You are in [Events] [1830 Agricultural "Swing" Riots] [Berkshire to Botany Bay - Chap 1]



According to Mr. William Mount of Wasing House, Aldermaston, the "ill-paid discontented peasantry --- were in the habit of spending their time in those rural pests, the beer shops", and the Overseer of the Poor and the Surveyor of the Roads of Thatcham were of the opinion that the labourers were excited "by reading violent publications in beer shops.".(1)

Private houses licensed to sell beer were, in 1830, a new phenomenon. They had come into existence on the passing of the Beer Act on 10th October, little more than a month before the commencement of the riots in Berkshire. There is no doubt that such houses provided meeting places for the farm workers at which they could openly discuss their problems and possible methods of solving them. They were probably more popular than inns or public houses in some areas, because they were less likely to be frequented by those in authority. "In the beer shops the constable was immediately a marked person.". (2) In the six weeks between the date on which the Beer Act came into force and November 24th, by which time the riots had reached as far west as Somerset, the latter county had been "covered in Beer Houses. The labourers now congregate in these receptacles of disorder.".(3)

An assembly of Berkshire magistrates in Quarter Sessions at Newbury, on April 6th, 1831, declared that they had "no hesitation in stating it to be their opinion ---- that the Beer Houses opened under the Act are ruinous to the labouring classes, and the resort of idle and vicious persons -- during the late riots in this county the parties engaged in them assembled and prepared their plans of outrage and plunder in various obscure Beer Houses.". (4) However - the opinion of the Berkshire magistrates notwithstanding - the appearance of Beer Houses,obscure or otherwise, was certainly not a factor contributing to the riots in south-west Berkshire.

The Kintbury rioters seem to have been well- provided for by mine host of the long-established Blue Ball Inn , in spite of the fact that it was also the resort of the local Churchwardens and the Overseers of the Poor. [See the following entries in the Kintbury Overseers Accounts Books - "expenses at the Blue Ball Inn - making a rate and other parish business", March,1827 ; and "Dinners at the Blue Ball, £5.0s.0d.", March 1828]. According to W. Money, "several of the more active politicians", who had, for some time prior to the riots, "openly expressed their determination of righting the poor man's wrongs", had been provided with a little parlour at the Blue Ball Inn, Kintbury. At this meeting place they "often remained in close and private conclave" until long after midnight. That the matters discussed were of grave importance could not be doubted inasmuch as they "deliberated over tankards rarely replenished" and "never once required to be supplied with pipes and tobacco.". (5) ( For confirmation see evidence of the Constable, William Annetts, in Chapter 2)

Mr. G.H.Cherry, J.P., of Denford House near Hungerford, considered one of "the proximate causes of the riots to have been the contagious example of neighbouring districts.", (1) and the Deputy Lieutenant of Berkshire, Frederick Page, held that "The success of the revolt in favour of wages in other counties" was "the exciting cause" of the riots in Berkshire.(6) The revolt seems at first to have been confined within the borders of Kent and Sussex, but, by the middle of October, Surrey had become infected, and the first signs of the revolt were noticed in Hampshire and the eastern half of Berkshire on November 10th. On the fifteenth "the labourers of Thatcham parish began to assemble at an early hour for the purpose of inducing their employers to raise their wages.". (7)

That the local farm workers were aware of the rioting taking place elsewhere is confirmed by the evidence given to the Special Commission by the grand-daughter of the Hungerford Workhouse Keeper. She stated that when Joseph Tuck (one of those later transported for his part in the rioting) was being given his weekly poor relief payment on November 20th (the day before the riots began at Kintbury and Hungerford) he said that there were a great many riots in several places, that there would be one there very shortly, and that a great many thought so. Eliza Gibbs said that she heard him say that he wished "the mob would come and set the bloody work-house on fire.". (8)

On the same day that Tuck gave vent to his anger, the contagion spread to Speen, where the unemployed demanded a rise in wages and went from farm to farm to organise support. (9) On the following day, the 21st., the rioting began at Kintbury, and, later on the same day, or very early on the Monday morning, at Hungerford. Concurrently the labourers of the area around Ashmansworth, on the border of Berkshire and Hampshire, rose and compelled the rector of East Woodhay, the Rev. Hodgson, to pay them two sovereigns. On Tuesday, November

23rd., there would appear to have occurred a degree of planned co-operation between the farm workers of the two counties.

According to Mr. Henry Hippesley of Lambourn Place, Lambourn, the rioters "were encouraged by many who were not in distress themselves.". [Mr. Hippesley's evidence may have referred to the high proportion of artisans who were involved in the local riots. One quarter of those from this area who were found guilty of offences arising out of the riots were artisans.] (1) Itinerant rabble rousers were reported as being seen in several counties. In Dorset it was strongly suspected that most of the fires were caused by two men. One, who was about forty years of age, rode a long-legged, light carcassed, sorrell-coloured horse (vulgarly called a blood horse) with a Switch Tail, and wore Knee-caps or overalls, or, alternatively a Drab Great Coat. The other rode a Black Horse, of the same long-legged description. They were dressed and looked like farmers.(10) This description was published in a public notice issued from Blandford.

FRANCIS NORRIS, the treasurer of the Kintbury congregation, was a master bricklayer; the only entries against his name in the accounts of the Kintbury Overseers of the Poor were for payments to "Mr. Norris". The Avington "Parish Book for the Poor" includes two payments of £7.5s.4¾. and £2.6s.0d. on 24th October,1818, to Francis Norris ; the first entry refers to the purchase of bricks, which suggests that Norris was paid for laying them. (11)

WILLIAM OAKLEY, the most outspoken member of the Kintbury deputation which confronted the local J.P.s at the Hungerford Town Hall meeting, was a "wheelwright or blacksmith"; his grandmother, for whom he worked, owned an iron foundry. DANIEL BATES, another member of the five-man deputation was a carpenter/ wheelwright. Another, EDMUND STEEL, was a "tradesman". WILLIAM SMITH (alias Winterbourn), the captain of the Kintbury company, was stated by some witnesses to be a blacksmith and by others to be a bricklayer, but most evidence suggests that he alone of the five leaders was a labourer, though one "of the better sort".

Where the rumours originated is unclear, but the story of well-dressed gentlemen either on horse-back or driving a gig was a widespread one. The Reading Mercury even reported the arrest, in Clare, Suffolk, of Captain Swing himself; he "was driving a gig". However, the arrested man proved to be "a man of considerable property" who was "distinguished as an itinerant preacher.". As no such reports emanated from south-west Berkshire we can conclude that the presence of itinerant rabble rousers was not one of the causes of the riots in this area.

Even if the artisan leaders had not yet experienced the depth of deprivation to which their labourer comrades had been depressed, there is no doubt that the reason they made common cause with them was that they too were finding it hard to make ends meet. As early as 1821 the distress owing to unemployment among the Berkshire agricultural population had developed to the point where tradesmen and artisans were also being affected. "Many of those at present (1821) receiving relief are tradesmen ---- (e.g.) two blacksmiths, two tailors, two shoe-makers (etc.)". (Mr. Job Lousley, farmer, of Blewbury, Berks. Rpt.of the S.C. on the State of Agriculture,1821.). The growth of iron foundries such as Gibbons of Hungerford, Austins of Wantage and Taskers of Andover led "Many blacksmiths (to view) with distrust the inroads (made) on their trade by the improvement in cast-iron mechanism.". (12) Hence it is not surprising that these establishments also came under attack when the farm workers took it into their heads to destroy every single threshing machine (or parts thereof) on which they could lay their hands.


