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March 2000

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Berkshire machine breakers - Captain Swing and the 1830 riots

Jill Chambers

In the autumn of 1830 agricultural labourers, predominantly in the south of England, rose up against their masters in an attempt to better their standard of living. By the beginning of 1831, instead of improving working and living conditions, many families found they were worse off with the breadwinner confined to prison, or on board the prison hulks waiting to be transported.

The riots were caused in the main by the poor harvests of 1829 and 1830 that raised the price of bread and increased unemploy­ment. Hardship amongst the families of country labourers and their families was especially bad during the winter months when many were laid off by farmers, themselves going through economic difficulties. Some authorities had tried to reduce the level of poor relief, which made up about 15 per cent of the income of rural labourers.

The riots seemed to have been a spontaneous outbreak for 'Captain Swing', who was said to be the leader, but in fact was an entirely mythical figure. The biggest disturbances occurred where casual labour was widely employed, and in some small towns where craftsmen could provide leadership. The objectives of the rioters were higher wages and regular employment. Their main activity was breaking farm machinery, especially threshing machines, which deprived men of work in the winter months. The rioters expected the justice of their cause would receive wide public support. Indeed some magistrates urged farmers to destroy their machines and increase wages. Many farmers either gave tacit support to their workmen, or urged the parish vestry to improve the levels of poor relief.

Berkshire magistrates wrote to the government concerning dis­tress among the labourers of the county in early 1830. Thomas Goodlake wrote to Robert Peel, then Home Secretary, that 'there appeared to be an increase in the number of petty crimes brought for trial'. He attributed this to the 'Distress under which Agriculture and Trade at this time Labour - and the consequent want of employment of the labouring classes'. He was also concerned about the Parochial Allowances to Paupers, 'particularly to the unemployed Labourers during the winter season; which is the most irksome duty of a County Justice of the Peace - and I am sorry to say they are now become very numerous in almost every parish in the County - the present mode of treating them leads to distress and consequent despair to a total want of Industry in some that are married and have Families - and to petty thefts and other crimes as well as to Hasty and improvident marriages in others'.1

Facsimile of Riot Notice

Riot Notice issued by John Walter Sheriff of Berkshire

Thatcham labourers began to gather early in the morning of Monday 15th November. After a number had gathered a horn was sounded and they set off to visit the farms in the area and per­suade all the labourers to join them. The select vestry was meeting that day and by midday the labourers, now numbering between two and three hundred, marched into the churchyard. They'pre­sented the gentlemen assembled a verbal request that they might be provided with work, and have their wages advanced. 'The men were quite peaceable, excepting forcing some who felt no inclina­tion to join them.'2

On the evening of the 17th the labourers of Bradfield, Bucklebury and Stanford Dingley assembled and marched from farm to farm, destroying machines, demanding higher wages and forcing others to join them. They met up with the Thatcham labourers and machinery was destroyed at the paper mill at Colthrop. They arrived at Crookham House with the intention of breaking machines belonging to Richard Tull. Here they were met by a number who had been sworn in as special constables and by Mr. Tull and his labourers. The Riot Act was read by the Reverend Mr. Cove. The mob refused to disperse and Mr. Tull and his party seized the principal ringleaders, who with eight or ten others were taken to Reading Gaol.3

On the 20th labourers from Speen, about a mile from Newbury, went round the farms in the area to gather more supporters. They went to the Vestry Room, where the select vestry was meeting. Before their arrival the vestry had already 'resolved that the wages should be advanced from 9 shillings to lo shillings per week to all able-bodied men whether married or single and that there should be paid to all married men having more than two children, the price of a gallon loaf weekly, for each child above that number, that this was the highest rate that could be granted consistent with the present prices of agricultural produce'.4

The magistrates at Newbury together with a number of neigh­bouring gentry and farmers formed a 'strong body of horsemen'. They met the labourers near the Vestry Room and 'commanded a parley with them'. The Reverend Henry Majendic, Vicar of Speen, came out and spoke to the labourers and told them of the Vestry's decision to increase their wages. The terms were accepted by the men. It was reported that 'the conduct of the labourers was almost without exception marked by forbearance and civility, they only expressed a sense of the sufferings and privations they had endured and disavowed every intention of provoking riot or disor­der, they were assured on the part of the Vestry that every atten­tion should be paid to their wants during the ensuing winter.'5

"the Mob proceeded to acts of Violence destroying Machinery and at each respectable House demanding money of the farmers who had Machines, 2 sovereigns for every Machine. "

