The Swing Rebellion

Let’s visit the England of more or less 1830. William IV is the king–or to put it officially, King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and King of Hanover–and in his portrait he looks kingly enough, wearing a blue sash and multiple medals that were given to him for having been clever and brave enough to be born into the right family.

But that’s not the England we’re going to visit. We’re headed for rural England, where people are hungry and farm workers and craftspeople are setting haystacks and farm machinery on fire. We’re dropping in on the Swing Rebellion.

I’d never heard the Swing Rebellion, so I’m going to assume you haven’t either. It’s also called the Swing Riots, and you could make a good argument for calling it either a rebellion or a set of riots. It doesn’t seem to be as well organized as a full-on rebellion but had more focus than the scattered fury of riots. Think of it as a peasant revolt, if that helps–an uprising by people whose living conditions pushed them toward revolt or riot or violence or something, but who, structurally, didn’t have a chance in hell of seizing and holding power.

Irrelevant photo: Sweet William

What was pushing them toward riot or rebellion? Let’s say it’s the 1830s and you’re a farm worker. Not all that long ago, when you found work it lasted all year. As a result, you and your family developed the habit of eating all year.

That was a bad move, it turns out, because times have changed. More and more land has been enclosed (you’ll find a bit about enclosure in my last post), and that involved evicting tenants and smallholders and throwing laborers out of work. According to some sources, this is important background to the Swing Rebellion, but one source claims the rebellion happened in areas where enclosure had been relatively light, making it a less important factor. Flip a coin to decide who you believe. Either way, farm work has stopped being year-round. It’s casual work, paid by the day or the week, and you can’t count on it to keep you and your family fed. When the job you were hired for is done, you’re out of work. Again. And again and yet again.

You can think of it, if you like, as the nineteenth-century equivalent of the zero-hours contract, only you don’t have a phone, so you don’t get that call saying, “Drop everything, put the kids in the freezer, we need you this morning.”

And if work being unreliable isn’t enough, wages are falling. In 1830, a farm worker’s weekly pay is nine shillings. By 1834 it’s down to six shillings.

What’s a shilling? A out-of-date unit of money. Try not to think about it, because understanding it won’t make you happy.

You’re thinking about it, aren’t you? Fine, we’ll stop and do shillings: There were 12 pence in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound. There were also 2 shillings in a florin, 5 shillings in a crown, and 21 shillings in a guinea.

I told you it wouldn’t make you happy.

A guinea? It was considered “a more gentlemanly amount than [a pound]. You paid tradesmen, such as a carpenter, in pounds but gentlemen, such as an artist, in guineas.”

Forgive me for saying so, but Britain is a very weird country.

Guineas don’t matter to you, though. You’re a farm worker. You’re not likely to catch sight of a pound, and never mind a guinea. Not only are wages falling, the labor market’s flooded, so you have a lot of competition for whatever work is available. Your shillings will fly out of your hand as soon as you earn them, frivolled away on silly things like food. You won’t hold them long enough for them to condense into a pound.

Not unconnected to all this, the crime rate is rising, and most of the rise is accounted for by crimes like poaching (illegal hunting or fishing) and the theft of food. People are hungry. 

But all that is background. What sparks the rebellion is the introduction of a horse-drawn threshing machine. You and your fellow zero-hours farm workers are now looking at a world with even less work, even lower pay.

Predictably enough, you’re not happy, so let’s rescue you from your plight by abandoning the present tense and returning to this best of all possible centuries, the twenty-first, which we’re toddling into with such–well, I don’t know about you, but what I’ve seen of it so far scares the shit out of me. Most of us eat more and better than our equivalents did in 1830, but I’m still worried.

But that isn’t today’s topic, so let’s check back with the people who we left stuck in the 1830s, and let’s do it (somewhat joltingly) by shifting into the past tense: Some of them hit their limit and farmers began receiving notes signed by Captain Swing, saying that unless they destroyed their threshing machines, their  “barns, haystacks and house[s] would be burned down, probably while [they and their families] were asleep.

“Night after night fires started by roving mobs lit up the countryside. For many farmers, danger and destruction was a matter of when, not if.” 

That’s the more lurid version of the tale (with a was where a were should be but there’s no need to be snotty about it, Ellen), from In other versions, arson tended to happen (as opposed to being threatened) only when local people had a grudge against a farmer. Since I rescued you before you had a chance to witness the events, we can only guess at which version’s more accurate.

