Modern History Sourcebook:
Leeds Woollen Workers Petition, 1786
This petition by workers in Leeds (a major center of wool manufacture
in Yorkshire) appeared in a local newspapers in 1786. They are
complaining about the effects of machines on the previously well-paid
See also the Letter from Cloth Merchants 1791,
To the Merchants, Clothiers and all such as wish well to the
Staple Manufactory of this Nation.
The Humble ADDRESS and PETITION of Thousands, who labour in the
SHEWETH, That the Scribbling-Machines have thrown thousands of
your petitioners out of employ, whereby they are brought into
great distress, and are not able to procure a maintenance for
their families, and deprived them of the opportunity of bringing
up their children to labour: We have therefore to request, that
prejudice and self-interest may be laid aside, and that you may
pay that attention to the following facts, which the nature of
the case requires.
The number of Scribbling-Machines extending about seventeen miles
south-west of LEEDS, exceed all belief, being no less than one
hundred and seventy! and as each machine will do as much work
in twelve hours, as ten men can in that time do by hand, (speaking
within bounds) and they working night-and day, one machine will
do as much work in one day as would otherwise employ twenty men.
As we do not mean to assert any thing but what we can prove to
be true, we allow four men to be employed at each machine twelve
hours, working night and day, will take eight men in twenty-four
hours; so ~ that, upon a moderate computation twelve men are thrown
out of employ for every single machine used in scribbling; and
as it may be sup', posed the number of machines in all the other
quarters together, t nearly equal those in the South-West, full
four thousand men are left l-; to shift for a living how they
can, and must of course fall to the Parish, if not timely relieved.
Allowing one boy to be bound apprentice from each family out of
work, eight thousand hands are deprived of the opportunity of
getting a livelihood.
We therefore hope, that the feelings of humanity will lead those
who l, have it in their power to prevent the use of those machines,
to give every discouragement they can to what has a tendency so
prejudicial to their fellow-creatures.
This is not all; the injury to the Cloth is great, in so much
that in Frizing, instead of leaving a nap upon the cloth, the
wool is drawn out and the Cloth is left thread-bare.
Many more evils we could enumerate, but we would hope, that the
sensible part of mankind, who are not biassed by interest, must
see the dreadful tendancy of their continuance; a depopulation
must be the consequence; trade being then lost, the landed interest
will have no other satisfaction but that of being last devoured.
We wish to propose a few queries to those who would plead for
the further continuance of these machines:
Men of common sense must know, that so many machines in use, take
the work from the hands employed in Scribbling, - and who did
that business before machines were invented.
How are those men, thus thrown out of employ to provide for their
families; - and what are they to put their children apprentice
to, that the rising generation may have something to keep them
at work, in order that they may not be like vagabonds strolling
about in idleness? Some say, Begin and learn some other business.
- Suppose we do; who will maintain our families, whilst we undertake
the arduous task; and when we have learned it, how do we know
we shall be any better for all our pains; for by the time we have
served our second apprenticeship, another machine may arise, which
may take away that business also; so that our families, being
half pined whilst we are learning how to provide them with bread,
will be wholly so during the period of our third apprenticeship.
But what are our children to do; are they to be brought up in
idleness? Indeed as things are, it is no wonder to hear of so
many executions; for our parts, though we may be thought illiterate
men, our conceptions are, that bringing children up to industry,
and keeping them employed, is the way to keep them from falling
into those crimes, which an idle habit naturally leads to.
These things impartially considered will we hope, be strong advocates
in our favour; and we conceive that men of sense, religion and
humanity, will be satisfied of the reasonableness, as well as
necessity of this address, and that their own feelings will urge
them to espouse the cause of us and our families -
Signed, in behalf of THOUSANDS, by
Joseph Hepworth Thomas Lobley
Robert Wood Thos. Blackburn
From J. F. C. Harrison, Society and Politics in England, 1780-1960 (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), pp. 71-72.
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(c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997