“Riots in our city streets, the worst economic crisis for decades, a long war fought abroad with no sign of progress. Sounds familiar? Welcome to England 1812”. Mikron Theatre’s latest production “Can You keep a Secret?; the rise and fall of the Yorkshire Luddites” seems bang-up- to- date in the Britain of 2012 in telling the story of the Luddites; northern workers who, when faced with their home-based craft industry being replaced by machines in factories, took direct action to oppose and destroy the new system.
The show’s director Marianne Mcnamara sees a direct link between the Luddites and political events of today. “They were artisans who saw their way of life being destroyed. Like many present day movements, including Occupy, it was about people demanding a control over their lives and opposing globalisation.” A list of the tour dates can be found here.
The term “Luddite” is used to label someone who is against new technology, but it actually refers to a political movement of weavers who attacked mills and machinery in response to the threat to their jobs and their livelihood. It was a secret society with a mythical leader “Ned Ludd”, hence the name.
Luddism was about preventing unemployment, and maintaining what they would call commonality; preserving their way of life and their dignity. Machine breaking was a hanging offence, and the political climate meant that it was a secret society in which members swore oaths of loyalty and at night marched through the towns and over the moors to the mills. Local people supported the Luddites, and did not inform on them to the authorities. The nature of the organisation means that much of their history is still hidden and fragmented.
This year, in its bicentenary, there are a series of events in West Yorkshire, one of the heartlands of the movement, which retell the story of the Luddites. As Marianne points out; “We are in a time of austerity now, just like 1812, and people are now facing their livelihood being taken away. People are asking questions about what kind of society do we want to live in.”
Mikron are part of a local network of groups brought together to commemorate the Luddites; the Luddite Link. This includes the University of Huddersfield, the Lawrence Batley Theatre and local museums and archives. Apart from the Mikron play, there are events ranging from a public lecture to an evening with Tony Benn.
Another set of events are being organised by Luddites 200, whose website has lots of information on the history of Luddism and links it up trade unions, technology and present day movements. Their commemoration includes a festival of Luddite culture and ideas.
The Luddite Bi-centenary website has a wealth of material drawn from contemporary sources and also lists events. Thanks for the excellent logo!
The Luddites in 1812 felt a sense of powerlessness as their craft skills were replaced with machines and factory owners made large profits from increased production. In 2012 it is easy to see the same frustration amongst people. Nowadays the response is reflected in the popularity of the Occupy movement, and the the growing disenchantment with the main political parties, as was voiced at the by-election in Bradford. It will be interesting to see if we all become Luddites in 2012!
As the Liberty lads o’er the sea
Bought their freedom, and cheaply, with blood,
So we, boys, we
Will die fighting, or live free,
And down with all kings but King Ludd!