If you’re inclined to criticize the rebels’ methods, keep in mind that these were people with no vote and no political power. Their choices were limited.

If an actual Captain Swing existed, no one knows anymore who he was, but hundreds of thousands of demobilized soldiers had poured into the workforce fairly recently. Maybe an actual captain was involved and maybe not, but farm workers (who were about as likely to be captains as I would’ve been) weren’t the only people involved in the rebellion. Craftspeople (who weren’t likely to have been captains either) took part, and former soldiers may have as well. Rural England wasn’t a happy place.

As time went on, the rebels got bolder. They demanded not just the destruction of the machines but higher wages, an end to rural unemployment, lower rents, and lower tithes.

A tithe? That was the part of people’s income or produce that the church demanded–and rest assured that the church was in a position to enforce its demands. The tithes were often more than poor people could afford, and they weighed heavily even on those who could afford them. Anyone who thinks countries should be run along religious lines should read up on the history of established churches. It doesn’t make happy reading.

According to History Home, farmers supported the demands for lower tithes–and, to my surprise, lower rent. That probably means they were themselves the tenants of large landowners. Compared to farm workers, they were well-to-do, but they too were struggling–or considered themselves to be.

It wasn’t a simple picture.

Poor houses were another target of the rebellion. For a quick picture of poor houses, let’s look at the Dorset Page: “Vestry minute books tell of the ‘misery and degradation’ caused by the old (Elizabethan) Poor Law. The Stalbridge poorhouse stood under the Ring tree, and the yard at the back was surrounded by hovels in which paupers were lodged. As late as 1826, 3 women (and 1 child) had 1/- a week for their support, and only one bed between them. A coroner’s jury found the parish officers guilty of causing Mary Cole’s death by neglect. The curate declared dogs were better off, as they had clean straw to lie on.”

That 1/ is, I think, a shilling.

As the rebellion grew, according the the West Sussex site, “Excited and now-experienced rebels travelled by night across the countryside to strike at farms who would not comply with local farm workers’ demands. . . . Often people were forced to join up with the rebels against their will.”

It’s hard to run a rebellion and stay pure.

Hell, it’s hard to run anything and stay pure.

The counties involved included Sussex, Hampshire, Suffolk, Norfolk, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Devon, Dorset, Huntingdonshire, Gloucestershire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, and Kent–counties “where enclosure had taken place on a grand scale.” (Or not, depending on who you want to believe.) According to History Home, “Most of the rioters were of good character–not the criminal element. Their conduct usually was fairly civilised.”

Wikipedia said, when I last checked, that “despite the prevalence of the slogan ‘Bread or Blood’, only one person is recorded as having been killed during the riots, and that was one of the rioters by the action of a soldier or farmer. The rioters’ only intent was to damage property. Similar patterns of disturbances, and their rapid spread across the country, were often blamed on agitators or on ‘agents’ sent from France, where the revolution of July 1830 had broken out a month before the Swing Riots began in Kent.

“Many people advocated political reform as the only solution to the unrest. . . . The Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, replied the existing constitution was so perfect that he could not imagine any possible alternative that would be an improvement. When that was reported, a mob attacked Wellington’s home in London. The unrest had been confined to Kent, but during the following two weeks of November it escalated massively, crossing East and West Sussex into Hampshire, with Swing letters appearing in other nearby counties.

The sources I’ve found disagree on whether the riots wound down on their own or ended because they were suppressed, but suppression there was. Nineteen people were executed and more than five hundred transported.

For the participants, it must have felt like a defeat. Hell, it was a defeat–nineteen people executed, five hundred transported, and none of their demands met. Agricultural workers, according to History Home, “continued to be the worst paid, worst fed and worst housed of all the working communities.”

But change did come. At my age (I’m 103, and on bad days 203), I’m not particularly given to quoting my parents, but I will here: They were union organizers during the Depression and World War II, and they used to say that no strike is ever lost. I spent a lot of time when I was younger thinking that one over.

The Wikipedia entry I quoted above catalogs the rebellion’s impact on political reform. I’ll let you chase that if you’re interested. Less respectably, its influence was felt in Tolpuddle, Dorset, where equally desperate farm workers tried a different approach to forcing change, and eventually I’ll do a post about that. In fact, this post was supposed to be about Tolpuddle, but the background took over and here we are, some 1800 words later and I’ve only just mentioned the place.

