by Cyril Coffin 1999
The social history of Southern England in the early 19th
century presents a paradox and a contrast: in 1834, a few friends and
relatives of George Loveless ‘swore an illegal oath’, were transported
to Australia, and were all pardoned after 3 years. They returned, and
later became heroes of the Trade Union movement. A few years earlier,
there were widespread riots affecting several counties of England, as a
result of which 19 men were executed, over 500 transported, and 650
jailed. Yet everyone in Dorset knows the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, but
fewer are familiar with that of the "Captain Swing" riots in
Unlike other countries, where most people who earned a living from the soil were peasants, occupying a small plot of land from which they could feed their family, in Eastern and Southern England most farms were worked by a few landowners, or by the rather larger number of their tenants. The bulk of the rural population was waged labourers.
But even by 1750, many labourers in Dorset could not find regular work, and most large villages had their Poor Houses. Sherborne workhouse opened in 1738, and by 1749 the Bere Regis one had had to be rebuilt and enlarged. Even small tenants had few rights when once their copyholds ran out. They too became labourers, and played no part in parish or village affairs.
So even in the latter part of the 18th century, there was unrest. In 1756, the harvest was poor, and there were food riots. In November 1764, people at Beaminster rioted because of the "exorbitant and unnecessary price of corn". The following year rioters at Stalbridge destroyed a bunting mill, and attacked another mill at Marnhull.
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.
In the past there had been two kinds of farm workers: farm servants, who were (usually unmarried) men and women living in the farmhouse, employed on ongoing work as horsemen, carters, dairymaids, shepherds, etc. and normally paid by the year; and labourers coming in to work, paid by the week or day, or sometimes by piecework - on hedging, specialist jobs like sheep-shearing, or haymaking and harvest.
But in Eastern and Southern England by the early 19th century there was a surplus of day labourers. The population rose rapidly between 1751 and 1830. Fewer farmers took on living-in farm servants, and annual hiring fairs became rarer. William Cobbett claimed that farmers would no longer feed and lodge their workpeople, as they did formerly, because they could not keep them upon so little as they gave them in wages.
Until the end of the Napoleonic wars, price inflation stimulated farm production, and made farmers wary of committing themselves to high wages they might not be able to afford in less prosperous times.
Worst of all, as a result of the misguided decision of magistrates at Speenhamland in Berkshire, it became customary when harvests were poor and wages fell below subsistence level (because of the high price of bread, or the number of children in a family) to subsidise them out of local rates. Authorities elsewhere followed suit, and a "bread and children" scale became almost universal, though never law.
Thus the distinction between workers and paupers vanished. In Stalbridge, for example, it became customary for house rent of a large section of the parish’s population to be paid from the rates.
When Volunteer and Militia service ended about 1809, and up to 250,000 soldiers and sailors were demobilized in 1815, they swamped the labour market. Farmers cut their demands for labour still further as parish rates rose to pay for poor relief.
Threshing once lasted through November-January, and could take a quarter of labour requirements on an arable farm. Use of machines, introduced during the war years, increased even in post-war agricultural depression (though not all farmers were keen on them).They threatened to make a labourer dependent on relief at hardest time of year, and became a symbol of his misery.
But lack of political rights put effective action out of his reach. He could only resort to crime (theft, poaching, smuggling), or blackmail (incendiarism, machine-breaking) to force farmers to pay more. A new Act in 1816 made even suspected poachers liable to transportation. Despite this, cases at Dorchester Quarter Sessions of poaching and related offences (like attacks on gamekeepers) rose sharply.
But between 1820 and 1830, per capita expenditure on the poor was actually reduced by almost one-quarter, e.g. by substituting for money a dole of bread. Significantly, crime increased further (except after a good harvest, like that of 1827/28).
The next harvest was poor, though the winter was mild. The one in 1829 was worse, and very late. In Spring 1830, the weather promised rather better, and was reported to be "most propitious to all growing crops". Labourers at Hazelbury Bryan chose this moment to ask for an advance of wages and - surprisingly - got it.
