Due to appear in Landworker magazine of Unite shortly.
The RURAL WAR
Captain Swing and the Politics of Protest
Carl J Griffin
Manchester University Press
This meticulously researched book demonstrates that England’s biggest ever rural uprising was more organised, widespread and politically motivated than previously thought.
Starting in August 1830 in Kent, riots swept across the country as the rural poor smashed 390 threshing machines, torched farm buildings, assembled in large numbers and sent threatening letters from the mythical Captain Swing.
Protestors demanded higher wages and regular, productive work. They didn’t get it and in the bloody repression that followed hundreds were transported with nineteen executed. RURAL WAR focuses on the south-eastern heartland of Swing, where it started and lasted the longest.
In the early nineteenth-century England was virtually unique among major nations by having no landed smallholding peasantry. Millions of acres of common land had meanwhile been enclosed, thus ensuring the landless were dependent on a wage.
The introduction of horse-drawn threshing machines then slashed the numbers needed to tend the crops. As unemployment soared and wage levels plummeted, farm labourers and their families starved. Parish relief to the ill and out of work was minimal and dropped further as more became dependent upon it. Work schemes rarely provided productive work. To make matters worse the harvest in 1828, 1829 and 1830 was disastrous.
Attacks on threshing machines had first taken place in 1815 and 1816 and had steadily increased since. However it seems unlikely that when a threshing machine was destroyed on 24 August 1830 at Wingmore, a small hamlet in the Elham Valley of East Kent, that those involved could have imagined it would start a Rural War. Yet by the end of September another 18 had been destroyed in Kent as large numbers assembled to demand a ‘moral right’ of employment from farmers and landowners.
Griffin’s fine book shows how the Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire landless swiftly joined the protests. These intensified to include threatening letters and the burning down of numerous farm buildings belonging to those employers unwilling to concede to a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.
Having only sentenced the Elham ring-leaders to four days imprisonment the authorities now cracked down ruthlessly. With few across the region willing to become Special Constables, the Military was sent for. Hundreds of people were arrested. For trying to protect their families and communities from starvation, 160 were transported from Kent, Surrey, Hampshire and Sussex, some permanently. Hampshire suffered most with 115 torn from their loved ones.
The greatest revenge by the ruling class was reserved for arsonists. Although none had killed anybody, over the Christmas and New Year period of 1830/31 seven men were executed. A year later, five more went to the gallows and in December 1832 George Wren was executed for a firing a Uckfield barn six months earlier.
By then the conflict had largely ended with both sides in the war now having a mutual fear of one another. Yet with many labourers have shown a willingness to dispute their wages and openly question the nature of authority the way was open for the development of a rural workers trade union. Enter the Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1834.