Though , according to a Berkshire clergyman, there was "very little reading of tracts and newspapers among the poor" , who took "no concern in any politics beyond the village" (1) ,and Edwin Chadwick held that it was clearly proved that the sentiments circulating orally were much more dangerous than any circulated in print (13), there is considerable evidence which supports Mr. Henry Hippesley, of Lambourn Place, who blamed "violent tracts and seditious preachers" for the unrest among the labourers.(1)

In some places, public houses or inns were used as evening schools where those who were able read extracts from, for example, Cobbett's "Political Register", or, more likely, his "Twopenny Trash" (or"Politics for the Poor"). This certainly happened in central Hampshire. William Winkworth, a shoemaker and former constable, of Micheldever, was said to have read Cobbett's "Register" aloud to "a small party of Hampshire bumpkins" on Saturday nights. (9), while "Two brothers, Joseph and Robert Mason, who lived at Bullington, regularly took in the Register and read it aloud to twenty or thirty villagers." (14) That such sessions took place at the Blue Ball, Kintbury, is highly likely ; more than 50% of those from the area sentenced to transportation at the Special Assizes could read, and Cobbett was a "household word" in the area.

Given that this kind of political education did take place it is not surprising that the labourers' minds were excited or their emotions aroused, for (although Cobbett was acquitted of any responsibility for inciting the labourers to violent action) perusal of his writings provides many examples of rhetoric calculated to do exactly that.

Lord Carnarvon of Highclere, north Hampshire, wrote to the Home Secretary in February, 1831, stating that Cobbett's papers were distributed all over the neighbourhood and had undoubtedly caused the incendiary spirit. (15) According to another contemporary he (Cobbett) "was a household word " in the district around Newbury "which he often visited and where he addressed political meetings.". (16) One such meeting was held at the George and Pelican Inn at Speenhamland, on Thursday, October 17th, 1822, where Cobbett "addressed an audience of over 200 persons; the doors and windows were besieged by the admirers of a man, who, whatever his faults may have been, deserved to be ranked as one of the boldest and purest of English politicians.".(17) His speech included the following :-

"The labourer has the first claim to the crop which the land produces for it is he that makes the crop --- Crime does not apply itself to acts necessary to the preservation of life. God, nature, and the laws have said, that man shall not die of want in the midst of plenty.". (18)

No wonder the labourers of 1830 acted as if their actions were wholly moral and legal.

The "Political Register" for October 23rd, 1830, included a report of Cobbett's speech at Battle in which he refers to "the burning in the county of Kent --- which it would be folly to suppose will, unless a remedy be applied, either cease, or be confined, to that county. To expect it to be confined in the end to the county of Kent is nonsense. As winter approaches it will spread, and violence and terror will prevail throughout the greater part of England.". To Cobbett it was understandable if "honest and industrious labourers who were fed and clothed worse than the felons in the hulks" acted in the way they did when :

"This formerly happy England is now in much the state that France was before the
Revolution of 1789.".

He emphasised that the revolution had begun "not amongst the rabble (the working people of Paris) but amongst the quiet and dispersed labourers in the fields and vineyards" and that their motto or signal was :-

"War to the houses of the rich ; Peace to the cottage."

In the same issue of the "Register" Cobbett referred to what he had told the Duke of Wellington when he became Prime Minister in January, 1828. "The time is at hand when it will become a choice of labourers, certain death from starvation, or the chance of death by rope or gun, and, be assured, my Lord Duke, that Englishmen will prefer the latter. Think, then, betimes, of the consequence of parish after parish combined till there be half a county in commotion.". (Cobbett's emphases.)

Whatever contribution the "Political Register" may have made towards inciting revolt, its price, made artificially high by the Stamp Duty, must have restricted its effectiveness. In July, 1830, to avoid the duty, Cobbett decided to publish the "comment" section of the "Register" separately as "Twopenny Trash" (or "Politics for the Poor"). The fifth issue of the new tract, issued in November, 1830, includes a letter addressed to "The Working People in England". In this letter, although he refers to arson as an abominable crime rightly punishable by death, Cobbett writes that "The great and general cause (of these unnatural crimes) is the extreme poverty of the people; or in other words the starving state in which they are. The natural consequence is discontent; that leads to resentment. No man can suffer what he deems a wrong without feeling anger against somebody ..... that anger will vent itself in acts, whenever he finds himself able to act. Though he might not get redress by such action, he gets revenge.". In the same issue he refers to the drastic fall in the labourers' living standards, and compares the diet provided by the Berkshire Jail Regulations (which stated that "If the surgeon thinks it necessary the Working Prisoners may be allowed Meat and Broth on Week Days.") with the potato based diet of most labourers. He urged Sir Francis Burdett, "thou Berkshire magistrate", to take note of this comparison.

In the next (VIth) issue of "Twopenny Trash", dated 21st November, Cobbett, in addressing the Farmers of Kent, quoted from the speech he had made in Newbury in 1822 (see page 10 ). He concluded his remarks to the Kent farmers by exhorting them to make common cause with their labourers in obtaining the removal of the causes of the latter's sufferings. "Put not your trust in terror or in force ; to the Englishman who is reduced to potatoes to sustain life, there are no terrors even in the prospect of death. The only remedy is to give the labourer a sufficiency of good food and of good raiment ; there is no other.".

Cobbett was also responsible for helping to spread the news of the July Revolutions in France and Belgium. The "Register" contains much material referring to these events in admiring terms, and, in the third issue of "Twopenny Trash", published in September, 1830, he addressed "The Working People of England and Scotland" as follows :-

"My Friends, .... the condition of mankind depends wholly on their own conduct, and especially on that of the working people." He was determined that they should "be well-informed of the causes which have produced the recent glorious events at Paris. The great deed was there performed by the working people; and by the working people here, must finally be produced those salutary effects which every good man wishes to be produced.".

Other newspapers such as the "Dispatch", "which had a considerable circulation among the worst [sic] class of newspaper readers", and the "Sunday Times", which was responsible for "the politics which they (the farm workers) imbibed at beer houses.", (1) magnified the news from France and kept their readers fully informed of agitation elsewhere.

Although, in July, 1831, Cobbett was acquitted of the charge of inciting the labourers to riot, he later boasted (19) that it was his "History of the Protestant Reformation" and his "The Poor Man's Friend", which "made the Swing men, these thrashers, hedgers, ditchers, ploughmen, mowers and reapers understand" a great deal. The former, published in 1826, was Cobbett's "favourite" and "most learned" work, in which he contrasted the contemporary misery of the labourer with "the plenty in which the whole of the people lived" prior to the Reformation. His objective in publishing it was to show "how that event had impoverished and degraded the main body of the people" in England and Ireland.

A new edition of "The Poor Man's Friend", sub-titled "A Defence of the Rights of those who do the Work and Fight the Battles", was published only one month prior to the riots in Berkshire. Into this work, writes one of Cobbett's biographers, "he poured all his scorn for the Government and its measures, and all his enthusiasm for pre-Reformation England, which was the richest, most powerful, and most admired country in Europe,.... famed for many things, but especially for its good living." (20)

Although no documentary evidence exists to prove that Cobbett's publications were read by members of the Kintbury congregation the fact that more than 50% of those from this area who were transported could read, and that more than one third of them were artisans or labourers "of the better sort", suggests that it is highly likely that they were. If they were it is understandable if his readers were encouraged to take the law into their own hands ; that many of them, faced with the choice of "certain death from starvation or the chance of death by the rope", decided to risk the latter. The more politically conscious of them may well have seen the July Revolution in Paris as an example to follow. If they believed what Cobbett had written about it, that "the great deed was there performed by the working people", they may also have reached the conclusion that the right to work at a living wage could be achieved only by their own efforts.


