Mad, Bad, and Devoted to Human Rights

(Today I have a guest post in the form of a video chat over on Just Jane 1813! Be sure to stop by!)

On 27 February 1812 the famous poet Lord Byron gave his first speech in a debate of the House of Lords, and it was a doozy.


Classified as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” by one of his many lovers, Lady Caroline Lamb, he was a much a devotee to human rights and the suffering of the lower classes as he was to literary arts and the lists of love. Thus, it is fitting that his first speech was during a debate on the Frame Breaking Act, when the Parliament was trying to decide what to do about the Luddites.

Luddite Ned Ludd

Thanks to anti-Luddite propaganda, the Luddites are remembered as people who were foolishly afraid of technology and against progress. I had even called myself a Luddite, when explaining my reluctance to embrace smart phones. However, the modern usage of the word Luddite is completely wrong. The Luddite riots, which happened off and on from 1811-1816 and then reoccurred in agriculture during the 1830s, were ACTUALLY about socioeconomic substance, inequality, starvation, and unionized labor resistance.

“[T]he Luddites did indeed understand the advantages which mechanization would bring,” Raymond Boudon, a sociologist at Paris-Sorbonne University, wrote in his Analysis of Ideology, citing the work of influential historian Lewis Coser. But “their machine-wrecking was an attempt to show the owners of the new textile mills that they were a force to be reckoned with, that they had a ‘nuisance value’. By acting in this way, their main objective was to gain concessions from the employers.” The Luddites weren’t technophobes, then. They were labor strategists.


One of the Luddites stayed to fight for jobs rather than scarpering away to work in another field was because it was still ridiculously hard to relocate for work in other areas. The Statute of Cambridge in 1388 forbade labourers from leaving their native area “without a testimonial, showing reasonable cause for his departure, to be issued under the authority of the justices of the peace. Any labourer found wandering without such letter, was to be put in the stocks until he found surety to return to the town from which he came.” Moreover, laws for the next 500 years made moving into a community while poor, or not being able to support yourself and/or your family, was punishable by imprisonment. If you were destitute, it was assumed you were no better than a beggar or vagrant and would be treated as a scourge rather than an work-seeking labourer. You could be brought in to work in places where there was a need for factory hands via special permission, but it just uprooting and heading out to find a job was discouraged.

Meanwhile, people were being driven away from their rural homes en masse by the Enclosure Act of 1801, which allowed land owners to basically fence off at will the lands poorer people were once able to use for pasturage, farming, forage, and other means of subsistence. The displaced had to head for bigger cities, where they were less likely to be punished for their wandering and more likely to find work. Of course, the exploitation of these workers was extreme.

Byron was well aware of these facts, and had a great deal of sympathy for the Luddites. He made an impassioned, rational, and fact-based plea to help, rather than harm, the Luddites and was nevertheless ignored. Most men of wealth feared nothing on earth so much as workers fighting back or destroying property, and so they instead voted to make frame-breaking a capital crime. Now any labourer who was caught destroying machines (or attempting to destroy machines, or maybe looking like they wanted to destroy machines) would be hanged. If the rabble wanted to fight for their subsistence instead of quietly starving to death so the factory owner could grow richer, then the rabble needed to die.


In my book, Mansfield Parsonage, the heroine Mary Crawford is an ardent fan of Lord Byron for both his poetry and his sociopolitical stance. She lauds his speech to her sister, saying:

“Byron’s speech on the Luddites and the wretched poor was sublime! I cut a copy of it from a paper and pasted it in my album, so that I can read it whenever I wish and have leisure. Who can forget his rebuke against the hard-hearted villainy of the Lords who would condemn them! Who can forget his defence of the oppressed! ‘These men were willing to dig, but the spade was in other hands; they were not ashamed to beg, but there was none to relieve them. Their own means of subsistence were cut off; all other employments pre-occupied; and their excesses, however to be deplored and condemned, can hardly be the subject of surprise.’ I cannot praise Lord Byron’s good feelings enough.”

Later in the book, she and her brother discuss Byron’s affair with Lady Caroline Lamb, but that is a blog post for tomorrow!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *