You may be familiar with the term ‘luddite’ to describe someone who is resistant to change and modernisation, especially in relation to technology. Yet the term actually stems from a social movement of the 19th century that can be seen as inspiring in its own right: starting in Nottingham and spreading throughout the country – an uprising of workers opposed to increasing unfairness in society and the industrial system.

Now the Royal Exchange Theatre and Kandinsky theatre company have come together to craft a fascinating production – running from 25 July to 10 August – which highlights how the Luddites helped inspire Manchester’s radical political identity. Created by James Yeatman and Lauren Mooney, There Is A Light That Never Goes Out: SCENES FROM THE LUDDITE REBELLION brings the Luddites into the modern-day era, using 21st century technology to encourage the audience to think about how the approach of the Luddites still makes a profound point. After all, many of us may hold concerns and fears about the current insecurity of jobs, the rising role of social media, and the ever-growing presence of artificial intelligence – to name just a few.

There Is A Light That Never Goes Out

The Luddites developed out of a time of acute working-class struggle, amidst the turbulence of the Industrial Revolution. Not only did poor conditions and pay in the mills make employment gruelling for many, but those jobs themselves were increasingly under threat from technological advances in machinery as time went on. Steam-powered looms threatened to replace the skilled, personal equivalent. The result? Threat. Fear. Job losses.

 Although protest and machine-breaking had taken place for years, it was the early decades of the 19th century that saw the Luddite Rebellion take place; an uprising of workers across the country against the forces they saw as oppressing them – including (but not exclusively) the mills and their machines. These were people pushed to the edge, desperate to defend their livelihoods and skilled jobs.

Yet the Luddites have been long-represented as the losers in history, their concerns against modernisation crushed in the face of relentless technological advancement. Perhaps now it is time to question that stereotype – especially as for the most part, the Luddites opposed only the technology seen as threatening to the common good i.e. ‘hurtful to commonality’. Karl Marx himself even recognised the potential threat that unchecked technological advancement caused, reflecting that machines could appear to compete with the workers themselves. Instead, by using ‘luddite’ as a negative term, for decades people with legitimate concerns about workers’ rights and advancing technology have been stigmatised and silenced.

But where did it comes from – and what shaped it?  The Luddite Movement grew out of a period of economic unrest, as the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) caused fluctuating food prices and various profit-saving measures taken by factory owners, including automated textile equipment. It was this increasing automation and the replacement of skilled manual jobs with machinery, which the Luddites primarily objected to – as well as standing up for reform of wider workers’ rights. It began as a movement in Nottingham in 1811 and spread to the West Riding of Yorkshire by 1812, and Lancashire shortly after. ‘Luddism’ began to be used as a term in newspaper reportage shortly after the first riots.

There Is A Light That Never Goes Out

But what about ‘Luddite’ itself?  The name is thought to derive from General Ned Ludd, a mythical figure believed to have lived in Sherwood Forest, near the birthplace of the movement - Nottingham. General Ned Ludd was more of a symbol used by the movement than a source of guidance (many doubt that he ever existed) – for example, tickets bearing messages of support for this ‘General Ludd’ would have been used as admission tokens to local Luddite meetings, with these meetings taking place in many areas around Manchester. Chetham’s Library has an example of one of these ‘Luddite tickets’ in its archives, originally part of scrapbook collection of the reformer William Robert Hay (1761-1839) who read The Riot Act at Peterloo and was a keen collector of political artefacts.

Although there seems to have been no national formal organisation behind Luddism and it lacked a wider political underpinning, what it did uphold was the rights of working people. Hence it appealed to Manchester. Workers gathered in protest at their craftwork being sidelined for profit, undertaking action such as marches, riots, smashing machines and damaging equipment. At this point in history, Manchester itself was still in Lancashire – and it was in this county that Luddism increased in scale, especially as the mills here were particularly large, requiring more force to damage. A number of Luddite riots took place here in the early 19th century, often during the daytime and bringing hundreds of people together, from multiple trades, in opposition to what these increasingly massive factories seemed to represent: loss of skilled jobs and the degradation of the working classes.

Burton Mill in Middleton was a significant site of Luddite activity – roughly five miles from Manchester city centre. Over the course of Monday 21st and Tuesday 22nd April 1812, raging discontent from local workers centred round the mill of Daniel Burton & Sons – a location that produced steam-powered looms, therefore the looms that were seen as replacing people’s jobs. Yet it wasn’t just this that aggravated people, for early 1812 was also a time of high food prices and significant hunger, with food riots sweeping across Manchester and surrounding areas on the Monday. On this same day, a crowd of over 3000 people gathered outside the Daniel Burton & Sons Mill, with some throwing stones at the building and attempting to force entry. The mill owner responded by ordering workers already inside to fire blanks into the crowd, then going on to use live ammunition – resulting in chaos which left  at least five of the protesting crowd dead and over 18 injured. The authorities then clamped down further, sending a troop of Scots Greys and a detachment of Cumberland Militia from Manchester to stamp out any more unrest.