Unfortunately not every demand for an increase in wages ended so peacefully. This was certainly not the case in the Kintbury and Hungerford area. Writing from Speen on the 25th the Deputy Lieutenant tells us how the disturbances began. 'The immediate origin of the disturbances at Kintbury appears to have been this: A vagrant went to the house of Mr. Smith of Kintbury Holt asking relief which was refused. For some cause not exactly known he was committed to the Blind House in Kintbury, but was twice lib­erated by the Mob and the man ultimately escaped. Thus congre­gated and excited the Mob proceeded to acts of Violence destroying Machinery and at each respectable House demanding money of the farmers who had Machines, 2 sovereigns for every Machine. Amongst others, of whom money was demanded, was the Reverend Mr. Fowle who gave them £2 and some beer.'6

During that evening and the following morning the Kintbury mob went to farms in Inkpen, Hampstead Marshall and West Woodhay. Hungerford labourers gathered on the 22nd and made the rounds of their farms destroying machinery. When they returned to Hungerford they found the Kintbury mob already there. Together they numbered around 500 people, many armed with hammers and bludgeons. John Willes, a County magistrate, had been holding a meeting in Hungerford Town Hall with the local MP and several others. He met the Kintbury mob near Denford Farm, the premises of Mr. Cherry. Mr. Willes begged them not to go up to the house as Mrs. Cherry was 'near her con­finement, and he apprehended serious consequences'. He invited them to go to Hungerford where he would hear their grievances.

When they arrived in the town they broke the windows of Mr. Anning's house and machinery and stock was destroyed at Richard Gibbons' Iron Foundry. On arriving at the Town Hall Mr. Willes invited them to select five men from each party to go inside. William Oakley, William Smith (alias Winterbourne), Daniel Bates and Edmund Steel were four of those chosen to rep­resent the Kintbury mob.7

Joseph Atherton, who was present at the Town Hall tells us that the Hungerford men left 'perfectly satisfied with the arrangements as to their advance of wages'. The same could not be said of the Kintbury men. When Mr. Atherton asked them what they wanted Oakley, who acted as their spokesman, told him that they'wanted 2 shillings a day till Lady Day, 2/6 afterwards and Tradesmen 3/6 and as they were there they would have £5 or they would be damned if they would not smash the place down with the town altogether. Bates said, that was what they wanted and have it they would, Oakley told Mr. Pearse that he and the Gentlemen had been living upon all the good things for the last ten years, that they had suffered enough and that now was their time, and that they would have it.'8

The men also demanded £5 and said that they would not leave the room without it. Mr. Willes eventually handed over five sover­eigns and the men left. In his evidence, given before the Special Commission, Mr. Willes is reported to have said, 'I voluntarily gave £5 after these transactions to the Hungerford men and said as the ruffians had extorted so much it was hard that the Hungerford men who behaved so well in the Hall should not have something'.9

Mr. Page reported that the Kintbury mob spent their £5 in Hungerford and the result was extreme rioting and drunkenness, and the Bath and London coaches were stopped, the panels and glasses broken and money extorted from the passengers.' They then returned to their villages. Mr. Page put the 'quieting' of the Kintbury labourers down to the 'meritorious exertions of Job Hanson a respectable Stonemason of their place and what is called a district preacher among the Wesleyan Methodists.' According to Mr. Page Hanson even managed to arrange a meet ing between the Kintbury men and Mr. Fowle and 'a compromise was entered into, that whatever was settled by the Magistrates for the Hungerford labourers should be allowed to them also.'10

After hearing this the men agreed to return to work the following day. Mr. Page's belief that peace had been restored to the area by the evening of the 22nd proved to be premature. When the labourers in some of the parishes adjoining Kintbury heard of their success they sent a deputation to Kintbury late on the evening of the 22nd. Mr. Page tells us that'the Kintbury men were induced to reassemble on the following day and to proceed into those parishes and accomplish there a similar work of destruction to that which on the previous day they had accomplished in their own.'11

As a result there was rioting at Kintbury, West Woodhay, Enborne, Welford, Boxford, West Shefford and Hampstead Marshall on the 23rd. At Hampstead Marshall Mr. Webb's thresh­ing machine was broken and during the night two more at Welford. Most of the incidents reported in the area related to rob­bery. At Enborne Anthony Heath was persuaded to hand over one sovereign and Joseph Stanbrook and James Franklin both handed over two sovereigns as did John Hawkins of Welford, Thomas Langford of West Shefford and widow Hannah Austin of Boxford. At Hampstead Marshall Stephen Collier was relieved of one sover­eign, William Webb of two shillings, while Lord Craven was made to pay £10.12

