Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Who was Ned Ludd?

Two hundred years ago today the well known womaniser and occasional poet Lord Byron made his maiden speech in the House of Lords.

His chosen subject was not the relative charms of Greek versus Turkish women, nor was it the relative intoxicating effects of laudanum vis a vis opium. Instead it was the rights of men as opposed to machines.

His courageous and lonely stand was against the Frame Breaking Act, by which the government sought the right to put a rope round a man's neck if he damaged commercial property. It was grotesquely unjust piece of legislation, although I suspect even its architects would be shocked by the sending a mum to jail for five months for receiving a pair of looted shorts off her lodger.

The reason for this was that it was kicking off big style in the Midlands and industrial North of England.

Luddites they called themselves, and although there had been protests and machine breaking before, what started at Samhain 1811 was something altogether more organised than what had gone before.

The government reacted by passing new laws, sending in the army (more soldiers headed north to fight the Luddites than sailed to Spain with Wellington) and in another act with modern echoes, sending in infiltrators to pose as Luddites to discredit the cause. Indeed, in one raid at Westhoughton in April 1812 everyone arrested afterwards turned out to be a paid informant - the real Luddites having gone home beforehand, only to return four days later to finish the job and get clean away.

Spies and the army weren't the only weapons used by the authorities - God was turned on them as well. After one raid a dying Luddite was first denied medical care until he informed on his fellow conspirators, and then a Priest was called who solemnly told him that if he died without confessing he would surely go to hell. As he coughed his last the man beckoned the Man of God nearer. "Can you keep a secret?" he asked. "Yes," lied the Minister. "So can I," said the Luddite, and died.

Because of this devotion to death we know very little about the Luddites. Those who told their story did not do so for another 50 years when, in the age of the Chartists and the first Trade Unions, they were happy to style themselves early Working Class heroes.

In truth there was no Working Class in 1812 and the Luddites, formed in close knit weaving communities with their initiation rituals and secret passwords seem in many ways more like the Friendly Societies that were the successors of the Medieval Guilds. They may have been more the last gasp of the old order rather the first stirrings of the new.

Certainly there code of secrecy was very successful, and the only records of the time we have are those of the authorities, who report prisoners who won't talk and intelligence based on nothing but rumour. What, for example, was The Black Lamp? A secret Yorkshire-based group that had the authorities vexed and which has disappeared back into the ether leaving historians baffled.

Even the Luddite's name is a mystery.

Numerous letters were sent out during the troubles signed by one 'General Ned Ludd' with a postal address of Sherwood Forest.

A story at the time was that there was a boy called Edward or Ned Ludd or Ludham, from Anstey in Leicestershire, who had a row with his dad and smashed up a frame, hence generating the expression "to Ned Ludd it".

If this was a serious academic blog I'd stop here, for as we can't prove this never happened we should stick with the story. However, indulge me a little longer if you will.

Other explanations are that the name is Notts dialect, or in some way derives from a place name like Ludlow or Ludbrook. But is also possible to look for more legendary origins.

In Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th century classic History of the Kings of Britain, the book that gave us King Lear and which first merged the stories of Arthur and Merlin, we have the story of the Three Plagues of Lud's Town. Here the king fights off spectral foes and in turns gives his name to the town that became London.

Lud in turn probably had his origin in the Celtic god known as Nudd in Wales and Nuada in Ireland. As Nodens he turns up across England from Gloucestershire to Lancashire.

He may also have given his name to Lud's Church, the chasm in Derbyshire that may have been the Green Chapel where Sir Gawaine went to meet his Nemesis and where various renegades from Robin Hood to Bonnie Prince Charlie are said to have hidden.

If so then it was a Celtic God that led these rebels against the future and that's certainly worth a toast - although I fear I'm clear out of laudanum.


byron smith said...

"even its architects would regard it as less draconian than sending a mum to jail for five months for receiving a pair of looted shorts off her lodger."

Perhaps not; remember that in 1811 people were being sent to New South Wales for the term of their natural life for stealing a loaf of bread or poaching a rabbit.

Martin Porter said...

For poaching a rabbit maybe, but surely not for eating it?