverton in Devon and took great care to ensure that he acquired the protection of the authorities there as he feared a similar outbreak of violence towards himself, his workers and his equipment. His Loughborough factory was taken over by other entrepreneurs and production continued under new management. But that, as they say, is another story.
The story of the Loughborough Luddites is a fascinating, if gruesome one and paints a vivid, stark picture of life in the area in the early 1800’s. But it is only the start of a much longer and even more beguiling tale. The ups and downs of fashion and the economy led to migrations: not only from Loughborough to Tiverton, but from the East Midlands to Calais and from there, in due course, to Australia. There are many stories of bravery, determination, hardship, and acceptance in foreign lands, but all lie outside of the scope of these brief notes. Events Recreated
Two events featuring the life and times of this group of men (and women) have been running over the last few weeks in our area and both are most certainly worthy of a visit.
The first is an exhibition at Charnwood Museum from April 20th to July 8th presenting a story of invention and determination, migration and new lives in foreign lands, created by the Friends of Charnwood Museum. Here you can find out about pioneering inventor John Heathcoat and his lace-making machine, the Luddites who attacked his Loughborough factory in 1816, theworkers who walked 200 miles to follow Heathcoat to Devon, the smuggling of machines to Calais, and the lacemakers who sailed to new lives in France and Australia. It promises to be a fascinating exhibition painting a vivid picture of life in and around the Loughborough area not so very long ago.
Complimenting the Charnwood exhibition, Huddersfield’s best known export, The Mikron Theatre Touring Company, presented the world premier of their specially commissioned musical play, “The Lacemakers”on April 20th at Loughborough Town Hall. Huddersfield based Mikron enjoy an enviable reputation in the world of theatre for researching, writing and presenting historically accurate plays using words and music to paint memorable pictures of the past, blending humour and pathos in equal measure to keep audiences spellbound and enthused. Mikron tour the country each year using their trusty narrowboat, Tyseley, (featured in La Vie last year), as their main mode of transport. They have played at numerous venues in the midlands over many years presenting a variety of plays that have been extremely well received. This year witnesses Mikron’s 36th year of touring and the first they have ever premiered a play in our area. “The Lacemakers” promises to be something very special indeed and is expected to attract much interest, dealing as it does with the life and times of a local industry and series of events which went on to have repercussions around the world.
The author wishes to extend his thanks to “The Friends of Charnwood Museum”for their help in preparing this article, especially their fastidious review of dates and timings. Thanks are also due to the Mikron Theatre Company for access to their research and for discussing so many aspects of events freely and openly.
John Gee Pink elephant pr