In the first quarter of the 19th century, radical writer William Cobbett rode about southern England on
horseback, reporting on country matters and the
deteriorating living standards of land workers.
He noted the decline of traditional practices such as “living-in”. This latter was where a labourer would be provided with a roof over his head for himself and his family and also food as part of his “contract” with a farmer or landowner.
Cobbett claimed that new money and social mores were upsetting the hitherto stable rural economy. He pointed out that it had always been cost-effective to have as many people as possible living in a single large dwelling with communal arrangements for meals. But social changes had led to the emergence of a gentry class, more likely to be a single, better-off landowning family living in a large house.
He described visiting a farmhouse that had been put up for sale: “Everything about this farmhouse was formerly the scene of plain manners and plentiful living. Oak bedsteads, oak chests of drawers and oak tables to eat on. Some were many hundreds of years old. But all now appeared to be in a state of decay and disuse.
“There appeared to have been hardly any family in that house, where formerly there were, in all probability, from ten to 15 men, boys and maids. Worst of all, there was a parlour! Aye, and a carpet and bell-pull too! In this parlour was a mahogany table, and fine chairs, and fine glass, and all as bare-faced upstart as any stock-jobber in the kingdom can boast of.
“And there were the decanters, the glasses, the ‘dinner-set’ of crockery ware, and all just in the true stock-jobber style (Cobbett was always contemptuous of what he perceived to be greedy bankers and grasping dealers in stocks and shares). And I dare say it has been “Squire” Charington and the “Miss” Charington; and not plain Master Charington and his son Hodge and his daughter Betty Charington, all of whom this accursed system has, in all likelihood, transmuted into a species of mock gentlefolks, while it has ground the labourers down into real slaves. Why do not farmers now feed and lodge their work-people, as they did formerly? Because they cannot keep them on so little as they give them in wages. This is the real cause of the change.”
The poverty problem was exacerbated by a surge in population after the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815 when scores of thousands of soldiers and sailors returned home. Within 15 years many of the villages in England were filled with people living close to starvation. The poor relief system that had been in place for centuries could not cope with the demand. Widespread corruption of officials did not help matters.
Cobbett printed his observations of the hardships of life in the towns and villages of England in serial form in his own “Daily Register” newspaper from 1822 to 1826. They were published as a book with the title “Rural Rides” in 1830. Perhaps it was more than coincidence that this same year saw impoverished farm workers in southern England instigate what came to be known as the “Swing Riots”. They demanded higher wages and the scrapping of the recently introduced threshing machine that had removed in one fell swoop an important source of winter employment for labourers. Alongside noisy gatherings of protesters, a menacing campaign encompassing hayrick-burning, destruction of agricultural machinery and livestock-maiming began.
The riots started in Kent and soon reached the Sussex Weald. In November 1830 there were disturbances around the village of Ringmer, near Lewes. The “Sussex Advertiser” reported that a large group of malcontents were “very active in promoting tumult”. In consequence a delegation of labourers met local landowner Lord Gage (of Firle Place) and requested an increase in daily pay. This was granted and the protests abated. However, in less than six weeks the original rate was re-imposed.
That same November saw around 1,000 men assemble in Horsham outside a church where they demanded the local magistrates sign an agreement raising their wages to 2s 6d per day (about 25p in today’s money). The rowdy crowd got short shrift and a large number were arrested and thrown in the town’s gaol.
In all there were 145 disturbances related to the Swing Riots in Sussex. The name came from threatening letters sent to landowners and the authorities that were often signed “Captain Swing”, a reference to apprehended rioters swinging from the gallows. The movement’s leaders were simply known as “The Captain” or “Swing” to hide their identities.
The big landowners were able to use their influence to secure military assistance in putting down the riots. Even so, many farmers found it expedient to meet the demands of their belligerent workers. The riots continued sporadically until 1831. All those arrested were sent for trial; in East Sussex nine men were sentenced to death while 457 found guilty of arson were transported to Australia. Another 400 were given varying prison terms.
Nothing much changed to improve living standards for rural labourers for several decades after the Swing Riots until the Industrial Revolution and a boom in manufacturing created a growing demand for workers. Large numbers of people quit the land and moved into rapidly expanding towns and cities. Given the initial opposition to threshing machines, it was an irony that all the new jobs largely involved working in mechanised factories.
Some landowners did demonstrate sympathy for the plight of the poor. The “Petworth Emigration Committee” met on Lord Egremont’s West Sussex estate and was set up to assist local families to emigrate to Canada. Between 1832 and 1837,1,800 men, women and children sailed from Portsmouth to North America at a cost of £10 for adults and £5 for children. Babies went free. Some 28,000 thousand more emigrated from other areas of Britain.
These economic migrants settled in the main in Ontario and did indeed discover a better life. Many wrote letters home encouraging relations to follow them. One such surviving missive sent by Edward Boxall reads: “Dear Mother: I take this opportunity to acquaint you that we arrived here safe, and in good health, on the 6th July. I was very fortunate, in bringing my discharge with me; for I found upon landing that all who could shew their discharge, was entitled to a hundred acres of land, from the crown for their service, which I accordingly got: so if either of my nephews, or both of them, should like to come over here, I will give them some land to work upon.
“Tell them to bring some tools, and all the money they can get, and some upland seed, of all descriptions, and garden seeds too, and barley in particular. There is a river runs through the corner of my lot, and plenty of fish in it; and here is wild deer, and turkeys, pheasants, partridges, and rabbits: and any body may kill them. Copy this letter, and send it to my sisters, and tell them I will build them a house, if they will come over here to live.”
The invitation to emigrate was wasted on one of his relations, Thomas Boxall. He had earlier been sentenced to 14 years transportation in Australia for his part in the Swing Riots.