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Writings of the Luddites
Edited by Kevin Binfield
Baltimore & London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
$ 49.95, xxviii - 279 pages, ISBN 0-8018-7612-5.

Catherine Heyrendt
Université de Paris XII

This thoroughly-researched, clear and competent work fills a gap in the field of Luddite studies. It will be of interest both to those who specifically study Luddism—a unique movement of workers who declared war on machinery during the industrial revolution—and to those interested in the early nineteenth century or, more generally, in social and political thought. Kevin Binfield, a Professor at Murray State University, has carefully selected a wide-ranging collection of Luddite and Luddite-related texts [69-238], many of which were previously unpublished. In addition, he provides, in the shape of notes and introductory texts, the necessary apparatus to understand them. His endeavour has merit not only because it reflects tenacity, personal dedication and extensive travel (the author evokes a “trail of debts extending from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, and dozens of places in between” [xx]). It is also to be praised for its synthetic qualities and its clarity, which shed light on new and fascinating material as well as on known documents (see for instance the reinterpretation of a letter, found to be ironic [213-14]).

Binfield's Writings of the Luddites cannot be compared with similar works on Luddism, since it is the first anthology ever to be published on the subject. Binfield is clearly well aware of all previous research, and refers to it when necessary, making his own position clear. He agrees on the whole with other experts, although he is often led to qualify their views. His main intention, however, is to “give a linguistic and rhetorical face to the Luddites, to let them speak for themselves” [7].

Before doing so, the author includes a compendious introduction to the texts [1-67]. It provides useful definitions of the movement, making the book accessible even to those unfamiliar with the Luddites, their aspirations and their activities. Binfield also gives a comprehensive outline of Luddite research, showing in particular the problems of terminology. Each document and series of documents is accompanied by a few judicious paragraphs and notes that present, explain and set it in context. Essential chronological details are provided, giving the reader a larger historical overview, whether he is previously acquainted or not with the particulars of the Luddites and the events of the 1810s. Rhetorical background and strategies are also pertinently highlighted. An index of names and ideas makes it possible to navigate through the book easily.

As Adrian Randall points out in his foreword, Luddites caught the imagination of the public, not least because their movement was ubiquitous and manifold. For instance, the elusive and eponymous Ned Ludd (or “General Ludd”) was by no means the sole author of the texts that bore his signature, and his name spread from region to region, making the authorities fear a conspiracy. This was both an asset and a major challenge: while the wealth of documents on the subject was enormous, the data had to be gathered, selected and categorized.

Petitions, economic and political analysis represent the three main types of texts. Further distinctions may be established, for instance between original Luddite writings and background documents written by persons sympathetic (or not) to their cause. The context and the region also made for important variations. It is this latter regional variations that Binfield chose to emphasise, by dividing the texts into three main sections: Midlands, Northwestern and Yorkshire documents. It is his belief that “Luddite writing takes its shape from the discursive contexts of the different regions and the rhetorical needs of the movement's writers” [6]. Even the unifying name of “Ned Ludd” came to take a different significance according to the location.

Each region gives an insight into different trades, and offers its own interests, specificities and conclusions. Midlands Luddism, which occupies by far the largest section of the book, makes it difficult to uphold the traditional dichotomy between the lawful and riotous strands of the movement, since anonymity was rare. Northwestern documents involve mostly cotton towns, and textile workers (weavers rather than spinners) who were up in arms against innovations such as the power loom. Yorkshire Luddism was particularly prolific when it came to threatening letters, but not so for parliamentary petitions or economic texts. Its major concern was to fight the advent of machinery that led to a reduction of wages in the mills.

As well as its geography, the evolution of the movement is taken into account, since the texts are arranged chronologically within the regional sections. It is thus possible to follow Luddites from each trade and region between 1811 and 1817, from their early complaints to their last days in prison.

The documents are clearly the centrepiece of the book, hence the title. Binfield chooses to reproduce them verbatim, faithfully transcribing what are mostly manuscripts. Peculiarities of language (grammar, punctuation, spelling and page layout) are preserved, but are by no means a hindrance, even for those unfamiliar with manuscripts of the period. It is easy to become engrossed in the reading of texts which can be seen as milestones along the road of the fascinating Luddite history.

