BERKSHIRE TO BOTANY BAY
The 1830 Labourers' Revolt in Berkshire.
Its Causes and Consequences.
by Norman E. Fox.
B.A. Hons. (Reading).
Littlefield Publishing (H.M & M.D.Weideli)
35 Bartlemy Road
Berkshire RG14 6LD
ISBN 0 9526661 0 3
Dedicated to the memory of "Captain" William Smith (alias Winterbourn) - The very first of the "Victims of Whiggery", hanged 11 Jan 1831 - and to all those who have suffered in the continuing struggle to achieve the Right to Work at a decent wage.
PART I. BERKSHIRE.
1. DISTRESS AND CONSEQUENT DESPAIR. (The Causes of the Revolt.) Beer, Contagion and Drab Great-coats. Violent Tracts and Seditious Preachers. Game Laws. Genuine Distress or Mere Embarrassment. Wicked Men and their Infernal Machines. Wild Geese and Northern Lights. Conclusion.
2. NOW IS OUR TIME.
3. SEVERITY IS THE ONLY REMEDY.
4. A CHASE THRO' THE COUNTRY, and Some Who (Temporarily) Got Away.
5. NO FRIEND IN HEAVEN. (The Special Commission at Reading).
6. EACH IN HIS SEPARATE HELL. (Reading Gaol).
PART II. TO "BOTANY BAY".
8. THE HULKS AND THE CONVICT SHIPS. The "York Hulk. The Convict Ship, "Eleanor".
9. "BOTANY BAY".
10. GREEN PASTURES.
11. BEYOND THE BLUE MOUNTAINS.
12. THE VALLEY OF THE HUNTER.
13. VAN DIEMEN'S LAND.
Norman Fox's excellent and well researched book "Berkshire to Botany Bay - the 1830 Labourer's Revolt in Berkshire" is now available in PDF format at http://www.accessdbdev.com/berkshiretobotanybay.htm where you can download for free, but with a request for a donation to "Save the Children".
The text on these pages is taken from this file.[With thanks to Norman and Mike Fox, Nov 2014]
Berkshire to Botany Bay cover(w)
The cover of "Berkshire to Botany Bay", by Norman Fox
The headstone of William Winterbourn's grave, which was erected by the Rev FC Fowle, Vicar of Kintbury, who, in a belated act of atonement, arranged for Winterbourn's body to be rought to Kintbury church yard and buried there.
My interest in the Threshing Machine Riots of 1830 is a long-standing one having been aroused first by reading "The Village Labourer", by J.L. and B.Hammond, in the late 1940s. It was not, however, until the publication of "Captain Swing", by E.J.Hobsbawm and G.Rudé, in 1969, that I began any serious research into the events which occurred in Berkshire, and even then confined myself mainly to the Kintbury/Hungerford area. Only later was I able to visit Australia where I learnt a great deal about what happened to the Berkshire men transported. Though less than 10% of those transported for their part in "The Last Labourers' Revolt" their experiences ( which included examples of the well-recorded brutality of convict floggings and time in the chain-gangs, as well as examples of those who "came good", i.e. prospered sufficiently to appear on the property based Electoral Rolls ) were sufficiently varied as to give in miniature the story of the rest.
I was greatly encouraged by the advice and constructive criticism of Professor E.L. Jones. I should like to thank him and all those archivists of the Public Record Office, London, the Berkshire Record Office, Reading, the Wiltshire Record Office, Trowbridge, the Mitchell Library, Sydney, and the State Archives Office of Tasmania, Hobart, and the librarians of Newbury Public Library, the Reading Reference Library, the Bodleian Library, the British Museum Library and the Reading University Institute of Agricultural History, and many others who assisted me. In particular I must mention:
Ms. Robyn Flynn, of the Mitchell Library, Sydney.
Ms. Mary Macrae, of the Tasmanian State Archives Office,Hobart.
Mr. Rex Cross, of the Queenbeyan Historical Society, and
Mr. Arthur Street, of the Nepean Family History Society.
Mrs Pamela Bates of 1, Spencer Road, Newbury for information concerning CHARLES MILLSON.
For much of the material in Chapter 8 I am greatly indebted to C.Bateson ("The Convict Ships") and to A.M. Coulson (unpublished M.A. Thesis, University of London,1937.)
Finally I should like to express my gratitude to the numerous writers of local histories, in both Berkshire and Australia, and the officers of many local history societies, without whose help many problems of persons, places and periods would have remained unsolved.
Norman Fox, Newbury, Berks.