Accession of a new King, William IV, was welcomed. The more so, because some country folk believed he wanted threshing machines to be destroyed and labourers to have 2s. a day.
The tense situation was aggravated by news in July of revolutions in France and Belgium. They may have influenced voters in a general election in England, which replaced a 20-year-old Tory government by Whigs who promised reform. King Charles X of France, forced to abdicate, landed at Weymouth, but was scared by the crowd that met him as he went ashore, and hastened to take refuge with his fellow Catholics, the Weld family of Lulworth Castle.
In early June, riots had begun in Kent, with firing of ricks, barns and houses, and then moved into Surrey and Sussex. The 1st threshing machine was destroyed near Canterbury on 28 August – in Dorset, this was at first regarded as a joke. Later on, some farmers destroyed their own machines.
The movement’s momentum increased as the harvest got under way. But it was not until 18th November that it entered Hampshire from West Sussex, From then on, the pace was rapid, and rioting spread to Wiltshire the next day. In both counties, it lasted little more than a week, but by then 300 or more prisoners awaited trial in each of them. There was less arson than elsewhere, but more machine-breaking: as well as threshing machines other agricultural machinery, and also industrial machinery, was now being broken.
Rioting in Wiltshire reached a serious climax on 25 November, when there was fighting near Tisbury and in the Wylye valley between rioters and the Yeomanry, in which John Hardy, of Tisbury, was shot dead, several others wounded, and 25 men arrested.
The effect of riots in Hampshire, around Fordingbridge, was felt by 23 November on the Eastern chalk downland - in Cranborne, Edmondsham and Handley. But already an unpopular magistrate at Bere Regis, James Frampton (who later arrested the Tolpuddle martyrs), had had to read the Riot Act at Winfrith, and had harangued sullen crowds at Bere Regis, where a man and 2 boys were arrested.
In Blackmore Vale, not enough corn was grown to provide many labourers with work threshing in winter, even if there had been no machines. Many were therefore forced to find parish work on the roads. So where threshing machines were broken in the Vale, this was probably not so much because they caused unemployment, as because they symbolised impersonal power over the labourers. (When Hardy’s Tess of the Durbervilles left Angel Clare, she had to get work harvesting, and felt how the machines "kept up a despotic demand upon the endurance" of the workers’ muscles and nerves.)
On 26 November 1830, rioters from Stoke Wake and Mappowder destroyed William Coward’s machine at Woolland. Next day they demanded money from Christopher Morey, a small farmer and blacksmith. They asked only for 1s.6d, but he gave them 2s., and his wife a further 1s. They also smashed a machine on John Pount’s farm at Buckland Newton "with a great noise and blowing of horns" -despite the attempts of the vicar, James Venables, to appease them. At the time, threshing machines were largely made of wood, the metal parts being only the rotating drum and the iron bars of the stationary "concave". Pount’s carpenter, fearing trouble, had hidden the iron work in a withy bed, and a large part of the later hearing of the case was taken up with arguments about which of the rioters had revealed the hiding-place.
William James, who farmed at Mappowder, was (like James Frampton, the Winfrith magistrate) unpopular on 3 counts:
The crowd asked him for money, which he refused. He later gave evidence which helped to condemn 4 men to transportation.
Finally, at about 8.30pm on 27 November, a crowd of about 20 reached John Young’s farm at Pulham. He gave them 6 half-crowns, and his neighbour Matthew Galpin added £2, to persuade them to go away.
On 29 November Walter Snook, a farmer and a constable at Stour Provost, was attacked by another crowd. He made some arrests for machine-breaking and took his prisoners to Shaftesbury. There, the keys to the lock-up could not be found, and sympathisers rescued the prisoners - perhaps to Snook’s relief, as he might otherwise have had to take them to his own home for the night - not a comfortable prospect!
Here as elsewhere, among the rioters were men with different motives than the labourers. John Dore - the only farmer known to have joined in a riot in Dorset - also kept a beer-shop, and was accused of fomenting trouble in the interest of sales. (Beer-shops were later among the institutions blamed by the authorities for encouraging disturbances.) Another rioter at Stour Provost was a wheelwright who undertook machine repairs.