Through a colourful variety of texts, the whole Luddite drama unfolds: workers of different trades are summoned to meetings [102-3], mill-owners are threatened into getting rid of new machines [77-79] or into paying extra remuneration [82]; those who might tell on Ned are promised a fateful death [86] while reward posters are issued against rioters [135]. General Ludd's song, comparing him favourably with Robin Hood, is there [98-100], along with picturesque poems that sing his praise [130-32]. Letters from and to Luddite rioters in prison express various states of repentance on the eve of their executions [160-63]. The documents even range as far as elements of serialised fiction [203].

A recurring theme in workers' pleas is that of “decent subsistence” [80]. Priding themselves on their work, they feel “entitled to a higher station in society” [80], namely one where they can support their families. All in all, machine-breaking is presented as a necessary yet regrettable action. Many letters seem to be written in the belief that, should mill-owners become aware of the distress of the workers, they would try and solve the problem. It is the same view as that endorsed, later in the century, by many of Elizabeth Gaskell's characters. Thus, a polite and elaborate letter pointedly explains the situation to the Gentlemen Hosiers of Nottingham:

On account of the great rise in the Necessities of Life, a Man that has full employ, with all his industry, and a Woman, with all her care and economy, can by no means support a family with any degree of Comfort. [...] Destitute of all the Comforts of Life, our only acquaintance is pinching Poverty and pining Want. We wish to live peaceably and honestly by our Labour, and to train up our Children in the paths of virtue and rectitude, but we cannot accomplish our wishes. [77-78]

Not all letters are so well-written or considerate: the proclamation immediately following [79] is a much cruder text stating that Ned and 20,000 men will destroy the town of Nottingham (despite the soldiers), unless a meeting of hosiers is called and prices are dropped. Similarly, Yorkshire Luddites issue this rather startling notice to a mill-owner: “We was Intent upon Seting fire to your factory on account of those Dressing Machines [...] We think it our Bounin Duty to give you this Notice [...]” [172]. These threats eventually became reality, as many factories were destroyed (arson being the preferred mode to do so), and their owners occasionally murdered. Some letters, like those of Thomas Savige [157-59] provide evidence of a preference for non-violent frame-breaking among the Midlands Luddites. Thus Savige, sentenced to death for the attempted murder of a Nottingham hosier, claims his innocence in a letter of farewell to his wife and his six children, the youngest of whom is still in the womb. Another typical letter of that kind is by a certain William Withers, a thirty-three year old husband and father about to be executed for taking part in the Loughborough riots:

My Dear Wife,
These are the last few lines you will ever receive from your loving and affectionate, but dying husband: pardon me for the distress I have brought upon you, and my dear child. [...] Most of my time is spent in prayer, and I hope, with true repentance, through the merits of our blessed Savior, to enter into eternal life in Jesus Christ. I cannot die without making one remark to you, it was nothing but distress that ever induced me to be at Loughborough; I now repent, but, alas, it is too late. [160]

These texts are not only deeply moving and evocative of the major Luddite events. Beyond their particular natures, some have far-reaching ideological implications. Binfield rightly points out that the following (a worker's letter addressed to a mill owner) confronts capitalist motives: “[W]e are starving by inches by reason of our small wages & provisions so high. You had better be content with a moderate profit, than have your mills destroyed” [182].

Other texts are equally enlightening, if not crucial, to historians of ideas. Thus, for instance, the Yorkshire Luddites give the movement an international dimension, invoking the French as possible role models and even helpers:

Come let us follow the Noble Example of the brave Citizens of Paris who in the sight of 30,000 Tyrant Redcoats brought A Tyrant to the Ground” [208]


[O]n the 5th day of November next, the Luddites mean to rid themselves, of all their Enemys. They reckon on 50,000 French Prisoners, as helpers, as out of all that are sworn, amongs the French, not one did refuse. [227]

Another example of greater political scope is to be found in Luddite speeches, which often reflect much more than local preoccupations. Thus, in an address to the Huddersfield cotton weavers, an orator denounces oppression, injustice and hunger, going back to their origins and resorting, Binfield claims, to Lockean arguments [234-36]. And the powerful rhetoric of the text would, alone, have made it worthy of notice.

Writings of the Luddites is extremely thought-provoking and well put together. Diversity is not the least of its assets: it makes it interesting in more ways than can be accounted for, and claims the reader's constant and full attention. It is one of those rare anthologies that can be read from cover to cover. Binfield's clear and structured comments, that prefer the judicious over the pretentious, constitute the ideal box for such a patiently gathered treasure.


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