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Welsh History Review


Vol. 5, nos. 1-4 1970-71

The Luddites : machine-breaking in Regency England Book review.

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to create a new society. To say the contrary is to bring 'ideological
commitment' into history. This has obvious dangers, as has the use of
ill-defined sociological concepts in relation to the English working class.
Clearly the historian's duty is to 'say what he means and to communicate
his thought in intelligible language'.
No one could deny that Dr. Thomis writes in a lucid and intelligible
fashion. His book is close to the sources, and inevitably he gives much
weight to the reports of 'moderate' men such as the 'healthily sceptical'
General Maitland. This considered use of a mass of confusing material
and a thorough knowledge of the Luddite regions are the hallmarks of
Dr. Thomis's work. The picture of Luddism which emerges is both
anti- and pre-Thompson. The Luddites, the 'lowest orders' of the com-
munity, are given less colour and character, but their numbers and
activities are painstakingly recorded. The movement is shown to be less
widespread, particularly in Lancashire, than has been suggested. This may
account for the apparent nonchalance of the government, although
Dr. Thomis does not satisfactorily explain why 12,000 soldiers were sent
to Luddite areas.
The roots of the movement were varied. Machinery was not hated,
except in special circumstances; low wages were more important. After
a brief initial success Luddism acquired a momentum of its own, and in
the process it triggered off a 'crime explosion' in certain counties. In the
later stages of the movement (1811-16) the use of 'professional toughs'
and the stealing of arms became fairly common. To some extent this new
militancy was a reaction to the brutality of the authorities and the troops,
but it was not part of a general Luddite plot to overthrow the government.
The nature of the Luddite organization reinforces this picture of a
many-sided, dynamic and fragmented movement. There was no central
figure-though Gravener Henson is not entirely dismissed as a possible
candidate-and no central body. The sending of delegates from region to
region and the swearing of oaths, which E. P. Thompson regards as
evidence of an integrated and possibly revolutionary movement, were no
more than peripheral activities. Luddism was essentially a local matter;
its natural home was the isolated village. 'It might have happened that
"the Luddites of different districts reached out to each other" (E.P.T.),
but this they did spiritually; it is not possible to show that they did so
physically, and it is even possible for someone "who knows the geography
of the Midlands and the North" (E.P.T.) to believe that Nottinghamshire,
or at least, the Midlands Luddites were essentially a self-contained body
of people who neither had, nor needed, contact with those in the
North' (p. 125).
Perhaps the most interesting aspects of the book are the relationship
between Luddism and trade unionism, and the sympathy which the
former evoked from sections of the middle class. In Lancashire and
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