Today, February 27 was the day that my mother was delivered of me some years ago and a few years before that, Lord Byron delivered his maiden speech in the House of Lords.
‘I have traversed the seat of war in the Peninsula; I have been in some of the most oppressed provinces of Turkey; but never, under the most despotic of infidel governments, did I behold such squalid wretchedness as I have seen since my return, in the very heart of a Christian country.
And what are your remedies?
After months of inaction, and months of action worse than inactivity, at length comes forth the grand specific….
Setting aside the palpable injustice and the certain inefficiency of the bill, are there not capital punishments sufficient on your statutes?‘
Yes, indeed on this very day some 209 years ago, our poet spoke out in ‘A Rage Against the Machine’ AND not unlike the US group of the same name who sang Killing in the Name Of which went on to become a most unlikely Christmas hit!
In the infancy of the industrial revolution, manufacturers in the stocking-weaving business had exploited the advances in technology to employ greater uses for new machinery as the looms would deliver goods at a faster and cheaper rate to the detriment of the workers.
As the stocking-weavers found themselves surplus to requirements with wages falling and with 50,000 families reduced to starvation; organised gangs of desperate and hungry men began breaking the manufacturers’ looms led by the mythical ‘King Ludd’.
‘But while the exalted offender can find means to baffle the law, new capital punishments must be devised, new snares of death must be spread, for the wretched mechanic who is famished into guilt. These men were willing to dig, but the spade was in other hands; they were not ashamed to beg, but there was none to relieve them.
Their own means of subsistence were cut off; all other employments pre-occupied; and their excesses, however to be deplored and condemned, can hardly be the subject of surprise.‘
In an effort to bring an end to the industrial unrest, troops were sent to Nottingham to quash the revolt by the Luddites, and as the uprising spread to Lancashire and across Yorkshire; the Government passed the Frame Breaking Act, which introduced the death penalty for frame breaking.
It was during this Parliamentary debate in which Byron made his famous speech:
‘Is there not blood enough upon your penal code, that more must be poured forth to ascend to heaven and testify against you?
How will you carry this bill into effect?
Can you commit a whole county to their own prisons
Will you erect a gibbet in every field, and hang up men like scare-crows?
Byron identified with the Luddite cause and claiming to be as penniless as those he supported, he sought the support of Lord Holland as the leader of the Whigs to address the House and to voice his opposition to the introduction of the death penalty.
‘Or will you proceed (as you must to bring this measure into effect) by decimation; place the county under martial law; depopulate and lay waste all around you, and restore Sherwood Forest as an acceptable gift to the crown in its former condition of a royal chase, and an asylum for outlaws?
Are these the remedies for a starving and desperate populace?
Following the assassination of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval in May 1812, the government responded to the rebellion with mass arrests and despite the threat of trial and harsh sentencing, the unrest continued and in 1813 on a cold January day in York, fifteen men were hanged in the shadow of what we know as Clifford’s Tower.
In the years following, the harsh measures of capital punishment or transportation had little effect as the demonstrations for improved wages, frame breaking and riots continued throughout pockets of Middle England, however, by 1816 the Luddite Rebellion was effectively finished.
Although his speech was well received, Byron was to find that he was not suited to the slow daily business of Parliament, the ‘Parlimentary mummeries’ as he was soon to call them, his temperament too volatile and easily distracted as his letter to his friend Francis Hodgson several days later makes clear:
‘…of them I shall mention Sir F. Burdetts. – He says it is the best speech by a Lord since the “Lord knows when” probably from a fellow feeling in ye. sentiments.‘Lord Byron
‘And so much for vanity. – – I spoke very violent sentences with a sort of modest impudence, abused every thing & every body, & put the Ld. Chancellor very much out of humour, & if I may believe what I hear, have not lost any character by the experiment.
As to my delivery, loud and fluent enough, perhaps a little theatrical. – – I could not recognise myself or any one else in the Newspapers….
Hobhouse is here, I shall tell him to write. – My Stone is gone for the present, but I fear is part of my habit. – We all talk of a visit to Cambridge.’
However, the tale of a certain Childe Harold was soon to be unleashed upon London society in the days following but that is for ANOTHER story!
In 2013, a fellow Byronian Christy Fearn published Framed her debut novel about Byron and the Luddite rebellion; signed copies of which can now be purchased from the author.
As French émigré Roman Catholics, Lizette Molyneux and her brother Robert are used to an existence on the edge of their Regency Nottingham community.
But when Robert is arrested for a crime he insists he did not commit, Lizzie must draw on all her strength and courage to help him. Overcoming poverty, prejudice and the unwanted advances of her employer’s son, she unites with the frame-breaking Luddites to free her brother and to rectify social injustice.
Why not treat yourself to a copy? You’ll learn something of the Luddite Rebellion, Lord B AND you’ll enjoy yourself too!
Byron’s Letters & Journals Vol 2 1810-1812, Ed: Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray 1973)
Byron The Making of a Myth, Stephen Coote (London: The Bodley Head 1988)
Life, Letters and Journals of Lord Byron, Thomas Moore (Elibron Classics 2006