1812 – Lord Byron and The Frame Breakers Bill – Are There Lessons to be Learned?

Written by Nigel Lewis-Davidson

Lord Byron, British Poet
Lord George Gordon Byron, by Thomas Phillips

Lord Byron, the English poet, was born George Gordon Byron on the 22nd January 1788. His parents were Captain John Byron, Lord of Rochdale, and Catherine Gordon of Gight. Byron was also to take the name Lord Noel Byron in later life as a condition of an inheritance.

On the 27th of February, 1812, Lord Byron, famous for his poetry and infamous for his relationships and huge debts, rose for the first time to address his peers in the House of Lords, London, England to voice his objections to the Frame Breakers Bill.

What was the Frame Breakers Bill?

woodcut illustration of led pointing at a group of luddites and pointing a gun at barrels
“Ned Defends his mothers mill against the Luddites” by HM Paget; woodcut illustration in George Alfred Henty’s “Through the fray.”

At the beginning of the 19th century, England was undergoing an Industrial Revolution, and more and more machinery was being used to modernise mills with devastating side effects, including widespread unemployment and poverty. The county of Nottinghamshire was an area particularly affected and from 1811 to 1813 the Luddite Revolution took place. The Luddites were a group of beleaguered ex-employees of the mills, displaced and disillusioned. Their leader was a mythical character known as King or General Ludd; it was purported he lived in Sherwood Forest like his mythical counterpart, Robin Hood.

Feelings ran high and violence was prevalent and the destruction of the new weaving machinery was rife. The mill owners, standing hand in glove with the Government, demanded action.

The action came in the form of the Frame Breakers Bill, a capital bill, a bill that meant the death penalty for offenders swinging at the end of a rope.

Back to Lord Byron

Lord Byron made his first speech to the House of Lords in opposition to this inhumane bill and in support of the Luddites.

Initially those reading it may be forgiven for mixing the text up with the kind of poorly written article being touted around the internet as quality freelance writing, the big difference is when read through eyes that allow for the fact it was written 200 years ago it is a very cleverly worded speech striking right at the heart of the problem and makes perfect sense, unlike the modern-day comparison; I hope if the poet can read these words he will forgive me for drawing this comparison.

The Speech of 1812

To sum the speech up in a few paragraphs would be impossible, but one thing is for certain: Byron was very critical of the Government.  Looking at the speech in more detail there are a number of parallels to be drawn with modern-day.

  • “…the House is already aware that every outrage short of actual bloodshed has been perpetrated,…” – it is only a matter of time before this statement is disproved in any case of civil unrest, the recent events across many countries on several continents bear this out.
  • “…it cannot be denied that they have arisen from circumstances of the most unparalelled distress.” – we still manage to distress people today by depriving them of work and forcing them into poverty.
  • “The perseverance of these miserable men in their proceedings,…” – referring to the mill owners; this could also apply to our modern-day bankers.
  • “…yet all these movements, civil and military had led to—nothing. Not a single instance had occurred of the apprehension of any real delinquent actually taken in the fact,…” – we still do not seem to have found a tactic, other than standing around until frustration turns to violence.
  • “that in times like these, when bankruptcy, convicted fraud, and imputed felony, are found in a station not far beneath that of your Lordships,…” – we only need to think of the Members of Parliament convicted or sacked for fiddling their expenses to have a modern-day equivalent of this part of his speech.
  • “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.” – I am not drawing any direct parallel to modern-day but I include it as I enjoyed the clever wording and meaning of this sentence.
  • “As the sword is the worst argument that can be used, so should it be the last.” –hear, hear.
  • “and have sat down to enjoy our foreign triumphs in the midst of domestic calamity.” – well, to be fair, Byron could have been writing this today, although our ‘foreign triumphs’ may have been pushing it a bit far.
  • “as your charity began abroad, it should end at home.” – again a call that is muted often when we give vast amounts of money to other nations that could have been used at home.

Some commentators thought Byron was theatrical in the presentation of his speech, something the House was not used to.

Lord Byron himself commented: –

“I spoke very violent  sentences with a sort of modest impudence, abused everything and everybody, put the Lord Chancellor very much out of humour, and if I may believe what I hear, have not lost any character in the experiment”.

The Poem With No Author

Below is the last two stanzas of a poem to which Lord Byron never put his name; although judging by his thoughts on the Frame Breakers Bill there seems little doubt he penned it.

“Some folks for certain have thought it was shocking,
When Famine appeals, and when Poverty groans,
That life should be valued at less than a stocking,
And breaking of frames lead to breaking of bones.

