Reading the Riot Act 2: Luddites and Micks

Last year, I wrote a post about the protest-related origins of the phrase ‘reading the riot act,’ amongst others, and since then I have been on the lookout for other phrases which also have their origins in periods of strife. What I’ve found are two terms to describe people. If you have ever called someone, or been called by someone, a ‘Luddite’ or a ‘Mick’ (to describe an Irish person, not someone who’s name is Michael), then you have been referring to Britain’s long history of dissent.

A Luddite is someone who dislikes technology (Source: Poughkeepsie Day School).

A Luddite is a term frequently used to refer to someone who disapproves of new technologies. For most people, it is an insult, but others embrace the name with pride. If the origins of the term were more widely known, perhaps more people would be proud of the name. The Luddites was the collective name given to English textile workers who protested against the mechanization of their trade between 1811 and 1816. The new technologies of the Industrial Revolution meant that textiles could be mass-produced by unskilled, low-wage workers, forcing skilled artisans out of work.

The (probably) fictional leader of this movement was called General, or King, Ludd, and reportedly lived in Sherwood Forest, the home of another mythical champion of the people, Robin Hood. The name may come from Ned Ludd, who allegedly smashed two stocking frames in 1779.  The Luddite protests began in Nottinghamshire and quickly spread through the midlands and North of England. The demonstrators sent threatening letters to employers and broke into factories to destroy new machines. In 1812, machine breaking became punishable by death, and 17 men were executed the following year. Obviously the Luddites were unsuccessful at halting the march of the Industrial Revolution, but they made such an impression that their name is still used, 200 years later.

‘Mick’ is a derogatory word to describe an Irish person. There are several explanations for the origin of the term, but my favourite comes from London’s contentious past. Michael Barrett has the dubious honour of being the last person to be publicly hanged in England. In May 1868 he was executed for his role in the Clerkenwell Outrage on the 13th of December 1867. 12 people were killed in a bombing outside the Middlesex House of Detention in Clerkenwell, shocking Londoners and turning them against the cause of Irish nationalism. Michael Barrett’s name became synonymous with all Irish people.

The bomb was a failed jailbreak that went disastrously wrong. Prominent Fenians Richard O’Sullivan Burke and Joseph Casey were being held in the Clerkenwell prison. A barrel of gunpowder was placed against the wall of the prison’s exercise yard and set off with a firework, with the aim of blowing a hole in the wall so Burke and Casey could escape. Far too much gunpowder was used and the blast damaged a row of tenement houses on the other side of the road. 12 people were killed and up to 120 were injured. The prison authorities knew something was being planned, so the prisoners were locked in their cells instead of exercising at the time of the bombing, and Burke and Casey failed to escape. Although Michael Barrett was charged along with several others, he was the only one who was actually convicted of the bombing.

The English language has many phrases which, when you actually stop to think about them, appear to be absolute nonsense. But when you start to trace it back, you often find a great story that explains it, and offers a tiny window onto Britain’s chequered past.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. “Luddite.” Wikipedia. Last modified 7th June 2015, accessed 12th June 2015.

Anon. “Michael Barrett (Fenian).” Wikipedia. Last modified 17th December 2014, accessed 23rd June 2015.

Anon. “Mick.” No date, accessed 12th June 2015.

Webb, Simon. Dynamite, Treason and Plot: Terrorism in Victorian and Edwardian London. Stroud: The History Press, 2012.

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