The fact that "Kintbury and Hungerford (were) seated near great game reserves" resulted in "not a little indignation being expressed by the labourers there against the severity of the Game Laws and the frequent commitments to gaol.". (21) Cobbett campaigned vigorously against these laws which tended to make criminals of otherwise law-abiding labourers. They were designed to restrict the right to hunt or to kill game to the aristocracy, and were, according to one authority, the only oppressive part of the feudal system remaining on the statute book. (22) Whereas the penalties for most crimes had been modified in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, those for breach of the Game Laws had become even harsher.

In 1803 it was enacted that any person who threatened to use a gun or a knife "with intent to obstruct, resist or prevent the lawful arrest" of themselves or their accomplices should "suffer death as a felon".(14) It was not necessary to kill or even to wound a game-keeper in order to suffer the extreme penalty, the threat alone was sufficient. In 1816 any unarmed person discovered in any forest,chase or park with a net for poaching, could be transported for seven years. It was only by the efforts of the reformer Romilly that, in the following year, a clause was added making it necessary for the person so discovered to be armed with an offensive weapon (though this might have been merely a stout stick) before the sentence of transportation could be imposed.

As late as 1828 if three men were found in a wood, but only one carried a gun or bludgeon, all three were liable to be transported for 14 years. (14)

In the pre-enclosure era the local labourers had no doubt been accustomed to augment their meagre diet by the occasional rabbit, hare or even a game bird. With open fields and commons the law was difficult to enforce. The erection of hedges, fences or even walls after enclosure made it much easier to catch the poacher. The frequent commitments to gaol under these laws caused strong comment among the labourers of S.W. Berks. One of the Kintbury delegation at the Hungerford Town Hall meeting with the local magistrates, William Oakley, is reported to have referred in violent terms to "Old Fowle", the Vicar of Kintbury, who, he claimed, "kept Reading Gaol well supplied with prisoners" and had "£2 apiece for them.". (23) That the local labourers had good grounds for their dislike of the Rev. Fowle is indicated by the following selection of committals for breaches of the Game Laws against his name in the Berkshire Quarter Sessions Order Books. (3)

20th October,1818 - Thomas Buckeridge, labourer, of Hungerford and Thomas Aldridge, of Great Bedwyn.
20th April,1819 - John Hughes, labourer, of Hungerford.
11th January,1820 - Thomas Mason, labourer, of Kintbury
17th October,1820 - George Jessett, labourer, of Hungerford.

Between 1820 and 1826 in Berkshire alone 111 persons were convicted under the Game Laws. (13) On the 7th of

May, 1823, Henry Brougham, in presenting Cobbett's petition against the proposed Sale of Game Bill to the House

of Commons, said that the Calendar for the next Quarter Session in Berkshire contained the names of 77 persons then in the Bridewell of whom 22 [Twice the national average for 1827-30, during which 1/7th of criminal convictions were convictions under the Game Laws.] were charged with poaching; of these 22, 9 had been committed by clergymen J.P.s. (24) Cobbett himself observed that wherever he went he found the clergy "better known as J.P.s. than as clergymen.".(13)

As a form of protection against game-keepers and magistrates the poachers in many areas formed themselves into disciplined bands of the kind described by Harriet Martineau in one of her Poor Law tracts. (22) Where such existed they no doubt provided both the leadership and the hard core of the local "congregations". It is certainly due to such men that many of the forays against threshing machines etc. were executed with almost military precision. "The daylight marches on the high road were as regular and orderly as those of an army.".(5)

The rioters in many areas displayed such a strong sense of common purpose, and appeared to be so well organised, that there seemed grounds for suspecting, as some ministers including Sir Robert Peel suspected, that there was "some ulterior object in view beyond the redress of local grievances" (22), and that what was occurring throughout the whole of southern England was indeed a nationally directed movement with revolutionary objectives. In fact the military officers, sent by the new Whig government to pacify Berkshire and adjacent counties, reported that, as far as these counties were concerned, "the insurrectionary movement was directed by no plan or system, but merely actuated by the spontaneous feeling of the peasantry, and quite at random." (25)

["Economic distress is an embarrassment" -
Lord Castleragh to the Duke of Wellington, 31st March, 1817. ]

While the condition of agricultural workers in England prior to the Agricultural Revolution was not as idyllic as some romantic historians have suggested, there is no doubt that this condition radically worsened during the hundred years between 1750 and 1850. It was during this period that much of the commons and waste which had escaped earlier enclosure, together with many of the still open-fields, were enclosed. [Kintbury, Inkpen, Hampstead Marshall and Enborne Enclosure Acts,1809-10. Hungerford Enclosure Act, 1810-11]. The effect which these enclosures had on local farm workers was, according to W.Money, "real, substantial and durable - they tended to depress the poor, and by depriving them of the right of commonage threw them on the parish.". (5) The cottage industry, which had hitherto supplemented a farm worker's wages or provided alternate employment, was dying if it was not dead. By 1815 the famous woollen industry at Newbury was virtually extinct, and the manufacture of serge at Hungerford and of silk at Kintbury was steadily declining. (26)

As Professor Gash put it, "With the passing of the commons, small holdings and cottage industries the peasant became a labourer, a worker on a farm. The old complex peasant society was broken down to a common level, that of landless labourers having but one form of employment and dependent for that on one class.". (13) "The greatest misfortune of our labourers", wrote a Froxfield farmer only a few days prior to the outbreak of the riots in south-west Berkshire, "is the loss of the small portions of land their fathers once held - their chief stay in the worst of times.". (7)

Though some yearly hiring continued well into the 19th century - e.g. the Labour Book of Gooseacre Farm, Radley, includes the following entry for 10th October,1825 : "J.Grimes. Hired at Abingdon Fair for 51 weeks at 7s.0d. per week and £3.10s.0d. over.". (27) - the agricultural labourer of the south of England was rapidly becoming, like the factory worker of the north, a day or weekly worker. "His tenure was the cash nexus which could be broken at any time by a few hours notice." Any security he might have depended solely on the needs or the humanity of his master. (13)

The prosperity which many farmers had come to enjoy during the period of the Napoleonic wars had deepened the gulf between them and their employees. They had become used to a much higher, middle class, standard of living which had shattered the harmony of mutual interests.

One symptom of this class division was the decease of the practice whereby single labourers "lived in". The previously mentioned Froxfield farmer, a Mr. John Brown, argued that one of the important factors which contributed to the farm worker's depressed state was "the dismissal from the farmer's house and table of the usual number of farm labourers, who were then in the enjoyment of good, plain, wholesome food, with a good bed to refresh their weary limbs." Augustus Hare, includes in his "Memorials of a Quiet Life", a letter by his mother, dated

17th December, 1830, quoting a Wiltshire neighbour as saying, "that in his father's time the single labourers all lived in the house (and) took their meals with the family". "Why", asked Cobbett in 1825, "do not farmers now feed and lodge their work people as they did formerly ? Because they cannot keep them upon so little as they give them in wages." (28)

Two farmers giving evidence before the Select Committee on Agriculture in 1823 stated that the system of farmers "having labourers living in their houses ... has gone very much out of practice".(Mr. R.Hughes of Woodford, near Salisbury.) "The custom of having labourers live in has become disused as there are very few such labourers". (J.Comely, Compton, near Winchester.)

