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Swing Riots

The Labourers’ Revolt, commonly known as Swing Riots was mainly rooted in the poor living standards and impoverishment of agricultural workers for more than fifty years. A wave of more than 3000 acts of revolt swept across England for over 2 years. The system of farmland imposed by Parliament in the previous century had removed the right for the poorest to feed their animals on what was previously common lands. The common land was then divided between the largest local landowners. Until the early 19th century the main employment of farm labourers in the Autumn and Winter was to thresh corn. The advent of threshing machines driven by horses or by water power, able to perform the jobs of several men in less time further impoverished the already poor labourers. Landowners, seeing the economic advantage for them, quickly set about using threshing machines on their farms, putting workers out of work in their thousands. This all coincided with two years of poor harvests and rising prices and cuts to poor relief.

Threshing Machine at COAM

The threshing machine in action at Chiltern Open Air Museum

The riots finally broke out in the late summer of 1830 as jobs became increasingly scarce, wages were reduced and the future of employment became increasingly bleak. The first destruction of a threshing machine by farm labourers was on 28 August 1830 at Lower Hardres, near Canterbury in Kent. The destruction of machinery became the characteristic feature of this labourers’ movement. In October of the same year, a hundred threshing machines were vandalised and burnt in the eastern part of Kent. The uprising quickly spread westward to Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire and Middlesex and acts of arson increased.

The riots further spread north into the Midlands, the Home Counties and even up to East Anglia, and eventually reached Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, making it one of the biggest popular uprisings since the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The rioters burnt crops, destroyed threshing machines, slaughtered cattle and stole corn from warehouses.

Threatening letters that were sent to magistrates, large landowners, parish clerics and local Poor Law enforcement officials contained the demands of the rioters to raise wages, stop using machinery and cut tithes. These letters were signed by “Captain Swing” or “Swing”. (The name Swing may be a reference to the flails which the labourers used to thresh corn and which needed to be swung with some force in order to thresh the crop.) If the demands were not met, large groups of labourers would threaten landowners and if their demands were not met they would destroy machinery and other things associated with the landowners. While the attacks occasionally led to authorities responding to the demands, many farm owners reneged on the agreements and unrest spread to neighbouring areas. Local magistrates responded leniently, but the government intervened with harsher punishments.

Not all landowners were unsympathetic. Sir Harry Verney at Claydon was unperturbed, seeing no local threat to his own property, somewhat to his surprise.
“Some of the poor are living very miserably. Able-bodied young men having families receive in some cases 3s 6d a week (17½p). A pittance which ensures thieving and poaching. We should alter the game laws… increase the workhouses… have a legalised labour rate … The new beer shops have added to the number of places of rendezvous for the idle and dissolute.”

However, numerous arrests took place and the trials resulted in 19 hangings, 644 imprisonments and 481 transportations to penal colonies in Australia. Rioters were not only farm workers but also rural artisans, shoemakers, carpenters, wheelwrights, blacksmiths and cobblers. On January 10th 1831 a special Commission in Aylesbury tried 160 men for breaking farm machinery and rioting of whom 32 were sentenced to 7 years Transportation to Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania. The 160 men involved were accused of committing their offences in Waddesdon, Stone, Little Brickhill, Iver, Long Crendon and Upper Winchendon and Chepping Wycombe (the spelling of the village at that time, now High Wycombe). In all, 1,976 men from 34 counties were arrested of whom 800 were acquitted, 644 jailed and 481 transported.

The link below provides examples of Captain Swing letters www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/what-caused-the-swing-riots-in-the-1830s/

Written by COAM Volunteer, Roger Coode

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