a print showing a figure made of straw, lanterns, barrels and other rural accoutrements

An original portrait of Captain Swing. Published by Orlando Hodgson, London, 1830. © Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

As project partner for the Age of Revolution, The University of Kent has been blogging about their involvement and wider role in the dissemination of knowledge about the Age of Revolution. Here’s an edited highlight from their explainer about one of the colouful episodes and characters of the period, Captain Swing and 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’.

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.

Threatening letters were sent to farmers and landowners which demanded that wages increase and 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’(on the gallows). According to Hobsbawm and [historian] George 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. Hobsbawm argued that in Kent, where the movement started and persisted the longest, there were five phases of action:

1. Fires in the north-west, reaching into the neighbouring county of Surrey.
2. The wrecking of threshing machines in East-Kent around Dover, Sandwich and Canterbury.
3. Late in October, wages meetings accompanied by /radical agitation against sinecures, rents and tithes around Maidstone.
4. In early November, wages meetings and machine-breaking in West Kent, reaching the Sussex Weald.
5. After mid-November, a further round of fires, tithe-riots and machine-breaking in East-Kent.[4]

At first, magistrates tried to be lenient with those arrested for offences committed during the riots, and in Canterbury at the East-Kent quarter sessions in October 1830, Sir Edward Knatchbull imposed a mere three-day prison sentence on seven machine-breakers.

However, as the uprising continued the penalties became more severe, and on Christmas Eve, 1830 William Packman, 20 years and Henry Packman, 18 years (convicted together with John Dyke [John Field]), at the Kent Winter Assizes in 1830, for arson on a barn belonging to William Wraight of Blean were hanged at Penenden Heath, Maidstone.

A petition asking for clemency was rejected by Mr Justice Bosanquet of Maidstone who also dismissed the Jury recommendation for mercy. Altogether 19 people were executed, 505 transported to Australia and 644 imprisoned.

To read the full transcript with references, citations and attendant story of The Battle of Bossenden Wood, head to the blog at blogs.kent.ac.uk/ageofrevolution/riots/the-swing-riots/