You are in [Events] [1830 Agricultural "Swing" Riots] [Berkshire to Botany Bay - Chap 3]



The activities of the farm workers in the Thatcham and Aldermaston areas during the week preceding the events described in the previous chapter caused many a shiver in ruling-class hearts. A joint letter from W.Mount, Esq., of Wasing House and the Rev. Cove of Brimpton includes the first request for troops. "The magistrates of this division met yesterday, but find themselves unable to cope with the danger owing to the formidable and threatening bearing of the mob who will burn down any farmer's or other person's property that may attempt to interfere. We hope under the circumstances you will be kind enough to order some troops to be sent as soon as possible to Newbury from whence they can move as circumstances may require." (1) On the same day,however, the Rev. Cove, at the head of a large body of special constables and tradesmen, met the mob head-on at Brimpton Common. The Riot Act was read and a "battle" ensued, at the end of which 11 rioters were arrested and taken to Reading Gaol. (2) The reverend gentleman must have sent off another missive to the Home Office because his efforts were commented upon in the Home Secretary's reply to the above - mentioned letter. "Sir Robert (Peel) is anxious to render every assistance to the magistrates for the preservation of the public peace but at the present moment it would be inconvenient to despatch any force of cavalry to Newbury. (He) hopes from the accounts received this morning from Mr. Cove that the mob (having been) successfully opposed....... will not renew their aggression." (3) The Home Secretary's hopes were realised in the Thatcham area, but not elsewhere. By this time North Hampshire was aroused and. on the 21st November, "four troops of the 9th Light Dragoons (were on the ) march.... from Hounslow upon Andover." (4)

In the meanwhile, on Saturday, 20th November, the labourers of Speen had collected in a body at the same time as the Select Vestry was meeting to discuss their grievances. The Vestry decided that wages should be raised to 10s. a week for unmarried as well as for married labourers, plus the price of a gallon loaf for each child after the second. (5) Farmers and magistrates who had flocked into Newbury that morning rode in a body to meet the rioters. Having met them they began to parley. Thanks to the prompt and resolute leadership of the Vicar of Speen, the Rev. Henry Majendie, "who spoke in a very firm and manly manner", (6) a repetition of the Brimpton affray was avoided. The Vicar informed the crowd of the Vestry's decision and, according to a letter written by Mr. Frederick Page, of Goldwell Park, Speen, assured them "that every attention would be paid to their wants during the ensuing winter." (5)

Mr. Page concluded his letter to the Home Secretary by stating 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 any intention of provoking riot or disorder." (5) Even when the revolt spread to the west of Newbury and the men of Kintbury and Hungerford began breaking machines, Mr. Page thought "the general spirit of the labourers in the neighbourhood is good (and) they have no feeling of ill-will towards their landlords, or imbibed any ideas hostile to good government." So sure was he that, providing those in authority were prepared to recognise the justice of the labourers' demands, and to concede some of them, the revolt could be "quieted without force" that he decided "to prevent any soldiers being sent here" for "everything will soon be tranquil." (5)

Mr. Page's quiet confidence was not shared by J.Pearce, Esq, M.P., of Chilton Lodge, who informed the Home Secretary that the whole of the neighbourhood of Hungerford was "entirely at the mercy of the most riotous and disaffected mobs little short of a thousand each", which could not be controlled because of the lack of sufficient force. "We are entirely under the domination of the mob of, in many instances, the most violent kind." It was in vain to lament, he wrote, that the Yeomanry had been disbanded. Had it not been it could have easily controlled the insurrection. As it was they relied on the government for effective protection. (7) Mr. Pearce tended to exaggerate.

