With the introduction of new textile machinery in nineteenth century England, large numbers of skilled workers were being forced out of business. As new machinery was being introduced, the wages of craftsmen dropped and working conditions began to deteriorate. Many of them began to join the group known as the Luddites
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 owners were buying.
Within the space of three weeks, more than 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 pounds to anyone "giving information on any person or persons wickedly breaking the frames".
Luddism began to spread across the whole of the North of England, with violence and destruction following in its wake.
In February 1812 the government of Spencer Perceval proposed that machine-breaking should become a capital offence. Lord Byron, made a passionate speech against the Act in the House of Lords at the end of February, 1812:
During the short time I recently passed in Nottingham, not twelve hours elapsed without some fresh act of violence; and on that day I left the the county I was informed that forty Frames had been broken the preceding evening, as usual, without resistance and without detection.
Such was the state of that county, and such I have reason to believe it to be at this moment. But whilst these outrages must be admitted to exist to an alarming extent, it cannot be denied that they have arisen from circumstances of the most unparalleled distress: the perseverance of these miserable men in their proceedings, tends to prove that nothing but absolute want could have driven a large, and once honest and industrious, body of the people, into the commission of excesses so hazardous to themselves, their families, and the community.
They were not ashamed to beg, but there was none to relieve them: their own means of subsistence were cut off, all other employment preoccupied; and their excesses, however to be deplored and condemned, can hardly be subject to surprise.
As the sword is the worst argument than can be used, so should it be the last. In this instance it has been the first; but providentially as yet only in the scabbard. The present measure will, indeed, pluck it from the sheath; yet had proper meetings been held in the earlier stages of these riots, had the grievances of these men and their masters (for they also had their grievances) been fairly weighed and justly examined, I do think that means might have been devised to restore these workmen to their avocations, and tranquillity to the country.
But 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.
Many Luddites members were not ready to give up their lives, and abandoned the group. Though there were still enough active Luddites to cause panic and over-reaction by the authorities--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 Burton's house. The military arrived and another seven men were killed.
In the summer of 1812 eight men in Lancashire were sentenced to death and thirteen transported to Australia for attacks on cotton mills. Another fifteen were executed at York. This was followed by further sporadic outbreaks of violence but by 1817 the Luddite movement had ceased to be active in Britain.