‘Swing, Farmer, Swing’

New research into the rural incendiary movement known as the “Swing” riots was presented at our talk on 17 May by Carl Griffin, author of the first major study of this popular protest movement since Hobsbawm and Rude’s classic pioneering work, “Captain Swing”, which became a bestseller in 1969.

Griffin explained his historical investigations into the deep social and economic grievances of the farm labourers who were facing displacement from their work and loss of their homes with the introduction of threshing machines.

He uncovered a level of organisation and coordination in the “Swing” resistance which occurred over a vast area stretching from Maidstone, to Dover and almost as far as Canterbury.

Sparked by one incident in the Elham Valley in East Kent in 1830 when threshing machines were destroyed and the culprits arrested, the movement grew very rapidly and became identified with the mythical figure of Captain Swing when threatening letters were sent to farmers and landowners signed with the name of “Swing”, whose meaning Griffin suggested may have meant “swing on the gallows” or it might have been an allusion to the “swing” motion made by threshing.

Griffin said that Captain Swing was portrayed almost as a romantic figure in early studies of the movement by, for example, the Hammonds, but contemporary accounts were sensationalist “instant histories” written from an unsympathetic point of view. The voices of the actual participants in the hundreds of Swing actions were almost impossible to find, except for the anonymous letters, if these were indeed really all written by farm workers as there is some doubt about their authorship. 

The speaker explained that the journalistic campaign on behalf of rural workers waged by William Cobbett was blamed by the authorities for inspiring the Swing revolt, but this was definitely not the main reason for the activities.

Griffin argued that social distinctions between travelling artisans, farm labourers and other rural workers were not as clearly defined as often assumed and that various groups were likely to have been involved in the Swing incidents.

Recent research by historical geographers such as Andrew Charlesworth has revealed that the activities closely mirrored the main road network from which it can be inferred that those involved were used to being highly mobile.

The protesters could not simply be dismissed as “rural Luddites”; they were not immediately reacting to the introduction of machinery in a knee-jerk way because threshing machines first came into use in the 1790s and Swing broke out decades later. The protests were in fact concerned with a broad range of grievances headed by poor wages and unemployment but workhouses were a particular focus of the action, Griffin argued.

Captain Swing in this important new assessment emerges as an extremely well organised and sophisticated movement of rural workers who had clear political objectives and as such it was clearly not simply a desperate reaction against machines.

Riots, as Griffin’s study suggests, are one manifestation of a sophisticated form of resistance and are never ends in themselves. In fact, riots often mark a failure of politics or break out in response to deliberate provocation by the authorities and become a pretext for savage state repression.   And the violence of the workers, of course, pales into insignificance when set against the harsh measures inflicted by the magistrates, police and the state.

Carl Griffin’s book is called “The Rural War” and is published by Manchester University Press.

David Morgan 

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July 2012

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