Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
The rural warCaptain Swing and the politics of protest$

Carl J. Griffin

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780719086267

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: May 2013

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719086267.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM MANCHESTER SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.manchester.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Manchester University Press, 2017. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in MSO for personal use (for details see http://www.manchester.universitypressscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: null; date: 19 January 2018



(p.319) Conclusion
The rural war

Carl J. Griffin

Manchester University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter sums up the main ideas of the book and examines the end of the Swing protests. By the end of the 1830s, threshing machines were no longer in general use in any part of the south east, and attempts to reintroduce them frequently provoked incendiary attacks. The protests that followed Swing were fractured in space, time and protest practice. Swing also took on a phantasmagorical quality. The chapter concludes that the protests against the New Poor Law, and support in the countryside for the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union, Chartism and the Anti-Corn Law League were all made possible by the changes in rural society wrought by Swing. Swing was exceptional, the largest ever episode of machine-breaking, the last non-coordinated national protest of rural workers, indeed the biggest ever rural uprising.

Keywords:   Swing, rural society, rural protests, New Poor Law, threshing machines

By the end of the 1830s threshing machines were no longer in general use in any part of the south-east, and attempts to reintroduce them frequently provoked incendiary attacks.1 Indeed, post-1830 there was a heightened hostility to all forms of machinery evidenced by machine-breaking in a paper mill at Hawley near Dartford and repeated attacks against a measure manufactory at Hurst Green (Sussex) which deployed a steam engine and a sawing machine.2 If this is the sole means by which the success of Swing is judged then it was an unprecedented success. During the autumn and winter months of the ensuing years, the threshing barns in the region were enlivened by the sound of flail upon straw, thousands of man-hours given over to the task.

By the mid-1830s, it was possible to claim that wages were also higher because of the agreements forged in the heat of October and November 1830. Indeed, as Chapter 11 shows, attempts to reduce wages to pre-Swing levels in 1831, 1832 and 1833 were met by strikes and a turn to the tools of rural terror. Comments made before the 1836 Select Committee on Agriculture are particularly telling. According to farmer Boniface of Climping near Littlehampton, ‘If it had not been for those riots, wages would have been lower at this time than they are. At that time there was a considerable rise of wages and they never have reduced them in proportion to the fall in the price of wheat.’ Lord Radnor suggested, however, that while this had been true it was no longer the case. Notwithstanding ‘the universal abandonment of machinery for a time, which was certainly disadvantageous to the pockets of the farmer’, wages had now fallen back to the same level as before ‘the fires’.3 Indeed, beyond the winter of 1834, the claim was no longer true. The ‘reforming’ Parliament, elected in part because of the additional political pressure that Swing created for parliamentary (p.320) reform, in 1834 passed the Poor Law Amendment Act. Under the satirically known ‘Poor Man's Robbery Bill’, parishes were forced into workhouse-focused poor law unions. Wage subsidies, child allowances, the payment of rent and the provision of clothes and fuel were to stop, and all relief was to be given, except under exceptional circumstances, institutionally. Although poor law reform had, so it has been suggested, been on the cards since the 1790s,4 Swing served to highlight what was perceived to be the inherent dangers – even evils – of the current system.

In spite of the the huge cost of poor rates to farmers (and hence to landlords in the form of reduced rents), labourers were still prepared to protest their lot, to forfeit their lives on the gallows. Moreover, so the authors of the 1834 Poor Law Report put the case, the system acted to encourage laziness and inefficiency as labourers were materially supported in the same way whether they worked for the farmers or engaged in some sort of menial make-work scheme. So the well-rehearsed argument goes, the committee of Edwin Chadwick, Nassau Senior and other political economists, twisted the evidence to ‘prove’ that the current laws were immoral and inefficient – and caused Swing.5 If Swing had not caused (or created) the New Poor Law, it was the trigger for its passing. And as Wells and others have documented, the effect of the New Poor Law was to depress wages, with labourers being prepared to do anything, to accept any wage, to avoid incarceration in the new bastilles.6

So, Swing begat the New Poor Law which begat lower wages. On this basis, in the longer term Swing failed. But what power did rural workers – a group for whom demand was structurally falling, yet whose ranks were increasing thanks to the coming of age of those born in the post-1815 demographic boom – have in the face of the will of the state? Certainly the upturn in crime and incendiarism (again) post 1835 when combined with the uselessness of village and special constables in suppressing Swing, provided a clear narrative which created the condition for the passing of the 1840 Rural Constabulary Act.7

While Swing was present at the birth of two of the most defining moments in the creation of the modern British state – the centralised provision of welfare and county police forces – this was not a failure on Swing's own terms. The world which Swing inadvertently helped to create was indeed anathema to Swing's values: centralising agendas and political economy as opposed to local customs and mutual (p.321) reciprocity manifest through strong social bonds. In Swing's world what could be achieved was achieved. Its subsequent betrayal was not Swing's fault, or even a mark of failure.

