The History of the Swing Riots in Berkshire

The agricultural Swing Riots of 1830 affected many local communities 

Despite some significant differences between them, the Swing Riots might be regarded as the agricultural equivalent of the Luddite Riots which had taken place nearly 20 years earlier.

 

Rioting first started on a farm in East Kent in the summer of 1830 when labourers smashed their employer’s machinery. 

It spread, like wild-fire, through the rest of Kent and into Sussex, the Home Counties and as far west as Berkshire, Wiltshire, Hampshire and Dorset. Incidents took place in most counties, notably in East Anglia, but not with the intensity of those in the so called “Swing Counties” of the south. 

So rapid was the spread that the Government initially thought that the riots were the result of a well-planned conspiracy. A view possibly reinforced by the fact that many farmers received letters written by “Captain Swing” threatening that if they did not take their machinery out of production it would be smashed. Any attempt to prevent this would result in the torching of farm buildings. In reality the rioting was spontaneous and “Captain Swing” was a mythical figure behind whom the rioters acted. 

 

The Roots of the Riots

As with most historical events there was no single causative factor, rather the interplay between several. The Enclosure Acts of the 1700’s resulted in common land being swept into estates and therefore no longer available for labourers to grow food or graze livestock. 

With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, payment of agricultural workers by kind gave way to payment by wages and what might be called the social gap between a farmer and his workers began to widen. Threshing machines were invented in the 1790’s.These were not taken up in large numbers initially but, with the onset of the Napoleonic Wars, when agricultural workers joined the armed forces, farmers became short of labour at a time when they were facing increasing competition from the import of foreign grain. Despite the very basic nature of the early machines they were far more efficient than the traditional method of flailing by hand.

When the war ended in 1815 former labourers returned to their villages only to find there was no employment. A situation exacerbated by the introduction of the Corn Laws in the same year. Although beneficial to farmers, the laws had the opposite effect on labourers since they resulted in the price of bread, their staple diet, being kept artificially high. These events took place fifteen years before the riots. Why the delay?

Probably for two main reasons, one of which might be described as the carrot factor and the other the stick. The latter was the ruthless way in which the Government had put down the Luddite Riots.The French Revolution and the Reign of Terror were still strong in people’s memories and successive governments were extremely sensitive to signs of civic unrest. When unemployed weavers began to attack not only mechanised looms but also the factories in which they were housed and indeed, factory owners, the Government sent large quantities of troops to the affected areas in the Midlands and the North. Over 40 rioters were killed in pitched battles and when the dust settled in the following year, 24 rioters were judicially killed by execution. Machine breaking was made a capital offence. If further proof were required of Authority’s sensitivity it came with the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in 1819 when a large, but peaceable, crowd was charged by local militia.19 people were killed and over 600 wounded.

The “carrot” was an improvement in the benefits system made some years earlier. England had its Poor Laws since the days of Elizabeth I under which the parish became responsible for the welfare of its poor. Tweaked several times over the intervening centuries, they worked reasonably well, until the 1790’s, when 2 successive bad harvests resulted in near starvation conditions and the system was pushed to its absolute limits. In 1795 a group of magistrates met at the George and Pelican in Speen to improve conditions in their area. They formulated a system which linked the number of children in the family and the current price of the standard 1 gallon loaf of bread. If the cost of the latter rose by a certain amount there would be a commensurate increase in the benefit paid for each child. The so called Speenhamland System initially proved successful and was adopted in many other areas. However it gradually fell into disrepute. Unscrupulous farmers paid low wages knowing the parish would make up the difference. Some reduced their taxes even further by employing labourers from outside the parish. The unintended consequence of the Speenhamland System was that it kept agricultural wages artificially low. Most labourers were proud men who, through no fault of their own, could no longer support their families. Applying for benefits placed them at the same level as the poorest pauper in the parish.

In 1829 there was a bad harvest followed by the worst winter in living memory. The summer of 1830 was wet and the harvest equally dire. Food became scarce and expensive. Farmers, impoverished themselves, could no longer maintain their workforce and labourers were laid off. It was at that point that the balloon went up.

 

The Smashing Commences in West Berkshire

Rioting first took place in Berkshire at Thatcham. When denied a wage increase by the Select Vestry, labourers joined up with those from surrounding villages, visiting farms, smashing machinery and demanding money. They even smashed machines at Colthrop paper mills. Eventually they arrived at Crookham Park, the home of Henry Tull. Here they were confronted by Special constables backed up by Mr Tull’s men. When refusing to disperse after the reading of the Riot Act the leaders of the rioters were arrested, with some difficulty, and transferred to Reading Gaol.

The labourers at Speen approached their Select Vestry. This had met earlier and had drawn up proposals which the labourers found acceptable and the threat of rioting was averted. Perhaps encouraged by this, the labourers of Kintbury met at their headquarters, “The Blue Ball”, before approaching their Select Vestry. Negotiations did not go well and worsened when the labourers discovered that a tramp, who visited the village regularly, had not only had his appeal for assistance turned down but had been thrown into the village blind house for protesting. The labourers released him only to find out later that he had been recaptured. 

