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International Socialism, March 1996


Mark O’Brien

The bloody birth of capitalism


From International Socialism 2:70, March 1996.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


J.L. and B. Hammond
The Village Labourer
Alan Sutton 1995

The Labourer 1760–1832 is in fact a collection of three books that were published separately as The Village Labourer (1911), The Town Labourer (1917) and The Skilled Labourer (1919). They were to become classics in the flowering of working class history writing which marked the post-war years, as the impact of workers’ revolution reverberated around the world. They set a standard of scholarship and tilled the ground that E.P. Thompson was to re-work in the early 1960s.

The excitement of the Hammonds’ work lies not only in its historical detail but in the powerful contemporary resonance of its pages. Understanding the roots of capitalist society illuminates our understanding of the system we struggle against today and reminds us of the barbarism which lies at the core of that system.

The period covered by the Hammonds can be characterised as that in which the social and economic preconditions for the industrial revolution were created. This was not a slow painless process of gradual but inevitable change – a kind of calm before the storm of the massive industrialisation that was to follow. Rather it was a period of cruel and determined intervention by mainly Whig (Liberal) governments against a reluctant population. That force was required to clear the way for the factory system should not surprise us when we look at what the changes meant for the mass of labourers and their families who were to become the new manufacturing proletariat.

Life in the rural areas at the end of the 17th century and for much of the 18th century was based on arduous labour and could be suffocatingly parochial, oppressively landlord dominated and, in times of disease or crop failure, short. On the other hand, however, these were old communities with families and names which went back further than people could remember. At their strongest the old villages could be places of social stability, albeit of a kind that was riven by hierarchical social relationships and petty rivalries. In fair times an artisan or small landholder might prosper. Certainly these communities were not without their comforts. At the very least even the poorest labourer or farmer would have common rights which enabled them to collect firewood or forest fruits or to graze an animal or two on open pasture.

The historically progressive aspect of the industrial system found no intellectual appeal or enthusiasm amongst the mass of the village populations. On the contrary, these communities were resistant to change. It was this resistance that the new industrialists and their political representatives were determined to smash.

The principal instrument used to undermine the old rural communities was land enclosure. By this means common land, to which common rights had become attached by ancient custom allowing even the poorest to have access, was now expropriated into large estates and private hands. Enclosures actually began in the reign of Henry VII at the end of the 15th century. The number of enclosures increased rapidly after the Reformation in the 16th century with the breaking up of the monasteries and the land rights associated with them. But in our period a new systematic approach to enclosure began to develop with the power of the state behind it.

The process by which the soil was transformed into capital became more and more intensive. The agricultural revolution of the earlier part of the 18th century had massively increased food production by the systematic application of more scientific farming principles such as crop rotation, liming and manuring of the soil, and selective breeding, and had provided the basis for an increasing population. The later decades of the 18th century saw the establishment of institutions for scientific research such as the Royal Veterinary Society, Kew Gardens and the Royal Botanical Society. The confidence of the new ‘progressives’ was secured by a new world view which abhorred the untidiness of the natural landscape and which worshipped above all order, system and symmetry – the celebration of nature found in Wordsworth and Constable came as a later reaction against these rationalists.

The optimism of the age, however, meant absolutely nothing to the labourer. For the mass of the rural population the enclosures were devastating. Whole regions became depopulated. Small farmers now became day labourers and hirelings. Some emigrated to America. Many joined the bands of the destitute who roamed the agricultural districts. Finally they were drawn with a terrible inevitability into the black holes of the growing industrial ghettos.