As a result of information provided by another M.P., Mr. Palmer, who also exaggerated the revolutionary nature of the revolt, Lord Abingdon expressed his "strongest conviction" that unless an efficient military force is immediately sent to Reading for the purpose of acting decidedly and effectively it will be impossible to preserve the peace of the county." (8) The receipt of this plea for troops led Sir Robert Peel to contact the Officer Commanding the Horse Guards, Lord Fitzroy Somerset, who sent orders to Windsor "for the immediate march of two companies of the Grenadier Guards to Reading", the officer in charge being instructed to report himself to the magistrates and to obey "such orders as he shall receive from them.". (9)

Mr. Charles Dundas, M.P., who was residing at his London home in Pimlico when the riots began near his country house at Barton Court, Kintbury, was informed of these events by the Rev. F.C.Fowle and Capt. Lidderdale, adjutant of the late Berks Yeomanry, and had, in response to a plea from the latter, also submitted a requisition for troops ["Your presence is very much wanted here. It is the wish of everyone that you should apply to the Secretary of War to send us some dragoons immediately."]. As a result of this request one company of the Grenadier Guards was ordered from Reading to Newbury, and a detachment of the 9th Light Dragoons was directed to proceed on the following morning (Tuesday, 23rd November) from Kensington to Reading and thence, the day after, to Newbury. (9)

The change of government, which coincided with the main outbreaks in Berkshire [The Duke of Wellington resigned on the 15th, but the new ministers did not take over until the 22nd November.] caused a change of policy ; not, as might have been expected from a liberal government, towards a policy of conciliation and concession, but by a much more resolute intervention in the suppression of disturbances. The Tory Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, had been reluctant to use the army; in fact he had not asked for the despatch of troops into the south-eastern counties (where the first threshing machine had been broken as early as 28th August) until the 11th November. Though it is true that he was appalled at the leniency displayed at the East Kent Assizes by Sir Edward Knatchbull, who discharged the first machine breakers with a caution and a three-day prison sentence (10), there is no evidence that he had any intention of applying draconian measures.

The new Prime Minister, Lord Grey, belonged to the right wing of the Whig party and described himself as "aristocratic both by position and nature, with a predilection for old institutions." Nonetheless he was committed to some measure of Parliamentary Reform, which was still linked in many minds with the wild fancies and terrors associated with revolutionary Jacobinism. The new king, William IV, was no enthusiast for reform, and Lord Grey feared that the slightest threat of disorder would cause him to withdraw even the modest degree of support which he was prepared to give to the government's programme. All the circumstances made it easy for Grey and his colleagues to slip into a policy of violence and repression. They breathed an atmosphere of panic, and they dreaded the recoil of that panic on their reformist schemes. Nonetheless they were liberals, and Cobbett could not believe the rumours that the new government intended to put down the riots with severe measures. He thought that men such as Grey, with his "humane disposition", Holland, "who never gave his consent to an act of cruelty", and Allsop, "who had never dipped his hand in blood", could, unlike many of their Tory predecessors, be trusted to be lenient and merciful; if any record could justify confidence it was theirs. (11)

Cobbett's confidence proved to be unjustified. On 27th November Lord Grey said that it was the new government's "determined resolution, wherever outrages are perpetrated or excesses committed, to suppress them with severity and vigour." Although the government commiserated with the labourers' situation they were resolved not to connive at their excesses. ( A sentiment which prompted exclamations of approval from their lordships.) The Prime Minister continued, "Severity is, in the first instance, the only remedy which can be applied to such disorders with success." (At which their lordships again cheered.)

The influences opposed to moderation were very strong and there was little, at least in the places that mattered, to counteract them. According to the Hammonds, the labourers were to find no support in the House of Commons even from those who were regarded as extreme radicals. Hobhouse's Diary contains not a solitary expression of pity or concern for them, and Sir Francis Burdett was all for dragooning the discontented counties and placing them under martial law. Even Lord Radnor, a friend of Cobbett, sat on the Wiltshire Special Commission without making any protest that has come down to posterity. (11)

The new Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, was certainly no radical, neither was he as liberal as some of his cabinet colleagues; he was in fact "the most conservative of the Whigs." (12) He was also a member of a new and not particularly stable Reform ministry, which was determined to demonstrate that this did not mean that it had any intention of being "soft" on the "law and order" issue. His determination in the defence of the rights of private property was such that, in the autumn following the revolt, he introduced in the House of Lords a bill which, if it had become law, would have allowed property owners who obtained a licence from two J.P.s to use the murderous man-traps and spring-guns to protect their property.

