The Swing Riots

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A visitor to Wiltshire, William Cobbett, commented in 1826 that
‘I verily believe these are the worst used labouring people upon the face of the earth. Dogs and horses are treated with more civility. By some means or other there must be an end to it; and my firm belief is that the end will be dreadful.’ And that end was the Swing Riots of 1830…

In Georgian England, one of the main autumn and winter jobs for farm workers was threshing. This meant separating the grain from the stalks by beating it. In the late 1820s farmers began to introduce threshing machines to do this work. This put large numbers of labourers out of a job and unable to provide for their families in the winter months. Low wages, unemployment and successive poor harvests, resulted in hunger, protests and disturbances in many country areas, especially in the east and south of England. Farmers, magistrates and parsons were sent threatening letters demanding that wages increase and that they destroy their threshing machines. They were signed by a Captain Swing… yet no one of that name could be found.

From Kent, the Swing protests spread rapidly throughout the southern counties before spreading north into the Midlands and East Anglia. If the warnings were ignored, large groups of farm workers would gather and threaten the landowners. The hated threshing machines would be broken, workhouses and tithe barns would be attacked and many were burned to the ground. Favourite targets for burning were the huge haystacks that dominated the landscape. The worst day of rioting in Wiltshire was the 23rd November with 25 towns and villages being affected. A mob of up to 800 people was recorded.

Landowners in England felt seriously threatened by the Swing movement and they responded harshly; nearly 2,000 protesters were brought to trial in 1830–1831. 252 were sentenced to death, although 19 were actually hanged, 644 were imprisoned and 481 were transported to penal colonies in Australia.