Mystery of the Luddite forgery

Akroyds factory, Halifax.
Akroyds factory, Halifax.
Share this article

One of the most ubiquitous images associated with the bicentenary of the Luddites in the East Midlands, Lancashire and Yorkshire shows two rioters using sledgehammers to smash a machine in a factory.

It is a graphic image and appears to illustrate Luddites engaged in industrial sabotage in a textile weaving mill. But in reality it is a misleading forgery, masquerading as an authentic primary source.

Luddites smash loom in the doctored image of looms at Akroyd's mill, Halifax

Luddites smash loom in the doctored image of looms at Akroyd's mill, Halifax

Its widespread and indiscriminate use in a wide variety of secondary sources and its easy internet availability has bestowed upon it legitimacy, whereas in truth it deserves immediate consignment to the rubbish dump of pseudo-historical sources.

The rioting started at Arnold, near Nottingham, where 63 stocking frames were smashed in March 1811. By 1817 it was estimated that 1,000 stocking frames and 80 lace machines had been destroyed in Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire, where the pseudonym “Ned Ludd” was first used as a cover for the industrial sabotage and the term Luddite was coined by a local newspaper.

The stocking weavers were concerned that new technology was being employed to flood the markets with mass-produced, rather than individually crafted, hosiery.

In Yorkshire the riots, almost a year later, were directed against water-powered gig mills and shearing frames which were used in the finish-ing of woollen cloth, and in Lancashire the attacks were against the prototype power looms used in cotton manufacturing.

The altered Luddite image appears extensively on secondary education-focused websites, for example on the Learn History website subtitled Crime, Punishment and Protest through time, c1450-2004, where it inaccuractely illustrates a text relating to Nottinghamshire Luddism; the illustration does not illustrate the technology of the area.

Another recent appearance was in a bicentennial review of 1812 in Britain’s best-selling family history magazine, Who Do You Think You Are?, which brought it to the attention of family historians and genealogists.

The same image was used to illustrate a lively series of BBC4 documentaries on Regency Britain as an ostensibly authentic image of the Industrial Revolution, and it appears in a feature on the Luddite bicentenary in the BBC History Magazine, where it is captioned “frame-breakers smashing a loom, 1812”.

The image has been used by academic institutions and learned societies to advertise public events, although the University of Huddersfield’s Luddite website excluded it from publicity for exhibitions and events at local museums.

My suspicions about the image’s authenticity were aroused by the technology depicted in the line drawing. This very clearly shows a Jacquard loom, evident from its distinctive design, with its tapering frame and from the figured patterns on the cloth being woven.

Joseph-Marie Jacquard conceived his hugely significant invention in 1790. It enabled the mechanised production of beautifully patterned cloth for the first time.

The destruction of Jacquard looms by machine breakers in France is well doc-umented. They provoked bitter hostility from the silk weavers of Lyons, who not only burned the looms but also attacked the inventor himself.

By 1812 some 11,000 Jacquard machines were in use in France. But they did not reach Britain until the 1820s, well after the most widespread incidence of Luddism.

Given those dates, the technology depicted in the “Luddite machine-breaking” image is anachronistic; such machinery did not exist at the time of Luddite activity.

It is also incompatible with the industrial context, because the worsted product which is being woven was never the focus of Luddite interest.

I also had doubts about the factory scene, which had the distinctive character and fam-iliar feel of the Victorian era, not the Regency period.

Sources on Yorkshire factories confirmed that the image was based on an 1844 depiction of Jacquard looms in Akroyd’s worsted factory in Halifax, published in the Penny Magazine alongside a report on the development of the West Riding textile industry.

This described Halifax as the major centre of the Yorkshire worsted industry until it was overtaken by Bradford in the early 19th century.

The industrial context in the sketch was unmistakably that of the 1840s and so was the vivid description of Halifax with “factory chimneys shooting up in every direction” and the town’s Hebble brook “so hemmed in by factories on both sides that we can scarcely see either the width of the stream or the colour of its waters”.

The article described, in considerable detail, James Akroyd and Son’s worsted factory, which contained no fewer than 840 power looms in one room, “all working at once in the production of merinos, damasks, camlets, lastings, Paramattas, Orleans, Parisians, cassinets and the host of worsted or stuff goods now made”.

In 1827 Akroyd’s had been the first firm in Halifax to employ Jacquard looms, initially under high security to counter industrial espionage.

An oft-repeated misconception about Luddism in 1812 is that it was a weavers’ rising. Reuters, reporting on local plans to celebrate the Luddite bicentenary, inaccurately described the Huddersfield Luddites as “weavers armed with muskets and hammers who roamed the countryside attacking the textile mills which threatened their livelihoods”.

There are some authentic images of Luddism, notably the only surviving photograph of a Yorkshire Luddite, Jesse Ratcliffe, of Halifax,who was involved in an attack on Rawfolds Mill at Liversedge, near Cleckheaton. He evaded arrest and later achieved respectability as the Halifax beadle, officiating at the opening of Halifax Town Hall in 1863.

But one particular counterfeit source, the image which prompted this article, has gained almost universal currency by its exposure on the internet, confusing genuine histo rical inquiry into the Ludditedisturbances of 1811-1812.

n This is an edited version of an article by John Hargreaves (pictured, left) published in The Local Historian magazine in August under the title Yorkshire Luddism: Image and Reality 1812-2012.

Dr Hargreaves, Halifax historian and long-standing member of Halifax Antiquarian Society, is visiting research fellow in history at the University of Huddersfield. He has lectured and written extensively on Luddism.

Pictured - the real thing and the fake: both images show the same imported Jacquard looms at James Akroyd and Sons’ mill in Halifax. The details are the same, including the columns supporting the ceiling and the overhead belts which transmitted power to drive the machines – even the bits and pieces on the floor. In the top picture female workers are tending the looms. In the lower picture they have been replaced by hammer- wielding Luddites. But the Luddites were active in 1812 and Akroyd first used Jacquard looms in 1827 – 15 years later. The original image was drawn in 1844 for a report on the woollen industry in the Penny Magazine.