There were riots in various other Dorset parishes on 29th November: Castle Hill, Lulworth, Preston, Winfrith (again), and Wool. Most were aimed at persuading farmers to raise wages. A more serious assault took place at Stalbridge on 1st December, when threshing machines were also attacked near Sherborne and at Lytchett Matravers (near Poole).
Apart from one or two isolated arson attempts a few days later, that ended the violence in Dorset. But just across the Somerset border (and probably as a result of the riot at Stalbridge) on 1st December two threshing machines , valued at £10 each, were destroyed -one at Henstridge, and one at Yenston a mile or so away.
Some horsemen - probably farmers who were members of the local hunt - rode over from Wincanton, attacked the mob they held responsible for breaking the machines, and took 6 prisoners. The horsemen are said to have formed later the nucleus of a. troop of the North Somerset Yeomanry.
On 10 January 1831 they began work at Dorchester, where 57 prisoners awaited trial - including 6 accused of ‘robbery’, i.e. demanding money with menaces, a capital offence. The 6 were duly sentenced to death, but were not ‘left for execution’, and were among the dozen Dorset men eventually transported to Australia for 7 years. They included 4 from Stoke Wake, 3 from Mappowder, 2 from Pulham, and one from Stour Provost. They were put aboard the prison hulk York on 4 February 1831. Not one is known to have returned to England.
A ballad of the time quoted by Barbara Kerr (in Bound to the Soil) includes the following verse:-
We labour hard from morn to night, until our bones do ache.
Van Diemen’s Land was the name, at the time, of Tasmania - to which many of the men were sent.
The rest of the Dorset prisoners were let off fairly lightly: 15 were jailed, but 30 were acquitted. The 3 youths from Henstridge who appeared before the judges were bound over to keep the peace in recognisances of £50 each - which perhaps the parish found for them.
Even apart from the cruel punishments meted out, few labourers benefited from the uprising. Farmers persuaded to raise wages (e.g. to l0s. a week at Puddletown and 9s. at Gillingham) soon withdrew their concessions. There was a long and heated debate on labourers’ conditions between clergymen in Blackmore Vale. The rector of Hazelbury Bryan, Rev. Henry Walter, believed "full and fair wages. - . would go far to obviate all necessity for parish relief". He was supported by a Mr. Okedon, who wrote to all Dorset MPs on the subject.
But Rev. Harry Yeatman, rector of Stock Gaylard, rejected their arguments, and published a pamphlet answering Mr. Okedon a few years later. The local agricultural society discussed the issue in November 1843 at the Crown (now the Swan) inn in Sturminster Newton, when Lord Ashley took the labourers’ side.
But threshing machines did decline in numbers - and almost disappear from the Southern counties - at least for several years. A curious aspect of the riots is the number of farmers who encouraged rioters to break up their machines, and even took the lead in this.
Their motives were mixed. Some sympathised with the cause of higher wages - provided their own rents and tithes were reduced in compensation. Others - especially those who had leased machines from contractors - were willing to sacrifice them, to save farm buildings and contents from destruction.
Mystery surrounds the name of the "Captain Swing" who is supposed to have written several of the letters sent to farmers and others. These were first mentioned by the Times on 21 October.
It is generally thought that the name was simply adopted to puzzle those to whom the letters were sent, and to instill fear into them by its overtones of hanging.
Most letters threatened arson as a reprisal. Some seem to be the work of disgruntled individuals, perhaps to settle a private grudge. According to the Times on 29 November 1830, the boys at Eton wrote one as a joke, to protest to the Headmaster about excessive use of the "thrashing machine", or birch.
Few (if any) writers were brought to trial, so it is not known how many letters were real or fake. Some were evidently written by educated people, but some affected a deliberately illiterate style.
Relatively few are likely to have been from the labourers themselves. But one that may have been is that addressed to a farmer in Norfolk:
"J. Deary mind your yards be not of a fire dam you D."