The ruling class regarded the whole scene with delight. To them the small landholders had been unproductive and wasteful. They sermonised about the fecklessness of the poor and celebrated their plunder with visions of their own advancement and human progress. In fact the ruling class, despite their ideological pretensions, were clear about the benefits of this shift both for the new capitalism they were inaugurating and for their own interests within it. One Mr Bishton wrote the following: ‘The use of common land operates upon the mind as a sort of independence.’ When the commons are enclosed ‘the labourers will work every day in the year, their children will be put out to labour early’ and ‘that subordination of the lower ranks which in the present times is so much wanted, would be thereby considerably secured’. [1]

Something of what these changes meant to the labourers is captured in this piece from a chronicler of the time:

Go to an alehouse kitchen of an old enclosed country, and there you will see the origin of poverty and poor rates. For whom are they to be sober? For whom are they to save? For the parish? If I am diligent, shall I have leave to build a cottage? If I am sober, shall I have land for a cow? If I am frugal shall I have an acre of potatoes? You offer no motives; you have nothing but a parish officer and a workhouse! Bring me another pot. [2]

Pauperism was not now an episodic occurrence but rather a defining feature of the landscape of pre-industrial Britain. The pauper for the new ruling class was an object of annoyance and contempt. The Radical pamphleteer William Cobbett commented on how the language of respectable society changed with respect to the poor. The old name of ‘the commons of England’, for example, gave way to ‘the lower orders’ or ‘the peasantry’ and when the poor gathered together to voice their grievances they became ‘the mob’. After the French Revolution of 1789, however, a different emotion became mingled in the minds of the rich as they regarded the poor – fear. The poor were now not merely a nuisance. They were a threat and pauperism was a problem which required a solution.

Even as elements within political circles and local magistrates and poor relief officials began to address the problem of mass destitution they betrayed their class hostility to the labourers. Could not the poor, for example, change their diet?

The solution seemed to lie in the simple life. Enthusiasts soon began to feel about this proposal the sort of excitement that Robinson Crusoe enjoyed when discovering new resources on his island: an infinite vista of kitchen reform beckoned to their ingenious imaginations: and many of them began to persuade themselves that the miseries of the poor arose less from the scantiness of their incomes than from their own improvidence and unthriftiness. [3]

These reformers boasted of their own thrift by cutting the edges off pastry dishes and reducing the subsistence of their servants. Surely labourers in the south did not really have to eat wheaten bread. Was not oatmeal just as good? The drinking of tea by the poor was seen as downright scandalous. In fact the diet of the labourers already crudely reflected the realities of life and work in their different regions. Where fatty meat was unavailable, for example, good bread was essential as a source of energy. Breads of mixed grain and oatmeal were only consumed in regions where the availability of milk had not been eliminated by enclosures. And tea was consumed as a stimulant against fatigue. The labourer, who in the imagination of the well to do was something akin to a roughly built and sturdy animal, proved infuriatingly impervious to the wisdom of the dieticians.

Another option briefly considered and rejected, although favoured by the labourers themselves, was that of the minimum wage. There was a notion that wage levels might be pegged to the prices of staple foods. Indeed a table of wages and prices was actually drawn up. The plan was soon dropped, however. As prices rose, an increase in wages would have become a working class demand and even an issue of dispute between labourers and employers. As prices fell, however, it dawned on the magistrates that reducing wages might be easier said than done!

Finally a new form of poor relief carried the day in the form of the Speenhamland system of 1795. What distinguished the new system from the old, somewhat ramshackle and regionally based parish relief which dated back to the reign of Elizabeth I, was both its near national spread and the way in which it was to become a structural element in the accelerating development of capitalist society. The Speenhamland system was not a mere safety net designed to save the poorest from starvation in times of economic collapse. It was a system which actually institutionalised pauperism and which locked poverty into capitalist social relations on the employer’s terms. Under Speenhamland an employer might reduce wages to below subsistence level in the knowledge that the poor rates would make up the difference. The immediate effect was to depress wages and to impose universal pauperism even amongst the working population. Those without work suffered even greater abuse. They were now in the hands of the Speenhamland overseers. These local officers would hire out the unemployed who were forced to go from house to house seeking work. Any wages would be paid to the overseer to finance relief. Despite respectable society’s preachings on the subject of frugality, if a labourer had indeed worked hard to put a little aside for himself and his family he was now punished by the Speenhamland system. Only paupers could obtain relief. It was dangerous even to look neat and tidy lest this arouse suspicion of hidden savings.

