The Swing Riots.
In 1830 letters were received by farmers & landowners throughout Hampshire signed by Captain Swing stating that if their threshing machines were not destroyed then ‘on behalf of whole we will commence our labours’. Similar letters had appeared earlier in West Sussex and Kent and they had been followed by riots of the agricultural labourers. However the riots in Hampshire & Wiltshire were more widespread and severe and the rioters were punished much harsher in these counties. This was because the Duke of Wellington was the Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire and he was determined that any riots should be completely crushed. The identity of Captain Swing was never discovered.
The majority of Hampshire people in 1830 were agricultural labourers on subsistence incomes. A welfare scheme had been devised some years earlier to provide them with additional money and their wages were propped up by the Poor Rate, the amount depending on the labourer’s job and the size of his family. An unforeseen result of this was that farmers paid very low wages knowing that balance would be met by the Poor Rate. However this satisfied nobody because the farmers felt that they were paying twice and the workforce were aggrieved because they were dependent on the Poor Rate in spite of being gainfully employed.
William Cobbett recorded in his book ‘Rural Rides’ in 1820 how he was horrified by the state of the rural poor particularly in Hampshire. Labourers were often desperate for food and resorted to poaching to try and feed their families with the result that there was a dramatic increase in the crime rate. Various other factors brought matters to a head in 1830; first the Census showed that the population was increasing, secondly the end of Napoleonic Wars added 500,000 men to the labour market and in addition the development of the threshing machine produced widespread loss of employment during the winter months. In addition the harvest was poor and there was persistently bad weather. In August 1830 there were riots in Kent and Sussex which spread to most parts of Hampshire by November. The usual practice was for a crowd to gather where there was a threshing machine and they solicited ‘donations’ from the landowner with the implicit threat that the threshing machine might be destroyed if they did not receive a donation.. These gatherings were usually disciplined and without much violence and as a result the labourers often secured pay rises. In the case of a labourer his weekly wage might rise from for 9 to 12 shillings a week which was not an enormous amount but it could make life more bearable. The rioters often returned to work next day but their gatherings provoked much fear amongst the farmers and landowners which is one reason why the reaction to them was so severe.
In this part of Hampshire in November a band of labourers roamed from Stockbridge to Houghton then on to Mottisfont before ending up at Rookley House where the crowd was about 400 strong. They destroyed a threshing machine at Rookley and money was carried away. This must have been very frightening for the landowner because at this time there was no standing police force to call upon for assistance. When subject to duress farmers often agreed to pay more wages and the agreements with the rioters was often officially recorded in the vestry minutes. The type of protest varied from area to area depending on local circumstances and in Malshanger a mill and two factories were attacked. The local landowner was slightly injured in this episode and although he was not badly hurt the rioter’s leader James Thomas Hunt was later executed. At the Grange in Northington 25 men attempted to arrest rioters on the farm, and in the ensuing fracas the farmer was struck on head and a second ringleader, Henry Cook was hanged for this assault.
At Basingstoke a tailor kept a diary of the disturbances and recoded that 200 special constables were enrolled to control the rioters. Not all the rural poor agreed with rioters because as a result of the agitation a great deal of damage was done to the rural economy and on the Herriard estate the farmer gave money to those labourers who refused to take part in the riots.
Some of the upper classes did recognize the underlying problems and injustices and Lord Carnarvon’s confidential secretary stated that there was some justice to the rioter’s grievances and that the Government needed to reform the agriculture system... The Records Office in Winchester has a list of all the rioters who were arrested, many were committed to Winchester jail and it has been possible from this list to trace the subsequent fate of most of these rioters. Many men were transported to Australia and whole families were pulled apart. The initial rioters in Sussex dealt with leniently but at that time people were still very nervous because of the French Revolution and the thought that a similar event might happen in this country. In Hampshire the Duke of Wellington established a special commission to deal with rioters and they imposed very severe punishments in order to make example of the offenders. On the 18th December the commission met in Great Hall and of the 300 prisoners, 95 were formally sentenced to death (ultimately 6 had the sentence confirmed although 4 were reprieved and only two men were ultimately executed), 68 rioters were sent to prison and a further 69 were transported. Public opinion was shocked by severity of these sentences, transportation could be for up to 14 years and many of the men never returned to England. In 1835 Lord John Russell pardoned most of the rioters although by then it was too late for many of them.