The Swing Riots: Participants

A guest post from Ray Hopgood.

The intention of this article is not to narrate the causes or events of late 1830 in South West Berkshire which subsequently became known as the “Swing Riots”. These disturbances which had swept across Southern England are more than amply covered by articles on the internet, but especially in the volumes “Captain Swing” by Rude and Hobsbawm, covering the whole movement but especially “Berkshire to Botany Bay” for the events in this area by the local historian, the late Norman Fox.

It is the tables at the end of Norman Fox’s book which are the main sources of this article. It is an extensive analysis of the participants, both alleged and actual, of the disturbances. There are four main area of study; namely age, marital status, literacy and occupation.

When considering the ages of the “rioters” it is noticeable that they are not a gang of hot-headed youths, indeed only one, Jason Greening, was a teenager of nineteen years of age, with oldest being Francis Norris at 41, a serious age for an agricultural labourer at that period. Indeed 8, or 36%, of the men were over 30 with 16, or 73%, married (including 2 widowers) often with families. The remaining 6 or 27% were single. These are hardly archetypal hot-headed disaffected youths which tend, usually, to form the bulk of the participants of riotous assemblies.

It is noticeable that their literacy levels seem to be higher in this group compared to others We do not know the levels of those who were deemed to be literate, whether it was true literacy, a very minimal skill level or perhaps just “barking at print”. However, even with these caveats the overall level of seems high compared to the common perception of “Hodge” the ignorant rural clod. 50% claimed to be able to read and write, 32% could read only that is 82% with some level of literacy and only 18% were either illiterate or were not part of the sample.

In Jill Chamber’s study of the disturbances in Berkshire in particular  (The Machine Breakers of Berkshire) she states that of the 138 arraigned at the Reading Special Commission 37:27% could read only, 25:18% could read and write and the remaining 76:55% were illiterate.

The idea of higher than expected levels of social standing is also reflected in the occupations of the partakers. When studied closely only 9 or 41% of the men could be called agricultural labourers. Shepherds included in this category, as although skilled workers in their own right they did undertake other farming jobs. The rest 13 or 59% can fairly be deemed tradesmen ranging from a tailor to Master bricklayer. Although some of the trades, for example blacksmithing and wheelwrighting no doubt gained most of the employment from the agricultural scene they were skilled technicians again in the own right.

The differential of status is acknowledged in the severity of the sentencing for the same offences. The judges believing that the educated tradesmen were not simple souls who had been misled but men who has a clear understanding of their actions and were, therefore, more culpable.

Mr Justice Parker was particularly scathing to Oakley and Darling when passing their death sentences and that as a carpenter and blacksmith “… had no business or pretence to mix yourself up in these transactions”.

This casts doubt on naming of these disturbance, notably by the Hammonds in their work as “the Last Labourers Revolt” and that the participants were of a very different and varied type than has been considered in the past.