Enraged, they attacked several farms that evening smashing machinery and demanding money. Ironically some of the farms belonged to Captain Dundas, the so called “King of Kintbury” who was one of the most enlightened landowners in the area. As early as February 1830 he had written to the Prime Minister describing the desperate situation of agricultural workers and asking for Government assistance. He also reduced the rent of his tenant farmers, urging them to employ as many workers for as long as possible if only on a part time basis. Rioting continued the following morning.

Meanwhile the labourers of Hungerford had taken action visiting farms mainly to the north of the Bath Road. Eventually the two mobs met at Denford forming a combined force estimated at 600-700 strong, the leaders of which decided to march on Hungerford. One of the first buildings encountered was a tannery (now an antique centre) sited opposite “The Bear Hotel”. The owner had secured the premises, locking all doors and windows. The frustrated rioters vented their spleen by smashing almost every window. They then moved into the High St. where a small agricultural equipment foundry was sited at the foot of the canal bridge. Despite the protestations from the owner that he had nothing to do with threshing machines, a splinter group of rioters rampaged through the building destroying not only every artefact but also the equipment used to produce them. 

The Hungerford magistrates managed to persuade the leaders of each mob to send 5 delegates to the Town Hall to negotiate. An offer was made to the Hungerford leaders which they accepted and their followers dispersed peacefully. However the Kintbury leaders demanded the immediate payment of £5 or else the Town Hall would be smashed. The magistrates reluctantly agreed but insisted upon the money being spent in the town itself. £5 could buy a significant amount of ale in those days and with 16 hostelries the town was not short of outlets. Perhaps not surprisingly some labourers emerged in an even more riotous mood. 

On the way back to Kintbury they stopped coaches on the Bath Road smashing windows and demanding money from terrified passengers. They also visited farms on either side of the road. At Kintbury they were met by Job Hanson a much respected stonemason and lay preacher who persuaded them to enter into negotiations with the Reverend Fowles. (He may well have needed some persuasion since the rioters had already lightened his pockets by £2) The negotiations were successful, the labourers accepting the same terms as the Hungerford rioters earlier. However, some of the rioters were asked, the following morning, to assist labourers from neighbouring villages to further their cause. The combined mob smashed machines at several farms, including a silk farm, before arriving at the home of Lord Craven. Here the 3 leaders demanded £10 which he reluctantly paid on advice from his friend, the Vicar of Enborne.

 

By now it was the turn of the Newbury magistrates to become concerned at the course of events particularly when it was rumoured that the rioters intended to march on the town. 

Aid was sought from the Government and this arrived in the form of a detachment of Grenadier Guards backed up by a troop of Lancers. These were joined, in the market square, by citizen volunteers on horse-back. The combined force was strengthened even further, en-route to Kintbury, when joined by militias raised by Captain Dundas and Lord Craven. 

The regular troops cordoned off the village while the militias flushed out the rioters from various buildings. A significant number of labourers were caught in “The Blue Ball” and “The Red Lion” (now the “Dundas Arms”). 

Some managed to escape through the cordon only to be captured in neighbouring villages over the next few days. One man, Josiah Burton, could well have lived off his story for several weeks. He evaded capture by hiding in the boiler at “The Blue Ball”! Francis Norris, one of the 3 leaders, also escaped and headed to Shefford where he ordered a pint at “The Swan” only to leave it unfinished, departing hurriedly. He spent the night at East Garston before heading in the Lambourn direction. 

He was finally captured by the pursuing posse at Aldbourne. Meanwhile the leaders of the Hungerford rioters had also been arrested by Special Constables.

Rioting in the Lambourn Valley took place in late November. A splinter group of the Hungerford rioters smashed machinery belonging to Thomas Liddiard and Charles Spanswick .At the lower end of the valley a mob of about 100 labourers, mainly from East Garston, smashed a machine belonging to Mr. Westbury of Shefford Park Farm. Their leader, Thomas Mackrell, demanded not only the mandatory £2 but also the provision of beer and victuals since he, Mr Westbury, was regarded as the worst employer in the neighbourhood. Mr Thomas Palmer of Maidencourt Farm secured his machine in “The Lone Barn”. He steadfastly refused to unlock the door even though the rioters threatened to burn the building down. Unfortunately, they were aware that the machine was water-powered and that the waterwheel was still in situ. Presumably Mr Palmer had neither the time nor means to dismantle it. The rioters proceeded to do it for him rendering it inoperable for which service Mr Palmer was obliged to pay 2 guineas. Another 2 machines were smashed and £4 extorted from Mr Spearing of Cranes Farm. 