86 thoughts on “The Swing Rebellion

  1. That’s a pretty good account of it, Ellen. And, yes, 1/- is (or was) a shilling, and I really like the quotation from your parents; these incidents tend to lodge in the collective memory of authority. Sooner or later if enough of them happen, something has to break. Or so I’d like to think.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think they also lodge in the consciousness of the people who went on strike, as well as those who knew them and their kids and so on until the ripples are too small to see but still transfer some small amount of energy.

      Or so I like to think.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m happy that you explained pounds, shillings and pence. You did it succinctly and well. It took me a whole post.

    Yes, 1/- is one shilling exactly. The ‘-‘ tells you that there were no pennies involved.

    I’d never heard of the Swing Rebellion. It sounds as if the rioters were inspired by the Luddites of the 1810s who also destroyed machinery that was taking away their livelihoods.

    I always thought that agricultural labourers in the early nineteenth century were taken on for a quarter, so I’ve learned something today. The Corn Laws were in force at the time, so things were already pretty grim for everyone in agriculture.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes a/b was the notation for shillings+pence, now replaced by x.y for pounds+(decimal) pence.
      So 2/3 meant two shillings and three pence.
      29/6 meant twenty-nine shillings and six pence, generally pronounced as “twenty-nine and six”. That is, one pound, nine shillings and six pence, also written as
      £1 9s 6d.
      And there were half pennies of course (ha’pennies)
      So you could sell something for 10s 7½d – ten shillings seven and a ha’penny.
      And farthings too (1/4 of a penny): 2s 4¾d – two shillings fourpence three farthing.

      Having been subjected to this torture at primary school (“divide £9 6s 3½d by 7”),
      I was so glad when the UK changed to decimal currency in 1971.

      Liked by 3 people

      • If I’d gone to school here, I’d never have gotten out of elementary school. And my mother would never have dared send me to the store for milk. (Or a pack a cigarettes before she gave up smoking.) My head hurts from just reading that, never mind trying to follow it. What I do (think I) understand is this: that not only did the English develop a monetary system that takes years to learn, they also devloped multiple ways to write the same amount and multiple ways to say it. Of course.

        Liked by 1 person

        • It made perfect sense to me as a child. Nothing was decimal, so we did complicated sums with hundredweights, stones, pounds and ounces. We did geometry with feet and inches. Money was the easiest because you had to do the sums outside of the classroom as well.

          Liked by 2 people

          • I’m convinced I’d have died of it. Although I’ll admit that I managed to learn cups, pints, and quarts reliably because I worked with them in the real world, and I still remember how many ounces are in a pound. Just don’t ask me to divide or multiply them.

            Liked by 2 people

        • Well, you know, the Japanese have a writing system that uses three different schemes and looks incredibly complicated to us non-Japanese, but their children learn it ok. It’s when you’re older that stuff like that seems too much to learn.

          When decimalisation of the UK’s currency was being proposed, there was a debate about how to do it. Some people seriously advocated basing the new currency on a revalued pound. You make a “decimal pound” (for want of a better thing to call it) equal to 10 shillings, that is, 120 old pence. If you do that, and have 100 new pence to the pound (as is, by definition, the intention for a decimal currency), then one new (decimal) penny is worth 1.2 old pennies. Thus, in doing the conversion to the new currency, you only inflate the value of a penny by 20%. But the downside, is that all values in pounds now double, because a decimal pound is only worth half of the old non-decimal pound. Everything doubles: your salary, your savings, and your bills. You can imagine the difficulty people would have adjusting to that, not mention the cost to industry, commerce and government of doubling the amounts kept in all those ledgers and computerised records.

          So the decision was taken to keep the value of the pound at as it was. But then you have a different problem: at 240 old pence to the pound, and 100 new (decimal) pence to the pound, a new penny is now worth 2.4 old pence. Back in 1971, a minimum monetary increment of 2.4 old pence, was a big deal. Half pennies weren’t worth much at all (farthings had been discontinued by then), but a price difference of one old penny did still matter. Hiking this increment to 2.4 old pence, at a time when inflation was taking off was not a good economic or political move. So the decision was taken to introduce a new coin: half a new penny, worth 1.2 old pence. This was a typical British compromise (or “fudge” as the technical term goes). As a result, for many years, we had a decimal currency system with fractions in it: prices like 32½ p. Of course, the mathematically minded would say, why not write this as 32.5 p? But many people, especially older ones, wouldn’t have understood that (£12.325 anyone?), so the ½p notation was retained.

