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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
- Causes of the riots
- Activities of the rioters
- Outcome of the attacks
KEY FACTS AND INFORMATION
Let’s know more about Swing Riots!
- The term Swing Riots refers to the general uprising of agricultural workers from the eastern and southern parts of England in 1830. Rioters, impoverished and landless peasants sought to put an end to the wage reductions brought by the advent of threshers on farms by attacking the workhouses and buildings, burning crops, destroying the threshers, and sending threatening letters to the authorities.
- Fearing property damages, the landowners and other authorities occasionally acceded to the demands of the rioters. The government responded harshly to the attacks and many rioters were arrested and brought to trial, which resulted in execution, imprisonment and transportation.
Causes of the riots
- The Labourer’s Revolt, commonly known as Swing Riots, had many direct causes but it was mainly rooted in the poor living standards and impoverishment of agricultural workers for more than fifty years.
- At the beginning of the 19th century, most European countries had small farm owners. However, England was an exception.
- The system of farmland imposed by Parliament in the previous century had removed the right for the poorest to feed their animals – cattle, sheep, geese and other poultry – on what was previously communal lands.
- The communal land was then divided between the largest local landowners.
- Landless farmers were only left with the option of offering their services to their rich neighbours in exchange for salary.
- The system was viable for the duration of the European wars because labour was scarce due to conscriptions and high maize prices, but peace in 1815 caused low prices of grain and a surplus of labour.
- The social status of agricultural workers had also decreased.
- In the early 18th century, farm labourers received a salary year round.
- At that time, workers received their wages in terms of cash, worked alongside their employer, and ate most of the time at his table.
- The relationship between the landowner and worker was preferable.
- Over the years, the gap between employers and workers widened.
- The workers were paid only in cash and for shorter periods.
- In the beginning, payment was made every month, then the contracts became weekly and the agricultural workers became dependent on the parish charity as soon as their contracts came to an end.
- This precariousness of work was largely responsible for the events of 1830.
- The Elizabethan Poor Laws, introduced in 1601, began to show their limits.
- This system was based on the levying of a tax on farmers, which was then used to assist poor or sick people in the parish. But these subsidies were meagre and sometimes workers had to go through degrading conditions to obtain them.
- As the levels of poverty increased and more people were depending on these supports, employers constantly complained about the weight of these levies on their accounts, which reduced the level of aid received by the poor.
- Three loaves of bread were considered the bare minimum for a person in most parts of England, especially in Berkshire.
- Yet the daily ration was further reduced to two loaves in 1817 in Wiltshire.
- The dependence of the workers on parish charity further led to a reduction in their wages by the employers, who thought that the system could provide for the vital needs of their workers.
- The tithing responsibilities added to these problematic conditions.
- Originally, the church was entitled to 10% of the parish’s harvest, but the in-kind contributions were subsequently replaced by cash levies paid directly to the priest, who paid himself handsomely most of the time.
- The collection of this tax was generally very strict, whether or not the payer belonged to the parish, and the amount claimed was often much higher than what most poor folks could afford.
- The advent of the threshers driven by horses, able to perform the jobs of several men in less time, was the last straw for the workers.
- They were quickly set up on farms, putting workers out of work in the thousands.
- After two years of poor harvests in 1828 and 1829, workers were dreading the arrival of the 1830 winter.
Activities of the rioters
- 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 anger of the workers was mainly turned towards three targets, the source of their distress: the tithe system, the Poor Laws and the rich farm owners who reduced wages as a result of the acquisition of threshing machines.
- The first destruction of a threshing machine by farm labourers began on 28 August 1830 at Lower Hardres, near Canterbury in Kent.
- In October of the same year, a hundred threshers had been vandalised and burnt in the eastern part of Kent County.
- The uprising quickly spread westward to Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire and Middlesex Counties.
- 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 activities of the rebel workers were similar.
- The protesters attacked the workhouses and the buildings used to store the tithe.
- They also resorted to burning of crops, destruction of threshers or the slaughter of cattle.
- Corn riots were occasional, during which corn fields were burnt by the rioters.
- Additionally, corn was stolen from warehouses and sold to the poor at a cheaper price.
- This movement echoed the uprising of the textile workers of 1811.
- The threatening letters that were sent to the magistrates, large landowners, parish clerics and local Poor Law enforcement officials contained the demands of the riots which were:
- Raise wages
- Stop the use of machinery
- Cut tithes
- They were signed by ‘Captain Swing’ or ‘Swing’, the mythical figurehead of the movement, and brought fear to landowners and clergy.
- The letters also contained a warning if demands were not met.
- As a result, the landowners and clergy occasionally responded by acceding to the demands.
- If the warnings were ignored, the workers would organise themselves in groups of hundreds and openly threaten the landowners with reprisals if they did not respond to their grievances.
- The retaliation was followed by the destruction of agricultural machinery, workhouses and granaries for tithing, and then insurgents dispersed or went to nearby villages.
Outcome of the attacks
- Whilst the attacks occasionally led to authorities acting on the demands, many farm owners reneged on the agreements and unrest escalated with Swing letters appearing in other nearby counties. The local magistrates responded leniently until the government intervened with harsher punishments.
- Despite the slogan Bread or Blood, only one death was recorded during the revolts, which mainly aimed at the destruction of property, barn fires, and crops being committed in parallel with the actual events.
- The struggle against tithing and threshers was also supported by many magistrates and landowners who out up little resistance to the destruction of thousands of agricultural machines throughout the country.
- The crackdown ordered by the government and implemented by Home Secretary Lord Melbourne was harsh.
- Local magistrates, accused by the government of being soft, were replaced by a special committee that consisted of three judges charged with bringing to justice those who took part in the revolt in the districts of Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Hampshire and Dorset.
- The promises to meet the demands of raising wages and tithe reduction ware not always honoured.
- Numerous arrests took place and the trials resulted in 252 death sentences, 19 hangings, 644 imprisonments and 481 transportations to penal colonies Australia.
- The punished rioters were not limited to farm workers but also included rural artisans, shoemakers, carpenters, wheelwrights, blacksmiths and cobblers.
- The Swing Riots reinforced the social and political malaise in England in the 1830s.
- They had a great influence on the policies that were pursued by the successive Whig governments, including the Reform Act 1832.
- They further led to the passage of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, commonly known as the New Poor Law, by the Whig Government of Earl Grey.
- However, the New Poor Law made the living conditions of the poor even worse and more painful by putting an end to charity in gifts and cash.
- They were replaced with workhouses, designed on the principle that life in these “charity houses” should be harder than any life outside.
- This was to avoid the development of a mentality that made people needy and think that they need to be helped.