Protest, Politics and Work in Rural England, 1700-1850
Carl J Griffin
In 2012, Carl J Griffin’s book The Rural War: Captain Swing and the Politics of Protest superbly revealed that England’s biggest rural uprising was more organised, widespread and politically motivated than previously thought.
Starting in August 1830, riots swept England. The rural poor smashed threshing machines, torched farm buildings, assembled in large numbers and sent threatening letters from the mythical Captain Swing. Demands for higher wages were bloodily suppressed, hundreds were transported and nineteen executed.
In his second highly informative book, Griffin, shows Swing was part of an extensive range of resistances that were deployed by rural labourers to defend their livelihoods and communities against rapid social change.
Between 1700 and 1851 the percentage of England’s workforce engaged in agriculture dropped from 55 to 30. Simultaneously, whilst output per acre rose remarkably real wages fell as food prices soared. Meanwhile the landed gentry had, by enclosing common land for such as grazing livestock, swept away a second income stream for labourers.
Previously the rural poor could assert, often by bread riots, Christian principles that the rich had a responsibility to them. This forced magistrates to regulate the food market. Now though the economic philosophy of Adam Smith was that interfering in the market was unnecessary. This was ideal for landowners who had seen the cost of poor relief quadruple from 1776 to 1813. The 1834 Poor Law discouraged the public provision of relief to anyone refusing to enter workhouses.
In response to such major changes, the rural dispossessed sought other income streams including poaching, smuggling, wrecking and coastal plunder. Enclosures were levelled with even football games utilised to trample crops. The brutal suppression of food riots in 1795 demonstrated that traditional ways of highlighting demands were impossible. When protests resumed it was through machine breaking and incendiarism, with the latter reaching epidemic proportions in the 1840s.
Landlords and farmers, blamed for poor wages, were the main targets but Poor Law administrators, including magistrates, many of them pastors, were also picked out.
Whilst none of these acts represented a revolutionary challenge they demonstrated a breakdown in social relations. They were thus a challenge to the emerging capitalist state’s primary motive of defending private property. The response was a vicious series of property laws and by 1819 there were 223 capital crimes in this field. Although many people were executed, imprisoned and transported these deterrents failed to prevent new, impoverished volunteers coming forward.
It was only when rural constituencies analysed that their actions were not producing results – because the landowners simply no longer believed they had a duty to the poor - that they switched track.
This meant that starting in the 1830s there began more direct challenges for power through the organising of political and workplace unions that combined demands for greater Parliamentary representation with collective organisation at work. The book thus ends by looking at the Chartist Movement and the Tolpuddle Martyrs.