We know very little about the part women played in the distur­bances. Very few of them appear in the indictments or on the Gaol Calendars and of those that do the charge was generally one of arson or sending threatening letters. In a letter from Frederick Page we learn how the women of Kintbury behaved on the 22nd. They 'assembled and by threats induced some of the shopkeepers to give them provisions and a Travelling Tea Dealer to give them a small quantity of Tea.'13

By the 25th around 300 special constables were sworn in at Hungerford and the adjoining parishes and many of the rioters were captured. William Westall and three others were captured by Col. Dundas at The Red Lion at Kintbury and a number of others were caught at The Blue Ball, also at Kintbury. Mr. Westall, writ­ing from Hungerford reported on the capture of Francis Norris: 'The Gentlemen on Horseback have just brought in the Chief Ringleader of the Parish of Kintbury of the name of Frank Norris a Bricklayer, who they followed for 5 hours and met with him at a new Beer Shop at Aldbourne. 1 am in hopes our town will be quiet in a day or two.'14 This does indeed seem to have brought an end to the rioting in the area.

There were two incidents in the eastern part of the county. They occurred at Waltham St. Lawrence and Binfield on the 20th and 21st and were carried out by the same mob. At Waltham St. Lawrence they told Martha Davies that'they were forty sworn men come up out of Kent; they were come up to drive the county before them.' However, Mrs. Davies recognised their leader as her neighbour Solomon Allen. They broke the machine and left when they'had had as much beer as they wanted. 'At Binfield they broke a machine belonging to Richard Glasspool.15

The labourers of Yattendon held a wages meeting early on the 21st. They went round the farms in the area, pressing others to join them, and trying to persuade the farmers to increase their wages. They were given money and beer by a number of farmers and 'one was even impudent enough to order 40 quarts at each of the two public houses in the parish.' One of these public houses was The Compasses at Burnt Hill Common. Some of the Yattendon men agreed to meet up with the men from Ashampstead on the following day. They left The Compasses at midnight and'proceeded from thence immediately to call up every poor man and boy in the Parish and at the Houses of others demanding money of every one whom they supposed able to give them anything from 1/- to 5/- (their maximum) until towards sunrise they went to the adjoining Parish of Aldworth.' From there they went to Streatley and in all three parishes machinery was broken and money demanded. They ended back at The Compasses at Yattendon where they stayed until night. From there they went to Basildon where more machinery was destroyed and money demanded. The soldiers succeeded in capturing 11 of the ringleaders and the rest quickly dispersed.16

By the 25th the Government decided to appoint a Special Commission to deal with the rioters in what they considered to be the most troubled counties: Hampshire, Wiltshire, Berkshire, Dorset and Buckinghamshire. The Berkshire Commissioners, Sir James Allan Park, Sir William Bolland and Sir John Patteson, were met by the High Sheriff on the 27th December. The Gaol Calendar contained the names Of 138 prisoners. The majority, mainly those charged with the more serious crimes, were tried at Reading, the remainder at Abingdon. The Court opened at nine o'clock on the 28th and almost the whole day was taken up with the offences committed by the 'Kintbury Mob'. Of the 18 men charged with various offences all but two: William Haynes and Charles Smith were found guilty.

The three Judges spent their last day in Reading passing sentence. The first two men sentenced were Thomas Dance and Jacob Gater. They had been found guilty of riot: Dance was imprisoned for 12 months and Gater for nine months. Fairly light sentences, but if the remaining prisoners were expecting something similar they were soon disabused. The Judges seem to have made a dis­tinction between agricultural labourers and craftsmen. John Aldridge and George Whiting both had two indictments against them. Aldridge was a blacksmith and was sentenced to trans­portation for seven years, while Whiting, a labourer, was impris­oned for 18 months. When Mr. Justice Park sentenced Stephen Williams to 14 years transportation Williams is reported to have 'looked towards the bench in a reckless and impudent manner and thanked his lordship'. Twenty three prisoners had a sentence of death recorded against them. The last men to be sentenced were William Oakley, William Winterbourne and Alfred Darling. Mr. Tomes read the convictions, the crier called for silence and Mr. Justice Park proceeded to pass a sentence of death on all three men. 'You three prisoners have been convicted of the offences named, and of more than a single offence, which have forfeited your lives to the laws of the country, and it is now our duty to pro­nounce the awful sentence of death upon you.'The Times report­ed that Winterbourne and Darling wept while the sentence was being passed, but 'Oakley appeared little if at all affected; he shook his head, and on quitting the dock spoke to a person stand­ing at the table near which he passed.'17

The three Judges then went to Abingdon. The Calendar contained the names of 47 prisoners and most were charged with riot, rob­bery, assault and machine breaking. Of those found guilty Thomas Mackrell was sentenced to death, the rest were sentenced to vari­ous terms of imprisonment.

