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!" (Lord Byron)
27 February 1812: Today, 201 years ago, Lord Byron gave his maiden speech at the House of Lords and, being Lord Byron, he rose his voice in defense of the Luddites.
The harsh economic realities of the Napoleonic Wars and progress in production methods - at the beginning of the 19th century especially new wide-framed automated looms operated by cheap, unskilled labour - triggered severe unrest in England. Especially the north saw cotton and wool mills destroyed by angry workers. To put down the unrest, the British government chose to employ at one time more troops than Wellington had at his disposal in the Peninsula.
The namesake of the movement, Ned Ludd, probably was imaginary, a youth who had allegedly smashed two stocking frames in Nottingham, Byron's borough, in the 1780s, nonetheless became emblematic for the machine destroyers. Machine breaking became a capital crime under the quickly passed Frame Breaking Act and charged 60 men in York in a show trial in York in January 1813, condemning all of them to death or at least transportation.
Byron reputedly was a bit theatrical in his speech, defended the Luddites and advocated social reform not without a typical Byronic reference to the fact that automation had the benefits of putting people out of work while producing inferior material.