Within twenty-four hours of taking over at the Home Office (i.e.23rd November) he issued a proclamation offering rewards of up to £500 for anyone bringing rioters or incendiaries to justice, and on the 25th he sent off a circular letter (13) to magistrates instructing them to act more energetically. A later circular sharply rebuked those magistrates who had approved uniform wage increases, and who had recommended the discontinuance of the use of threshing machines. "These machines", wrote Lord Melbourne, "are as much entitled to the Protection of the Law as any other Description of Property and.... the course which has been taken of prescribing or recommending the discontinuance of them, is, in fact, to connive at, or rather to assist in the Establishment of a Tyranny of the most oppressive Character." The noble lord considered that it was his duty "to recommend in the strongest manner, that for the future all ...... Magistrates will oppose a firm resistance to all demands of the Nature above described, more especially when accompanied with Violence and Menace; and that they will deem it their duty to maintain and uphold the Rights of Property of every description against Violence and Aggression." (10) Thus the decision of the Speen Vestry, and of other groups of J.P.s and farmers in south-west Berkshire, and the firm but conciliatory lead taken by the Rev. Henry Majendie and the Rev. F.C. Fowle was denounced as highly irregular and to be deplored.

Lord Melbourne's attitude towards the riots and to the labourers involved in them may be judged by the contents of two letters which he wrote to local J.P.s. On 24th November he expressed the hope that John Pearce, Esq. M.P., of Chilton Lodge, and other "magistrates, with the Civil and Military Force at their disposal, will be enabled to suppress these disturbances and bring the persons concerned in them to Justice." (14) On the following day, having received a garbled version of the tactics adopted by the Vicar of Kintbury, the Rev. Fowle, he wrote to the Vicar stating that he (Melbourne) conceived it "his duty to suggest to,(you) that such a course (of conciliation and concession) might rather tend to excite than to delay irritation and disorder." (15) This unjust reprimand prompted the vicar to reply that he had agreed to advocate "a rise in wages only on the express condition that the labourers separated, behaved peaceably, and returned to their work, but not otherwise, " (16)

The Home Secretary's reprimand of the Rev. Fowle aroused considerable class solidarity; there followed a spate of letters to the Home Secretary all of them taking up the cudgels on the Vicar's behalf. Charles Dundas, M.P., considered that the Rev. Fowle had been most unfairly represented to His Lordship; "no one could have behaved with greater propriety than Mr. Fowle, who was a most able, attentive and active magistrate." (17) John Pearce, M.P., stated that the Rev. Fowle was "one of our oldest, most intelligent and active magistrates" whose feelings had been sorely wounded by the "unworthy information" which had been conveyed to His Lordship. "There was not a magistrate in the kingdom who deserved (the reprimand) less." (18)

Lord Melbourne had interpreted various reports he had received as meaning that the Vicar of Kintbury had persuaded Mr. Hogan Smith and Lord Craven each to hand over £10 to the congregation's treasurer in order to pacify the mob. The former stated that there was not the least foundation in that report, (19) while Lord Craven, though admitting that his resolution to defend his property by force had been weakened "by the kindly interference of a particular friend, a clergyman," stated that the circumstances occurred before Mr. Fowle's arrival and without his knowledge." (20) Twenty-one of the Vicar's most prominent parishioners also signed a petition to the Home Secretary in which they paid tribute to their Vicar's "well-timed firmness" and to "his endeavours to quiet the disturbances." They expressed their deep obligation to him "for preventing the destruction of (their) property until the rioters could be effectively restrained." (21)

The fact that the chief magistrate of the area, and an M.P. for the county, Charles Dundas, and one of the biggest landowners, Lord Craven, were supporters of the new government and, presumably, wished to ensure the success of its policies, was an important factor in determining the means and methods used to put down the disturbances in south-west Berkshire. Elsewhere in Berkshire public peace had been restored either by the promise of some improvement in wages and a tacit agreement not to re-introduce the hated threshing machines, or, at the worst, the reading of the Riot Act and the arrest of the few who refused to disperse ; there was every indication that such methods would have sufficed in this part of the county also. In the event a substantial force of the civil and military power was drawn together and used not simply to over-awe the labourers into submission but to arrest well over a hundred of them.

