Mechanisation of the weaving industry did not go unchallenged, and a group of textile workers took direct action to protect their traditional way of life. This group of protestors came to be known as the Luddites.
The Luddites were worried that the highly skilled craft of weaving was under threat by the machines being used by the big mills. Workers operating the machines in the mills were less-skilled and so could be paid lower wages, and the machines shortened the amount of time it took to create cloth, lowering costs. Appeals to the British government for help and support failed and the Luddites started to take direct action.
The Luddites entered mills at night and using sledge-hammers, they smashed the wooden frames of the spinning and cropping machines. Sometimes whole mills were set on fire. The mill owners responded by hiring security guards and several Luddites were shot and killed during their protests. Download a copy of the Croppers Song which describes some of these protests.
The British government sided with the mill owners and brought in tough new laws designed to deter the Luddites from destroying the machines. Those found guilty of ‘machine breaking’ faced transportation to penal colonies in Australia, or even execution. In 1812 a large number of Luddites were put on trial in York and many were hanged.
By 1813 the protests and the Luddites had virtually disappeared, and with them went the weaving cottage industries and a whole way of life.