Walking through the Hampshire countryside on a pleasant sunny morning, it is difficult to realise that in the 19th century this was the scene of a violent uprising, one that was to terrify the Establishment and bring down savage reprisals. This is a soft countryside, composed of a hundred shades of green — a land of chalk hills and water meadows, of extensive heathlands and wooded creeks.
This was the world of Jane Austen, who was born and lived much of her life at Steventon, near Basingstoke, and who died in Winchester. The pleasant world she portrayed was Hampshire, where graceful houses and gardens were set in rolling parklands, a world of culture and delicate customs. But it was also a place of grinding poverty, of labourers who worked long hours for eight shillings (40 pence) a week and vicious game laws bordering on the insane. Hampshire contained the appalling Andover Union, perhaps the nastiest workhouse in the country. Dotted about the countryside stood the gibbets, one of which—the Coombe gibbet—still stands at a popular picnic spot on the Downs overlooking the Kennet valley. And at Portsmouth, near the spot where today holiday makers embark for the Isle of Wight, the prison hulks were moored — old, decaying wooden ships used as makeshift prisons. This was the backcloth against which the tragedy of the Swing Riots was played.
The trap that closed on the agricultural labourer in the early 19th century had many teeth. The rapid inflation following the end of the Napoleonic wars, combined with an equally rapid fall in corn prices, brought agricultural wages down to as low as five shillings (25 pence) a week. Large areas of chalk downland went out of cultivation and a run of wet summers caused crop failures and cattle disease. The resulting mass unemployment brought many families to the edge of starvation.
Traditionally the country people had right of access to common land on which to pasture animals, gather wood and fuel, and other rights. The enclosures that had been progressing for many years accelerated in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and vast areas of common land were enclosed and sold off to the local gentry at absurdly low prices. The cottage garden with its hollyhocks and honeysuckle round the door was largely a myth. The real cottager, the agricultural labourer, had little scope for such niceties, for their plots were used for growing food and keeping pigs or chickens. But even these were often filched away.
To add to the problems came mechanisation, principally Meikles Threshing Machine, which abolished hand flail threshing — the main source of winter employment. To people already close to starvation, this replacement of labour by new machines was a disaster. A bitter hatred of the machines developed. They were seen as the main cause of poverty, and were the main targets in the uprising.
Often the peasants’ only way of adding to their food supply was by poaching. But the game laws reserved the right to shoot to the rich, and protected this right by severe penalties. Conviction for poaching could mean seven years transportation, while sheep stealing could mean the death sentence. But such was the plight of the rural population that many were prepared to risk even these penalties.
Wessex had long been one of the most highly developed and prosperous parts of England. Winchester was once the capital, but the Industrial Revolution had passed the Southern Counties by. Their ancient industries were left high and dry, and Winchester and Salisbury declined from major cities into unimportant market towns. This is why their ancient buildings have survived for, as their old centres slipped into decay and squalor, they were not swept away and rebuilt. Now restored, they are major tourist attractions, but to the displaced farm labourers, it meant that there were no growing industrial areas to which they could escape. In country areas near to the new conurbations farm wages were to some extent protected by mills and factories. There was in fact a scheme to resettle the farm labourers in the North-West, where wages were higher, but there was no such outlet for the agricultural workers of the South.
The final insult was the adoption of the pernicious Speenhamland system. Speenhamland is a part of Newbury in Berkshire, astride the London road. On 6 May 1795 a meeting of the Berkshire magistrates was held at the George and Pelican, an inn now demolished. They worked out a system of poor relief that was to be taken up right across England (except in Northumberland). Instead of fixing minimum wages, it was decided to make up incomes to an agreed level by payment from parish rates. Needless to say this was abused by employers and landlords, who reduced wages and raised rents, knowing that the cuts would be made up from public funds. Worse than that, the Speenhamland system placed people at the mercy of overseers and subjected them to the indignity of a means test.
So by 1830 the position of the farm labourer was desperate. There was little hope of relief from the authorities. In the pre-Reform Parliament, power both national and local lay in the hands of the landowners and gentry, the very people who stood to gain most from the poverty of the agricultural workforce. Rotten boroughs like Old Sarum (a ruined castle on a hill near Salisbury) returned two MPs. One can still see the tree in the fields below, where a handful of people “elected” the members.
The rural population had been docile, but in November 1830 they exploded into violence. The uprising took the authorities, who had been lulled into a false sense of security, by surprise. The workers’ initial demands were very limited. “All we ask is that our wages may be advanced to such a degree as will enable us to provide for ourselves and our families without being driven to the overseer”. But within a week the whole situation changed. Beginning in Kent, the protests ran like wildfire through Surrey and Sussex into Hampshire and Wiltshire. The violence, once started, accelerated as the pent-up resentment of years burst out. Threatening letters were received by landowners and magistrates, signed by a mysterious “Captain Swing”, or sometimes just “Swing”. Terse and to the point, they condemned the use of machines and threatened violence. Arson, rioting and machine smashing were common, farm houses were broken into and farmers threatened.
