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.
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 WestSussex.info. 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.