There Is A Light That Never Goes Out

The authorities were indeed heavy-handed with Luddite riots, and the British Army was deployed on several occasions. At one point, it was believed that more British soldiers were fighting the Luddites in England than there were British soldiers fighting Napoleon! The increasing scale and intensity of Luddite activity seemed to reflect the growing plight of the workers, with public figures such as Lord Byron (the inheritor of the English Barony of Byron of Rochdale, though he only travelled as far as Middleton!) speaking out to  denounce the conditions the workers faced. There was another Luddite clash with the army in Lancashire at Westhoughton Mill and various riots throughout the country, with the movement seen as coming to an end in 1817 with the Pentrich Rising in Derbyshire.

Although the actions of the Luddites was represented as troublesome, even criminal, by the authorities at the time, at the heart of the movement was a passionate protest against the worsening livelihoods of workers and the want for reform and control. Many of us today may have concerns about how workers are represented too, and the equipment they have to work - even contend - with.

 It was also the Luddites’ reforming zeal that would go on to inspire other actions in the fight for fairness in the 19th and 20th centuries, including the gathering at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester on the 16 August 1819 (tragically becoming the Peterloo Massacre when armed guards charged into the crowd). That inspiration and passion for reform is central to ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’. That the show is taking place in the month that marks the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre is particularly fitting: as the fight for reform and respect for workers was key to the Luddite cause.

There Is A Light That Never Goes Out

What happens when people without power try to seize it? How is rebellion viewed in the face of advancing technology? Can social uprising and outcry make a difference? These kind of questions are fired to the fore in this unique, expressive production. There Is A Light That Never Goes Out provides an in-depth look at Luddism, the people involved and the implications on Manchester as we know it today, as well as historically.

HAUNT Manchester decided to speak to Lauren Mooney of Kandinsky theatre company, to find out more:

Many people may not have heard of the Luddites. Why do you think this is – and why is their story still important now?

“I think the Luddites, like a lot of working-class history, is hugely under-taught in schools. The national curriculum, certainly in my experience of it, tends to focus on royals and wars - the Tudors, the big moments of 20th century carnage, and not a lot else. By the time I left school, everything between Elizabeth I dying and WWI starting was a big shameful gap, and I think that's the same for a lot of people. When I first read about the Luddites, I was in my early 20s - and it was that feeling, that I couldn't believe I hadn't known about this, or Peterloo, or generations of working-class struggle and agitation, that first made me want to make a show about this period.

“The thing about the Luddites as well is that unlike (for instance) the Chartists or the Levellers, they are half culturally remembered - we still have their name in conversational usage - and to be 'a luddite' has come back into popular force in the last century with the growth of technology. To say you're 'a luddite' now is to be regressive or anti-tech or just uncomfortable using your phone. Given what these people really wanted, how brave so many of them were and how brutally they were treated, it seemed a bit criminal that this is how we remember them.

“The questions they were asking about progress - who it's for, and who gets to define that, and whether progress at any cost is always right - have never really been answered, and they feel more relevant now than ever.”

Can you tell us a bit more about how the approach of the Luddites has links with Peterloo?

“We aren't historians or researchers, we're theatre-makers, so it's hard for me to give a really confident answer to this, as so much social history is under-recorded or is a point of contention! But historians (or at least the ones we've read) have tended to draw a line between Luddism in Manchester and a growing political and working-class consciousness that helped lead to Peterloo.

“Manchester, when Luddism came, was very new - it was a city growing at an unimaginable rate, kind of a wild west. There had been no MP since the 17th century and wasn't much legislation, so people with money were swarming in to set up factories and make even more money - and of course, as there was work, workers followed, many of them immigrants. It was a boom town, at the forefront of the industrial revolution and the new technology, and many of these people were atomised, coming in from the countryside, from Ireland or from further away, and seeing themselves potentially as competitors for limited work during a period of bad trade and widespread starvation. When news of the Luddites came, it helped to create a sense of the collective. That, for us, was the link: we felt that the Luddites were a bit under-appreciated as an early moment of collective action (Eric Hobsbawm actually called it 'collective bargaining by riot'), and so as an early moment in what would become the labour movement.”

Why have you chosen to tell their story through theatre - and would you say the way in which you are telling the story is 'experimental'?

“James and I make theatre, so as soon as we got interested in the Luddites, it was going to be a show! We've made five shows together now and run a company called Kandinsky. But that's not to say that we would make theatre about anything, of course - there always has to be a reason for something to be a play and not something else. With this, there were lots of aspects that seemed to fit that: for instance, making a show about collective action to be experienced as a collective - theatre being a shared live medium. There was also the fact that the movement grew up around the mysterious figure of General Ludd, now generally agreed to have never existed, which seemed to have an interesting relationship to the willing suspension of disbelief inherent in watching theatre - the choice audiences make to believe in something even though they're sharing a space with people who are pretending to be somebody else... Plus, a lot of our work engages in some way with the tension of what's being performed; we tend to enjoy acknowledging that our actors are actors.

