IN the early months of 1811 the first threatening letters from General Ned Ludd and the Army of Redressers, were sent to employers in Nottingham. Workers, upset by wage reductions and the use of unapprenticed workmen, began to break into factories at night to destroy the new machines that the employers were using.
In a three-week period over two hundred stocking frames were destroyed. In March, 1811, several attacks were taking place every night and the Nottingham authorities had to enroll four hundred special constables to protect the factories.
To help catch the culprits, the Prince Regent offered £50 to anyone “giving information on any person or persons wickedly breaking the frames”.
Luddism gradually spread to Yorkshire, Lancashire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire. In Yorkshire, croppers, a small and highly skilled group of cloth finishers, turned their anger on the new shearing frame that they feared would put them out of work.
In February and March, 1812, factories were attacked by Luddites in Huddersfield, Halifax, Wakefield and Leeds.
In February 1812 the government of Spencer Perceval proposed that machine-breaking should become a capital offence. Despite a passionate speech by Lord Byron in the House of Lords, Parliament passed the Frame Breaking Act that enabled people convicted of machine-breaking to be sentenced to death. As a further precaution, the government ordered 12,000 troops into the areas where the Luddites were active.
On of the most serious Luddite attacks took place at Rawfolds Mill near Brighouse in Yorkshire. William Cartwright, the owner of Rawfolds Mill, had been using cloth-finishing machinery since 1811.
Local croppers began losing their jobs and after a meeting at Saint Crispin public house, they decided to try and destroy the cloth-finishing machinery at Rawfolds Mill. Cartwright was suspecting trouble and arranged for the mill to be protected by armed guards.
Led by George Mellor, a young cropper from Huddersfield, the attack on Rawfolds Mill took place on 11th April, 1812. The Luddites failed to gain entry and by the time they left, two of the croppers had been mortally wounded. Seven days later the Luddites killed William Horsfall, another large mill-owner in the area. The authorities rounded up over a hundred suspects.
Of these, sixty-four were indicted. Three men were executed for the murder of Horsfall and another fourteen were hung for the attack on Rawfolds Mill.
Throughout 1812 there were attacks on Lancashire cotton mills. Local handloom weavers objected to the introduction of power looms. On 20th March, 1812 the warehouse of William Radcliffe, one of the first manufacturers to use the power-loom, was attacked in Stockport.
Wheat prices soared in 1812. Unable to feed their families, workers became desperate. There were food riots in Manchester, Oldham, Ashton, Rochdale, Stockport and Macclesfield.
On 20th April several thousand men attacked Burton’s Mill at Middleton near Manchester. Emanuel Burton, who knew that his policy of buying power-looms had upset local handloom weavers, had recruited armed guards and three members of the crowd were killed by musket-fire.
The following day the men returned and after failing to break-in to the mill, they burnt down Emanuel Burton’s house. The military arrived and another seven men were killed.
Three days later, Wray & Duncroffs Mill at Westhoughton, near Manchester, was set on fire. William Hulton, the High Sheriff of Lancashire, arrested twelve men suspected of taking part in the attack. Four of the accused, Abraham Charlston, Job Fletcher, Thomas Kerfoot, and James Smith, were executed.