Thursday, April 7, 2011

Captain Swing Remembered

Democracy and Class Struggle is publishing historical articles on lesser known industrial working class and agricultural workers movements like the Scotch Cattle in Wales or the Captain Swing riots in Southern England to show that there is a tradition of direct action politics from workers and agricultural labourers that has been written out of British History by the dominant political elites historians.

We will discover that history and honour that history. The past is always present and studying the movements of the past will energise us for the future struggle - reclaiming our history is our birthright.

The so called 'Swing' riots of 1830 were the last large-scale agrarian revolts in rural England. Although the disturbances only lasted for a few months, from August to December, similar attacks against property, arson and rick burning continued for a few years. But these events remained sporadic and disturbances never became so general as in 1830, when rural labourers protested against the full triumph of agricultural capitalism.

It was a spontaneous movement and, though it quickly became nationwide, it was basically unorganised. Similar economic condition of labourers in different parts of the country resulted in the same kind of protest and, , the situation in the village was so desperate that it made riots inevitable. And indeed, rebellions burst out from time to time: in 1795; in 1816 in the Eastern counties; in 1822 in East Anglia; in 1830; and again, though more scattered in 1834-35; and in 1843-44 mainly in the Eastern counties.

In 1830 demands for higher wages and constant employment were the underlying causes of the rebellion, but the rioters' main target was the threshing machine, and it was also from where the whole movement got its name: 'Swing' probably derives form the swinging stick of the flail used in threshing.

Moreover, the flail was a traditional weapon of peasant insurgents during the Middle Ages. According to Hobsbawm and Rudé, "the very term 'Captain Swing' and its association above all with rural incendiarism reflect the journalistic creation of the city and not the reality of the countryside [...] and there is no evidence that any labourers except perhaps in small parts of Kent ever believed themselves to be following any 'Captain Swing'."

Eighteenth century writers did not talk about the sullen hatred of the poor for the rich, however, records from the nineteenth century increasingly do so. All friendly relation between the rich farmers and the poor ceased and 'revenge' was inscribed on the banner of the movement. But the upper classes might not have realised how wide the gap between them and their workers was until the commence of incendiarism and rebellion. "The squire still saw himself in his ideal role as a paternal protector, the farmer as strict but humane, and both saw the labourer as obedient, grateful and fundamentally at one with the traditional hierarchy of rank." But the traditional society, with its economic base, already belonged to the past and the traditional customary order stood on its head.

Nevertheless, the rioting labourers did not intend to upset social order, rather on the contrary, they wanted to restore their old, modest rights; they did not seek any subversion, but the regulation of society according to the old customs. The gentry and the large farmer might also have disliked the disintegration of the old society but, being those who promoted capitalisation of agriculture, they were the real revolutionaries of the age, even if they were not conscious of that fact. The dividing line in the village did not run between those who worked for wages and those who did not, but between the poor people, whether they were property owners or not on the one hand, and the rich on the other. The movement of 1830 was not that of the peasantry but the new class, the agricultural proletariat. Peasants always want land, but the remarkable characteristic of this movement was that virtually nobody wished land: the concern of the proletarised labourers was higher wages and secure employment.

One may wonder why these threshing machines represented the greatest evil for these people. The answer can easily be found if we examine a little the old rural labour conditions. "The traditional farm-servant was hired annually, at the great hiring-fairs, and if unmarried, lived and ate at the farmer's table.

A large part of his income was in kind. He earned little, but enjoyed at least the security of regular employment." Threshing was a typical work done in winter, and the threshing machine made many of the workers superfluous. By 1830 rural labourers had already lost the relative security of annual employment, because capitalising farmers only employed them if their work was needed and the only link that remained between the worker and the master was the wage. Formerly threshing had made up about a quarter of annual labour requirements on farms, manual  threshing usually lasted from November to January at least, sometimes even longer. The introduction of machines was tragic to labourers, as it deprived them of a vital portion of possible employment. 

