Event, Politics, Source, Women's History

Luddite Women


No, not a woman but a Luddite leader in drag.

Exactly 200 years ago this month West Yorkshire and Lancashire Luddites began smashing new technology because it was  ‘hurtful to commonality’.  In Huddersfield of the weekend 27-29 April we are celebrating our own very specific  200th anniversary of the Luddites’ actions there.  It was in early Spring 1812 that unrest emerged in West Yorkshire.  Wool shearers started attacking the new shearing machines in the wool industry.  Weavers  opposed the steam looms that wove cotton,  replacing the cottage-based hand-loom lifestyle.

Women aplenty are at these 21st century celebrations.  Not least among them is singer Annie Dearman, whose voice was raised  in ’The Noisy Frame’,  a compilation of song and testimony  telling the lives of cloth makers 1780-1840.

But were women really Luddites, back then? Yes, but not many. There were activists (and stool pigeons) as well wives who supported and daughters who turned their backs and went off to work in the new mills.

Of the activists, the best-known are the Molyneux sisters: ‘Set fire to it! Now lads!’ the two very young women urged Luddite men on 24 April 1812, at Westhoughton Mill near Bolton, Lancs.  It was only an hour after the soldiers sent to protect it had gone away. The mill was a cotton mill, newly driven by steam.

‘About fifty assembled near the mill…[descending on it]… they smashed through the gates and started to break windows in the mill, led by two young women, Mary Molyneux, 19, and her sister Lydia, 15, who were seen, according to court papers, “with Muck Hooks and coal Picks in their hands breaking the windows of the building”… shouting “Now Lads” to encourage the men on.

‘With the windows broken, men took straw from the stables and set a series of fires inside: “The whole of the Building,” wrote the Annual Register correspondent, “with its valuable machinery, cambrics, &c, were entirely destroyed. “’[1]

Four days earlier four women had led an attack on Burton’s power loom mill, Middleton (now part of greaterManchester).  It was 20 April and the women were Alice Partington, Anne Dean, Ann Butterworth, Millicent Stoddard. For rioting, making a tumult and breaking windows they were sentenced to six months apiece.

By contast Mary and Lydia Molyneux  were acquitted. This was despite clear evidence to support the charge of ‘wilfully and maliciously & unlawfully setting Fire to and burning the Weaving Mill, Warehouses and Loop Shop of Messrs Rowe and Duncough at Westhoughton with intent to injure the said Messrs Rowe & Duncough’.  They were not executed or deported, as Luddite men were, not least because of being female.[2]

There are also women involved in the 1812 food protests in Leeds reputedly calling themselves  ‘General Ludd’s wives’ , with one claiming to be their leader under the name of ‘Lady Ludd.’ [3]


There’s evidence that at least one woman sought to undermine the Luddites, or was suspected of doing so. On Friday (pay night) 24 April 1812:

‘Betty Armstrong was at the door of an Inn in Huddersfield when she was set by a group of people. Nearby were a group of cavalry soldiers, and one of them managed to get her away from the crowd before she was too seriously hurt. She was suspected of having given information about people held by the authorities on suspicion of being Luddites.

‘At midday on Saturday 25th, she was on her to way to see Joseph Radcliffe when she again set upon and badly beaten by a group of people. In the fracas, she had suffered a fractured skull.’ [4]


Spoofy cross-dressing was not unusual, as a disguise;  it was part of the prankishness too. ‘Ned Ludd’ (there are thought to have been many Neds) was said to have many wives. In April 1812 two men in womens’ clothes, claiming to be Ludd’s wives, attacked a  Stockport factory owner’s house and his machines.


How do we know about such Luddite women?

1.         Through court cases. http://ludditebicentenary.blogspot.co.uk/

2.         But it’s through song we know about the conditions that brought about Luddism:  In Weave by Steam (attributed to John Grimshaw), we hear the mother’s lament about generational change, indeed, betrayal:

  …if you go into a loom-shop

Where there’s three or four pair of looms,

They are all standing empty,

Encumbrances of the rooms;

And if you ask the reason why,

The old mother will tell you plain

 ‘my daughter has forsaken them [the handlooms] and gone to weave by steam


So come all you cotton weavers, you must rise up very soon,

For you must work in factories from morning until noon.

You mustn’t walk in your garden for two or three hours a day,

For you must stand at their command and keep your shuttles in play.

And singer Annie Dearman has created an extremely cheeky song, The Weaver and his Shuttle, from a text in Bodleian library. It’s about a domestic row between a rebellious daughter and her mother who opposes her relationship. The chorus line is a defiant  ‘I’ll have my weaver and his shuttle’ and there’s definitely double entendre there.

3.         Fiction writer Rosanne Rabinowitz  has written interestingly about women and Luddism in the novel Noise Leads Me.  Mara, the vampire protagonist who strongly identifies with the have-nots and discontented, travels from 18th-century Montenegro and Vienna to the Luddite uprisings of 19th-century England and ends up squatting in Brixton and Reclaiming the Streets in the 1990s. [5]

Jo Stanley

WHN Member

[1] ( http://www.eco-action.org/dod/no6/luddites.htm, from a quote in Kirkpatrick Sale’s Rebels Against the Future, London 1995, p 143. )

[2] (See Malcolm I. Thomis, Jennifer Grimmett, Women in Protest, 1800-1850, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1982.)

[3] (Malcolm I.Thomis, The Luddites: Machine Breaking in Regency England, David & Charles,  Newton Abbott, 1970, p22.)

[4] (Leeds Mercury of 2.5.1812 and other sources)

[5] http://www.planetfury.com/content/never-again-anthology

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