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Rural Unrest in the 1830s: the "Swing" riots

In the mid-1820s, William Cobbett toured southern England on horseback, reporting on its cultivation, the standard of living of its labourers, and the decline of its traditional practices such as living-in. He claimed that new money and new urban styles were upsetting the placid stable rural economy. In 1830 the rural workers of the arable south and east of England rose in the Swing riots. They demanded higher wages and an end to the threshing machine which destroyed their winter employment. They reinforced their demands with rick-burning, the destruction of the threshing machines and cattle-maiming among other things.

"The home of the rick burner" - Punch 1844

Though the local gentry were often sympathetic, the government's Special Commissions were savage and hanged nine men and transported nearly 500 others. Cobbett insisted that Swing had its roots deep in hunger and oppression which would be remedied only by parliamentary reform.

The agricultural revolution, especially enclosure, upset traditional rural society. There was a shift from the self sufficient, open field villages to farms rented by tenant farmers employing labourers. Hiring was on a casual basis and no payment was given if no work was done. After enclosure it became more common for labourers to be paid by the day or week or by results, and to be employed for short periods for harvesting, hedging, ditching, threshing, and so on. 'Living in' disappeared. Farmhands were transformed into casual labourers with no guarantee of work. Pay declined because of the surplus of labour. There was a permanent surplus of agricultural labour following changes in agriculture, the boom during the French Wars and deflation after 1815 because of the

The social and financial gulf between farmer and labourer widened. Hiring for less than a year meant the unemployed could not claim on the Poor Rates. The Speenhamland System of 1795 attempted to redress the balance but became part of the framework of the labourer's life instead of a safety net in hard times. The system encouraged low pay, and discouraged labourers from working hard. Productivity fell, so poor relief was cut as a deterrent - the attempt to cut it further was one of the causes of the Swing Riots of 1830.

After 1815 the labourers' struggle became a crisis because the boom turned into an acute and prolonged recession. The rural labour market was swamped by demobilised servicemen. The Speenhamland System only gave relief and guaranteed a minimum wage, so labourers had no protection. There was no security because of short contracts and money wages.

A contemporary etching of a Swing riot

Labourers had several methods of protest/self-defence against landowners: they could

Under-employment appears to have been a constant problem in rural areas, and unemployment increased after 1815 although there are no reliable statistics, and there was much regional variation.

A labourer's cottage: contemporary illustration

The problem of pauperism was worst in the 'Swing' counties of Sussex, Hampshire, Suffolk, Norfolk, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Devon, Dorset, Huntingdonshire, Gloucestershire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Kent. The economic historian Sir John Clapham commented that "the coincidence of the area in which wages were most systematically augmented from the rates with the area of maximum enclosure is striking.". In the so-called "Swing" counties, enclosure had taken place on a grand scale.

In the 1820s high poor rates led to increasing attempts to cut relief. Between 1815 and 1820 Poor Law expenditure was 12/10d per capita; by 1830 it was 9/9d. Reductions were made by making the Poor Law a deterrent and by stopping people asking for relief. This created a hatred of the Poor Law but it is also noticeable that between 1824 and 1830, rural crime rates increased by 30% - mainly poaching and food thefts. Pauperism, desperation and discontent were almost universal in agricultural areas. East Anglia was likely to be explosive because this area pioneered the 'new' farming of the Agricultural Revolution and the status of the labourers had been completely transformed into short-contract wage-earners. Although arson was not a normal method of rural agitation, it became common in East Anglia along with poaching

The amount of available work and the level of prices correlated with the state of the harvest. If this is taken into account, then unrest in 1830 was highly likely:

A number of other events also occurred in 1830 which might have increased the likelihood of unrest:

News of these various events were spread by word of mouth and agricultural labourers were more than likely to hear of them, particularly the election campaigns in England. Local issues which led to riots were:

THE RISING

The rioters used a range of methods including machine breaking; arson; threatening letters; wages meetings; attacks on Justices of the Peace and overseers of the poor; riotous assembly; publishing and distributing handbills and posters; and 'robbery'. The riots began in Kent and persisted there the longest. There were five phases to the Kent riots:

  1. fires (June)
  2. machine breaking (began 28th August)
  3. wages meetings and radical agitation (October)
  4. wages meetings and machine breaking (early November)
  5. fires, tithe riots and machine breaking (end of November)

Machine breaking was a new feature of rural unrest. Many threshing machines were smashed in this "rural war" on Saturday nights after the inns had closed: about one hundred threshers were smashed in east Kent between 28 August and the end of October, by gangs of between twenty and fifty breakers. There does not seem to have been any political grievance because the men demanded only higher wages. They wanted a minimum of

The average wage in the Swing counties was only 8/4d per week. The labourers also asked for a reduction of rents and tithes.

Areas which were liable to riot may be identified as follows:

The aims of the rioters were remarkably similar throughout the 'Swing' counties. The men demanded a minimum wage, the end of rural unemployment and tithe and rent reductions. Farmers supported the labourers in the two latter demands.

Arson resulted in damage of

£100,000

industrial machine breaking (Luddism)

£ 13,000

agricultural machine breaking (Swing)

£ 8,000

riot damage

£ 600

 TOTAL

 £121,600

In 1833 His Majesty's Poor Law Commissioners produced a report on the agricultural disturbances on 1830 which attributed the riots to the distress caused by low wages and the demoralisation produced by the Speenhamland system. Since these men wished to introduce new legislation for the relief of poverty, their comments perhaps should be taken with some scepticism.

The riots probably died a natural death, so were not really affected by either government or local action. There was little or no use of the brand new police force which had been established by Peel in 1829. The government's attention was diverted into other areas such as the General Election, urban unrest and the revolution in France. Consequently the main onus of dealing with the rioters fell on local JPs who had divided loyalties. These men had to enforce the law and the penalties were severe for those who were convicted of the offences. The JPs then had to live in the communities after the trials and sentences. It is not surprising, then, to see how many men were acquitted.

There were 1,976 trials in total. Of the men tried, sentencing was as follows:

Sentenced to death

252

Commuted to life transportation

233

Executed

19

Transported

505

Imprisoned

644

Fined

7

Whipped

1

Acquitted/bound over

800

The 'Swing' riots were the first large-scale demonstration of agricultural labourers' strength, although outbreaks were localised. Agitation continued, especially after the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. There were no agricultural trade unions because jobs and therefore homes were at stake. The 'Swing' riots did influence the passing of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act and the 1836 Tithe Commutation Act, but wages and conditions did not improve.

Average wages for farm labourers rose from 8/11d per week in 1795 to 9/6d per week in 1850, but real wages (i.e. how far the money went) declined. Agricultural labourers continued to be the worst paid, worst fed and worst housed of all the working communities

Suggestions for further reading:

William Cobbett: Rural Rides (Penguin, 1967, ed. G. Woodcock
T. and B. Hammond: The Village Labourer (1911)
E. Hobsbawm and G Rudé: Captain Swing (1969)

For detailed information on the Selborne & Headley workhouse riots of 1830 go to this site

For information on the fate of some of the Swing rioters, see this site, which belongs to Graham Tong. His great-great grandfather was transported to Australia for his part in the Swing Riots.


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Last modified 26 October, 2013

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