It needs to be borne in mind that agriculture by the 1790s was a vast and specialised capitalist industry which was enjoying fabulous profits. The high prices of farming produce were the result partly of enclosure, partly of the application of scientific methods and partly of the French war. The labourer enjoyed no share in this:

The village population whose condition ... was compared by supporters of the slave trade with that of the negroes in the West Indies, to its disadvantage, might have been rehoused on its share of this tremendous revenue. In fact, the revenue went solely to increase rent, tithes and to some extent profits. The labourers alone had made no advance when the halcyon days of the industry clouded over and prices fell. The rent receiver received more rent than was needed to induce him to let his land, the farmer made larger profits than were necessary to induce him to apply his capital and ability to farming, but the labourer received less than was necessary to maintain him, the balance being made up out of the rates. Thus not only did the labourer receive no share of the surplus; he did not even get his subsistence directly from the product of his labour ... The landlord therefore made no sacrifice in introducing the Speenhamland system ... [4]

Just as poverty and ruling class attitudes towards the poor were becoming systematically redefined, so too was the meaning of crime. Punishments meted out for stealing began to assume a new ferocity. Transportations to Australia and Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) became commonplace. Hangings too became common and even expected for theft accompanied by any form of violence or for repeated offence. In many magistrates courts it was normal practice to hand out a sentence of death only to commute it to one of transportation on the basis of a character witness or of a plea from grief stricken relatives or a sympathetic parson. Frequently the rich of an area would express their disgust at commutations of the death sentence, regarding transportation as a soft option. Magistrates who were seen as lenient were usually removed. One Suffolk magistrate, Capel Lofft, was struck off the Commission of the Peace for trying to argue for clemency in the case of a girl who had been sentenced to death for stealing. Indeed youth was no defence. The Annual Register for 1791 records the execution of two boys for stealing at Newport, one aged 14 and the other 15. Children were committed to Houses of Correction in their hundreds in some districts. The transportation of children was not uncommon. One diarist gives us the following entry in 1813:

Oct 13 – I was attending to give evidence against a man. Afterwards two boys, John and Thomas Clough, aged 12 and 10 years, were tried and found guilty of stealing some Irish linen out of Joseph Thorley’s warehouse during the dinner hour. The Chairman sentenced them to seven years transportation. On its being announced the mother of these unfortunate boys came to the Bar to her children, and with them was in great agony, imploring mercy of the bench. With difficulty the children were removed. The scene was so horrifying I could remain no longer in court. [5]

Some of the cruellest punishments were handed out under the new game code against poaching. With such high levels of poverty, poached game was an indispensable supplement on the table of many a home:

The close relation of this great increase of crime to the general distress was universally recognised. Cobbett tells us that a gentleman in Surrey asked a young man, who was cracking stones on the roadside, how he could live upon half a crown a week. ‘I don’t live on it,’ said he. ‘How do you live then?’ ‘Why,’ said he, ‘I poach: it is better to be hanged than to be starved to death.’ [6]

We have already followed the Hammonds’ description of the process of enclosure and its significance. The question of land ownership was precious to the ruling class. Poaching was seen as an intolerable infringement. More than this, however, it was outside any system. It was in a sense an unregulated form of poor relief. The point here is that for the new system poverty was essential. It was the whip of poverty which drove the rural populations into the towns. It was poverty too which was a weapon in determining wage levels. It was poverty and distress which were to keep the wheels of industry turning faster and faster. Anything which undermined this, which softened the sting of poverty, including such working class entertainments as the public fairs – hated by the rich as events of excess and ribaldry – was seen as detrimental to the new capitalism. The conviction rate for poaching increased along with industrialisation. Between 1827 and 1830 one in seven of all convictions came under the game laws.

There were those within the ranks of the wealthy who rationalised such repression in terms of a higher aesthetic sense. There were some, for example, who prided themselves on their love of nature and of animals. They were appalled at such barbarous sports of the working class as bull baiting and cock fighting and campaigned for their suppression by parliament. That such sports reflected the brutalisation and cruelty of the lives of workers of the time would never have occurred to them.