The mob then divided, a foraging party being sent over the Downs to Fawley where £4 was obtained from 2 farmers named Brown. The main party headed for Eastbury where Jason Withers of Middle Green Farm parted with £2 despite informing Thomas Mackrell that he had already taken his machine out of production. The rioters then encountered 3 Special constables backed up by farmers and their men from Upper Lambourn. When refusing the rioters’ offer to join them, the constables were dragged along the road. In the resulting melee the leading rioters were captured and taken to Reading Gaol.

 

Custody and Closure

In the early stages of the riots the Government allowed local magistrates to deal with the rioters but it soon became apparent that some of them were sympathetic to the rioters’ situation. Some magistrates had persuaded farmers to give up their machines voluntarily, others had raised funds to support the labourers’ families, but the crunch for the Government came when a labourer in Kent was found guilty of machine breaking, a capital offence, and was released after a few days in the local lock-up.

The Government responded by setting up Special Tribunals, for each county, headed by 3 professional judges backed up by a Grand Jury of 25 of the county’s good and the great.

The Kintbury and Hungerford rioters were tried at Reading Assizes and those from the Lambourn Valley at Abingdon.

Thirteen East Garston labourers were found guilty. Of these all but two received prison sentences ranging from 3 to 18 months, all with hard labour. The two exceptions were Charles Poffley and Thomas Mackrell. Poffley was considered by the court to be young and easily persuaded by the others. He was given a token sentence of 2 weeks. Having served more than this on remand he left the court in tears but a free man. Thomas Mackrell also left the court in tears but for a different reason. He had been sentenced to death. 

Fortunately for him, appeals to the Home Secretary from previous employers, resulted in his sentence being commuted to 14 years transportation to Australia. He and other rioters from Berkshire and Wiltshire sailed from Portsmouth on board the convict ship “The Eleanor” who’s captain and ships surgeon were humane men. The relationship between the officers, their crew and the rioters was described as one of mutual respect throughout the voyage to Sydney. Despite several attempts by his previous employers to get him back to this country, it was 11 years before Thomas Mackrell was declared a free man able to return to East Garston and his family. After a year he, and seven members of his family, left the village for good. They returned to Australia on an assisted passage and became landowners themselves farming 150 acres in Kangaroo Valley, Tasmania.

Unlike their Luddite counterparts the actions of the Swing rioters did not result in any deaths or serious injury. Indeed some magistrates commended the rioters for their restraint. Nevertheless they paid a very heavy price. Approximately 2,000 were tried. Of those found guilty 644 were gaoled, 505 sentenced to transportation and 19 executed, one of these being William Winterbourn who, despite being regarded locally as the most temperate of the 3 Kintbury leaders, was nevertheless chosen to be the example for the rest of Berkshire.

 

The Fallout

Relations between farmers and their workers remained strained for several years. It might be thought that the Established Church would have a role to play in bringing about reconciliation but, for most labourers, the Church was seen to be a part of the problem and not the solution. Because of their membership of the Select Vestries, ministers were seen to play a prominent political role. Some were also magistrates.Tthe The Church was also a landowner in its own right through its possession of Glebe land. Furthermore the despised Tithe system was still operating. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, rural areas affected by the rioting saw an upsurge in Non-Conformism particularly in this neck of the woods where Methodist Chapels were built at Ramsbury, Kintbury, Chaddleworth and East Garston.

There was no rush by farmers to replace the machinery which had been smashed. It has been estimated that it took more than 10 years for the numbers to equate with those at the beginning of the rioting. Although machines were more efficient and resulted in grain reaching the market earlier and in a better condition, these advantages mainly accrued to larger farmers with benefits of scale. The advantages to small farmers were not so clear cut.

Initially the labourers enjoyed an increase in wages but the Napoleonic wars left Britain with a deep and long-lasting economic depression which particularly affected the agricultural sector. Spiralling inflation and wage stagnation soon ate into any gains made. In fact in some counties there were wage cuts, the worst example being in Dorset where 3 successive wage reductions saw labourers taking home 6 shillings per week. A situation which led to the Toddlepuddle Martyrs incident in which 6 labourers were transported to Australia not for trying to form a union, which was not illegal at that time , but for swearing secret oaths in so doing.

In 1875 the first agricultural workers union was established (the so called Arch’s Union after its founder). Its first success, in 1882, was to negotiate a national minimum wage of 12 shillings per week, the precise figure for which the Hungerford and Kintbury rioters returned to work over 50 years earlier.

A realist would conclude that any gains made by the labourers were small and short lived and that the riots had failed. An idealist might counter by pointing out that the Swing Riots had drawn the attention of other sections of the population, particularly the emerging middle class, to the dire situation of the agricultural worker thereby adding to the growing clamour for political reform. The first of the 3 great reform Acts of the 19th century, in 1832, significantly widened the franchise but it was not until 1884 that the male agricultural worker was allowed the vote.

 

David Knight
Local Historian
East Garston

 

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