Student Blog

History student Mary Sullivan recently completed some research as part of our recent Beyond the Barricades Exhibition, which is bringing together artists from various nations, looking at different dimensions of a revolution by focusing on the concept of Barricade.

 

The Swing Riots

According to E. P. Thompson (1963), the wholesale enclosure of common land between 1760 and 1820 and the loss of the rights to cultivate it led to the impoverishment of the landless labourer, (especially in the south of England) who was left to ‘support the tenant-farmer, the landowner, and the tithes of the Church’.[1]  However, poor harvests, low wages and high unemployment between 1829 and 1830, led to hunger among poor agricultural workers and their families.  To add to their troubles, the Agricultural Revolution had introduced new technology such as the threshing machine which separated the grain from the stalks by beating it and thus dispensed with the need of workers to perform this task. This situation resulted in protests that started in Kent and later spread to surrounding counties and further.  They were called the Swing riots after the eponymous Captain Swing. The made-up name symbolised or represented the anger of the poor labourers in rural England who wanted a return to the pre-machine days when human labour was used. The threatening letters were sent to farmers and landowners which demanded that wages increase and which often told farmers to desist in their employment of threshing machines. Landowners and farmers also had their farm buildings and hayricks set alight.  According to Carl Griffin, who recently reassessed the origins of the disturbances in Kent, Swing first put his name to a threatening letter addressed to a farmer in Dover in early October 1830: ‘you are advised that if you doant put away your thrashing machine against Munday next you shall have a SWING’[2](on the gallows). According to Hobsbawm and Rude̒, the first of the Swing riots occurred on the night of the 28th May 1830, with the destruction of a threshing machine in Lower Hardres, near Canterbury.[3] Hobsbawm argued that in Kent, where the movement started and persisted the longest, there were five phases of action: Continue reading