It was the enclosures, the decease of "living in" and "other combined circumstances" which, wrote Mr. Brown of Froxfield, had "severed the bond of union between the farmer and his servant, and the tie which ought to exist between them is totally destroyed.". (7)

The introduction of the Speenhamland "System" further depressed the already low standard of life of the average farm worker. The winter of 1794/5 was a period of "great distress among the poor of Speen" (29) and the latter year was one of acute distress over the whole country; according to Sir. F.Eden there was hardly a county in which riots did not break out. (30) In July a market day at Newbury was interrupted by the news that a mob of poor persons was gathering "to obtain by force some relief respecting the present high price of provisions." (31)

The miserable state of the Berkshire labourers was discussed at the Quarter Sessions held at Newbury on 14th April. 1795. Charles Dundas, M.P., of Barton Court, Kintbury, argued the necessity of increasing their wages at least to subsistence level instead of leaving them to resort to the parish officers for the support of their families, as was the case when they worked for a shilling a day. He quoted the relevant Acts of Elizabeth and James I. which empowered magistrates to fix wages. Impressed by his arguments the court decided to convene a special meeting solely to consider action under these Acts.

The advertisement for this meeting stated -

At the General Quarter Sessions of the Peace for this County held at Newbury on Tuesday, the 14th inst., the Court, having taken into consideration the great Inequality of Labourers' Wages, and the insufficiency of the same for the necessary support of an industrious man and his family ; ... do (in pursuance of the Acts of Parliament, enabling them and requiring them to do so ...) earnestly request the attendance of ... all the magistrates of this County, at a meeting to be held at the Pelican Inn, in Speenhamland, on Wednesday the sixth day of May next, ... for the purpose of consulting together with such discreet persons as they shall think meet, and they will then ... proceed to limit, direct, and appoint the wages of day labourers.". (32)

The magistrates and other "discreet persons" to the number of eighteen, seven of whom were clergymen, having duly assembled, rapidly and unanimously resolved "that the present state of the poor does require further assistance than has generally been given them.". The method by which this assistance was to be given was neither so rapidly nor so unanimously resolved. Details of the discussion have not, unfortunately, survived, but, whatever the arguments, the meeting, instead of regulating wages, passed the following fateful resolution:-

"That it is not expedient for the Magistrates to grant assistance by regulating the wages of Day Labourers" but "That they will in their several divisions make the following calculations for the relief of all poor and industrious men and their families, who, to the satisfaction of the Justices of their parish, shall endeavour (as far as they can) for their own support and maintenance." (33)

Then followed details of what became known as the "Speenhamland Allowances" or the "Speenhamland System":

"When the gallon loaf of Second Flour, weighing 8lb.11ozs, shall cost 1s. then every poor and industrious man shall have for his own support 3s. weekly either produced by his own or his family's labour, OR AN ALLOWANCE FROM THE POOR RATE, and for the support of his wife or every other of his family, 1s.6d. .... and so in proportion, as the price of bread rise or falls (that is to say) 3d. to the man, and 1d. to every other of the family, on every 1d.which the loaf rise is above 1s."

By Order of the Meeting
W.Budd, Deputy Clerk of the Peace.

This meant that, where the wages of a man and his family were below the above scale, his wages would be subsidised by "an allowance from the poor rate".

On the very same day as the Speenhamland meeting the Mayor of Basingstoke chaired a "respectable meeting" which recommended what Charles Dundas had hoped that the Berkshire magistrates would recommend namely, that a labourer's wages should be regulated on a sliding scale in accordance with the price of wheat, without any reference to subsidies from parish relief. (34)

Had Dundas's views prevailed at Speenhamland it is certain that much of the hardship, heartbreak and tragedy of the decades which followed would have been avoided. As it turned out, however, the decision of the Berkshire magistrates was to be a tragic one for, by agreeing to subsidise wages out of the Poor Rate on a clearly defined scale, they were to be responsible for the pauperisation of agricultural workers not only in Berkshire but throughout almost the whole of England. The method of relief recommended at Speenhamland was one which magistrates elsewhere found it convenient to adopt. The allowance system spread like a fever, especially in the South and Midlands. Though it was resisted in the northern counties , by the 1830s most of these had succumbed; the only counties to stand out were Northumberland and Durham. (14)

The Napoleonic Wars, by creating a labour shortage and an increase in the demand for home-produced corn (with the consequent rise in price), led to pressures for mechanisation and higher wages. "During the times of war, when the demand for labour was great, working men received as wages in this neighbourhood (around Newbury) about two shillings a day. At seasons of extraordinary pressure (e.g. harvest time) they might earn three and sometimes even four shillings, in addition to many advantages (e.g. flour, milk and fuel) either as gifts or at a greatly reduced cost." (5) Walter Money, understandably, does not give his source. Even if this were true such earnings would have been the exception rather than the rule. Generally wages did not keep pace with the much greater increase in prices of essentials such as bread.

An entry in a contemporary diary for 5th June, 1800, records that the price of bread "rose 2d. on the gallon, making the gallon loaf 2s.7½d." (35) If we accept the Speenhamland allowances as a subsistence standard then a married man with two young children should have received 17s.3d. in wages or in assistance from the Poor Rate. Another entry in the diary for the same day suggests that the local labourers' wages were so much below this level as to require drastic action. "Several working men of Woodhay, Thatcham and adjoining parishes assembled themselves together to raise their wages. The sociations (sic) of Newbury and Thatcham went and dispersed them at Thatcham and at Husbon (Hurstbourne Tarrant) in Hampshire." The Reading Mercury of 16th June reported that the "several" amounted to three or four hundred, and that the Hampshire men "declared their resolution to continue in a body till assurances were given of their demands being complied with."

The tendency for the pauperisation of the agricultural labourers, which had been given such a great impetus by the wide-spread application of the Speenhamland System, was further increased by mechanisation and by the slump which came with the end of the war in 1815. 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 increasing 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." (13) The Kintbury Overseers Accounts Books record only 78 paupers in 1795; in 1817 it was 255.