Threshing machines had first been appeared during the years of the Napoleonic wars, when there had been a certain degree of labour-shortage, but they continued to spread even after the war, when there was considerable unemployment. The threshing machine became the symbol of the workers= misery and the demand for work inevitably turned into the demand for their destruction. The other side of the coin was that farmers themselves were not really keen on their use either, and in some parishes a decision was settled which recommended the farmers to discontinue their use.

Wages were extremely low, often not enough for mere subsistence. This was mainly due to the Speenhamland system. At the time of its introduction it might have been appropriate, but in the early nineteenth century it was commonly thought to be the major reason for social conflicts in the village. According to the Hammonds, it had not been a carefully prepared measure, but a remedy introduced in a critical situation: "In 1795 there was a fear of revolution and the upper classes threw the Speenhamland system over the villages as a wet blanket over sparks." It was designed to keep down massive unrest but without rising the rate of wages. One of it disastrous effects was that it destroyed all motives for effort and ambition. 

To accept a charity had formerly been a disgrace, but then it was demanded as a privilege. "The traditional social order degenerated into a universal pauperism of demoralised men who could not fall below the relief scale whatever they did, who could not rise above it, who had not even the nominal guarantee of a living income since the 'scale' could be - and with the increasing expense of rates was - reduced to as little as the village rich thought fit for a labourer. Agrarian capitalism degenerated into a general lunacy, in which farmers were encouraged to pay as little as they could (since wages would be supplemented by the parish) and used the mass of pauper labour as an excuse for not raising their productivity; while their most rational calculations would be, how to get the maximum subsidy for their wage-bill from the rest of the ratepayers. Labourers, conversely, were encouraged to do as little work as they possibly could since nothing would get them more then the official minimum of subsistence." However this minimum was not the actual level of mere subsistence, but the one below which riot was certain.

The structure of rural employment was rotten to the core. In reality it was against the interest of the majority of the population, but a large-scale rebellion was necessary to sweep away this whole corruption. Whatever the reason might be, it is not surprising that discontent and resentment of the poor grew, waiting only for an occasion to burst into open. This occasion came in 1830. After the relatively good years of early and middle 1820s, the exceptionally harsh winter of 1829-30 brought considerable deterioration. In many places the worsening of the labourers' situation coincided with the ratepayers' efforts to diminish the poor rates. "In such villages the attempt to cut down relief or to make it even more demoralising at the very moment when it was most needed, was the straw that broke the long-suffering camel's back."

However, apart from the obvious exception of East Anglia, where everything indicated an explosive situation, the contemporary observer could hardly have prognosticated a general outbreak of discontent, as virtually nothing heralded it. Nevertheless, all the immediate causes of setting off the situation were present: "We can sum up the causes of the outbreak of 1830 as follows. The condition of the southern labourer was such that he required only some special stimulus - admittedly it would probably have to be exceptionally powerful to overcome his demoralised passivity - to produce a very widespread movement. 

The economic conditions of 1828-30 produced a situation which made his already bad situation worse, and almost certainly increased both rural unemployment, the attempts to diminish in some way or another the financial burden of poor relief on the rate-payers, the discontent of farmers and all those who depended on agriculture. The combined effect of continental revolution and British political crises produced an atmosphere of expectation, of tension, of hope and potential action. They did not provide the actual spark. In North and East Kent it may have been Irish labourers and threshing machines, in the Weald the cut in poor relief, elsewhere in the country other local factors may have revived action here and there in those occasional villages where, for one reason or other, a tradition of resistance and action survived. The details are irrelevant." All in all, despite certain local differences it was the general state of agriculture that brought forward the disturbances in 1830. The rioting counties were, without doubt, the poorer ones, the "Swing" movement mainly affected the region of cereal farming South and East, where wages were especially low, 9s. 7d. a week, but in 14 counties which were heavily involved in the riots, wages were as low as 8s. 4d. a week.

The revolt broke out totally unexpectedly near Canterbury in Kent on 29 August 1830, where 400 labourers broke into the farm of an especially unpopular tenant, and they smashed his threshing-machines and fired the ricks. This was the actual spark that set off the situation, and the example was rapidly followed everywhere in the next three months in other counties too. The movement extended quickly in East Anglia, the Midlands and in the Southern counties. 