It was in the towns, at the heart of the new industry, that these depths of disregard for human life and the quality of life for the working class were found at their most systematic and mechanised. The towns of the early decades of the 19th century were growing too fast to assume any aspect that we might call ‘character’ or ‘colour’. They were not evolving in the way that the medieval conurbations had evolved. Rather they were expanding in a frenzied drive for profit. The only buildings built with any real thought or planning at all were the factories themselves. The homes of the workers, if indeed they warranted such a title, were built without regard for ventilation or sanitation. The supplies of clean water were minimal if they existed at all. Landlords crammed in tenant families on top of one another. Beds were shared between families, rotating according to shifts. It was commonly said that a bed in a Manchester working class tenement was never cold:

They were not so much towns as barracks: not the refuge of a civilisation but the barracks of an industry. This character was stamped on their form and life of government. The medieval town had reflected the minds of centuries and the subtle associations of a living society with a history; these towns reflected the violent enterprise of an hour, the single passion that had thrown street on street in a frantic monotony of disorder. [7]

Inside the factories a regime existed designed to crush any spirit of independence out of the working class. Even the slightest infringements of factory discipline were punished with penalties and fines. During a spinners’ strike in Manchester the strikers published a pamphlet listing the fines to which they were subjected:





Any spinner found with his window open



Any spinner found dirty at his work



Any spinner found washing himself



Any spinner leaving his oil can out of its place



Any spinner repairing his drum banding with his gas lighted



Any spinner slipping with his gas lighted



Any spinner putting his gas out too soon



Any spinner spinning with gaslight too long in the morning



The list contains 19 separate infringements. [8]

Conditions in these factories were not only oppressive – they were dangerous. Reports of accidents were regularly suppressed. The most shocking abuse perpetrated by the factory system both to the modern mind and to observers and workers of the time was the exploitation of children. Child labour had always been a feature of working life in pre-industrial Britain. Generally, however, it had tended to be within the family sphere of the artisan’s home or workshop. What was different now was the scale and form of the phenomenon. The factories, mills and mines now pulled in literally thousands upon thousands of child labourers, sometimes as young as five or six. They worked the fastest spindles and dug into the narrowest and most dangerous seams. They worked the ventilation shafts, they trimmed the oil lamps, they fetched and carried for the skilled labourers, they swept the factory floors. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that in some industries child labour formed the basis of production. The length of the working day for children at that time is almost hard to imagine:

The 14 or 15 hours’ confinement for six days a week were the ‘regular’ hours: in busy times hours were elastic and sometimes stretched to a length that seems almost incredible. Work from 3 a.m. to 10 p.m. was not unknown ... At the mill aptly called ‘Hell Bay,’ for two months at a time, they not only worked regularly from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., but for two nights each week worked all through the night as well. The more humane employers contented themselves when busy with a spell of 16 hours (5 a.m. to 9 p.m.). [9]

Such a system could not be physically maintained without a regime of terror. In many mills the sound of beatings and screams of pain were heard by the hour. Some children were indentured into the factories by parents who were themselves brutalised by the savagery of early capitalism. In other cases agonised parents would drag their crying children to the gates each day and beat them themselves to save them from even worse beatings which they knew would be dealt out inside. In many areas poor relief would not be given to families who refused to put their children out to work.

Child labour came into the homes of the well to do and of the middle class reformers in the form of the chimney sweeps. Young children, usually boys, would be forced, almost naked and almost paralysed by fear, up the chimneys. Sometimes an older boy might be sent up after them to force them to keep moving. Sometimes a fire might be lit beneath them to help their passage. The ‘invention’ of the sweep actually encouraged the building of narrower and narrower flues. Stories of children becoming trapped and dying in these sooty tombs were commonplace.