It cannot be argued that either the Kintbury or the Hungerford "mobs" had committed such terrible acts of violence upon persons or property that something more drastic than a firm but conciliatory approach was needed. Although there were a great many blustering threats, which anyone who knew anything of the farm workers' psychology would not have taken literally, not one person was physically harmed - "Though great threats were used yet in no instance were these brown arm'd sons of labour guilty of personal violence to anyone." (22) and, except for the breaking of a few windows, property, other than agricultural machinery, was hardly touched, and not a single rick was burned. A contemporary was later to write that "a couple of dozen constables could have suppressed the movement at once." In other parts of the county he continued "the military were not required to act", the rioters being "taken into custody by the civil power without any personal injury being sustained by anyone." (23)

The kind of operation undertaken by the forces of law and order in the Kintbury area on Wednesday, 24th November, was a direct consequence of the political allegiance of "Colonel" Dundas, and of Lord Craven, who was "politically allied to Lord John Russell", (24) who, "even more than Grey was the arch-Whig of the 19th century." (12) It was important that "Reform" should not in practice be seen to be equated with weakness in the face of any threat to property, and, what was even more important, that it should not be considered to be the prelude to anarchy. Thus the "liberal" Dundas who, in 1795, had shown such sympathy with the labourers' condition as to call for the implementation of a minimum wage, and who more recently (at the January, 1830, Quarter Sessions) had commented on "the cruel pressure on the poor by the illiberality of masters and parishes in beating down the wages and reducing parochial relief which was so low as scarcely to afford the means of existence" (25) was constrained by party and class loyalty to lead "the chase" through Berkshire into Hampshire. The hunt's quarry were half-starved labourers who had somehow summoned up a desperate courage to enable them to stand up against the pernicious pauperising policy of "Speenhamland" and the "laissez faire" economics which permitted machines to reduce even further a pitifully poor livelihood, and to demand the right to work at reasonable wages.

(1) P.R.O. H.O. 52-6 letter dated 19th November,1830
(2) N. Gash op.cit. and Reading Mercury, 6th December, 1830.
(3) P.R.O. H.O. 41-8 letter dated 20th November, 1830.
(4) Ibid letter dated 21st November, 1830.
(5) P.R.O. H.O. 52-6 F.Page to Home Secretary, 21st November, 1830.
(6) Ibid ditto 22nd November, 1830
(7) Ibid J. Pearce to Home Secretary, 22nd November, 1830.
(8) Ibid Lord Abingdon to Home Secretary, 20th November, 1830.
(9) Ibid Lord Fitzroy Somerset to J. Phillips, 22nd November, 1830.
(10) H & R op. cit.
(11) J.L. & B. Hammond op. cit.
(12) Sir L. Woodward, "The Age of Reform".
(13) Berks R.O. copy of circular to Mr. Willes of Hungerford Park.
(14) P.R.O. H.O. 41-8 Lord Melbourne to John Pearce, 24th November, 1830.
(15) Ibid Lord Melbourne to Rev. F.C. Fowle., 25th November, 1830.
(16) P.R.O. H.O. 52-6 Rev. F.C. Fowle to Lord Melbourne, 27nd November, 1830.
(17) Ibid Charles Dundas to ditto 26th November, 1830.
(18) Ibid J. Pearce to ditto 28th November, 1830.
(19) Ibid Mr. Hogan Smith to ditto 26th November, 1830.
(20) Ibid Lord Craven to ditto undated possibly 27/11
(21) Ibid Various to ditto undated
(22) W. Money, N.W.N., January, 1898.

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