The main target of the rioters was the machinery that made their work superfluous, but arson was also common, corn ricks were burned and other property was destroyed. Rebels also demanded higher wages, and money extortion from farmers was frequent too. The movement also took the forms of threatening letters, wages meeting, attacks on justices and overseers, riotous assemblies in order to enforce a reduction of tithes and rents. In two cases even workhouses were attacked and sometimes the rioters demolished iron foundries which manufactured threshing machines. William Cobbett described the situation as follows: "The working people in almost all, if not all of the counties of England, are in a state of commotion; all across the South, from Kent to Cornwall, and from Sussex to Lincolnshire, the commotion extends. It began by the labourers in Kent entering the barns of great farmers, and breaking their threshing machines; ... The labourers of England see, at any rate, that the threshing machines rob them of the wages they ought to receive. They therefore began by demolishing these machines. This was a crime; the magistrates and jailors were ready with punishments; soldiers, well fed and well clothed out of taxes, were ready to shoot or cut down the offenders. Unable to resist these united forces, the labourers resorted to the use of fire, secretly put to the barns and stacks of those who had the machines, or whom they deemed the causes of their poverty and misery. The mischief and the alarm they caused by these means go beyond all calculation."

The events spread quickly, and the pattern was the same everywhere: a band of 20 to 50 men broke into the barns, destroyed the threshing machines they found, and then they went on to the next village. They never spent much time at one place, in most places disturbances did not last for more than a few days. At some villages the mere news of machine breaking was enough for local people to follow the example. However, the labourers' movement was basically localised in nature, as it was described by a special correspondent of the Times on 17th November: "Divested of its objectionable character, as a dangerous precedent, the conduct of the peasantry has been admirable. There in no ground for concluding that there has been any extensive concert among them. Each parish, generally speaking has risen per se ; in many places their proceeding have been managed with astonishing coolness and regularity; there has been little of the ordinary effervescence displayed on similar occasions." It is remarkable that insurgents were exceptionally unbloodthirsty: nobody was killed by them. The only person who died during the course of the events was on the side of the rioters; he was murdered by the military. The rebels carried out their action with solemnity, as they felt they had a moral obligation to destroy these diabolic machines that replaced men. 

"There was always a certain ceremonial attending such operations. The leader might wear a white hat or ride on a white horse; flags were carried, and horns were blown to arouse the villagers and warn them of the rioters' approach. In the earlier (and later) days, when the militants were more inclined to fear detection, raiding parties might blacken their faces and do their work at night; but as the movement developed, riots took place in open day, and were public performances and at times assumed a festive air. There were frequent reports of the gaiety and good humour with which the labourers set about their work; and, in Dorset, Mary Frampton, the sister of a local justice, described the rioters at Winfrith as being generally very fine-looking young men, and particularly well dressed as if they had put on their best clo' for the occasion." This is not surprising, as the insurgents did not see themselves as criminals, they were deeply convinced of the righteousness of their actions, they still believed in the rights of poor men by custom, natural justice and law which must not be infringed by the rich.

The movement had another typical characteristic: rioters did not organise themselves into one single army under the direction of one person, there were several local leaders, who operated the action in their own neighbourhood.

The majority of those taking part in the riots were farm labourers in the strictest sense of the term: ploughmen, reapers, mowers, milkmen, grooms, shepherds, and the like; but a substantial minority were rural craftsmen: carpenters, joiners, bricklayers, masons, cobblers, tinsmiths, tailors, weavers, and paper makers, etc. Naturally, these people rebelled against everything that made their life miserable such as tithes, rents, low wages, pauperism and poverty, poaching and the Game Laws.

Many small farmers supported the cause of their labourers, as they hoped that by the means of their activity reducing of tithes and rents could be achieved. In Kent and East Sussex the specific discontents of farmers and small shopkeepers in the Weald played an important part, and notably the question of tithes, which merged with the general anti-clericalism, anti-aristocratic and anti-corruptionist programme of the Radicals. Moreover, and they could not make much use of threshing machines themselves, as they were costly and their application was only advantageous for larger farmers. According to Rudé, "Farmers might be inclined, from hostility to squire and parson and even to larger farmers, not only to sympathize but actually to incite their labourers to action: in Essex, for example, farmers were reported to have told the labourers that tithes, government taxes, rent and machinery were the causes which produced low wages." In many places rioters paid their first visit at the vicarage, as they were convinced that farmers were not able to raise their wages because of high tithes.