Though the lives of more than one hundred men and their families from South-west Berkshire alone were seriously affected by the events with which this study is concerned, the threshing machine riots over the whole of Berkshire receive mention in only four (not wholly accurate) sentences in the Victoria County History. This omission or under-emphasis is general, for what the Hammond's called The Last Labourers' Revolt has rarely been given more than a passing reference in most histories of the period. This is not a valid judgement on its importance, but merely a reflection of the narrow attitudes of most historians. Even Walter Money, in his excellent "History of Newbury", devotes less than three pages to these events and most of this consists of a local newspaper's report of the round-up of the rioters, though, to be fair, we know that he later became sufficiently interested in the aims and aspirations of those involved in them to write a series of articles in the "Newbury Weekly News" in 1898. Unfortunately, these pieces are not so well based on genuine research as is his larger work. Written in a popular style these articles, though very interesting and readable, contain the sort of error which Money would not have allowed to creep into his more scholarly works.
As far as the national scene is concerned the revolt began on the first day of June, 1830, when the ricks of an Orpington farmer were set ablaze. In any ordinary year this might not have been worthy of notice for rick-burning was a common enough occurrence, but this was no ordinary year. In the same month, on the 26th, George IV died and brought an era to an end. The excitement of the election which automatically followed was heightened by the news of revolutions in France and Belgium. There was an air of expectancy about. During the very severe winter of 1829-30 there were frequent displays of The Northern Lights which alarmed the country folk who believed them to be a warning of some awful calamity. On the other hand great hopes were placed in the new king and in the new parliament. Local gossip had it that the new monarch was on the side of the working people. It was firmly believed that he desired the destruction of the hated threshing machines and a large increase in farm workers' wages.
During the election campaign the voices calling for the immediate reform of parliament had increased in number and volume. There was great excitement; the number of meetings, petitions and addresses multiplied. As a result of the election the Whig leader, Lord Grey, could claim that his party had obtained an additional 50 votes in the House of Commons. However, the Tory government, led by the Duke of Wellington, somewhat precariously maintained itself in office, but not for long.
The meetings in favour of Parliamentary Reform continued to be held after the election. Many artisans and labourers believed that their lot would be improved once parliament was reformed. In Sutton Scotney for example there were regular meetings, and a petition calling on the king to reform parliament was drawn up and signed by 186 labourers and their allies. However, the hopes of those who believed in Parliamentary Reform as a panacea for all ills received a severe set back on 2nd November when the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, made a reactionary speech in which he stated bluntly not only that he was not prepared to bring forward any reforming measure himself, but that he would always feel it to be his duty to resist such a measure when proposed by others.
The Duke's declared resistance to Reform brought about his own and his government's downfall. On the 15th of November the government was defeated by 29 votes. Although this was on a minor measure the Duke was persuaded to resign because he could not be certain that a similar result would not follow the much more important debate on Brougham's Reform Bill which was scheduled for the following day. On the 22nd of November the members of the first wholly Whig Government for nearly half a century kissed hands and received their seals of office.
These national events, apparently far removed from the common-place lives of the agricultural workers of southern England, were to have a radical effect upon "the even tenour of their ways". It is not without significance that, whereas the revolt began in Kent in the first week of June, the main rioting did not begin in Surrey until the 3rd of November, the day following the Duke's "backs to the wall" speech; the Hampshire labourers did not move until the 11th; while Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Wiltshire remained unaffected until the 15th.
By late Autumn the Swing movement - if disparate events so haphazard,often unorganised and spontaneous, can be dignified as such - had spread as far westwards as Gloucestershire and Somerset. Before it petered out or was suppressed not a county south of a line drawn from the Wash to the Bristol Channel had remained unaffected ; nearly 400 threshing machines had been reported destroyed, and nearly 2,000 labourers had been prosecuted. Many of those who were found guilty received savage sentences ; 19 were executed and nearly 500 transported, many for "the term of their natural lives".
The present study is concerned mainly with the activities and the fate of farm workers and their allies in that small corner of S.W. Berkshire with its vertices at Newbury, Great Shefford and Shalbourne (at that time part of Berkshire). The main centres were Kintbury and Hungerford. At one time it was estimated that the combined Kintbury and Hungerford mob numbered between four and five hundred. (One local big-wig, in a letter to the Home Secretary, stated that it was nearly 1,000.). 133 persons were arrested. Of these 63 were discharged on their own recognizances, and a further 25 acquitted. Of the 45 found guilty : one was hanged, 20 sentenced to various terms of transportation, and 24 to terms of imprisonment with hard labour.
The members of the Special Commission which tried these men seem to have had a particular animus towards the men from Kintbury. This may well have been due to the fact that one of the lay members was Charles Dundas, M.P., of Barton Court, who was referred to by the local labourers as the King of Kintbury. Because Robbery and Machine breaking were capital offences, 15 men from this parish and 11 from Hungerford had Death recorded against their names. (Although many farm workers in other parts of Berkshire must have been equally guilty of these charges only ONE other Berkshire man was so dealt with.). Of the eleven Hungerford men : two were transported, one died in the hulks, while nine were sentenced to terms of imprisonment none greater than 18 months. Of the 15 Kintbury men on the other hand, one was hanged and twelve transported, only two of the fifteen escaping with a period in Reading gaol. Of the 10 men in the whole of Berkshire sentenced to transportation for Life, 9 were Kintbury men.
