Luddites and the history of automation
16 febrero 2016

Jos Walker, from Control Techniques, shows an unlikely link between the British textile trade of the 19th century and today’s conversations about the impact automation will have on jobs.

Recently I visited Knightshayes Court, owned by the National Trust, a British conservation charity. Although now open to the public as an attraction, the 19th century Knightshayes estate was once the home of the powerful Heathcoat Amory family, who were (and still are) influential in British industry and politics.

What caught my attention about Knightshayes, and will make it of interest to readers of this blog, is how the Heathcoat Amory family made their money.

John Heathcoat was the son of a cattle farmer, and was born near Derby in 1783. He did apprenticeships in the textile industry with the makers of textile-weaving frames and, in 1805, he designed the highly automated bobbin net machine. This machine was designed to make lace similar to Buckingham or French lace which was then all made by hand. The biggest problem for John was to learn how to invent a process to automate the twisting of threads around each other to form a net. Others had been working on this problem for many years and none had succeeded.

John studied the process of making Buckingham lace by hand and the machine he eventually came up with essentially imitated the motions of a lace-maker’s fingers in tying the meshes of the lace. As a result of the invention of the machine, within 25 years, the price of the lace had collapsed whilst employment in the industry had rocketed.

John set up his own company based on his machine. By 1816 he was a major employer in the Midlands, but he had yet to contend with the Luddites.

Luddite rebellion

The Luddites were British 19th century textile workers who wanted to get rid of the new automated machinery which, they believed, was destroying jobs in the textile industry. The reality was that automated machinery was not reducing the number of jobs in textiles, it was actually radically increasing the size of the overall industry. But what the Luddites were really upset about was that it was changing the nature of work in the industry. Hand weavers were finding their prices undercut by the new mass factories and they were becoming unemployed while the new jobs were being created in the massive factories that were springing up across Britain – often referred to at the time as “dark satanic mills”.

The Luddites took their name from Ned Ludd, often referred to as General Ned Ludd or King Ludd. Ned’s existence has never been confirmed by historians, but he was said to live in Sherwood Forest and to lead the movement. Luddites saw themselves as robbing wealthy machine owners to give jobs back to poor weavers – like latter-day Robin Hoods (a British mythological figure who robbed the rich to give to the poor, and was also believed to have lived in Sherwood Forest).

The movement began in 1811 in Nottinghamshire and rapidly spread across the country. Luddites broke into factories and destroyed machines, they also attacked employers and others such as magistrates. The government response was harsh, and soldiers were sent to trouble spots. On several occasions Luddites fought soldiers.

In 1812 the government made ‘machine-breaking’ – the destruction of factory machines – a capital crime, but, though in 1813 seventeen men were executed, overall very few men were caught. Perhaps because they were protected by local communities. Problems remained until the middle of the 19th century, by which time hand production in the woollen industry had virtually ceased.

The threat of execution certainly did not deter the band of Luddites who, on 28th June 1816, broke into John Heathcoat’s factory and smashed 55 frames. The building was destroyed and 200 workers lost their jobs. Heathcoat was offered £10,000 compensation to restart his business in the Midlands but instead he moved to Tiverton, Devon, where he started again and set up a massively successful business. Five hundred of his workers moved with him and John built houses, churches and schools for them when they got there.


s Court

It was John’s grandson (also called John) who was to use the money derived from his grandfather’s automated lace making business to build the extraordinary Knightshayes Court. The eccentric architect William Burges was commissioned for the design. Burges was obsessed with the medieval period (and even used to dress in medieval clothing in his spare time). He designed Knightshayes as a medieval fantasy and although the Heathcoat Amorys toned down his original plans, it is still a stunning place.

If you are ever in Devon, I’d recommend a visit and not only to see the beautiful house and garden. I’d recommend a visit because Knightshayes is a reminder that automation is not a new industry – it has sat at the centre of our economy (and generated intense controversy) for at least the last two centuries.

Today the factory is called Heathcoat Fabrics, and is still a major employer in Tiverton. It makes high tech fabrics for global export into markets such as the aerospace and automotive industries and employs over 400 people – nearly as many as originally moved with John from the Midlands 200 years ago.

After he’d invented his bobbin net machine, John Heathcoat spent a lot of his spare time on other automation projects. One machine he invented and patented was a steam plough and it was said to be a favourite idea of his that steam power was “capable of being applied to perform all the heavy drudgery of life“. This is not so far from current ideas held by some about automation, which still allege that ultimately machines will be capable of performing most jobs.

Today’s automation debate has seen even notable Silicon Valley figures like Elon Musk (the billionaire co-founder of PayPal) express strong fears about the potential of technology to cause disruption to humanity. Compared to this, Heathcoat’s Victorian optimism is quite alien… and most refreshing!

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