Half a Framebreaker

Today is the 200th anniversary of the death of the poet George Gordon Byron, better known as Lord Byron (22 January 1788 – 19 April 1824).

Here is a poem he published anonymously in The Morning Chronicle, 2 March 1812, when only 24. The Frame-breaking Bill was introduced by the Tory government in an attempt to suppress the rioting and machine-wrecking of the ‘Luddites’. The Bill would make machine-wrecking a capital offence. A hanging offence.

AN ODE TO THE FRAMERS OF THE FRAME BILL

1.

Oh well done Lord E——n! and better done R——r!

⁠Britannia must prosper with councils like yours;

Hawkesbury, Harrowby, help you to guide her,

⁠Whose remedy only must kill ere it cures:

Those villains; the Weavers, are all grown refractory,

⁠Asking some succour for Charity’s sake—

So hang them in clusters round each Manufactory,

⁠That will at once put an end to mistake.

2.

The rascals, perhaps, may betake them to robbing,

⁠The dogs to be sure have got nothing to eat—

So if we can hang them for breaking a bobbin,

⁠’T will save all the Government’s money and meat:

Men are more easily made than machinery—

⁠Stockings fetch better prices than lives—

Gibbets on Sherwood will heighten the scenery,

⁠Shewing how Commerce, how Liberty thrives!

3.

Justice is now in pursuit of the wretches,

⁠Grenadiers, Volunteers, Bow-street Police,

Twenty-two Regiments, a score of Jack Ketches,

⁠Three of the Quorum and two of the Peace;

Some Lords, to be sure, would have summoned the Judges,

⁠To take their opinion, but that they ne’er shall,

For Liverpool such a concession begrudges,

⁠So now they’re condemned by no Judges at all.

4.

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.

 

As a hereditary Lord, Byron was a member of the House of Lords. His maiden speech was on 27 February 1812, just a few days before the poem was published. He spoke passionately (and not at all anonymously) against the proposed ‘Frame-breaking Bill’.

He had been greatly affected by, and was sympathetic to, the plight of the Nottingham stocking weavers, made unemployed by new machines.

“[W]hilst these outrages must be admitted to exist to an alarming extent, it cannot be denied that they have arisen from circumstances of the most unparalleled distress: 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…

“Setting aside the palpable injustice and the certain inefficiency of the Bill, are there not capital punishments sufficient in your statutes? 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 the 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 scarecrows? 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? Will the famished wretch who has braved your bayonets, be appalled by your gibbets? When death is a relief, and the only relief it appears that you will afford him; will he be dragooned into tranquillity? Will that which could not be effected by your grenadiers, be accomplished by your executioners?”

In a letter to his patron, the Whig Lord Holland, Byron suggested that he was “half a framebreaker myself”.

His speech was used by the German revolutionary and playwright Ernst Toller as the Prologue of his 1921 play The Machine Breakers (Die Maschinenstürmer). It was written while he was serving a five-year prison sentence in the Fortress Prison of Niederschönenfeld for his part in the Bavarian revolution and Soviet, of which he was President.

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One thought on “Half a Framebreaker

  1. The Historical context of the Byron poem was the rise of the cotton industry in Britain and the slave plantation in the USA. The factory System, the cotton mill in England, was tied to the use of factory discipline on the slave plantations. The gang system where slaves were forced to work at the pace of the strongest or fittest gang member. So the plantation owners in North Carolina and the Manchester factory owners got richer, while the slaves and women and children who operated the machines increasingly suffered.

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