If it should prove so, I trust, by this token,
(And who will refuse to partake in the hope?)
That the frames of the fools may be first to be broken,
Who, when asked for a remedy, sent down a rope.”

http://www.luddites200.org.uk/Byrons_poem.html

From this it can be seen that he believed the Governments answer to the problems of 1812 were very heavy-handed and mismanaged.  Is it not true that alienating your perceived enemy further drives you apart with stronger conflict rather than giving you a foundation for moving towards a mutually acceptable conclusion?

Although personally I would not support the idea of total annihilation of your enemies as being a suitable conclusion to a conflict, to use this theory on your own countryman in order to stop their voice being heard seems totally without justification.

Would the Invention of the Bicycle of Been Useful?

black and white Photograph of an Old bicycle by the beach.
Old-Fashioned Bicycle. photograph by Alexey Romanov

In hindsight maybe the advice of Norman Tebbit, in 1981, in response to a young conservatives statement that unemployment would make rioting a natural reaction: –

“I grew up in the ’30s with an unemployed father. He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking ’til he found it.”

Tebbit’s statement led to a huge backlash and he was misquoted wildly as having said to the unemployed “Get on yer bike”.  Unfortunately for the Luddites the advice would never have been useful to them as bikes were not invented for another 50 years; and, ironically, thanks to the development of machinery. Lord Byron, however, may have found Tebbit’s suggest as useful as ‘the rope’.

Other Modern Comparisons

Lord Byron ended his days in self-exile brought on by severe debt and ruinous relationships.  He moved around Europe ending his days in Greece where he died after an illness and much blood-letting.

photograph of a statue in chich Lord Byron is reaching his arm out and an angel is looking over him.
Lord Byron Monument in Athens, Greece. Photographer: Georgios Kollidas

There is no doubt modern-day Greece could do with a hero to help resolve their problems today.

Because of the services Greece felt Lord Byron did for them the Greek people commissioned a statue showing him being held by Greece depicted as a female figure; it stands in the Garden of the Heroes. Although his body was returned to England his heart is buried under the statue.

Maybe if Byron was around today he would be ‘that’ hero.

In these modern times when celebrity-ism is rife and people are lifted to the heights of ‘Icon’ because they have a good publicist maybe they should be thanking Byron for starting the trend.  The term “Byromania” was created by Annabella his wife following the furor that surrounded him; being a self publicist, he used his personality to attract people to him and understood how he affected those he came into contact with. He also saw himself as a man of action and preferred this persona to others he was known for.  Some think his self exile was to escape the clamour of stardom but is this likely considering he placed himself at the forefront of the problems in Greece.

Also in these modern times a leaf has been taken from the mill workers of Sherwood Forest and there is a modern movement with the selfexplaining name of ‘Luddite 200’, They are rising against the perception of modern threats posed to the commonality from such things as modern technology, climate change, bio-diversity and generic engineering.

What Does Lord Byron Teach Us?

One lesson is for sure whatever language the countries or worlds problems come in, whether it be the olde English, modern English or internet English, those problems have been repeated many times in many different shapes and sizes over the centuries. Likewise, the search for an answer that is a reasonable compromise seems to be just as far out of our grip as it was 200 years ago. Those with the power and influence always seem to hold the upper hand.

Both sides will be just as far away from each other at the beginning as at the end and the views of the protagonists will range from the hard nose ‘put them all up against the wall’ to the more pacifist view where we practically ignore the problem hoping it will go away.  Yet despite starting off on the high ground, reasonable people end up giving up more in the compromise than those that challenge.

Despite Lord Byron’s passionate appeal for common sense and humanity to prevail, the Frame Breakers Bill became law in 1812.

“…the House is already aware that every outrage short of actual bloodshed has been perpetrated,…”

12 Luddites and 1 mill owner were killed during attacks on mills 200 years ago; 3 Luddites were hanged for the murder of the mill owner and 14 others hanged for their parts in the riots. No one was charged with the deaths of the Luddites during the riots.

Does this mean taking the life of another is permissible as long as you have the justification of the law behind you and you are being paid to do it? Oh and of course, if you are a starving person with your job prospects under serious threat your behaviour is judged as illegal and therefore you become fair game for the law to exploit.

Sounds familiar?

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2 thoughts on “1812 – Lord Byron and The Frame Breakers Bill – Are There Lessons to be Learned?

  1. christyb (@christybis) said:
    Nigel, Your ability to combine history, poetry, and opinion is magnificent! I especially enjoyed the poetry section, as I’m sure you can understand. Thanks for adding the related articles so I can learn even more!

    Red (@AnnMarieDwyer) said:
    This was wonderful, Nigel. Sent along to my group for further perusal. Very interesting take. I would love for you to post it to my Facebook group (along with anything else you would like to hit a larger audience).

    Shelley DuPont (@SMDuPont) said:
    What an excellent piece! You are a magnificent writer.

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