Monday, 30 March 2015

Captain Swing

When William Cobbett visited our valleys and hills, on Tuesday, September 12th. 1826, as recounted in ‘Rural Rides’, he would have passed close to Horsley, scene of Captain Swing riots five years later:

“From AVENING I came on through NAILSWORTH, WOODCHESTER, and RODBOROUGH, to this place. These villages lie on the sides of a narrow and deep valley, with a narrow stream of water running down the middle of it, and this stream turns the wheels of a great many mills and sets of machinery for the making of woollen-cloth. The factories begin at AVENING, and are scattered all the way down the valley. There are steam-engines as well as water-powers. The work and the trade is so flat, that, in, I should think, much more than a hundred acres of ground, which I have seen today, covered with rails, or racks, for the drying of cloth, I do not think that I have seen one single acre where the racks had cloth upon them. The workmen do not get half wages; great numbers are thrown on the parish …”.

The agricultural riots, nicknamed the “Captain Swing Riots”, quickly spread across the farming counties of the South, with machine breaking, the burning of hay ricks, other forms of rural arson, the sending of threatening letters to farmers etc. The riots were caused by low wages, high bread prices, low rates of poor relief, and threshing machines, which took away crucial winter work. The neighbouring county of Wiltshire with its arable farming was a key area, and eastern Gloucestershire was notably affected by the riots, especially around Fairford.

Our nearest Swing site is at Horsley, where machine breaking took place on the 26th November 1831. Lord Sherborne and his fellow Cirencester J.P.s. hinted at a “just” response to labourers’ complaints, if there were a return to work. A wave of arrests followed, with nearly 100 labourers incarcerated in the Gloucester Prison.

Here is a typical Swing letter:

“This is to inform you what you have to undergo gentelemen if providing you Don’t pull down your meshenes and rise the poor mens wages the married men give tow and sixpence a day the single tow shillings or we will burn down your barns and you in them this is the last notis
From Swing”

Many members of the affluent orders saw a link between drinking in beer-shops and rural crime, for example our local Reuben Hill was reported in the 1839 Miles Report that he “thinks the beer-shops injurious to society. They are sly corners for men to drink in, and often are screens for crime. He has heard at times, on the apprehension of any offender, that up to a certain hour, he was seen lurking at some beer-shop.”

That was certainly the case at the Trouble House, near Tetbury, where cavalry were despatched to surround the pub during the Swing Riots, some with swords drawn. Swing rioters tried to escape from there across the fields, with the cavalry in pursuit; twenty-three were captured.

Nigel Costley’s book, ‘West Country REBELS’ recounts this event, as well as Swing activity around Tetbury, Chavenage, Cherington and Beverstone. He tells of Elizabeth Parker, reported as exclaiming: ‘Be d----d if we don’t go to Beverstone and break the machine!’ She was ‘one of only two women, [nationally] to be found guilty’ of Swing activity, writes Nigel; she received a sentence of seven years transportation for machine breaking.

Oh how those Swing rioters must have regretted stopping that day at the inn for beer, bread and cheese.

Recommended reading, apart from Nigel’s book, is still the classic ‘Captain Swing’ by Hobsbawm and Rude.

for an imaginative interpretation of local events.

Also see Bristol Radical History Group: ‘Tolpuddle and Swing’

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