The Hammonds expose brilliantly the mentality and attitude of the rich towards these horrors. That attempts were made to justify the exploitation of children, is amazing in itself. The ‘justifications’ themselves, moreover, can only be described as perverse. It was said, for example, that the rapid and intricate movements of the spindle frames caught the fancy of lively little minds. The factory children were attributed a kind of cheerful elvish quality. Their work then was a kind of amusement. A factory commissioner in 1832 even produced the following ingenious argument to the effect that the work of children at the ‘mules’ – devices which moved up and down the spinning machines – was light. After all, he reasoned, whilst the mule was moving away from the child, or had not yet reached them, they were doing no actual work. This led to the triumphant conclusion that ‘if a child is normally working 12 hours a day,’ for nine hours he performs no actual labour! [10]

Against this background the ability of the ruling class to cocoon themselves in a soft focused rationalisation of the world which they had created arouses disgust. The age of the factory children is also the age when a new romantic myth of childhood was being created in literature and art. Books such as Poetry for Children and Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb were a must in the children’s bedrooms of any fashionable middle class home. Painters such as Sir Joshua Reynolds created an image of childhood which dripped with sentimentality. Childhood was an age of innocence and fancy, of chasing dandelion clocks and playing with puppies. Even the urchins were painted with cheeky faces, glowing at play. The poor wretches pulling coal wagons on their hands and knees in the darkness would never see these images. Many would never see sunlight.

In all that we have seen so far – the mass impoverishment of the working class, the treatment of crime, the exploitation of children – there was an underlying logic. This barbarism had a point. The way to be cleared for the industrial system had nothing whatever to offer the working class of the time. The main means by which to force workers from the fields and into the furnaces of the early industrial towns was by violence and the threat of starvation. The social experience of the working class in our period, however, was not simply one of oppression. Our story is also one of resistance.

The entire period of the second half of the 18th century and the opening decades of the 19th century was shaped, not only by the depredations of an increasingly vicious and avaricious ruling class, but also by disturbances, rioting, strikes and working class organisation. The enclosures, for example, provoked rioting again and again. Widespread food riots, in which women played a conspicuous part, took place in 1795. The rioters were actually highly organised. Once they had mastered an area, they did not simply plunder what they could. Rather they seized grain, for example, and then forced storekeepers to sell it to them for what they considered to be a reasonable price. They then set about distributing it fairly.

In 1816 large scale rioting occurred in the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Huntingdon and Cambridgeshire. Nightly assemblies were held, threatening letters sent to local landowners and houses, ricks and barns were fired. The rioters marched under a banner inscribed with the words ‘Bread or Blood’ and there were several clashes with yeomanry and dragoons. In 1830 the ‘Swing’ riots took place against the threshing machine which had been used to replace agricultural workers whilst many of them were away fighting or being killed in the continental wars.

As the working class grew in size and cohesion increasingly strikes came into prominence as the focus of the social contradictions of the new society shifted to the industrial regions. Significant strikes occurred amongst the miners in 1795, 1810, 1816, 1831 and 1832; the cotton spinners in 1810, 1818, 1829 and 1830; the cotton weavers in 1808 and 1818; the woollen spinners in 1819; the woollen weavers in 1819, 1823, 1825, 1827 and 1828-9; the shearmen in 1802; the woolcombers and worsted weavers in 1825; the framework knitters in 1814, 1817, 1819, 1821 and 1824.

Frequently strike waves would occur as the result of disillusionment following the shattering of false hopes placed in the system itself. The weavers, for example, looked to the Arbitration Act of 1803 to redress their grievances. The act, however, worked entirely and systematically in favour of the masters. Other groups of workers petitioned parliament for better wages or placed hope in legislation for a minimum wage. In every case their illusions were shattered. Often it took such an experience for workers to turn towards ideas of political reform. The great 1819 gathering at St Peter’s Field, for example, at which the Peterloo Massacre took place, and which was to mark a high point of the movement for parliamentary reform, took place against the background of the largest strike wave ever up to that point.