According to Lord Ernle the period 1814-1816 saw the farming industry pass from prosperity to extreme depression. (36) The economic blizzard which was to come was preceded by a very harsh winter. On 21st January, 1814, "people walked from one side of the Thames to the other below Caversham Bridge", Reading. The deep frost lasted with very little intermission for three whole months. One contemporary, who could not have foreseen how much worse the economic situation was to become, wrote, "This will be a winter to be remembered by many people for years to come from the excessive price of almost every article in life." The first six weeks of the frost saw an almost complete stagnation of trade - "Bricklayers, shoemakers, weavers and almost all trades stopt. It was not until the 17th March that the labourer in husbandry could again resume his daily task." (37)

In the year of Waterloo. 1815, a new Corn Law prohibited the entry of foreign corn duty free except when the price was more than 80s. per quarter. There were riots in many parts of the country. On 15th March, 1815, "The 12th Light Dragoons arrived (in Reading) by forced marches from Dorsetshire bringing with them a report from Basingstoke that this town was half destroyed by the (anti-Corn Law) mob." At the Autumn Hiring Fair in Reading "nearly 500 agricultural servants ... came to be hired, but not many of them were hired. The situation of the farmer now is but little better than that of his servant. All classes of the community are in a miserable state; all complain; almost all have occasion for complaint. The land-holder cannot get his rents; the farmer cannot support his family; the tradesman cannot sell his goods; the workman is thrown out of work." (37) The already very bad situation was worsened by the demobilisation of large numbers of soldiers and sailors, e.g. the Berks Militia.(38)

It is from the winter of 1815-1816 onwards that the Kintbury Overseers were expending large sums on "wages" for "Grubbing" [Cutting down trees etc., and digging out the roots for ploughing and sowing] at Winding Wood or Orpenham Copse, or for work "on the roads". In 1815-16, 19 men and boys were employed on "grubbing", and 14 were working on "gravel" or "on the roads". In 1816-17, £125.7s.6d. was paid for "Grubbing at Orpenham", and £101.17s.2d. for "Planting Potatoes at Orpenham Copse." In 1818-19, 58 men were either "Grubbing at Winding Wood" at a cost to the rate-payers of £130.12s.6½d., or "Planting Potatoes at Winding Wood" at a cost of £161.16s.3½d. Some men were also employed in 1818 on constructing new buildings at the Workhouse; the labour cost of this project amounted to £77.1s.10d.

From 1818 it was the continuous policy of farmers to cut down expenses as much as possible. "The most rigid and most vicious economy of all" was "in the employment of labour". Though they might complain of the crushing burden of tithes and high rents, and grumble against parson and landlord, "they found it more practical and convenient to economise on their men's wages." (13)

Even low wages and regular periods of unemployment might have been bearable given a liberal interpretation of the Poor Law and the application of the full Speenhamland rate of relief. There exists plenty of evidence that the latter was not adhered to, and, from 1819 onwards, the operation of Sturgess Bourne's Select Vestry Act, led, in many parishes, to a more stringent application of the long-established distinction between the "deserving" and the "undeserving" poor. The first two clauses of this Act state, inter alia, that the Overseers "shall take into consideration the character and the conduct of the poor person to be relieved, and shall be at liberty to distinguish between the deserving, and the idle, extravagant and profligate poor", and they were "required to conform to the directions of the select vestry, and shall not give any further or other relief or allowance to the poor than such as shall be ordered by the select vestry". (29)

According to Mr. Frederick Page, of Goldwell Park, Speen, the concerns of that parish were conducted in accordance with the principles of the above- mentioned Act from the Easter of 1819 (i.e. as soon as possible after that act had become law) with the following results. "The individual character of each poor person" was "discovered and registered for the information of future vestries and parish officers.". While "the inclemency of the winter of 1819-20 and the want of labour (i.e. unemployment) in the last two winters (1820-21 and 1821-22) ... appealed to the private charity and exertion of opulent individuals residing in the parish beyond the legal claim under the poor-rates, the information constantly registered in the books of the Select Vestry" made it possible to discriminate "in such distribution of the necessities of life, or provisions of labour (work) as the several circumstances rendered necessary." (29) In other words, the dossiers compiled by the Select Vestry made it much easier to discriminate between the forelock touching labourer, and the bad bolshevik.

The result listed last by Mr. Page was certainly not considered by him, and "by many other persons", to be the least important benefit of the new "mode of administration - the sums expended on the poor have been materially reduced. The average expenditure of the last three years (1819-1822) was one fourth less than the average of the four years preceding" although there was, over the same period, a "one third increase in population.". (29)

In October, 1826, the Deputy Clerk of the Peace for Newbury, Mr. W.Budd, wrote to William Cobbett's son ,James, as follows : "Arthur Young, in 1771, allowed for a man. his wife and three children 13s.1d. a week. By the Berkshire Magistrate's table, made in 1795, the allowance was, for such a family, 11s. Now it is 8s." (All figures according to 1826 prices.) (39)

The accounts of the Kintbury Overseers for the period 1820-1824 are incomplete so it is not possible to compare the fate of the Kintbury paupers with those of Speen or Newbury. "Grubbing" continued throughout the winter of 1826-27, and that of 1827-28 caused the Overseers to purchase and distribute over 450 gallons of bread to "the Roadmen".

The Sunday Times, 17th August, 1828, reported that "The farmers, generally, throughout the Southern and Western districts of the kingdom, predict great scarcity, in consequence of the late incessant heavy rains, and consequently a great increase in the price of bread .... . The general persuasion is that the present will turn out to be just such a year as 1816." It did; by the Spring of 1829 the distress in the country was frightful ; millions were starving. (40) On 24th January there were 40 able-bodied Kintbury men "Out of Work". By the 26th of May the number of unemployed had risen to 49 (Out of 185 families chiefly employed in agriculture), and it was not until late June that the number fell below 25.

In its issue of 7th November, 1829, the Berkshire Chronicle commented: "We regret exceedingly to state that the most lamentable accounts continue to be received by us from all parts of this once happy and flourishing agricultural district. If the present state of most alarming depression continues - and at present we see no likelihood of the slightest amelioration - the results before Christmas will be inevitably dreadful. Stock of every description is worse than a drug on the market ; the latter may be sold but for the former there are absolutely no purchasers, even at a declension from last year's prices of from 30 to 50 %." The Salisbury and Winchester Journal" of 16th November, stated : "The fact is that two thirds of the landholders in this part of the country (the Vale of Berks), as well as in the adjacent divisions of Hants, Wilts and Oxford, are insolvent.".

In a subsequent issue (21st November) the Berkshire Chronicle reported that "Fifteen farmers of Berkshire who held farms in the most fertile parts of the county, have lately relinquished them for the purpose of emigrating with their families to Van Diemen's Land, because, after paying their rent, they found it difficult to exist on what remains from their industry and labour." If farmers found it difficult what of their workers ? It is one of the ironies of history that, just one year before more than forty Berkshire farm workers were to be forcibly transported to the other side of the world because of their clumsy attempts to improve their economic condition, fifteen Berkshire farmers should voluntarily emigrate to the same part of the world in the hope of improving theirs.

On the 18th January, 1830, Thomas Goodlake, with thirty years experience as a Berkshire magistrate behind him, wrote to the Home Secretary as follows : "I am sorry to say that they (the unemployed labourers during the winter season) are now becoming 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 crimes in others." (13) On the same date the Reading Mercury published a report of his speech before the Epiphany Quarter Sessions. "It was unquestionable", he said, "that the poor were in a miserable state and he feared that it was too generally the practice to beat them down so low, as well in wages as in parochial assistance, as to leave them scarcely sufficient to maintain even their existence. In some places he grieved to hear that the weekly payment to single men had been as low as 2s.8d., a sum totally inadequate for their support.". The chairman, Charles Dundas, in his address to the Grand Jury, "expressed the belief that the alarming increase in crime throughout the county was largely due to the cruel pressure on the poor by the illiberality of masters and parishes.".

What the winter of 1829-30 meant for the farm workers of Kintbury is indicated by the expenditure of the Overseers of the Poor, between the 12th December and 20th March, of £216.14s.8d., on "Labour at the Cops (sic) and at the Wood.". For the very first time the Overseers Accounts Books included an entry against the name of William Smith (alias Winterbourn) - the date, 21st November, 1829, exactly one year prior to the outbreak of the riots in Kintbury. On 19th January Smith was again constrained to apply to the Overseers for relief. When a man of his spirit and independence was forced to seek parish relief we may be reasonably certain that he and his family were, literally, starving.