There were many causes of the riots some of which have been mentioned already, for example, the political excitement generated by the election which followed the death of George IV, the news of successful revolutions in France and Belgium, and the Iron Duke's public refusal to consider measures for the reform of parliament. Other causes suggested by contemporaries were : the publication of violent tracts (e.g. Cobbett's "Twopenny Trash"); "seditious preachers" ; "evil-disposed persons who worked upon an ill-paid and discontented peasantry who, for want of regular employment during the winter months were in the habit of spending their time in those rural pests, the beer shops" ; and "the contagious example of neighbouring districts". However, there is no doubt but that the most important causes were starvation wages and irregular employment.
At the Berkshire Quarter Sessions of January, 1830, the Chairman, Charles Dundas, referred to "the cruel pressure on the poor by the illiberality of masters and parishes in beating down wages and reducing parochial relief so low as to leave them scarcely sufficient to maintain even their existence.".
Both starvation wages and unemployment were in part due to the fact that c.1816 agriculture passed from prosperity to extreme depression, but the former were depressed even further by the pauperising effect of the "Speenhamland System" of subsidising wages out of the Poor Rate, while the latter was made worse by the extension of the use of threshing machines during and after the Napoleonic Wars. According to Professor E.L. Jones "the conjunction of a growing population with little alternative to agricultural work and the introduction of the threshing machine .... resulted in chronic winter unemployment and distress in southern England during the early nineteenth century." The situation may be summed up in the words of Professor N.Gash, "The significant change after Waterloo was the deliberate throwing of men on the parish for the four or five winter months, during which, because of the use of threshing machines, there was no work available. Before 1815 the parish rate supplemented wages ; after it supplanted them for over a third of the year."
On the other hand Dr. S.MacDonald argues in the Agricultural History Review (XXIII,I, 1975) that the threshing machine was not the major cause of the labourers' dissatisfaction but merely "a focal point" for it , because the "massive suspicion" with which the threshing machine was approached had led to its "virtual rejection ---- by most of England", except the far north. In support of this thesis he points out that "the Swing Rioters could find but 390 threshing machines in twenty-one counties upon which to vent their wrath.". Of course it would be a convincing demonstration of the correctness of Dr. MacDonald's opinion if it could be shown that less than twenty machines existed in each of these twenty-one Swing counties. However, this is one of those cases where an average figure is most mis-leading. What is much more important is the distribution of these nearly 400 machines. 56% of them were destroyed in only three counties (Berkshire, Hampshire and Wiltshire), and 97 (or one quarter) were destroyed in Wiltshire alone. Local research reveals that, in the 40 square miles south and west of a line Newbury/Shefford, the labourers and their allies destroyed about 40 machines, while those of the Thatcham district boasted that they had destroyed "33 machines in as many hours". These numbers are of such a magnitude as to refute Dr.MacDonald's view that the threshing machine had been rejected by the farmers of central southern England, however true it may be as far as other areas are concerned.
According to Hobsbawm and Rudé, in their classic study of the riots in "Captain Swing", there is insufficient evidence to prove one way or another whether there had been an abnormal increase in the number of machines in use in the period immediately preceding the riots. Yet it cannot be insignificant that the labourers of S.W. Berkshire and the adjacent county of Wilts were (unlike their fellow rioters in other counties whose activities were many and various) single-minded in their concentration upon the destruction of threshing machines. Of the nearly 400 machines which Hobsbawm and Rudé noted as having been destroyed over all the "Swing" counties, 135, or more than a third, were destroyed in Wiltshire and S.W. Berkshire alone. An important cause of this difference between central southern England and the rest of the "Swing" counties lies in the enterprise of a Wiltshire farmer-mechanic named Rider who, in the Spring of 1829, had invented a threshing machine the price of which was advertised in the Salisbury and Winchester Journal, 20 April, 1829, as "between £8 and £10". Such a low price must have made it possible for even the least well-off farmer to acquire one. Certainly the labourers of Wiltshire and adjacent counties were fully aware of its implications. "They regarded it as certain to produce starvation and want amongst them and their families". One contemporary, a Reading man, ascribed the disturbances in Berkshire almost exclusively to the wide-spread use of threshing machines. Thus the farm workers of central southern England had no illusions as to the role of the threshing machine ; it was a major cause of their distress rather than merely a focal point for it.
Two consecutive harsh winters - that of 1829 was stated by one contemporary to have been the worst for a hundred years - had strung up the hitherto docile and submissive labourers to a pitch of angry defiance. "We will do anything", said some of the first rioters, "rather than encounter such a winter as the last.". It needed only some local act of injustice to spark off the train of events which led its participants almost inevitably to the gallows or to Botany Bay.
Part 1 - Berkshire:
Part 2: To "Botany Bay"