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Luddites: Living with change

To explore the story and background of the Luddites and draw lessons for how we live with life-changing technology.

by Gordon Lamont

Suitable for Key Stage 3/4

Aims

To explore the story and background of the Luddites and draw lessons for how we live with life-changing technology.

Preparation and materials

Assembly

  1.  Ask if anyone has heard the term ‘Luddite’ and ask what it means.

    It is often applied to someone who is not prepared to move with the times and who sticks to old ways. It is almost always used as a derogatory, negative term. So someone who refuses to send an email or to tweet might be called a Luddite.
  2. Two hundred years ago, on 2 January 1813, the trial of 66 people opened in York. They were accused of destroying mechanized looms used in the manufacture of textiles.

    Just seven days later, on 9 January, 17 of them were executed. Others were transported to Australia. The executions by hanging were a public spectacle. Great care was taken to ensure that the crowd would see the deaths of these ‘dangerous’ people.
  3. So who were the Luddites and why are they remembered even today in the term ‘Luddite’?

    In 1813, Britain was involved in a long and expensive war with France. Times were hard. Poverty and hunger were widespread. There were public protests. Demonstrators demanded better wages for workers; the authorities responded with violence.

    The desperate, hungry workers took to attacking the factories and the machines that seemed to them to have taken their jobs. Protests quickly spread, leading to panic in the rest of the country, and rumours proliferated about an army of workers, a secret militia, led by a General Ludd, bent on destroying society.

    And so the protestors became known as Luddites after their leader. Factory owners were outraged and afraid. It is said that some even built places of safety inside their factories where they could hide from attack.
  4. The story of an angry, violent mob led by a cunning general spread quickly. But what are the facts?

    The Luddites did cause damage to machines. They even set some factories on fire. But most of the violence came from the authorities in their attempts to suppress this ‘terrible, secret army’.

    In April 1812, two thousand protesters attacked a mill near Manchester. The owner ordered his men to fire into the crowd. Three Luddites were killed and eighteen were wounded. Soldiers killed at least five more the next day.

    In their demonstrations, the Luddites favoured a kind of humorous, mocking approach. They seemed to be against the way the world worked, the way that change was imposed on them. The men even marched in women’s clothes, calling themselves ‘General Ludd’s wives’.

    But the strangest fact of all about the Luddites is that there was no General Ludd. Despite fearful people’s claims to have seen him, he was a made-up character! The name ‘Ludd’ came from a young factory worker who, 22 years earlier, had broken a machine in anger when his work was criticized. That story had grown in the telling so that no one really knew the true facts, but there certainly was no General Ludd.
  5. The terrible fate of the hanged and transported workers shows us what can happen when big changes come to our lives, things that we cannot control. Fear takes hold, anger erupts and violence follows – on both sides.

    In the twenty-first century the world is changing faster than ever before. Can we learn to live together with change and not allow it to destroy us?

    Can we avoid building myths about our enemies, stories that only serve to increase our fears?

Time for reflection

What do you take from the story of the Luddites?

Do you understand the workers’ anger?

Do you sympathize with the authorities and factory owners in their fear of General Ludd’s army?

Do you see how rumour can spread and create an imaginary enemy?

What is changing for you and how do you cope with change?

Hymn

‘Will you come and follow me?’ (Hymns Old and New (Kevin Mayhew), 560)

Publication date: January 2013   (Vol.15 No.1)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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