28th August 1830. Swing Riots.
There is a Hertfordshire inn sign, ‘The Land of Liberty, Peace and Plenty’, however the 18th and 19th centuries were hardly that for rural workers enduring dire economic conditions resulting from Enclosure Acts, the Old Poor Law and the Speenhamland Relief System, which subsidising wages from local Rates had become a device for reducing wages and throwing workers on the parish.
Discontent fermented into riots, firing of hay-ricks and machine breaking in the 1830.s, a counterpart to the industrial Luddites, troubles in many southern and western English counties, and threatening letters to parsons and farmers signed by a mythical ‘Captain Swing’.
The collapse of high prices of grain maintained in the Napoleonic War saw many farmers facing ruin, though big landlords and farmers were to some extent cushioned through their voice in Parliament, with grain prices protected by the 1815 Corn Law which pushed the cost on to the labourers staple of bread.
Small tenanted farms were vacated, large tracts of land went uncultivated, banks pressed for their advances, landlords their rents, tax collectors for their taxes, tradesmen for bills and infamously parsons for their tithes.
Rick burning around Orpington in Kent in June and July was followed Today in 1830 by the smashing of a steam threshing machine near Canterbury.
It was an action to spread over the south and west into Bredon Hill in Worcestershire where 400 men destroyed the newly-arrived machines, then into the Cotswolds where the ‘Trouble House’ inn sign at Tetbury shows a waggon concealing a machine under the hay, with the inevitable result.
Threshing, separating the ears of corn, had traditionally been a job to keep the workers occupied through the winter with barns supplying enough work at 15 shillings a week- piecework-from harvest time to May.
This was done with a swingel or flail, dating back to Biblical times, where an ash stick was joined by leather to another shorter, hand-stick of holly wood.
After the damage came retribution, varying widely, often involving the local militia, though the early Kentish machine breakers tried at the Quarter Sessions were discharged with little more than a caution.
However Lord Grey’s, Whig Ministry took a tougher line than Wellington and Peel before him, and malefactors were treated to unaccustomed severity with nineteen being hanged, mostly for arson, 644 sent to prison, and 481, including two women, transported, the largest shipment ever sent from England.
One of the ironies of history is that the Friction Match invented in 1826 by a Stockton chemist John Walker, the ‘strike anywhere lucifer’, could have made rick burning easier: invention is always a two-edged sword.
bbc.co.uk/Swing Riots/Pic of Poster.