Luddism And Lord Byron

* This article accompanied the release of my second book, The Lady in Question,
in August 2005, and appeared in the August Regency Reader.

Poetry, not politics, is the association most people make with Lord Byron. However in 1811, in his early twenties and freshly returned to England from his Grand Tour, he entered the political arena with enthusiasm.

Until he inherited the barony at the age of ten, Byron had lived with his mother in lodgings in a poor district of Aberdeen. Although I have not seen it suggested, I believe his early circumstances sensitized him to poverty and oppression suffered by others.

In any case, during his travels, he had become deeply sympathetic to the Greek people's efforts to free themselves from Turkish rule. And when he took his seat in the House of Lords, he prepared to espouse liberal causes. Conditions in 1811 certainly offered a cause to support.

The war with France had squeezed England's economy, reducing both exports of manufactured goods and imports of necessary raw products, including cotton for the textile industry. Bad harvests from 1809-1811 created food shortages and those at the bottom of the economic heap suffered great hardship.

Several companies went bankrupt; and nearly all felt the pinch. To survive, they looked for ways to cut costs, and hit upon installing machines that reduced the need for skilled workers. Monitoring the machines could be done by anyone, even women and children, who commanded much lower pay.

The desperate textile workers rebelled. The first incidents occurred early 1811. Men formed secret societies, met and marched nightly, and broke into mills and frame shops, smashing machinery. Newstead Abbey, Byron's family seat, was near Nottingham, principle city of Nottinghamshire, where the earliest Luddite activity occurred, and he became familiar with conditions--the piteous state of the workers and the inflammatory state of affairs.

By early in 1812, the outbreaks had spread to several counties--Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lancashire, Cheshire, and the West Riding of Yorkshire.

The "establishment," still spooked by the French Revolution and its Reign of Terror twenty years before, interpreted the lawless acts of the Luddites as a prelude to revolution and believed they must execute the perpetrators to end the revolt. Legislation was introduced in Parliament making the breaking of machinery a capital crime.

Byron's sympathies were with the workers. In his maiden speech in the House of Lords on February 27, 1812, he cited the ineffectualness of the threat of hanging as a deterrent to starving men, who moreover are helpless witnesses to their families' plight. He pled the justice of their demands, and pushed for the defeat of the bill.

However, the bill passed. I speculate what the effect on Byron might have been if his eloquence had won over his audience. Would he have remained active in politics? Might it have changed the course of his life?

Although he soon returned to his poetry, he never abandoned his interest in politics. His views were represented in many of his poems. He also contributed to his friend, Leigh Hunt's radical journal, the Examiner.

Disillusioned and beset by scandal and financial difficulties, Byron left England for good in 1816. He died of a fever in 1824, as he prepared to join the Greeks in their fight for independence.

* The Luddite revolt forms a backdrop to Judith's newest book, The Lady in Question.