At Fordingbridge on the River Test, mobs armed with sledgehammers and crowbars destroyed a sacking mill and the hated threshing machine factory. At Andover an iron foundry was destroyed, and at Wilton in Wiltshire a woollen mill and a clothing factory went the same way. When troops arrested a rioter in Andover and conveyed him to prison, the mob smashed their way in and released him. In West Hampshire operations were directed by an ostler named James Thomas Cooper who styled himself Captain Hunt, and rode a white horse that he had commandeered. Like a latterday Wat Tyler, Cooper led 2,000 rebels into Ringwood to a pitched battle and into Southampton to set fire to a large sawmill. At Selbourne and Headley the workhouses were attacked and destroyed. As the rioting progressed the ranks of the farm labourers were swelled by craftsmen, carpenters, blacksmiths, bricklayers and millworkers, and even small farmers. Right across the South ricks were fired and machines smashed and toll gates — an inevitable target because they effectively stopped the poor from using main roads — were torn down.
When “Captain Hunt” led a mob up the Avon towards Salisbury, smashing machines and firing ricks, farmers besieged insurance offices with claims for fire damage, forcing the companies to default. But along with the destruction went efforts to force agreements raising wages and cutting rents and tithes. Those landowners who resisted had their houses burned down. Others gave money and food to placate a threatening crowd. The Hampshire Chronicle reported that a march on Winchester had been averted by the Mayor, who convened a meeting of farmers and labourers which agreed a wage of twelve shillings (60 pence) a week. Similar agreements were signed all over the area. When a Wiltshire MP, John Bennett, offered to pay £500 (a phenomenal sum to people earning eight shillings a week) to anyone who informed against ten rioters, nobody responded. Instead they stoned the MP and smashed his threshing machines. When the revolt was crushed the agreements were, of course, repudiated.
As December advanced the impetus of the riots slackened and there came savage reprisals. The authorities were in a jittery state, obsessed with fears of revolution. They looked apprehensively across the Channel to France, as they had been doing for 40 years, where in July yet another revolution had toppled Charles the Tenth and driven him into exile. Queen Adelaide’s talk of “playing the part of Marie Antoinette in the coming revolution” was pure nonsense but it reflected the state of hysteria that gripped the upper class. Riots, often serious, were common in Georgian England, often whipped up by the party in opposition in order to embarrass the government. Rumours would run through London and the big cities and bring the mobs onto the streets. But the town rioters had safety in numbers and when it was all over they could fade back into the slums. The agricultural workers had no such anonymity; they were known and could be identified. Mass arrests took place across the whole area and the jails were full to overflowing. Special Commissioners were appointed to try prisoners while Lord Melbourne issued a circular to all magistrates instructing them to “seize suspected persons and deal with them in any way thought fit — with no subsequent enquiries”.
The First Commission of Assize opened in Winchester on 18 December and later passed on to Salisbury. The accused did not stand a chance; they were poor and illiterate with no knowledge of the law. One jury was discharged because of their sympathy towards the accused and their reluctance to convict. These “trials” ran on through December into January. One hundred and one defendants were sentenced to death, 117 to transportation and 68 to various prison sentences. Public opinion was outraged by the death sentences, newspapers condemned them and protests and petitions poured in from all sides. The government bowed to the pressure, and only six were executed, including “Captain Hunt” who, as one of the most prominent rebels, did not stand any chance of a reprieve. Most of the others were transported — a particularly cruel penalty as not only was the convict imprisoned, torn from his family and sent across the world, but his dependants were left to fend for themselves, which usually meant starvation. The revolt was at an end and the notorious convict ships, the Eliza, Proteus and Eleanor assembled off Portsmouth to ferry their participants across the world.
The Swing Riots happened four years before the first agricultural workers’ union branch was formed in Tolpuddle. Certainly they were influenced by an earlier radicalism, as personified by William Cobbett, the author of Rural Rides, who had defended the agricultural workers and attacked the grim conditions under which they lived. He had stated that it was “better to poach than to starve”. His publication, Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register, was read by the more articulate labourers to their illiterate comrades at gatherings in pubs.
In the 1830s the condition of the agricultural workers reached its lowest ebb. Although they were to remain at the bottom of the pile throughout the 19th century, things were never to be quite as bad again. The Reform Bill broke the monopoly of the landed gentry in Parliament. Not that the hard faced industrialists and ship owners had any more regard for the welfare of the farm worker than had their landed oppressors, but from time to time it suited their purpose to support them. The criminal laws, “Britain’s Bloody Code”, were slowly reformed, transportation was abolished, the revolting prison hulks disappeared and the death penalty was removed from over 200 offences. Poaching became a less serious crime, while the coming of the railways and spread of newspapers reduced rural isolation. The growth of seaside towns on the South coast and the establishment of small scale industries opened up alternative employment, but for many young farm workers the army was seen to be the only way out. Right up to the First World War the Shires provided the bulk of the infantry — a fact illustrated by the long lists of names on war memorials in village churches.
So the last “Peasant Revolt” failed. Like its predecessor in 1381, the Swing Riots were doomed from the start. The odds against were too great but in neither instance did the rebels realise the fear that they engendered, or just how powerful they were. Illiterate and unsophisticated, they could never grasp the extent of the forces ranged against them, or understand the system that was crushing them. No 19th century uprising came from greater provocation or was more savagely suppressed.