The third poor summer in a row produced a "very considerable deficiency in the crops," (41) which must have put many a labourer on the parish very early in the Autumn of 1830, with an even smaller hoard of harvest money than usual to eke out the winter dole. In September, 1830, according to the Reading Mercury, a gallon loaf cost 1s.7d at Newbury and 1s.6d. at Hungerford. If the Speenhamland Scale is considered to be an acceptable minimum, a married Hungerford labourer with two young children should have received the equivalent of 10s.6d. per week. With current wages of 7s.0d. per week it will readily be seen that, even when working, he would need to resort to the Overseers of the Poor if he and his family were not to starve. In fact the Speenhamland Scale was not applied ; the average amount of relief granted in Berkshire in 1830 to an unemployed labourer in the circumstances described was 5s.3d., (13) just a half of what the Scale stated to be the absolute minimum to maintain existence.

That the unemployment position was even worse than usual at this time is indicated by the calling of a Special Meeting of the Hungerford Standing Committee for Poor Law Matters on 20th October, 1830, "to consult on the best plan to employ the poor out of work.". The consultations did not produce any radical plan for the solution of this problem. All that came out of the meeting was an offer from Mr.Willes, of Hungerford Park, "to employ 10 men for a month and give employment to others to grub hedgerows.". (8)

As far as food was concerned the farm workers would have been better off in Reading Gaol. In the fifth issue of his Politics for the Poor, published in the same month as the riots began in Berkshire, Cobbett unfavourably compared the potato based diet of most farm workers with that provided under the Berkshire Jail Regulations. (see Page 12) That Cobbett was not distorting the facts is confirmed by the following entry in the Berkshire Quarter Sessions Order Book for 25th October, 1825 :

"The Gaol Diet is much better than that which the Farming Labourer is accustomed to at Home." In spite of the authorities efforts to "render the Gaol a place of punishment rather than a desirable residence" the Gaol Regulations provided "comfort and convenience" superior to "the Want and Privation of a Labourer's Life in the County." So superior was it "that many prisoners still regarded the Gaol without repugnance, especially during the Winter season.". (42)

According to calculations made by Edwin Chadwick, in a Report to the Poor Law Commissioners (1834) the official food scale for a convict was such that he would consume nearly three times as many ounces of solid food per week as would a free employed agricultural labourer. (13). Joseph Carter, a Hampshire rioter, who, though sentenced to transportation, actually served only two years and one day in the Portsmouth hulks, wished "every poor, hard-working man in this parish were as well fed with meat, and myself with them, as I wor in the hulk. The worst of the food was better than I can get in Sutton Scotney.". (43)


For the agricultural labourers the introduction of the threshing machine was an unqualified tragedy for it left them, or threatened to leave them, totally dependent on parish relief for the hardest part of the year ; it is not, therefore, surprising that the threshing machine became the symbol of their misery. The reason why the threatening letters were signed "Swing" was, according to Halevy, that this word was used to denote the swinging stick of the flail used in hand threshing. (The flail was, basically, two sticks joined by a flexible knot, the part which was used to strike the straw to shake out the grain being known as the SWINGEL.) (44)

It was about 100 years before the events with which this book is concerned that the celebrated Jethro Tull endeavoured to banish the flail from the barn. Like many pioneers his neighbours loaded him with execration. The tradition of the district around Tull's Prosperous Farm near Hungerford was still (in 1830) that he was "wicked enough to construct a machine which, by working a set of sticks, beat out the corn without manual labour.". In 1732 Michael Menzies patented a machine for thrashing grain, but, though a committee appointed by the Society of Improvers in Scotland reported that "in their opinion it would be of great use to farmers", "the honour of having perfected the threshing machine beyond question belongs" to Andrew Meikle (1785). (45)

Yet, until the Napoleonic wars , the use of such machines spread very slowly. In 1794, W.Pearce, in his review of agriculture in Berkshire, made no reference to threshing machines. (46) The spread of the machinery which the labourers of 1830 regarded as the most important cause of their distress was largely a development of the abnormal situation existing between 1800 and 1813. (13) The purpose of the mechanisation undertaken during the war years ( a period of labour shortage) was probably not so much to reduce the cost of labour, nor to supplant the human factor in the farm economy but to supplement it. Threshing was undoubtedly one of the heaviest items in the farmer's wages book, but more important, when labour was scarce and prices high, was the proportion of labour it required. On an arable farm employing ten labourers it was estimated that three would be engaged in threshing for at least ten months of the year. (13)

The following examples indicate how important a part threshing played in the farm economy, and in the lives (and wages) of farm labourers. A Labour Book of Gooseacre Farm, Radley, near Abingdon,shows entries for threshing from 20th October (1821) through to 20th July (1821) when the entries against the same labourers' names began to refer to reaping and mowing ; entries for threshing recommence on 12th October,1822. (27) An Accounts Book for a farm at Sibford Ferris includes entries for wages paid for threshing throughout the year, from 11th February,1810 to 13th January,1811. (47)

From the beginning of the 19th century the use of threshing machines became much more common, so that, by 1809, it could be said by Pearce's successor that "within the last two or three years a considerable number of threshing machines on different principles, and of different powers, have been erected in Berkshire".(26) Mavor noted the existence of such machines at farms in East and West Ilsley, East Garston, Chievely and Thatcham, but an advertisement in the Reading Mercury for 30th May, 1808 -

Threshing and Winnowing machines by William Baker, near the Corn Market, Newbury -

suggests the possibility that these machines may have been more wide-spread in West Berkshire than he believed. A Topographical and Statistical Description of the County of Berks (first published in 1802) states that "The old winnowing machine is now nearly discarded having been replaced principally by those of Mr. Baker.", while an entry in Reading Seventy Years Ago for 22nd November, 1814, states that "the threshing machine has now almost superseded the use of the flail.". (37) However, the cost of these machines (between £250 and £3,000) must have limited the rate at which the flail was being superseded.

In 1813 Vancouver noted that some machines had been erected on the Isle of Wight at a cost of less than £80, and that 2-3 h.p. machines costing between £80 and £120 were "getting into much use in the valley of the Avon.". (48) Even at these prices such machines were beyond the reach of the average farmer. The invention of a portable threshing machine by Robert Ransome around 1800 made the more general use of machines a possibility, but for some considerable time it remained just that. It was not until the late 1820's that they became common even in Ransome's own county of Suffolk. In that county it was not unusual "for an industrious labourer who may have saved £30 or £40 to own one, which is moved from place to place on two wheels, and worked, when fixed, by three or four horses.". (49) Evidence for the existence of such entrepreneurial activity in Berkshire can be found in the reports of the trials which took place following the 1830 riots. A certain Gabriel Lamb of the Aldermaston area "obtained a livelihood by working" a portable threshing machine. (50) According to J.A.Ransome many of these portable machines were made "by persons who possess little claim to any mechanical knowledge, and who, purchasing the unfitted castings, by the help of village artisans, produce an imitation of those which are considered good.". (45)