There Is A Light That Never Goes Out

“I'm not sure I would call it 'experimental' as I think people tend to see that as synonymous with inaccessibility, and I don't think our work is inaccessible, though of course it isn't for everyone. I think that sometimes, acknowledging the pretence of performance can make people who don't always feel comfortable in a theatre space feel a bit more at ease than when they're asked to 100% buy into the reality of something more naturalistic. But it's fair to say that we don't make work in the most standard way - a script, written by a playwright, cast and then directed. We're a devising company, which means that James and I spend months doing reading and research and planning the 'shape' of the show, then we establish an ensemble cast and a team of designers and ask them to help us make something. It's not super unusual, and there are a lot of amazing theatre companies in the UK working this way, but it's a bit of a risk for a venue as they don't have a script and don't really know what show they're going to end up with! It isn't the way the Royal Exchange usually makes work and they've been very generous with us - it's been a real privilege to get to devise something for that amazing space.”

Why was focusing on Manchester important to you?

“Manchester was actually the original starting point for the show. James worked on Persuasion here at the Exchange a couple of years ago and fell in love with the city. He felt that there was a really developed identity in Manchester and became interested in trying to make something that spoke to that identity and to its radical political history. I was already tinkering away on something about the Luddites and suggested that might be the right fit - and we went from there.”

How did you go about your research of the subject? Were there any places in Greater Manchester that were particularly inspiring?

“We did a workshop at the Exchange last year during which we got some help from a historian who at the time was working at John Rylands Institute (Dr Alice Marples) - she gave us time, energy and a great reading list which got us started in the right direction. We've read so much over the last couple of years that 1812 would definitely be my Mastermind subject now. We could submit pretty extensive footnotes/bibliography for the show - but as nobody wants that, I'll just briefly give special mention to the Luddite Bicentenary website, a really in-depth and lovingly compiled resource, all online, detailing the growth and spread of the movement across the country.

“We didn't have a huge research budget so we did a lot of it online or in libraries - but my favourite bit of the research period was getting to spend time at the People's History Museum and the Working Class Movement Library in Salford - both are amazing resources. The latter looked out some great first-hand accounts for us that we never found anywhere else and gets a namecheck in the show.”There Is A Light That Never Goes Out

As highlighted by Lauren, research into Luddism and approaches to interpret it can be seen as ongoing here in Greater Manchester. The Working Class Movement Library holds a number of resources related to the movement, and can be visited by the public (see the website for more details).

Other creative projects have been born in Greater Manchester too. Take The Luddite Collective, a band and movement first formed in Manchester in 2012: recently part of an AnalogueTrash gig at Salford’s The Eagle Inn. According to one of band’s members, Dani Graves:

“I always felt that The Luddites were misunderstood and are often seen as a bunch of people smashing machines - which often leads to people questioning why an electronic band would call themselves The Luddite Collective. From my understanding The Luddite Movement was about making a stand against mill owners taking jobs away from people who were already struggling with poverty, they weren't so much against technology with many being skilled machine operators for the textile trade.

“So to me the Luddites were a bunch of activists fighting for the rights of the working class.

“The whole idea behind The Luddite Collective is to be just that, a collective, to fight for equity and equality for everyone. On stage there is myself and Dani Scum, but there are people behind the scenes, Cute As Sin who is an ongoing member who does a lot but doesn't go on stage. We are also starting to put our community project idea into reality which will bring more people into the collective to help us run a monthly market where we will have clothing, food, hygiene products etc for anyone who needs it for free, without paperwork or hoops to jump through. We are also often found marching at protests and help raise awareness of various subjects, both on and off the stage.”

So does Luddism live on? The inspiration certainly does.

There Is A Light That Never Goes Out

There Is A Light That Never Goes Out runs until 10 August (book here) at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, The Luddite Collective are online and to visit the libraries and archives mentioned, see their individual websites for details.

Photography- all by Manuel Harlan:

Image 1 - production shot- L-R actors David Crellin, Reuben Johnson & Katie West

Image 2 - production shot - L-R  Nisa Cole, Amelda Brown, Daniel Millar, Katie West, David Crellin & Reuben Johnson

Image 3 - production shot - L-R Reuben Johnson & Nisa Cole

Image 4 - production shot - L-R  Nisa Cole, Amelda Brown & David Crellin

Image 5 - production shot - L-R Katie West & David Crellin

Image 6 - production shot - Amelda Brown

Image 7 - production shot - L-R Nisa Cole & Katie West

Article by Emily Oldfield