Beyond this, what have we learnt? Further credence can be given to some things we already knew. Swing was exceptional, the largest ever episode of machine-breaking, the last non-coordinated national protest of rural workers, indeed the biggest ever rural uprising. Other recent revisions can also be corroborated. Incendiarism was evidently far more important than we once thought. It was more frequently resorted to, was critical to the events of 1831–33, and was in many locations a protest tool deployed in support of ‘open’ protests. Machine-breaking too was more important in Kent than has hitherto been known, the anti-machine rhetoric of many locales not simply confined to late 1830 but put into practice over a period of at least three successive years. Also, in several locales radical political discourses were not only made audible during Swing but were actually central to the shape and form of mobilisations. If the link between belief and putting belief into action through protesting was often obtuse, some evidence is far more explicit. That Maidstone radicals Robert Price and John Adams led the Swing groups which were responsible for physically diffusing protests from the parishes to the north-east of Maidstone into the Weald proves that radical politics could be central to Swing's form and diffusion. In short, radical politics was fundamental to Swing's evolution for without Price and Adams it is questionable whether Swing would have ever spread beyond mid-Kent.

There are also bigger questions which we can now answer with some degree of certainty, or rather provide feasible answers for, which future studies can seek to support or falsify. One of the most contentious questions in the historiography of Swing relates to the question of whether Swing was a protest movement. On one conceptual level this is easily addressed by examining in turn the different fundamental dynamics that define protest movements: did activists share the same objectives; did events/claims in one location inspire events elsewhere; were the protests organised rather than always random and spontaneous; and did protests diffuse from one locale to another.

In relation to Swing, the same (or similar) claims were made from place to place, whatever the local contexts. For wherever sustained protests occurred in the autumn and winter of 1830 the objectives (p.322) were always driven by a desire to improve the material condition of rural workers. As regards organisation, there was no leader for the protests of 1830, Captain Swing or otherwise. Locally, though, many Swing risings were coordinated, whether through pre-existing gangs or through groups which coalesced around charismatic strangers or labourers’ leaders. Indeed, through the activities of coordinated groups, Swing physically diffused throughout the south-east. It was neither entirely spontaneous nor totally disorganised. Moreover, while there was no pan-regional or national coordination, solidarities extended across large areas and between individuals and groups who had never met, evidenced in the attack on farmer Chapman of Lenham who had made vitriolic remarks about the Elham machine-breakers.8 It is also clear that in this diffusion, events occurring in one locale – the protests ‘in Kent’ often held up as inspirational to would-be protestors in Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire – inspired events elsewhere.

And yet, very few protestors actually tried to forge a movement or even wanted to achieve anything beyond better material conditions in their parish. So while Swing meets the definition of a protest movement, in essence there was no attempt to forge a movement. Peter Jones's identification of a meta-movement that tied together local movements offers a useful distinction.9 Either way, Swing presented poor rural workers with an opportunity to rise, giving them an outlet to both make claims and to collectively release tension. When Richard Hodd, a member of a Swing gang who visited Mayfield, Rotherfield, Buxted and Withyham, exclaimed that ‘he was never so happy in his life as he was on that day’, he articulated the most important aspect of Swing: the sense of relief and joy that the participants were being heard, that labouring communities were being heard.10

Swing was clearly rooted in customary ritual and ceremony, using protest forms that ostensibly had long histories. But custom was not always the wellspring of protest. As Andy Wood has shown for the early modern period, militia-inspired forms of organisation were central to many protests, something learnt through experience rather than community memory and custom.11 And so it was with Swing. If many of the negotiations in the playing out of parish politics looked much like the ‘stately gavotte’ that Andrew Charlesworth identified in earlier food ‘riots’, not least regarding the role of magistrates in negotiating farmers’ concessions, and labourers claims were only ever for ‘fair’ wages, there was a sense of also transcending the ‘moral (p.323) economy’.12 By operating threshing machines, by manipulating the poor laws to keep the cost of labour down, by watching their premises to ward against labourers firing their ricks, and acting as witnesses and prosecutors at the ensuing Swing trials, large (r) farmers had clearly broken the compact. Such actions gave labourers licence to also act differently. In throwing off work and going about the parish demanding higher wages we see a coming together of ritual and proto trade unionism. This, combined with a readiness to resort to the tools of rural terror, is suggestive of a fracturing of social relations – and the ability of rural workers to innovate in the face of capitalist innovation.

