The Swing Riots of 1830 and 1831

I found the following information during Internet research of those families with Henham connections

It was in the autumn of 1830 that the agricultural labourers, mainly those in the southern half of England, rose up against their masters in an effort to better the lives of themselves and their families. By the beginning of 1831, instead of the improved working and living conditions they had hoped for, many families found themselves worse off with the breadwinner confined to prison or worse still on board the hulks awaiting transportation to either New South Wales or Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was then called, and many of those left behind described as ‘on the parish.’

The riots seem to have been caused by a number of factors the main ones being, poor living conditions, low wages, at least three years of poor harvests, that of 1829 being followed by a very severe winter which caused further distress to the farm labourer and his family, the last straw in some areas appears to have been the introduction of the threshing machine, these machines were seen by the labourer as taking away his winter employment. It was the threshing machine that was to become the main target for destruction during the disturbances.

The first threshing machine was destroyed at Lower Hardres in Kent on 28th August 1830, but before this, there had been several cases of arson reported and a threatening letter had been received at Mildenhall in Suffolk as early as February 1830. The trouble spread north and west from Kent reaching a peak in mid November by which time most counties south of a line from Norfolk in the east to Worcestershire in the west had been involved in one way or another. Threatening or ‘Swing’ letters (so called as many of them were signed by the mythical ‘Captain Swing’) were however received as far west as Herefordshire and incidence of arson occurred as far north as Carlisle.

The disturbances took a variety of forms. ‘Swing’ letters were sent to farmers and manufacturers threatening the destruction of their property if they failed to remove the machinery or raise the wages. Stacks and barns were fired, and there were riotous assemblies with demands being made for higher wages and reductions in the tithes. Attacks were made on workhouses and overseers. In some counties machinery and wrought iron foundries were attacked.

The disturbances spread rapidly from one county to the next, taking less than a week to reach Wiltshire from Sussex. The organisation of the movement was almost entirely on a local level with leaders or ‘Captains’ being chosen from the community. There were however some leaders who worked outside their own areas the most notorious being ‘Captain’ or ‘Lord Hunt’ (real name James Thomas Cooper), who led a number of riots in Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset. He was executed at Winchester on 15th January 1831. In most instances however bands of men from one village travelled around the farms and hamlets in their area gathering men, demanding higher wages, destroying machinery and in some cases levying money, as they went. News of what was happening passed quickly from one village to the next and it was not long before another band of men with similar grievances were making their way around their area. In many counties the trouble was short lived, for example, the riots reached Hampshire around the 10th November and were virtually all over by the 26th of the same month.

Almost before the trials were over petitions were organised by individuals and the inhabitants of numerous towns and villages throughout the country in an attempt to save those sentenced to death and to put in a plea for a reduction in the sentence of the others. In some cases the petitions had the desired effect but 19 men were executed, over 600 were sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment and around 500 were sentenced to transportation for either life, 14 or 7 years.


Henham and The Swing Riots
BARKER James Riot to raise wages at Henham Epiphany QS 1831 3 months
FROST John Riot to raise wages at Henham Epiphany QS 1831 3 months
FULLER John Riot to raise wages at Henham Epiphany QS 1831 3 months
MEAD George Riot to raise wages at Henham QS January 1831 3 months
THOMPSON Thomas Riot to raise wages at Henham QS January 1831 4 months
TURNER George Riot to raise wages at Henham QS January 1831 2 months