One problem for the authorities facing this new phenomenon of increasingly organised action by workers was the unreliability of the men at their command. Sometimes their forces were simply intimidated. In the cotton spinners’ strike of 1830 special constables refused to act against strikers who were parading the streets with pistols and bludgeons. But often there was genuine sympathy with workers when they took action. In the Tyne and Wear seamen’s strike of 1815 a 20-gun ship was sent to Shields. The officers, however, reported that they seriously doubted whether the bluejackets aboard would act against the strikers, so strong was their sentiment in support of the seamen. There are frequent reports of locally raised militias either standing aside or even actually taking sides with rioters and strikers.

It was for this reason that the first attempts were made to establish a permanent body whose sole role it would be to police the urban centres. William Pitt’s volunteers were an early attempt to institute such a body. These proved just as unreliable, however. In most of the northern towns the volunteers acted with the rioters in the cases of food riots and strikes at one time or another. When the volunteers were finally disbanded in 1813, the one force that was retained was the yeomanry. They were essentially the well to do of the area, in uniform, on horseback and armed with cutlasses. Their hostility towards the working class ran deep and they became known for their arrogance and ferocity. It was the yeomanry who were responsible for the slaughter at St Peter’s Field in 1819 which triggered a wave of protests and strikes. The government was briefly forced to ponder the possibility of a revolutionary response. It was after this episode that the ruling class moved more and more towards the notion of a domestic, demilitarised body, able to use less than lethal force to quell working class unrest. Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police Bill and the Special Constables Act came at the very end of our period.

The Hammonds end their work with an extended discussion of the Luddite movement. This is appropriate. In many senses, although there were other strands within the working class in which we can see the seeds of the movement that was to follow – the reform movement and general unionism, for example – the Luddites represent a defining moment in the period about which the Hammonds have written. Although Nedd Ludd and his friends were at large in the hard months between 1811 and 1812, in terms of the evolution of working class consciousness they mark, not so much the birth of the modern working class, but the end of its gestation.

The background to the Luddite movement was the destruction of small scale production in the cottages and workshops of pre-industrial England. A new spirit of commercial innovation began to make itself felt from the early decades of the 18th century. By 1760 the flying shuttle, which halved the labour of yarn production, was in general application. The spinning jenny, patented in 1770, made it possible to drive at first eight and later as many as 100 spindles with one spinning wheel. The mule, invented in 1779, mechanised the production of fine high quality muslins. The gig mill, in general application by the turn of the century, reduced the time required to raise and shear the nap on textiles, again saving on labour. Watt’s steam engine made possible the shift of production from the rural areas, where water power had been used, to the towns. This revolution of techniques in industry was to have a devastating effect on those whose livelihoods had depended upon the highly skilled processes of the old artisan craft industries. Many thousands of labourers, and many of the masters, now found themselves in reduced circumstances or even destitute. Some, such as the Spitalfields silk weavers, had once regarded themselves as a sort of aristocracy within, or perhaps slightly above, the working class. By the 1820s they were facing ruin.

It is against this background that the breaking of machines, particularly the knitting frames, began:

The frame breakers called themselves Luddites, and signed their proclamations Ned Ludd, sometimes adding Sherwood Forest. The original Ned Ludd, according to the Nottingham Review, was a boy apprenticed to learn frame-work knitting at Anstey, near Leicester. Being averse to confinement or work, he refused to exert himself, whereupon his master complained to a magistrate, who ordered a whipping. Ned in answer took a hammer and demolished the hated frame. His later fortunes history does not relate. [11]

The Luddites have become known to history as a movement which opposed the introduction of new machinery. Although it is true that it was technical innovation that destroyed the old cottage industries, the Luddites did not see themselves as opponents of new technology as such. Claiming the authority of a charter given to the trade by Charles II they targeted those manufacturers who were producing cheap, inferior garments, or ‘cut ups’, or who were paying low wages. It made no difference whether they were using new or old machinery. The real spirit of Luddism is captured in a song of the time with the title General Ludd’s Triumph:

The guilty may fear, but no vengeance he aims
At the honest man’s life or estate
His wrath is entirely confined to wide frames
And to those that old prices abate.
These Engines of mischief were sentenced to die
By unanimous vote of the Trade;
And Ludd who can all opposition defy
Was the grand Executioner made.