Was Swing therefore evidence of the existence (or the emergence) or a rural working class? As noted, in some locales there is clear evidence that the interests of farmers and labourers were diametrically opposed. The fires of 1831, 1832 and 1833 against Swing's oppressors in many ways offered a perfect definition of class politics, labour in direct opposition to the means of production. In these repeated events there is a sense not of trying to restore old social bonds but instead of an attritional struggle being played out. When collective protests again broke out in 1835 against the implementation of the New Poor Law, the broad-based coalition of labourers, artisans and farmers achieved in some locales during Swing did not coalesce, despite the fact that only the most wealthy farmers welcomed the New Poor Law. This failure to coalesce was a direct result of farmers backtracking in 1831 and 1832 from Swing agreements. As Wells has asserted in relation to the experience of the post-1815 depression, the post-1830 experience was broadly similar throughout the cornland communities of southern England.13 The patchwork of local contexts cohered to form a spatially coherent labouring ideology which recognised that landowners, magistrates, clergymen and the parish vestry did not usually best serve the interests of rural workers.

Was this ‘fracturing’ itself evidence of class consciousness? It is certainly evidence of one group struggle against another. But despite the genuine menace of these post-1830 protests the demands of labour were still modest. There were, for instance, no sustained calls by rural workers that landlords and farmers should give up their means of production: the land, their farms. Labourers still wanted to labour (and receive a wage). As such, this ‘new’ consciousness was manifested in ancient labour processes, and farm labourers in the early 1830s were engaged in same day-to-day tasks as their medieval forebears. They were not to echo Alun Howkins's assertion, a (p.324) proletariat in the way that Marx had defined, the performance of agricultural labour not changing dramatically until the widespread mechanisation of many tasks from the late 1860s.14 Herein lays an irony. By attempting to prevent the further mechanisation (and hence capitalisation) of agricultural tasks, Swing activists were also preventing their own transformation into a Marxian working class.

If this was not a rural working class (or even a working class in the making), Swing shows, and its aftermath emphatically shows, that calls to restore old social bonds and thereby cure all social ills were only partially successful. Farmers might have been victorious in securing reduced rents and tithes but many were quick to again reduce wages. If paternalism had been revived it was the briefest of revivals, and then probably only predicated by landlords and farmers desire to save their property from the incendiarists’ hand. This is not to say that in all locations the apparent connection between Swing protestors and farmers was based on a paper-thin pretence. In large parts of the Weald, in and around the forests of Hampshire, and in the maze of tracks and green lanes around Elham, the small farmers were socially and culturally closer to the labourers, the introduction of threshing machines placing them at a disadvantage compared to the most highly capitalised farms. But these smaller farmers were already being squeezed out.15 Swing therefore represented an opportunity to protect both their livelihoods and their way of life.

Such an analysis necessarily posits the question as to whom Swing activists were. While the analysis presented here has not sought to systematically deconstruct the sociological composition of Swing groups – besides, Hobsbawm and Rudé's identification of Swing defendants appears to be comprehensive and accurate16 – the evidence related in Chapters 4 and 9 shows that Swing groups were far from homogeneous. If most Swing protestors appear to have been young men this was not to the exclusion of older hands, as ringleaders Henry and Edward Read at Elham were, for instance, in their 50s.17 Other Swing activists were drawn from outside the ranks of those who relied only on farm work to subsist. Many were artisans, some but not all of whom occasionally had to go labouring to support their families, and some were urban workers and small (and occasionally as at Owslebury, Selborne and Headley larger) farmers too. As Chapter 8 shows, though, to simply focus on the activists is to ignore the broader constituency of support for the protests. From wives and children, to publicans and petty dealers, and the many field workers, artisans and (p.325) small farmers who did not protest but supported the cause, Swing was more than just a rebellion of young labouring men.

Swing was also more than just a brief but dramatic moment in the history of the English countryside. As noted above, it was mobilised as a justification for the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act and Rural Constabulary Act. It also gave considerable impetus, as Jeremy Burchardt has shown, to the adoption and state support for allotments.18 The repression of Swing and its subsequent swift betrayal by many farmers and vestries had a more immediate and visceral legacy. Rural workers’ defiance in the face of continued repression not only taught them how to organise and innovate in the arts of resistance but also to assume a different set of everyday social relations than those that Swing had sought to restore. As Assistant Poor Law Commissioner Sir Francis Head remarked of the labourers of the vicinity of Dover: ‘In no enemy's country that we have seen have we ever encountered the churlish demeanour which these men, as one meets them in the lanes, now assume.’19