The arrival of the New Year 1831 brought little in the way of rejoicing to hundreds of homes throughout southern England. Families grieved for their menfolk, sons, husbands and fathers had already been sentenced to transportation, a sentence that would take them to the other side of the world with little chance of returning to England again. In the condemned cells in Kent, Sussex and Hampshire men awaited execution, while others were still waiting in prison to be tried, knowing that they too might suf­fer a similar fate.

Petitions were sent to the King and the Home Office on behalf of the prisoners. Isaac Burton, of Hampstead Marshall was described by his petitioner as, 'a sober, steady, civil, peaceable and industrious young man. 'Three of Joseph Edney's previous employers gave him a character reference. All three described him as an 'honest, trusty and faithful servant.' William Green gathered a number of testimonials on behalf of his brother Charles. All his former employers described him as 'an honest, sober inoffensive man.' Elizabeth Greenaway petitioned the Home Secretary on behalf of her son Jason. She wrote that he had always 'borne an excellent character for sobriety, diligence and peaceable behav­iour, that he has never (since he has been able to work) been out of employ, and always appropriated a considerable part of his wages towards the payment of his mother's house rent.' She went on to say that if he was transported she would be deprived of 'his succour and assistance.' The vicar of Beenham wrote to Lord Melbourne, the Home Secretary, on behalf of Edward Harris. He wrote that Harris had shown 'constant attention to the Duties of the Sabbath.' He also wrote of 'his quiet, peaceable, and steady conduct at other times, and his kind and exemplary attentions to his mother, who from her age will probably never see her son again after his removal from this Country.' Those who knew William Hawkins described him as 'honest, sober' and 'wor-thy of credit.'Thomas Mackrell's petitioner, Mr. J.R. Seymour, wrote that Mackrell had worked 'as a common labourer, for the same person for twenty years, he has ever been a most kind husband, and a most indulgent Father to seven children living, the youngest only a few weeks old, his Father was in confinement, as a lunatic, for several years, and a very small portion of liquor has produced a very similar effect on the mind of the son.'

Although the majority of the letters written to the Home Office in early 1831 were in favour of the rioters by no means all were. Mr. T.E. Williams, the Chaplain at Reading Gaol, wrote to the Reverend Fowle, of Kintbury, expressing his doubts 'respecting the soundness of Oakley's religious professions'. Oakley was plan­ning his escape, 'even at the expense of my life or the life of his keepers, who might have been opposed to him.'

Three men, William Oakley, Alfred Darling and William Winterbourne, had been left for execution after the Berkshire Special Commission. Oakley and Darling both had their sentences commuted to transportation for life. Winterbourne was executed at Reading on January 11 and buried at Kintbury.

Most male convicts spent some time in the prison hulks before they were transported and the Berkshire rioters were no excep­tion. Two separate groups of Berkshire men arrived on the hulk York at Gosport in January. Their stay was to be short as four of them, Daniel Bates, David Hawkins, Francis Norris and Edmund Steel, sailed to Tasmania on board the convict ship Eliza on February 6th. Of the remaining 41 Berkshire men on the York 40 sailed for New South Wales on board the convict ship Eleanor on February igth. They were: John Aldridge, Solomon Allen, George Arlett, Cornelius Bennett, Luke Brown, James Burgess, Isaac Burton, William Carter, Joseph Edney, Charles Green, Jason Greenaway, Thomas Goodfellow, Daniel Hancock, Thomas Hanson, Edward Harris, William Hawkins, Thomas Hicks, John Horton, Charles Horton, Thomas Mackrell, Timothy May, Charles Milsom, John Nash, Joseph Nicholas, Robert Page, William Page, Thomas Radbourn, William Sims, James Simmonds, William Simmonds, Joseph Tuck, Edmund Viccus, William Waving, James West, William Westall, John Wheeler, George Williams and Stephen Williams, One man was left on board the York to serve out his sentence, Joseph Smith, he died in January 1837.

References:

1 PRO HO52/6 f2
2 Reading Mercury 22nd November 1830
3 PRO HO52/6 f11
4 PRO HO52/6 ff12
5 PRO HO52/6 ff12-13
6 PRO HO52/6 f61
7 Berkshire Chronicle 1st January 1831
8 PRO TS11/849
9 Berkshire Chronicle 1st January 1831
10 PRO HO52/6 ff27-28
11 PRO HO52/ f62
12 PRO TS11/849
13 PRO HO52/6 f62
14 PRO HO52/6 f64
15 Berkshire Chronicle 1st January 1831
16 PRO TS11/849
17 Berkshire Chronicle 8th January 1831
18 The Times 5th January 1831
19 Berkshire Chronicle 15th January 1831


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