Swing Riots  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Swing Riots were a widespread uprising by the rural workers of the arable south and east of England in 1830. The rioters, largely impoverished and landless agricultural labourers, sought to halt reductions in their wages and to put a stop to the introduction of the new threshing machines that threatened their livelihoods. They reinforced their demands not only with riots in which objects of perceived oppression such as workhouses and tithe barns were destroyed, but also with more surreptitious rick-burning, the destruction of threshing machines and cattle-maiming. The movement paralleled its urban-industrial counterpart, the Luddite disturbances. The first threshing machine was destroyed on Saturday night, August 28th, 1830. By the third week of October, over one hundred threshing machines had been destroyed in East Kent.

Mystery surrounds the nominal leader of the riots, Captain Swing, whose name is appended to several of the threatening letters sent to farmers, magistrates, parsons and others. The "Swing letters" were first mentioned by The Times on the 21 October. Captain Swing has never been identified, and many people believe that he never existed, having been created by the workers as a fictional figurehead who could function as a safe target for their opponents.

The Swing Riots had many immediate causes, but were overwhelmingly the result of the progressive impoverishment and dispossession of the English agricultural workforce over the previous fifty years, leading up to 1830. The anger of the rioters was directed at three targets that were seen as the prime source of their misery: The Tithe system, the Poor law guardians, and the rich tenant farmers who had been progressively lowering wages while introducing agricultural machinery.

Background to the uprisings

Early nineteenth century England was virtually unique among major nations in having no class of landed smallholding peasantry. The parliamentary enclosure movement of the previous century had eradicated the last rights of poorer countryfolk to graze their livestock, be it cattle, sheep, chicken or geese, on what had formerly been "Common" Land. The common grazing of older times was divided up among the large local land-owners, leaving the landless farmworkers solely dependent upon offering their labour to their richer neighbours for a cash wage. Whilst this may have offered a tolerable living during the boom years of the Napoleonic wars, when labour had been in short supply and corn prices had been high, the coming of peace in 1815 brought with it plummeting grain prices and an oversupply of labour.

The social status of agricultural workers had also declined. In the 1780s workers would be taken on at annual Hiring Fairs, to serve for a whole year. In this period the worker would receive payment in kind and in cash from his or her employer, would often work at his side, and would commonly share meals at the employer's table. As time went by the gulf between farmer and employee widened. Workers were hired on stricter cash-only contracts, which ran for shorter and shorter periods. At first monthly terms became the norm; later contracts were offered for as little as a week at a time. Farm labourers were thrown on to parish relief the moment that their services were no longer profitable. This casualisation and growing insecurity of rural labour lent much to the anger of the 1830 riots.

The "Old Poor Law" introduced in Tudor times began to break under the strain. The system charged a Parish Rate to landowners and tenants which was used to provide relief payments to settled residents of the parish who were ill or out of work. These payments were minimal, and at times degrading conditions were required for their receipt. As more and more people became dependent on parish relief, ratepayers rebelled ever more loudly against the costs, and a lower and lower level of relief was offered. Three and a half "one gallon" bread loaves were considered necessary for a man in Berkshire in 1795. However provision had fallen to just two similar-sized loaves being provided in 1817 Wiltshire. The way in which poor law funds were disbursed led to a further reduction in agricultural wages, since farmers would pay their workers as little as possible, knowing that the parish fund would top up wages to a basic subsistence level.

To this incendiary mixture was added the burden of the Church Tithe. Originally this had been the Church's right to ten percent of the parish harvest. However the earlier collection of goods in kind had been replaced by a cash levy that was payable to the Church of England Parson, and which went to pay his (often considerable) wages. The cash levy was generally rigorously enforced, whether the resident was a Church member or not, and the sum demanded was often far higher than a poor person could afford. Calls for a large reduction in the Tithe payment were prominent among the demands of the rioters.

The final straw was the introduction of horse-powered threshing machines, which could do the work of many men. They spread swiftly among the farming community, threatening the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of farmworkers. Following the terrible harvests of 1828 and 1829, farm labourers faced the approaching winter of 1830 with dread.

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