At first sight it may seem surprising that, during the 1830 riots, such artisans (blacksmiths, wheelwrights and carpenters) made common cause with the labourers to whose distress their own technical skill had contributed. A partial explanation may be found in the fact that, as early as 1821, tradesmen and artisans in the agricultural districts were being adversely affected by the prevailing economic depression, (51) but the most important reason was the growth of relatively large-scale iron-works such as Taskers of Andover, Austins of Wantage and Gibbons of Hungerford, in the period immediately preceding the riots. The distrust with which the local blacksmiths viewed the inroads that the production of cast-iron mechanisms was making in their trade has been noted earlier. The competition of these "factories" caused a fall in the demand for local labour and forced down the wages of these skilled and semi-skilled workmen so that they found themselves "enjoying" a standard of living not much, if anything, better than their labourer comrades. It was this which explains their enthusiastic participation in the destruction of iron goods made and stored at such works. E.g. Thomas Goodlake, J.P., in a letter to the Home

Secretary, refers to the breaking of "some Thrashing and Haymaking machines" at "an Iron Founders in the town of Wantage." (52) Another letter in the Home Office records, dated 20th November, 1830, states that the pretext for the attack on Tasker's Iron Foundry, near Andover, was that the proprietor had been in the habit of manufacturing iron work for threshing machines. (53) That Richard Gibbons of Bridge Street, Hungerford, had been doing likewise is confirmed by the list of broken goods which includes "threshing machine wheels". At one stage in the riots the Kintbury "congregation", having been informed "that there were threshing machines at two different engine makers in Newbury", made their way towards Newbury with the intention of destroying them also.

That some of the threshing machines in the Kintbury area were of the cheaper, portable, kind is confirmed in a letter written by the vicar of the parish, the Rev.Fowle, to the chief magistrate and M.P. for the district, Mr. Charles Dundas, informing him of what had happened at Kintbury early on Monday, 22nd of November. (see Chapter 2.)

It has been argued earlier in this chapter that the mechanisation which took place during the boom years was intended to supplement rather than to supplant human labour. However, in the slump after 1815 there was a strong incentive to introduce machinery to speed up the process of getting the wheat to market. The higher prices which usually prevailed immediately following the harvest may well have produced sufficient profit in periods of general economic depression to have made the difference between solvency and bankruptcy. In addition some farmers believed that they could more than recoup the cost of the machinery from the reduction in the labour costs which such machines made possible. Thus, by 1817, the Lords Committee on the Poor Laws was being told that "many labourers are thrown out of employment in consequence of threshing machines." In some areas "rather than have a number of men in the parish existing entirely on parish relief, the parish authorities arranged with the farmers to pay part of the wages of the men who were given work threshing in the barn with a flail, and it was for this reason that the flail became known as the poverty stick ". (44)

Though hand threshing was not a task which the labourers found either easy or satisfying - All those who had experience of threshing with the flail agree that it was monotonous and gruelling work." (44) An old Suffolk farm worker (still alive in 1956) had no two thoughts about it : "Threshing was real, down-right slavery." (54) - it was certainly remunerative. In fact, compared with the normal rate of pay, it was princely. The labourers of Gooseacre Farm, Radley, for example, were paid, in 1821, at the rate of 3s.6d. per quarter of wheat. (27) If we assume, following Mavor, that one labourer could thresh one quarter of wheat in one day [G.E.Evans records the claim of one man to have "knocked out something like three and a half coombs (i.e.1¾ quarters) a day." (54)], then a hard working man could have earnt a guinea in a working week of 72 hours, which was treble the general labouring rate of 7s.0d. per week. Thus the increasing use of machinery not only put the farm workers "on the parish" during the worst part of the year, it also deprived them of the traditional means of supplementing their meagre incomes.

It is, therefore, understandable that the labourers regarded these "infernal" machines as the symbol of their misery. What is more difficult to understand is why they rose in 1830 rather than in any other year of economic distress, especially if, as has been suggested earlier, the use of threshing machines had become fairly wide-spread in this area very soon after the end of the Napoleonic wars. This may be partially explained by factors other than machines (e.g. the example of labourers elsewhere and of the French workers in Paris ; the political excitement aroused by the death of George IV and the consequent election ; even the weather), but the ferocious determination of local labourers to destroy all those on which they could lay their hands requires some other explanation.

This may be found in the fact that, early in 1829, a Mr. Rider "residing at the Wallop Estates, Westbury (Wilts)" had invented a portable threshing machine the cost of which was advertised as "between £8 and £10". (55) This announcement was said to have caused a great deal of comment among the labourers of Wiltshire and adjacent counties. They regarded the machine as certain to produce want and starvation amongst them and their families. It was in their opinion "an infernal machine". The man who invented it, the farmer who purchased or used one, and the man who took charge of it were a trio of "rascals" who deserved no consideration at the hands of "honest men". (56)

At this price the use of such machines would have spread more rapidly and more widely than at any other time. While we cannot be absolutely certain that this had occurred we can say with certainty that the number of machines recorded as destroyed in the rioting in Wiltshire and adjacent areas is such, when compared with the rest of the "Swing" counties, as to suggest that this was highly probable. Of the nearly 400 machines recorded as destroyed in the twenty- one counties involved in the revolt, 217 (or 56%) were destroyed in only three counties (i.e. Hampshire, Berkshire and Wiltshire), while 36% were destroyed in Wiltshire and West Berkshire alone. (9) At least 37 (and possibly as many as 45) were destroyed in the very small area with which this study is mainly concerned (i.e. an area roughly demarcated by a triangle with its vertices at Newbury, Great Shefford and Shalbourne -at this time part of Berkshire - but excluding the villages of the Lambourn valley.). If we assume that, however vigorously and persistently the local labourers set about their self-imposed task of destroying every single one of the hated machines, they nonetheless failed to achieve their objective completely, then the density of machines in existence in this area immediately prior to the rioting must have been in excess of 1 per square mile.


The summer of 1828 was only the first of three consecutive cold, wet summers. Mr. R. Hughes, of Woodford, near Salisbury, giving evidence to the Select Committee on Agriculture in 1833 stated, "We had three wet seasons in succession, in 1828, 1829 and 1830.". J.M.Stratton commented that in 1828 there was "a wet summer with a disappointing harvest.... The rains of early July were exceptionally violent, causing considerable flooding. Hay was washed away and cornfields laid flat.". (57) In a farm diary of Sulham Estate, near Pangbourne, an entry for 2nd October, 1829, states - "Frequent and almost incessant rains- scarcely two days together without them. The harvest has lasted the unusual time of upwards of eight weeks. Very little of the corn got in in good order.". (58) J.M. Stratton commented that 1829 was "Another very wet summer with a poor harvest. Only four fine days between June 16th and September 20th. Considerable snowfall on October 6th and 7th.". (57) A farmer of Nether Wallop wrote in his diary for 1830, "The summer this year also very wet, being the third cold, wet summer in succession." He also recorded that the winter of 1829-30 was the severest that he could remember. There was "hard frost with a great quantity of snow on the ground from the middle of December to the middle of February, large flocks of wild geese being seen daily.". (59) J.M. Stratton confirms this ; "There were blizzards in mid-January and severe frosts in February.". (57) "There were frequent displays of the Northern Lights which alarmed the country people who believed them to be a warning of some awful calamity.". (60)

Three poor harvests in a row (with the consequent loss of the traditional extra wages), and two harsh winters in between (that of 1829/30 was said to be the worst for nearly a hundred years (61) ) had strung up many farm workers to a pitch of angry defiance. The prospect of a third bad winter was too much - "They would do anything," said some of the earliest of the 1830 rioters in the Dover district, "rather than encounter such a winter as the last.". (14)


There is no evidence that the local labourers were aroused by itinerant rabble rousers or that they took advantage of the new Beer Houses in which to plot unheard and unobserved. They were certainly aware of what was going on elsewhere, and the gradual spread of the rioting from Kent westwards supports the view that the rioting was contagious. The fact that Cobbett was a "household word" in the neighbourhood of Newbury and that many of the local leaders were literate suggests that it is highly likely that the inflammatory nature of much of his writing played no unimportant part in arousing the hitherto quiescent workers of the district to action. The timing of the revolt in central southern England cannot be unconnected with the Duke of Wellington's reactionary speech of 2nd November. This had undoubtedly persuaded many farm workers to ditch those moderate leaders who argued that Parliamentary Reform was the panacea for all ills, in favour of those who believed in more direct measures.

