On this day 200 years ago, Lord Byron made his maiden speech in the House of Lords. The Industrial Revolution was in full flight, and skilled textile workers were being replaced by machines, leaving the unemployed workers destitute and unable to support their families. Displaced textile workers, who were known as Luddites, responded with violence, destroying mechanised looms. Lord Byron was one of the few to speak up against the government’s brutal measures to repress the Luddites. His speech included the following:
The perseverance of these miserable men in their proceedings, tends to prove that nothing but absolute want could have driven a large and once honest and industrious body of the people into the commission of excesses so hazardous to themselves, their families, and the community… These men were willing to dig, but the space 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.
Lord Byron’s speech was to no avail. The Parliament passed the Frame Breaking Act and the Malicious Damage Act, making “machine breaking” a capital offence. In 1813, many of the Luddites were convicted of machine breaking and hanged, while others were transported to Australia