          Eventually, inflation rendered the half new penny worth very little, and it was dropped, leaving us with the decimal monetary system we have today. Though, after all these years, I can still do conversions between pre-decimal and decimal currency in my head, such as: £10 3s 6d = £10.17½

          Oh happy days!

          Liked by 2 people

          • The most frightening part of all that is that I damn near understood it. And it gives me a much better understanding of–well, not really what it means but the overtones involved when someone says, “What’s that in old money?” (Or is it, “What’s that in new money?”)

            Liked by 1 person

  3. The History of 19th popular protest is very interesting. These fictional letter writing characters were pretty common in the 19th century. “Ned Ludd” was another who operated up north and gave his name to the Luddites, whom you may have heard of. There was also “Rebecca” in West Wales. The protest against toll gates by Rebecca’s “daughters” were given extra spice as the rioters dressed up in women’s clothes (to disguise themselves, or for a laugh, I’m never quite sure)!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. The Duke of Wellington may have been correct to assert the constitution was perfect. No need to burn the chaps house down. It is the interpretation ,by the lesser cogs in the wheel, of the constitution, which we have not got, that causes the problems. I doubt the founding fathers had in mind a lunatic with an AR15 when they proposed your second amendment?
    All that is of trifling concern compared to being able to buy 4 Mars Bars with my 1/-, I recently purchased a Mars Bar for a grandchild at £1. That seems to my aged brain to workout at an eighty fold increase. Eheu fugaces, postume postume…. ( no excuses Lord Google knows)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Lord Google translates it as “fleeting you really really.” Lord Google is not a poet. Really really not a poet.

      Since the scorched duke was talking about an unwritten constitution–. Sorry, my mind gets as scorched as the duke every time I try to reason my way through that one. It weighs heavily in favor of your argument that it’s all in the interpretation. And I do agree about the founding fathers and the second American amendment–which is, by the way, a masterpiece of ambiguity. It opens with a phrase about a well-run militia being necessary for the health of the state (I’m paraphrasing). I read an argument recently that says its intent was to allow for the slave-catching patrols that rode through the southern states, looking for runaway slaves. I can’t vouch for its accuracy, but it makes a convincing argument.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Please may I draw your attention , whilst you are researching the Tolpuddle Martyrs, to the speech given to the House of Lords by Lord Byron on the subject of the Breaking of frames. As a copy editor you, I know, will delight in the beautiful way it is written and the sentiment it expresses.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. …… Oh I forgot… A Guinea is an excellent device. Especially if you are trying to work out commission on a sale or purchase at speed for an impatient buyer or seller. The extra shilling was the commission. Especially when her ladyship was buying a nice little hack for the huntin’ season.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Okay, that makes a kind of sense. I think. Numbers and I have never been on friendly terms, so my mind tends to shut down when they’re present, but I think I understood that. You pay in pounds. You sell in guineas. All very neat and clear as long as you’re selling to the gentry.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, more expensive types of consumer goods in the UK were often priced in guineas, presumably to make it appear that potential purchasers were a cut above the average for being able to afford such items (and doubtless to hike up the already expensive price and therefore make more profit). We were still recovering from the austerity of WWII, and there was still a massive national debt to be paid off, so fridges, washing machines, TVs, record players, and the like, were still quite expensive.

        I just googled “dansette record player ad” (Dansette was a popular make of portable record player beloved of the UK’s teenage generation). Up came an old advert for a Dansette Diplomat Transistor Record Player (real high tech stuff this – none of those uncool valve-based amplifiers for the 1960s set). The advertised price was 18 guineas, which by my reckoning is £18 18s 0d

        Oh, and the record player probably sounded terrible.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Machines taking jobs. We call or the progress of man. Like the Peabody coal train. It is still going. Shift in factories to robots and displaced people in Ohio and the Midwest rust belt. Back then they burned barns. Here we elected Trump. How will this turn out.? Our grandchildren will find out.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Weirdly enough, I was just talking to my kids about the Swing Riots, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and the Chartist movement a couple of weeks ago. I was explaining to them why I refuse to use self-checkout machines. Partly it’s because, despite not being a Luddite, machines hate me but mostly it’s because those machines are removing entry level, flexible jobs from the employment market. Every time I self-checkout, I’m justifying a company reducing its overheads by reducing its human workforce. At the end of my lecture, my kids were much more informed about 19th century British workers’ rights but also regretful they’d ever questioned why I’d stood in a checkout line.