The two most important causes of the riots were, however, the distress caused by totally inadequate wages or parish relief, and the unemployment caused in large measure by the use of threshing machines. It is true that the former had become a permanent part of the farm worker's existence, but three wet summers interspersed by two harsh winters (the last one the worst for nearly a hundred years) had stretched the hitherto docile labourers to breaking point. The last straw was the invention of an extremely cheap threshing machine.

One contemporary ascribed the disturbances in Berkshire almost solely to the increasing use of such machines. "The agricultural labourers took it into their heads that the introduction of machinery for threshing etc., was the cause of keeping down their wages and of lessening the amount of labour.".(62)

When all these explosive elements - starvation wages, regular periods of unemployment made worse by the spread of cheap threshing machines, abnormally harsh weather conditions, the loss of hope in democratic measures, and the example of successful risings elsewhere - were brought together, it needed only some small local injustice to set off the chain of events which led its participants, almost inevitably, to the gallows or to Botany Bay.

(1) Appendix to the Report of the Poor Law Commissioners (1834)
(2) Quoted by E.J.Hobsbawm and George Rudé, in "Captain Swing", (hereafter referred to as H & R.)
(3) P.R.O. H.O. 40/25 - 2. Wm. Clark,J.P. to Home Secretary,24/11/1830.
(4) Berks R.O. Sessions Order Books.
(5) W.H. Money. Article in Newbury Weekly News, January, 1898.
(6) P.R.O. H.O. 52/6. Letter to Home Secretary, 22nd November, 1830.
(7) Reading Mercury, November 22nd, 1830.
(8) Berks. R.O. D/EPg 01/4 and D/P 71/8 -5.
(9) H & R.
(10) Mr. W.H.P. Okeden. Proc. Dorset Nat. Hist. & Arch. Soc. Vol. LII.
(11) Berks R.O. D/P.11.5/1.
(12) Salisbury & Winchester Journal, 29th November, 1830.
(13) N.Gash. Unpublished M.A. Thesis.
(14) J.L. & B. Hammond, "The Village Labourer".
(15) P.R.O. H.O. 52/13, 5th February, 1831.
(16) W.H. Money, op.cit. (From a note to a narrative by Miss Emily Scott, a guest of Lord Craven at the time of the riots.)
(17) W.H. Money, "History of Newbury.".
(18) quoted in issue No. VI of "Twopenny Trash".
(19) "Political Register", 13th July, 1833.
(20) M.L. Pearl, "A Bibliography".
(21) P.R.O. H.O. 52/6. F. Page to Home Secretary, 22nd November,1830.
(22) B.Inglis, "Poverty and the Industrial Revolution.".
(23) P.R.O. T.S. 11/851.
(24) Parliamentary Debates.
(25) P.R.O. H.O. 52/11 ; cited by H & R.
(26) W. Mavor, "A General View of Agriculture in Berkshire.".
(27) Reading University Library., BER 13. 5-2.
(28) W. Cobbett., "Rural Rides"., 20th October, 1825.
(29) F. Page., "The Principles of the English Poor Law.".
(30) Sir F. Eden., "The State of the Poor".
(31) Reading Mercury, 20th & 27th July,1795.
(32) ibid, 20th April, 1795.
(33) Berkshire R.O. Q/SO.7.
(34) Reading Mercury, 11th May, 1795.
(35) Diary of Mr. S.Purdue, Parish Clerk, Newbury.(Newbury Public Library)
(36) Lord Ernle. "English Farming: Past and Present" (6th edn.)
(37) Anon. "Reading 70 Years Ago.". A diary of the period, 1813-1819.
(38) E. Thoyts, "History of the Royal Berks Militia."
(39) W. Cobbett, op.cit., 8th October, 1826.
(40) "The Creevey Papers", ed. John Gore.
(41) Select Committee on Agriculture, 1833., p.54.
(42) Berks. R.O. Q/50-13.
(43) A. Somerville, "The Whistler at the Plough."
(44) G.E. Evans, "The Farm and the Village."
(45) J.A. Ransome, "The Implements of Agriculture."
(46) W. Pearce, "A General Review of Agriculture in Berkshire." (1794)
(47) Reading University Library, OXF. 20. 1/1-1.
(48) C. Vancouver, "A General View of Agriculture in Hampshire."(1813)
(49) J.C. Loudon. "Encyclopedia of Agriculture." (1831 edn.)
(50) Reading Mercury, 3rd January, 1831.
(51) Select Committee on the State of Agriculture, 1821.
(52) P.R.O. H.O.52/6.
(53) P.R.O. H.O.52/7.
(54) G.E. Evans, "Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay".
(55) Salisbury and Winchester Journal,20th April, 1829., and Sherborne, Dorchester & Taunton Journal, 23rd April, 1829.
(56) The Poole & Bournemouth Herald, 5th October, 1880.
(57) J.M. Stratton, "Agricultural Records, A.D. 220-1968."
(58) Berks. R.O. D.EWi.E.17.
(59) Reading University Library, HAN. 11.2-1.
(60) A.M. Coulson, unpublished M.A. Thesis.
(61) E. Pakenham, "Wellington : Pillar of State."
(62) W.S. Darter, "Reminiscences of Reading by an Octogenarian." (1885)

See also:

- Berkshire to Botany Bay - Introduction

Part 1 - Berkshire:

- Berkshire to Botany Bay - Chapter 1 "Distress and consequent repair"

- Berkshire to Botany Bay - Chapter 2 "Now is our time"

- Berkshire to Botany Bay - Chapter 3 "Severity is the only remedy"

- Berkshire to Botany Bay - Chapter 4 "A chase tho' the country"

- Berkshire to Botany Bay - Chapter 5 "No friend in Heaven"

- Berkshire to Botany Bay - Chapter 6 "Each in his separate hell"

- Berkshire to Botany Bay - Chapter 7 "Aftermath"

Part 2: To "Botany Bay"

- Berkshire to Botany Bay - Chapter 8 "The hulks and the convict ships"

- Berkshire to Botany Bay - Chapter 9 "Botany Bay"

- Berkshire to Botany Bay - Chapter 10 "Green pastures"

- Berkshire to Botany Bay - Chapter 11 "Beyond the Blue Mountains"

- Berkshire to Botany Bay - Chapter 12 "The valley of the hunter"

- Berkshire to Botany Bay - Chapter 13 "Van Diemen's land"

- Berkshire to Botany Bay - Postscript

- Berkshire to Botany Bay - Tables & Sources