On the other hand, the farmers had firm reason to comply with the rioters' demands for destroying their threshing machines, and in order to save themselves from the nocturnal visits, and to avoid greater damage they voluntarily destroyed their own machines. "The farmers universally agreed to the demands they [the labourers] made: that is, they were not mad enough to refuse request which they could not demonstrate to be unreasonable in themselves, and which were urged by three hundred or four hundred men after a barn or two had been fired, and each farmer had an incendiary letter addressed to him in his pockets."

Actions were almost always accompanied by letters signed by "Captain Swing". As an illustration I quote here a typical example of "Swing" letters, which was written by William and Henry Bish, both schoolmasters, two "respectably dressed young men" who were tried at Lewes Assizes for sending this letter to Reverend George Woodward of Maresfield: both were not found guilty.

We have inquired into your tithes, and we have determined to set fire to you in your bed if you do not lower them. You receive from Fletching ,500 a year, and give your curate only ,100 a year, and you starve your labourers that works for you, you old canibal. You parsons have fleeced the country long enough. Strain, if you dare. You and your daughter shall be burned in your beds if you do. We shall tell all  the people in the parish not to pay you, for we are determined and our names are legions of liberty. Deem this as friendly, that we would not burn you up without notice.
[Drawing of penknife, with drop of red ink]"

In the following I quote a typical letter which demonstrates the economic demands, the rioters' concern for constant employment and higher wages. This letter was written in East Sussex:

"Now gentlemen this is wat we intend to have for a maried man to have 2s. and 3d. per Day and all over two children 1s. 6d. per head a week and if a Man has got any boys or girls over age for to have employ that they may live by there Labour and likewise all single men to have 1s. 9d. a day per head and we intend to have the rents lowered likewise and this is what we intend to have before we leave the place and if there is no alteration we shall proceed further about it. For we are all at one and we will keep to each other."

Hobsbawm and Rudé identify among accused 'Swing' letter writers four labourers, a gardener, two schoolmasters, an attorney's clerk and a journey man tailor said to be a 'ranting' preacher. The tailor was transported, but the schoolmasters and the attorney's clerk were acquitted.

Authorities were extremely alarmed and scared: the reprisal was uncommonly harsh, and after having suppressed the disturbances, severe punishment and repression came: According to G. Rudé: "1,406 rioters or suspects were brought to trial [...] nine were sentenced to hang, 647 were sent to prison, and 464 were transported to the Australian colonies for terms of 7 to 14 years or life.

It was the largest batch of prisoners ever transported from England for a common crime, thus understanding the enormity of the labourers' offence in the eyes of government and magistrates." J. F. C. Harrison gives different numbers: "Nearly 2000 prisoners were brought to trial in 1830-31. Of these 252 were sentenced to death and nineteen were actually executed; 481 were transported to penal colonies in Australia; a further 644 were imprisoned; 7 were fined, one was wiped; and 800 were acquitted or bound over." These figures, either of the historians is closer to the actual number of the convicted, show the harshness of the authorities and reveals how determined they were to prevent such riots from occurring in the future again. And the future really did not bring any similarly general movements of this kind in rural England but, which probably was not due to the threatening effect of punishment, but rather because social development made this type of protest obsolete.

Although "Swing" was defeated, in some places broken threshing machines were not replaced. "The revolt of 1830 was not wholly without effect. It led to the temporary rising of wages in the southern counties. And, indirectly, it gave a final push to Old Corruption. Many farmers, and a few of the gentry, had been ashamed of the business, had negotiated with the mobs, or given them passive support. The revolt both sapped the confidence of the gentry, and helped to arouse the Reform agitation of 1831-32." However, the situation of village labourers did not become considerably better.

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