The so-called ‘Swing riots’ that swept southern England in the autumn of 1830 are unique in the history of English popular protest and social relations. Thousands, perhaps as many as 3,000, separate incidents of local protest, arson, machine breaking and disorder have been recorded by historians as the disturbances spread from Kent, through south central England and on to the west country and the Midlands. It is no exaggeration to suggest that the disturbances were the most important agrarian protests in England since the Peasants’ Revolt. It is hardly surprising, then, that not only have they attracted considerable academic attention, but they have captured the public imagination as well. On their own, the events of 1830 present a highly compelling narrative: hundreds of crowds made up of thousands of men and women marching from farm to farm and from house to house, demanding an increase in wages and poor relief, contributions of cash or food, and the destruction of the hated threshing machines that they claimed took away essential work in the lean winter months. Their progress was illuminated by the glow of burning hay ricks, the property of farmers targeted by arsonists, and it was only halted when the authorities finally called in the troops. The aftermath was suitably bloody: Special Commissions were established to try those captured, and many more appeared before the ordinary courts in the early months of 1831. In all, almost 2,000 individual cases were heard in, of which 252 resulted in the death sentence (with 19 actually being executed), 505 in transportation, and another 644 being committed to jail.
Yet notwithstanding this broad sweep of knowledge, there is much that we do not know, and one of the reasons why this continues to be the case is that historians have tended to remain yoked to an interpretation of Swing and popular protest that conforms to the model of ‘protest studies’ established by Hobsbawm, Rudé, E.P. Thompson and others in the 1960s and 1970s. Our project, by contrast locates the disturbances firmly within their own local socio-economic context, self-consciously examining them from the perspective of the ordinary labouring men and women in southern and central England who took part in them.
Addressing the Challenge
The project starts from the surprisingly neglected premise that we cannot possibly understand the behaviour or motivations, the mentality or consciousness of protesters unless we understand what they were doing on the days, weeks and years when they were not protesting. In other words, the first principle of this study is that protest never exists in a vacuum; that it is shaped, both in its form and its function, by the world in which its protagonists, victims and onlookers live. In much of early-nineteenth century England, this was a very clearly delineated world of village or township, of parish, farm, homestead and cottage. We seek to demonstrate that, within this world, Swing only makes sense as a local phenomenon, and that each ‘moment’ of protest activity (whether it be machine breaking, demanding higher wages and poor relief, or arson) can only be understood within the specific local context within which it took place.
Making a Difference
One of the most important yet least explored aspects of Swing was its relationship to existing parish relations under the Old Poor Law, relations between paupers and poor labourers, overseers, vestrymen, clergymen and landowners. This backdrop is something we discuss in detail for the first time in the context of Swing, making essential connections between the explosion of protest activity in 1830 and the quotidian wrangling over scarce resources that slowly built towards it over the preceding decades. In this, church men and attendees were at the core, and so ultimately Swing might be understood not just as a protest movement but a conflict based on the limits of Christian paternalism as well.