England History. The Luddites and the Combination Acts

Initiation Ceremony of The Woolcomber’s Union, circa 1834

Source: University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth;
Edward Carlton Tufnell, The Character, Object and Effects of Trades Unions , 1834; in J. F. C. Harrison, ed., Society and Politics in England, 1780-1960, New York: Harper & Row, 1965, pp. 158-62. Tufnell, a factory and poor law inspector, described the scene in his pamphlet as follows: “the scene is usually the first floor of a tavern, which is doubly planked throughout, and the interstices filled with wood shavings in order to prevent anyone overhearing the ceremonies. The time is 8 or 9 o'clock in the evening, at which hour the above-named dramatis personae with the exception of the principal conductor, and those who are about to enter the Union, are supposed to be collected together for the performance of the following drama. On one side of the apartment is a skeleton, above which is drawn sword and a battle-axe, and in front stands a table upon which lies a Bible. The principal officers of the Union are clothed in surplices.”


OUTSIDE TILER, a member of the Union who keeps guard on the outside of the room in which the members are assembled.

INSIDE TILER, ditto, on the inside.

PRINCIPAL CONDUCTOR, the person who conducts to the Lodge those who are to be initiated into the mysteries of the Union.


Members say the following prayer:

O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, defend us in this our undertaking, that we may not fear the power of our adversaries, through the merits of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Outside Tiler knocks at the door

INSIDE TILER: Who comes here to disturb the peace and harmony of this our most worthy and honourable order?

PRINCIPAL CONDUCTOR (from without): I am not come here to disturb the peace and harmony of this your most worthy and honourable order. I am a brother, with strangers who wish to be admitted into your most worthy and honourable order.

INSIDE TILER: Most worthy President, Vice-, Secretary, and brothers all, a brother stands at the door with strangers, who wish to be admitted into this your most worthy and honourable order.

PRESIDENT: In the name of the Lord, admit him.

Enter Principal Conductor followed by the strangers with their eyes bandaged. Members salute, and then sing a hymn

PRINCIPAL CONDUCTOR: Strangers, within our secret walls we have admitted you,
Hoping you will prove honest, faithful, just and true,
If you cannot keep the secrets we require,
Go hence, you are at liberty to retire.
Are your motives pure?


PRINCIPAL CONDUCTOR: Do you declare they are?


PRINCIPAL CONDUCROIR: Then, brethren, to initiate these strangers we will now proceed, And our most worthy master may proceed to read.

Members sing a hymn

WARDEN: Stand, ye presumptuous mortals, strangers’ steps I hear, And I must know your trade and business here.
By my great power, there’s nothing can from vengeance stay us,
If you come here intending to betray us.

PRESIDENT: Most worthy guardian of our sacred laws,

They're woolcombers, and wishful to protect the united cause.

WARDEN: Then all is well.

VICE PRESIDENT: Strangers, you're welcome, and if you prove sincere,
You'll not repent your pains and labour here.
We have one common interest, and one common soul,
Which should by virtue guide and actuate the whole.
Our trade requires protection, by experience sad we know;
Our duty is to prevent recurrence of our former woe.

Our commonwealth was like some savage land,
Where the weaker slaves, and stronger bear command,
Where tyrants rule with uncontrolled sway,
And degraded subjects do their will obey.

Such was our domestic lot, our suffering and our care
Enraged our minds with sadness and despair.
And when we'd united and our rights obtained,
We found that only half our point was gained,
Our interests were so many and so various,
The tenure of our rights so frail and so precarious,
That had we not invented Lodges our protection to ensure,
All, all would have come to nought, as it had done before.

Strangers, the design of all our Lodges is love and unity,
With self-protection founded on the laws of equity,
And when you have our mystic rights gone through,
Our secrets all will be disclosed to you.

We deem you worthy our friendship, trust and confidence to share,
See that you make, the prosperity of our cause your constant care.
Let your tongue be always faithful, your heart conceal its trust,
Woe, woe and dishonour attend the faithless and unjust.

Guards, give the strangers sight.

The bandages are removed from the eyes of the strangers, and they are placed opposite the skeleton

PRESIDENT (pointing to the skeleton):
Strangers, mark well this shadow, which you see,
It is a faithful emblem of man’s destiny.

Behold that head, once filled with pregnant wit,
These hollow holes once sparkling eyes did fit;
This empty mouth nor lips nor tongue contains,
Of a once well-furnished head, see all that now remains.

Behold this breast, where a generous heart-once moved,
Filled with affection, loving and beloved,
Mark well these bones, the flesh hath left its place;
These arms could once a tender wife embrace.

These legs in gay activity could roam,
But, alas! the spirit’s dead, the life is gone.
O death! O death! Thy terrors strike us with dismay.
The sting of death is sin-are we not sinners all?

Then upon us one day the heavy stroke of death must fall.

VICE-PRESIDENT: Strangers, hear me; and mark well what I say,
Be faithful to your trust, or you may rue this day.

You are now within our secret walls, and I must know if you can keep a secret.


VICE-PRESIDENT: And will you do it?


VICE-PRESIDENT: Then amongst us, you will shortly be entitled to the endearing name of brother,
And what you hear or see here done, you must not disclose to any other;
We are uniting to cultivate friendship as well as to protect our trade,
And due respect must to all our laws be paid.

Hoping you will prove faithful, and all encroachments on our rights withstand,
As a token of your alliance,-give me your hand.

And now, shouldst thou ever prove deceitful, remember thy end, remember. Guards, put these strangers into darkness, and conduct them to our most worthy master, to be further instructed in this our most worthy and honourable order.

The eyes of the strangers are again bandaged, and they are then made to walk several times round the room, while the members stamp on the floor with their feet. They are then led to the table, upon which the Bible is placed; the right hand of each is placed upon the sacred volume: the bandages are then removed from their eyes, and they take the following oath:

I, A. B., woolcomber, being in the awful presence of Almighty God, do voluntarily declare that I will persevere in endeavouring to support a brotherhood, known by the name of the Friendly Society of Operative Stuff Manufacturers, and other Industrious Operatives, and I solemnly declare and promise that I will never act in opposition to the brotherhood in any of their attempts to support wages, but will, to the utmost of my power, assist them in all lawful and just occasions, to obtain a fair remuneration for our labour. And I call upon God to wit-ness this my most solemn declaration, that neither hopes, fears, rewards, punishments, nor even death itself, shall ever induce me directly or indirectly, to give any information respecting any thing contained in this Lodge, or any similar Lodge connected with the Society; and I will neither write nor cause to be written, upon paper, wood, sand, stone, or any thing else, whereby it may be known, unless allowed to do so by the proper authorities of the Society. And I, will never give my consent to have any money belonging to the Society divided or appropriated to any other purpose than the use of the Society and support of the trade, so help me God, and keep me steadfast in this my most solemn obligation; and if ever I reveal either part or parts of this my most solemn obligation, may all the Society I am about to belong to, and all that is just, disgrace me so long as I live; and may what is now before me plunge my soul into the everlasting pit of misery. Amen.

VICE-PRESIDENT: Guards, put these strangers into darkness.

Rise and stand. (To the strangers.)

The strangers having been blindfolded, the members sing a hymn, and then salute. The strangers are then led out. Members then say the following prayer:

O God, who art the author of peace, etc. (same as at the commencement).

PRESIDENT: In the name of King Edward the Third, I declare this Lodge to be now duly closed, and so it is.

God save our noble King,
William the Fourth let’s sing.

Brethren, ere we depart, let us join hand and heart
In this our cause;
May our next meeting be blest with sweet harmony,
Honour, and secrecy in the Mechanic’s cause.