Key Facts & Summary:
- Volatility set in after the end of the Napoleonic war.
- Most landowners stopped feeling responsible for their labourers.
- Farmers were becoming richer while their farm workers were becoming poorer.
- Laws such as game laws that were introduced to limit farm worker’s ability to feed themselves are one of the key factors that led to the riots.
- Farm labourers were opposed to the introduction of machines that they feared were going to replace them.
The term Swing riots refer 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 imposed by the advent of threshers on farms.
When their grievances were ignored, the protesters attacked the workhouses and the buildings used to store the tithe, but also resorted to the burning of crops, the destruction of threshers or the slaughter of cattle. This movement echoes the uprising of the textile workers of 1811.
The farm labourers destroyed first threshing machine on August 28, 1830, on a Saturday night. In October of the same year, a hundred threshers had already been vandalized and burnt in the eastern part of Kent County. A great mystery surrounds the figurehead of the movement, Captain Swing, whose name initials a large number of threatening letters sent to farm owners, magistrates, pastors, and others.
The first mention of Swing Letters was made in the October 21, 1830 edition of The Times. Captain Swing has never been identified and most historians believe that he never existed and that it would in fact only be a collective name used by rebels as a scarecrow against their opponents, anonymity is preferable in a repressive context.
Swing Riots have many direct causes but are mainly caused by poor living standards and impoverishment of agricultural workers over more than 50 years. The anger of the workers was mainly turned towards three targets, the source of their distress: the tithe system, that of the Poor laws and the rich farmer owners who reduced wages as a result of the acquisition of threshing machines.
Causes of the uprising
At the beginning of the nineteenth 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, poultry and other geese – 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 a salary. The system was viable for the duration of the European wars because labour was scarce because of conscriptions and maize prices were high, but the peace of 1815 caused low prices of grain and a surplus of labour.
The social status of agricultural workers had also decreased. In the early 1780s, 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. Over the years, the gap between employers and workers is widening.
The workers were paid only in cash and for shorter and shorter periods. In the beginning, the pay was paid 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 very meagre and sometimes workers had to go through degrading conditions to obtain them.
As the levels of poverty increased and more 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 at Berkshire. Yet the daily ration had further reduced to two loaves in 1817 in Wiltshire.
This almost systematic recourse of the workers to parochial charity led to a reduction in their wages by the employers, who saw there a means as another to provide for the vital needs of their employees.
The tithing responsibilities were added to this explosive cocktail. 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 for himself most of the time handsomely.
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. Requests for a significant reduction in tithing were recurrent during the uprising.
The advent of the threshers driven by horses, able to perform the jobs of several men in less time, was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. They were quickly set up on farms, putting workers out of work in their thousands. After two years of poor harvests in 1828 up to 1829, workers were dreading the arrival of the 1830 winter.
The wrath of the agricultural workers finally broke out in the late summer of 1830. As jobs became increasingly scarce, wages were reduced and the future of their profession became increasingly bleak, threshers focused on at first the resentment of the mass of workers. The blaze began in the southeastern part of Kent County, where the insurgents demolished several machines that were used for threshing and even threatened the farm owners.
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. The revolt eventually reached Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, and Nottinghamshire, making it one of the biggest popular uprisings since the Peasant Revolt of 1381.
The mode of action of the rebel workers was similar. Threat letters, which were usually signed by the leader of the uprising, Captain Swing, would be delivered to magistrates, large landowners, parish clerics, and local Poor law enforcement officials. These letters generally demanded increased wages, a reduction of the tithe, and the abolition of the threshing machines by the proprietors themselves, failing which the workers threatened to do so.
If the warnings were ignored, the workers would organize themselves in groups of hundreds of 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.
Despite the violence of the slogans (“Bread or Blood”), no deaths were deplored during the revolts that only resulted in the destruction of property, barn fires, and crops being committed in parallel with the actual events.
The mode of action similar to the multiple insurrections and the relative speed of their propagation were often attributed to those of shady agitators seeking to spread revolutionary ideas from France and other parts of Europe, where the July Revolution broke out just a few weeks before the beginning of the uprising in Kent; but the thesis of “politicized agitators” finds little clear evidence.
The struggle against tithing and threshers was also supported by many magistrates and landowners who opposed little resistance to the destruction of thousands of agricultural machines throughout the country.
However, 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 sometimes extorted on rising wages and the tithe reduction was not always honoured. Numerous arrests took place and the trials resulted in 19 hangings and 481 convictions in Australia.
Swing riots reinforced the social and political malaise in England in the 1830s. It had a great influence on the policies that were pursued by the successive Whig governments. This policy led to the New Poor Law of 1834.
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 be needy and think that they need to be helped.
The importance to be given to swinging riots in the beginnings of the class struggle in England is still debated by contemporary historians.