The protests that followed Swing were fractured in space, time and protest practice. Swing also took on a phantasmagorical quality. For even when an area remained free from Swing-like protests, the fear generated in 1830 converted Captain Swing into a spectral presence that continued to wreak terror on the minds of farmers and the rulers of rural England. Over and above Swing's continuities and revivals, it was as a concept that Swing most meaningfully lived on. Thus in 1852 at a public meeting on the Isle of Wight, one speaker juxtaposed the (relative) rural prosperity of the early 1850s with the time ‘a few years ago, when Swing was abroad and incendiary fires and public prosecutions for riot were rife’. Swing was even raised as a fearful spectre during the Revolt of the Field in the 1870s.20 If the protests that followed were not Swing, they were informed and shaped by Swing's lessons. Protests against the New Poor Law, and support in the countryside for the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union, Chartism and for the Anti-Corn Law League were all made possible by the changes in rural society wrought by Swing.



(1) for instance fires at Emsworth (29 November 1834) and Seaford (16 May 1835) targeted threshing machines: Brighton Herald, 6 December 1834; Brighton Guardian, 20 May 1835.

(2) Gravesend and Milton Journal, 2 May 1835; Kent Herald, 19 October 1837.

(p.326) (3) BPP. Commons, ‘Third Report from the Select Committee appointed to inquire into the state of agriculture’ (1836), viii, Evidence of Mr Thomas Boniface, Climping, Sussex, 3 May, and of Lord Radnor, 14 June 1836.

(4) For the classic exposition of this point see: A. Mandler, ‘The making of the New Poor Law redivivus’, Past & Present, 117 (1987), 131–57.

(5) For the edited report with a useful contextual introduction see: S. Checkland and E. Checkland (eds), The Poor Law Report of 1834 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974).

(6) R. Wells, ‘Resistance to the New Poor Law in the rural south’, in J. Rule and R. Wells, Crime, Protest and Popular Politics in Southern England 1740–1850 (London: Hambledon, 1997), pp. 92–125; A. Clark, ‘The New Poor Law and the breadwinner wage’, Journal of Social History, 34:2 (2000), 267.

(7) D. Philips and R. Storch, Policing Provincial England, 1829–1856: The Politics of Reform (London: Leicester University Press, 1999), pp. 71–2, 170, 173 and 187.

(8) Maidstone Gazette, 19 October; Kent Herald, 21 October 1830.

(9) P. Jones, ‘Finding Captain Swing: protest, parish relations, and the state of the public mind in 1830’, International Review of Social History, 54:3 (2009), 434.

(10) TNA, TS 11/1007, Prosecution brief prepared by the Treasury Solicitor in the case of the King, for William Endersby Esq., against Richard Hodd, John Wickens for Riot, Lewes Winter Assizes 1830.

(11) A. Wood, ‘Collective violence, social drama and rituals of rebellion in late medieval and early modern England’, in S. Carroll (ed.) Cultures of Violence: Interpersonal Violence in Historical Perspective (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007), pp. 101–2.

(12) A. Charlesworth, ‘From the moral economy of Devon to the political economy of Manchester, 1790–1812’, Social History, 17:2 (1993), 210.

(13) R. Wells, ‘The moral economy of the English countryside’, in A. Randall and A. Charlesworth (eds), Moral Economy and Popular Protest: Crowds, Conflict and Authority (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000), pp. 209–12.

(14) A. Howkins, ‘Labour History and the rural poor, 1850–1980’, Rural History, 1:1 (1991), 114, 117–18.

(15) See: J. Sheppard, ‘Small farms in a Sussex Weald parish 1800–60’, Agricultural History Review, 40:2 (1992), 127–41.

(16) E. Hobsbawm and G. Rudé, Captain Swing (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1969), pp. 241–7.

(17) Centre for Kentish Studies, Q/SBe 120/36, Calendar of prisoners for trial at the 1830 Michaelmas East Kent Quarter Sessions.

(18) J. Burchardt, The Allotment Movement in England, 1793–1873 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2002), ch. 2. A slew of legislation in the early 1830s supported the nascent allotment ‘movement’. 1 and 2 William IV C.42 sanctioned overseers and churchwardens to hire up to 50 acres to be let to the poor in allotments. 1 and 2 William I V, c.59, 1831 authorised vestries to enclose up to 50 acres of Crown Lands (with the consent of the Treasury) for ‘poor's allotments’, while 2. William IV C.42 allowed parishes to let land set out in earlier enclosures in small allotments for ‘industrious cottagers of good character’.

(19) Kent Herald, 7 May 1835.

(20) Hampshire Telegraph, 17 April 1852; Jackson's Oxford Journal, 25 May 1872.