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When Captain Swing threatened our rulers

This article is over 11 years, 10 months old
In the first part of our new series Sadie Robinson looks at workers’ revolts of the early 19th century
Issue 2207

Some think that British history is one of peaceful, gradual reform. This feeds the myth that we have benevolent rulers who act in our interests—or who can be pressured into acting in our interests.

The reality is that as long as there has been workers, there has been class struggle—and ruthlessness from our rulers.

One of the most powerful periods of struggle in Britain occurred in the early 19th century.

Britain’s elite feared they would be overthrown as the industrial revolution challenged the established order, ushering in sweeping change.

In December 1830 fires raged across Britain’s southern counties. Farm labourers in Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire and Wiltshire rioted and burned down farms, destroying equipment.

They became known as the Swing Riots, after farmers and landowners received mysterious letters threatening attacks signed by “Captain Swing”.

Rising unemployment and low wages were the immediate causes as farmers turned to new machinery, employing fewer workers.

The unemployed and their dependants were at the mercy of meagre poor relief from the government.

Deprivation rose after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 when 250,000 demobilised men joined their ranks.

Wider upheavals fed into the riots. Revolution in France in 1789 inspired revolt across the world, including Britain—and it was met with repression.

The 1810s saw the Luddite movement emerging against the terrible conditions in the new textile factories and the hardship caused by the continuing war.

The Swing riots emerged with an explosion of rage in Kent on 1 June 1830.

Labourers burnt down farmer Mosyer’s ricks and barn in Orpington. More fires followed, and attacks on machinery.

Around 100 threshing machines were smashed between 28 August and the end of October.

The rioters were well organised and disciplined. Often, groups had their own treasurer who kept all the “fines” they had exacted from landlords and dished out the money equally.

Workers had no political representation and no right of assembly, and many began to demand union rights and votes.

The protests were contagious, spreading as far north as Carlisle with over 1,000 incidents recorded.

The Tory government fell during the chaos, after it refused to consider parliamentary reform.

A Whig, or Liberal, government took over. New home secretary Melbourne said of the rioters, “It is my determined resolution to suppress them with severity and vigour.”

He mobilised troops to quell the uprisings and ordered magistrates dealing with Swing offenders to give no mercy. Rewards were offered to anyone willing to give evidence.

In total 1,976 prisoners were tried. The state executed 19 men and boys, jailed 644 and transported 505 to Australia.

The repression didn’t extinguish all struggle. People campaigned for reviews of some cases in the years that followed and the government was forced to issue 264 pardons.

Continuing anger over the conditions of the poor also led to the government’s Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.

In the late 1830s, the fight for reform and democracy threw up the Chartist movement. It was the first ever working class movement—and its demand for votes for working men was revolutionary at that time.

Chartism mobilised millions and directly challenged the state. In 1838-9, tens of thousands of Chartists trained in preparation for an uprising.

Up to 5,000 Chartist sympathisers in Newport, South Wales, took part in a large-scale armed rebellion.

After the government rejected the Chartists’ second petition to parliament, the first general strike in Britain’s history took place in 1842.

It involved nearly half a million workers—including women.

Strikers formed the first flying pickets, marching between factories and mills to spread the strike.

Workers formed local strike committees. A report describes the Manchester committee as acting “as a sort of alternative government”.

But a debate raged within the movement about whether its aims could be achieved by “moral” or “political” force.

A division which helped enable the government to seize the initiative and clamp down on the movement. But it had given the ruling class a stark warning about the potential of organised workers to threaten their power.


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