Next Thursday, which also happens to be the Ides of March, marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the first large-scale Luddite attack in Yorkshire. This was not the first Luddite attack in England, but it was the largest and most destructive to date. It was particularly troubling to government officials as it was one of the first indications they had that the movement was spreading out from the county in which it had originated.
The events of 15 March 1812, in the West Riding, and their aftermath …
Though those living in the Regency were aware of the significance of the date of 15 March, the Ides of March, it is more likely the Luddites chose the date of 15 March 1812, because it was a Sunday. Their target, a wool processing factory, which they assumed would be deserted and thus much easier to raid when the workers were not on the premises. But they did not choose their target at random, they had specifically selected this particular factory to send a message to its owner and a group of which he was a member. They had, in fact, sent him a threatening letter just days before they attacked his factory.
Francis "Frank" Vickerman lived in the West Riding of Yorkshire in the early nineteenth century, where he owned a large wool-finishing factory, in the area of Taylor Hill. The woven wool cloth was brought to his factory after it had been through the fulling process, and the nap on the cloth had been raised by the use of teasels, or wire brushes. Though the teasels raised the nap of cloth, it was not of a even height and made the cloth surface appear very rough. Thus, the next step was to have the cloth "sheared," by which process the uneven nap was trimmed or cropped to an even height which gave the cloth a smooth, finished surface. For generations, fulled and teased woollen cloth had been sheared by hand, using very large, heavy, hand-operated shears. It was back-breaking work which could only be done by large, strong, skilled men. Vickerman had recently installed several shearing frames in his factory which made it possible to shear many more yards of cloth with much less effort. The shearing frames also did not require the same level of skill to operate as had been necessary when wielding the hand shears. Once again, many textile workers felt their livelihood was threatened by machines.
Frank Vickerman was a founding member of the Yorkshire Committee of Merchants and Manufacturers, which had been founded only a few weeks before, on 23 February 1812. This organization was created by a number of wool merchants and manufacturers who were concerned about recent Luddite attacks in their county. The Luddite movement had originated in Nottinghamshire the previous fall. But in February of 1812, there had been a couple of attacks over the border in Yorkshire, which alarmed those involved in the wool trade in that county. The members of the Committee of Merchants and Manufacturers, which had so recently been established in Huddersfield, were already at work organizing the militia and coordinating with the local Watch to actively suppress any further Luddite activities.
These miscreants were called the Luddites by the government and those they attacked, after the name of their fictitious or mythical leader, Ned Ludd, often called General or King Ludd. However, this band of frame-breakers called themselves the Army of the Redressers, because they believed they were redressing the wrongs done to themselves and other textile workers by the introduction of machinery. The name Ned Ludd was also signed on some of their letters and announcements as Clerk of this Army of Redressers for their General, who remained anonymous. So was signed one of these letters, which was delivered to Frank Vickerman a few nights before 15 March 1812, by means of a rock thrown through one of the windows of his factory. This letter threatened Vickerman with the destruction of his factory if he did not immediately cease his efforts to organize the protection of his factory and those of his fellow manufacturers.
Vickerman refused to be intimidated and decided to ignore the threat from the Luddites. Instead, he brought in guards to patrol the grounds of his wool-processing factory. These guards were on patrol on that Sunday, 15 March 1812, though it is not clear whether or not the Luddites were aware of their presence. It does seem likely that they were. Having chosen to attack Vickerman’s factory on Sunday night, the Luddites gathered in the nearby Pricking Wood, where most of the men blacked their faces in preparation for their raid. A large mob left the wood and made their way to Vickerman’s factory, arriving just before nine o’clock. The few guards on duty there were no match for this horde of angry men, and were soon over-powered. Using hatchets and axes, several of the bigger, stronger men broke down the door. The Luddites swarmed in and destroyed at least ten of Vickerman’s new shearing frames, as well as thirty pairs of large wool shears, and most of the finished and unfinished woollen cloth which was still in the factory. They also tore down and broke up the factory clock before they smashed every window in the building. Next, they tried to set fire to the remains of the factory building, but reinforcements had arrived by then and the fire was soon extinguished.
The raid on Vickerman’s factory was the first large-scale Luddite attack in Yorkshire. It was also the most blatant, violent and daring Luddite assault in all of the north country since the movement had perpetrated its first attack in Nottinghamshire, in November of the previous year. The earlier raids had resulted in the breaking of a weaving frame or three, but there had been little property damage beyond that. Until the Luddites hit Vickerman’s factory, in large numbers, wreaking wholesale destruction. But this raid was to have serious negative consequences which the Luddites had not intended. As I noted in the article I posted here a couple of weeks ago, in his maiden speech before the House of Lords, Lord Byron spoke eloquently against making frame-breaking a capital offence, punishable by death. Until the massive Luddite assault in the West Riding, there was some chance that bill might have been defeated. But when the news of the violent raid on Vickerman’s factory reached London, any support the frame-breakers might have had quickly melted away, and the bill was easily passed in Parliament.
There were other, equally, if not more, violent Luddite raids throughout Yorkshire in the months that followed the attack at Vickerman’s wool-shearing factory. The government crack-down was severe, and by January of 1813, a series of trials were underway against a number of Luddites who had been apprehended. They were some of the first Luddites who were tried under the law Lord Byron had not been able to defeat. Before the month was out, sixty-four prisoners had gone on trial, eighteen were convicted and executed by hanging, even more were transported to Australia. There were a few more Luddite attacks after the trials, but they were much less frequent and much less violent than they had been in 1812. Though there were various Luddite flare-ups here and there across England until 1816, they had all but ceased in Yorkshire by the end of 1813.