The Swing Riots of 1830


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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.
The problem of pauperism was worst in the so-called "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:
    1827: good harvest
    1828: as good a summer as any year since 1814, weather wise, but a poor harvest
    1829: a worse harvest. Snow in October. A disastrous year for labourers - cold, hungry, unemployed. Crime increased.
    1830: poor harvest
A number of other events also occurred in 1830 which might have increased the likelihood of unrest:
    * the death of George IV and the accession of William IV who was more liberal in outlook. The accession of a new monarch required a General Election in Britain at this time so political grievances were highlighted.
    * July/August - there was revolution in France when Charles X was replaced by Louis Philippe, the 'Citizen King'. According to a contemporary comment, "When Paris sneezes, the whole of Europe catches cold": almost invariably if there was political unrest in France, it could be found elsewhere in Europe.
    * August - Belgian revolt against Dutch control
    * November - the Whigs were returned as the government under the premiership of Earl Grey. They had a political platform of 'peace, retrenchment and reform' which increased the likelihood of parliamentary reform.
    * November - Polish revolt
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:
    · attempts to make a harsher Poor Law
    · unemployment
    · increasingly high cottage rent levels
    · a dislike of the social control exercised by Anglican ministers in rural areas. Joseph Arch commented on this in his autobiography later in his life.

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
    2/3d per day in winter (13/6d weekly)
    2/6d per day in summer (15/- weekly)
The average wage in the Swing counties was only 8/4d per week. The labourers also asked for a reduction of rents and tithe.

Areas which were liable to riot may be identified as follows:
    · cereal growing areas where low wages were paid to the labourers
    · recently enclosed villages
    · larger villages where people were more anonymous
    · manufacturing villages, particularly those with a high percentage of shoemakers
    · villages with a high ratio of labourers to farmers
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.
    · The leaders of the riots were often craftsmen and the led were predominantly labourers - often paupers on poor relief.
    · Rioters were usually young men, many of them married, therefore they may be deemed to be stable and respectable
    · Arsonists often had a grudge against the victim
    · Most of the rioters were of good character - not the criminal element. Their conduct usually was fairly civilised.
Arson resulted in damage of
Industrial machine breaking (Luddism)
£ 13,000
Agricultural machine breaking (Swing)
£ 8,000
Riot damage
£ 600

In 1833 His Majesty's Poor Law Commissioners produced a report on the agricultural disturbances of 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 should, perhaps, 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 Justices of the Peace 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 Justices of the Peace 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 (233 commuted to life transportation)
    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)
This text from:

The Peel Web by Marjie Bloy - dated: 10 August 2002
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This page was updated on: 16 February 2009