Mechanical Threshing Machines, Poor Harvests, The July Revolution, Captain Swing’s Letters, The Poor Law, And A Disaster For The Working Class.
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For those of you who have settled seats around here. You may remember Episode 18-29 on General Ludd. Made on the anniversary of weavers & knitters destroying textile machinery in Nottingham 1811.
Today marks the 190th anniversary of similar but less well known moment in this country’s history. The start of the uprising that later became known as the Swing Riots began in Kent on this day in 1830.
Lets see how much we can infodump in 5mins.
In the summer of 1830 Traditional migrant labourer families arrived in Kent to find the first horse drawn mechanical threshing machines standing in farmyards across the county. Some estimates say over half the labour force was now surplus to requirements. Those that did get jobs faced lower wages and much harsher working conditions. The widespread unemployment spelled destitution for those who had walked from London to Kent.
The summer was looking to be another poor harvest for the second year in a row. Tenant farmers who worked their own land were also facing hunger. However, tithe payments (such as crops, wool or milk) for the support of the parish church and its clergy were still due. Since 1600, these tithes were meant to be redistributed to the poor, by the 1800’s a larger portion was going into the belly of the church of England. Protests and disturbances occurred throughout the summer. But on Saturday the 28th of August the first threshing machine was destroyed.
Anger was directed towards three sources of human misery. The tithe system. The Poor Law guardians who were abusing their power; and the rich landowners with their newfangled machinery paying low wages.
Suffice to say that things escalated quickly. By October over 100 of the machines had been set ablaze.
Letters were sent to landowners and parish churches demanding better wages, better treatment of the poor and an end to mechanisation. As with General Ludd in the north of England, a figure emerged in the public consciousness championing the movement and signing the letters. The infamous Captain Swing.
Here’s an example letter.
Sir, Your name is down amongst the Black hearts in the Black Book. This is to advise you and the like of you, to make your wills. Ye have been the Blackguard Enemies of the People on all occasions, Ye have not yet done as ye ought,… Swing.
This is to inform you of what you have to undergo Gentlemen. If providing you don’t pull down your machines and raise the poor mens wages, we will burn down your barns and you in them. This is the last notice. … Swing
And my favourite
“The Lane down to your farm is dark. We will light it. .. Swing”
It is useful to place the uprising in context of course. The Second Revolution or ‘July Revolution’ had broken out in France the month previous. And It was widely believed at the time in Parliament that agitators or agents had travelled from France to Kent.
Following the poor harvest misery abounded throughout winter and the arson continued into 1831.
An attempt to defuse the situation was made. The National Archives hold the text of a bill poster pasted around the county. A FRIENDLY CAUTION TO THE LABOURERS of KENT.
Its general tone will be familiar to modern ears
The blaming of agitators:
Some of you are led to join in these things by persons who are unknown to you; these persons pretend to be your Friends; they only urge you on
Or that bosses will do the right thing.
There can be no doubt but those Farmers who have hitherto paid you too little, will now see their Error, and be induced by public Opinion, to follow the Example of those Farmers who pay you what is just for your Labour.
I do wonder how many copies were printed and displayed. I mean how could illiterate agricultural labourers be expected to read it? Perhaps it was read out loud by town criers? But the people it was designed to influence (farm workers) would have been in the fields.
In Kent, local justices were largely sympathetic to labourers and initially dealt with them quite leniently but the government protested and punishments became harsher.
By 1834, 2000 people were brought to trial. 644 were imprisoned and 252 were sentenced to death though only 19 were executed, including a 12 year old boy. The remainder had their sentences commuted to life transportation. 505 were transported to Australia.
The Sing Uprising however inspirational was an utter disaster for the working class.
It resulted in the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. Replacing the 1601 Poor Law. Doing away with tithes and direct material relief of the poor by the Church. Instead relief would only be available in workhouses.
It cemented the Malthusianism still present in our society. The rich and petty bourgeoisie fretting about population growth. IE too many poor people about the place.
It used David Ricardo’s Iron law of wages: Still a ‘common sense’ argument against UBI today.
Lastly. Edwin Chadwick, a major contributor to the bill developed his horrid economic Utilitarianism. He believed that the poor rate would reach its “correct” level when the workhouse was seen as a deterrent and fewer people claimed relief. Which continues to influence the spirit of the UK’s benefit system in 2020.
I wonder what Swing would have made of landlords, landowners and the practices of business owners today. In the spirit of the revolutions over the channel at the time, plus ca change as they say.
The script above is the original script I wrote for the episode. It may differ from what ended up in audio due to time constraints.