BackgroundUnder-employment appears to have been a constant problem in rural areas, and unemployment increased after 1815 although there are no reliable statistics, and there was much regional variation.
The problem of pauperism was worst in the so-called "Swing Counties" of Sussex, Hampshire, Suffolk, Norfolk, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Devon, Dorset, Huntingdonshire, Gloucestershire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Kent. The economic historian Sir John Clapham commented that "the coincidence of the area in which wages were most systematically augmented from the rates with the area of maximum enclosure is striking". In the so-called "Swing" counties, enclosure had taken place on a grand scale.
In the 1820s high poor rates led to increasing attempts to cut relief. Between 1815 and 1820 Poor Law expenditure was 12/10d per capita; by 1830 it was 9/9d. Reductions were made by making the Poor Law a deterrent and by stopping people asking for relief. This created a hatred of the Poor Law but it is also noticeable that between 1824 and 1830, rural crime rates increased by 30% - mainly poaching and food thefts. Pauperism, desperation and discontent were almost universal in agricultural areas. East Anglia was likely to be explosive because this area pioneered the 'new' farming of the Agricultural Revolution and the status of the labourers had been completely transformed into short-contract wage-earners. Although arson was not a normal method of rural agitation, it became common in East Anglia along with poaching.
The amount of available work and the level of prices correlated with the state of the harvest. If this is taken into account, then unrest in 1830 was highly likely:
1828: as good a summer as any year since 1814, weather wise, but a poor harvest
1829: a worse harvest. Snow in October. A disastrous year for labourers - cold, hungry, unemployed. Crime increased.
1830: poor harvest
* July/August - there was revolution in France when Charles X was replaced by Louis Philippe, the 'Citizen King'. According to a contemporary comment, "When Paris sneezes, the whole of Europe catches cold": almost invariably if there was political unrest in France, it could be found elsewhere in Europe.
* August - Belgian revolt against Dutch control
* November - the Whigs were returned as the government under the premiership of Earl Grey. They had a political platform of 'peace, retrenchment and reform' which increased the likelihood of parliamentary reform.
* November - Polish revolt
· increasingly high cottage rent levels
· a dislike of the social control exercised by Anglican ministers in rural areas. Joseph Arch commented on this in his autobiography later in his life.
The RisingThe rioters used a range of methods including machine breaking; arson; threatening letters; wages meetings; attacks on Justices of the Peace and overseers of the poor; riotous assembly; publishing and distributing handbills and posters; and 'robbery'. The riots began in Kent and persisted there the longest. There were five phases to the Kent riots:
2. machine breaking (began 28th August)
3. wages meetings and radical agitation (October)
4. wages meetings and machine breaking (early November)
5. fires, tithe riots and machine breaking (end of November)
2/6d per day in summer (15/- weekly)
Areas which were liable to riot may be identified as follows:
· recently enclosed villages
· larger villages where people were more anonymous
· manufacturing villages, particularly those with a high percentage of shoemakers
· villages with a high ratio of labourers to farmers
· Rioters were usually young men, many of them married, therefore they may be deemed to be stable and respectable
· Arsonists often had a grudge against the victim
· Most of the rioters were of good character - not the criminal element. Their conduct usually was fairly civilised.
In 1833 His Majesty's Poor Law Commissioners produced a report on the agricultural disturbances of 1830 which attributed the riots to the distress caused by low wages and the demoralisation produced by the Speenhamland system. Since these men wished to introduce new legislation for the relief of poverty, their comments should, perhaps, be taken with some scepticism.
The riots probably died a natural death, so were not really affected by either government or local action. There was little or no use of the brand new police force which had been established by Peel in 1829. The government's attention was diverted into other areas such as the General Election, urban unrest and the revolution in France. Consequently the main onus of dealing with the rioters fell on local Justices of the Peace who had divided loyalties. These men had to enforce the law and the penalties were severe for those who were convicted of the offences. The Justices of the Peace then had to live in the communities after the trials and sentences. It is not surprising, then, to see how many men were acquitted.
There were 1,976 trials in total. Of the men tried, sentencing was as follows:
Acquitted/bound over: 800
Suggestions for further reading:
T. and B. Hammond: The Village Labourer (1911)
E. Hobsbawm and G Rudé: Captain Swing (1969)
This text from:
The Peel Web by Marjie Bloy - dated: 10 August 2002
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