‘Swing Riots letter’, 2 Dec 1830 (Goodwood Mss 1446 fA18)


photo-croppedChosen by Susan Millard, member of staff

This anonymous letter was addressed to the Duke of Richmond and was sent to his estate at Goodwood. We can see from the reverse page that it was considered important enough to be forwarded to his London home. Such letters, written during the agricultural disturbances in the winter of 1830-31 known as the Swing Riots, are often referred to as ‘Swing’ letters.

The letters, as is this one, were often anonymous but some were signed ‘Captain Swing’ or simply ‘Swing’ and from this the riots took their name. ‘Captain Swing’ was a mythical leader, rather like ‘Ned Ludd’ of the earlier Luddite attacks on machines in the industrial north, but they carried the added hint of terror in the perceived connection of hanging to the word ‘Swing’. A rhyming couplet sent to the landowners and clergy of the parish of Broadwater, also in December, threatens,

“Revenge for thee is on the Wing,

From thy determined Captain Swing”

The riots began in August 1830 in Kent and spread across the southern counties and by November incidents were beginning to be reported in Sussex. The riots were characterised by mob actions, arson attacks (although incendiarism seems to have taken a back seat in Sussex) and the breaking of threshing machines, but it is the threatening letters, also sent at the time, that remain to give us an insight into what the participants were thinking and feeling.

(OMP/1/2/4) This image shows an early 20th century threshing machine. A century before this, the machines that were destroyed during the Swing Riots would have been much smaller and driven by horse power (literally one or two horses!)

The Swing Riots have long been a source of fascination to me and this letter is of particular interest as it clearly sets out many of the grievances felt at the time and, perhaps, dispels some myths regarding rural workers of the day.

The letter sets out clearly that the men are aware of the what is happening elsewhere when they refer to ‘the men in kent’; they state that they expect ‘work and fair wages; they are acting in combination in that they have ‘all set their hands to the match’; and they have clear proposals as to what should be done (machinery done away with and radical changes made to the tithe system).

‘We beg to say that if the sentences of the men in kent & all others for rioting is not reduced to 3 months imprisonment & all those taken heairafter to 1 months ditto all the woods to a hedge stick on the duke of richmans estate with that of the other ministere [of] the crown lands magestrates constables &C engaged in takeing & triing the said men shall be all burnt up even to a furse bush but we promis faithfully if you comply with our request we will refrain from it all we want is Work & fair wages don’t think that the reward will induse our party to split we have all put our hands to the match so we cannot fear each other and are determind to carry on or have our starveing Contramen at liberty there is only 2 things to be done & then we shall have pease & plenty that is machinery put down and the Clergy paid out of the publick revenew and an income tax put on to take this burden of the farmer in lieu of the tithes’

Those involved in the riots were not just aggrieved labourers randomly giving vent to their feelings. The letter shows well thought out and logical objectives. However, the Swing Riots occupy a unique place in history in that they were wedged in time between the main form of popular protest linked to customary ritual and ceremony and the later working class movements where protest was seen to be part of a wider struggle. I believe this letter shows elements of both and it is, therefore, an obvious choice as my ‘favourite document’.

The Swing Riots are often thought to be a strictly southern movement but incidents continued to be reported throughout the country. For example, research has shown that there were eleven confirmed cases in West Sussex but there were nearer fifty in Lincolnshire. Those who were caught and tried were treated harshly. In the country as a whole nearly 2000 cases were heard with nineteen executions and 500 transportations, as well as numerous jail sentences passed. For Sussex the figures were one execution, seventeen transportations and sixteen jail terms.

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