    Liked by 4 people

  8. I can’t tell you how much i enjoyed this, not only because I love history and you tell it well but also because my father converted “new money” to “old money” for most of his life after 1972. It affected pocket money (allowance) and meant I I got sixpence from the tooth fairy when my school friends were getting pound coins, but I now look back on it with love and longing as one of the million things I miss about him. My father incidentally would have loved this blog, if we could have got him past the word blog in the first place! He was two generations out of the coal mines and the first to go to university. I reflect a lot on the things he used to say too.
    My husband is a union man (as I was a union woman when there was a union to join). The first time I realized I had fallen in love with him was when he was being gassed by the police in Lansing, while protesting the new “right to work” laws. (What can I say? I’m a strange kind of romantic). There is a lot in this post that resonates for me living America under the current administration. There is nothing new under the sun, including the subject of a living wage and a job all year round.
    I’d also like to add a cheer for your parents. There is a sign painted on the wall in our local city that says “Unions, the people who brought you the weekend” I wish more people remembered how much they have to be grateful for.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I first saw that slogan about weekends on a bumper sticker when I lived in the U.S. I wished we could’ve multiplied it by thousands. How easy it is to take for granted the things earlier generations shed blood–and I mean that literally–for. And then to find they’ve disappeared because we took them for granted.

      I admire your way of falling in love. Long may the two of you be happy together, and may the governments of the world not interfere.

      I think I’d have liked your dad.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. let’s see .. 20 shillings to a pound but there’s 21 shillings to a guinea so pound has to be worth less than a guinea but you can’t get a guinea if you’re not a gentleman and gentlemen don’t get pounds and …

    that reads like IRS tax code.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. You would have to do some research of dates, et cetera, but I believe the Riot Act, (yes, the same one that parents threatened to read to naughty children!), enacted in the 18th century, was not repealed in English law until the late 1960s.
    And even then, some elements were retained!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I remember a time in my youth where the only thing worse than working too hard in crummy conditions for very little pay was when they told me I wasn’t needed over the weekend. I can’t imagine a constant struggle, but I can imagine being drawn into violence over it. I wonder when the next Swing Rebellion will occur (I do think it’s possible).

    I also love that it took you 1,800 words to start your post – that’s something I can relate to.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You counted?

      And yes, I also think it is possible. It would be nice if it had a better chance of succeeding not in the long run but in the short. But maybe I’m asking too much of history, who’s notably unsentimental.

      Liked by 2 people

  12. You did an excellent job of painting the picture of how it was during the Swing Rebellion, showing all situations and points of view. I thank you for that. And you never got to what you wanted to write about – isn’t it wonderful when writing flows!

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Looking forward to your Tolpuddle post. I read up on the martyrs a couple of years ago but cannot remember much. Thanks for the interesting history lesson and thanks to your followers for the money teaching. I wouldn’t have been subjected to the old money thanks of being born late (that’s a German thing that makes no sense whatsoever here but never mind ;-) ) but I most certainly would not have managed school here. Even though I think they should bring back the Farthing. I love that word… Maybe Brexit will do that for me?

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Ironic to read this today about the payment to the workers. Yesterday I was reading PG Wodehouse’s “Life Among the Chicken” (honest), and ran across the protagonist buying a magazine and several newspapers for 12 shillings. That didn’t seem like much money, so I looked up what it actually meant. I found that I was right. It is appalling that someone would be paid half of that for a week’s worth

    Liked by 2 people

    • It was probably an absurd amount of money, but Wodehouse was writing much later–he was born in 1881 and didn’t start writing until some decent amount of time afterwards. A quick Google search mentions him, fairly enough, as a twentieth century writer.

      Liked by 2 people

  15. Pingback: The Tolpuddle Martyrs | Notes from the U.K.

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