Let the wise and the great lend their aid and advice
Nor e’er their assistance withdraw
Till full fashioned work at the old fashioned price
Is established by Custom and Law.
Then the Trade when this arduous contest is o’er
Shall raise in full splendour its head,
And colting and cutting and squaring no more
Shall deprive honest workmen of bread.

Squaring referred to all forms of what was considered unfair practice by the masters. [12]

These lines also give the lie to the historical image given to the Luddites as driven by blind opposition to the new machines. What they wanted was legislation for their industries and protection under the law. Neither is it true to say that Luddism was a movement of spontaneous outbursts of anger. Machine breaking had not in fact begun with Luddism. Cases of such attacks were occurring in the 1790s. What was new about the Luddite movement was both its scale – thousands of frames were smashed in these months – and its highly organised nature. They were organised through ‘Secret Committees’ and planned their attacks in quasi-military style. To disguise their identities they adopted false names such as Oliver Cromwell, Sir Francis Burdett, Lord Grey and Lord Grenville. The following description is given of the preparations for an attack at a heavily fortified mill at Liversedge:

The attack was carefully organised. Contingents from Halifax, Huddersfield, Liversedge, Heckmondwike, Gomersal, Birstall, Cleckheaton, and other places, numbering about 150, met in a field belonging to Sir George Armytage near the ‘Dumb Steeple’ or obelisk, some three miles from the mill, between 10 and 11 o’clock. They were armed with guns, pistols, stakes, hammers, or whatever weapon came to hand, and after being mustered by numbers into companies of musket men or pistol men or hatchet men they marched to the mill, which they reached rather more than half an hour after midnight. [13]

The result on this occasion was a gunfight in which two of the assailants were killed.

Women too were involved. One Manchester woman, Hannah Smith, won notoriety after leading the seizing of potatoes from local merchants and selling them at a lower price. She was condemned to death for jumping on a butter cart at Ardwick and selling 20 pounds of butter, worth 36 shillings, at one shilling a pound.

In the end the Luddites, despite their individual courage, were not a movement which could take the working class forward. The conspiratorial nature of their organisation meant that only handfuls of workers could be actively involved. The great leaps forward in terms of class consciousness and socialist ideas would have to wait until the mass politics of the Chartist movement which falls outside of our period. It is in this sense that Luddism marks the end of that stage in the history of the working class in which the model of the underground conspiracy and secretive organisation still held sway.

In The Labourer the Hammonds chronicle that era in the history of capitalism in which the process of industrialisation quickened until it culminated in the industrial revolution of the 1820s and 1830s. In this period too the social contradictions by which we characterise capitalism were intensified and forged into the foundations of the new system. At the same time a new historical class, that of the industrial worker, was undergoing its painful growth and development and, in faltering steps, discovering its strength. In all of this the Hammonds remind us of the barbarity of the historical roots of the system we fight today and of the violent logic at heart of that system. The most fitting tribute to their contribution comes in their own words:

In their terror of the French Revolution they [the ruling class] treated the sovereign hope that has inspired its best minds throughout the long pilgrimage of the race as an overwhelming illusion: in their confidence in the unchecked rule of capital they made law, order, and justice the sentinels of a new and more terrible inequality between man and man. The life of a society in which violence so deliberate as this is done to the instincts and the passions of mankind turns inevitably into civil war. [14]


1. J.L. and B. Hammond, The Village Labourer (Alan Sutton 1995), p. 33.

2. Ibid., p. 105.

3. Ibid., p. 123.

4. Ibid., p. 167.

5. Ibid., p. 102.

6. Ibid., p. 191.

7. J.L. and B. Hammond, The Town Labourer (Alan Sutton 1995), p. 39.

8. Ibid., pp. 20–21.

9. Ibid., p. 159.

10. Ibid., p. 159.

11. J.L. and B. Hammond, The Skilled Labourer (Alan Sutton 1995), p. 259.

12. Ibid., pp. 259–260.

13. Ibid., p. 304.

14. Ibid., p. 381.

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