WA_2003_Douce_4064-a Ashmo.jpg
WA_2003_Douce_4064-a Ashmo.jpg


A series of riots in agricultural districts, which took place against widespread agitation for political reform, together with political uncertainty and economic depression.
The riots, which had a sense of contagion about them, began in Kent in late August with two nights of attacks on farms and the destruction of threshing machines, and they continued throughout the autumn until the end of the year, although in different forms and with different demands throughout southern and eastern England, with the most troubled counties being Wiltshire and Hampshire (although reporting was not always reliable). The destruction of labour-saving machinery, predominantly threshing machines, was the most common form of protest, but there were also instances of hayrick and barn burning. These were particular targets, but there was a deeper sense of grievance at the pauperisation of rural labour. Protests were often accompanied by the sending of threatening letters, with the signature 'Captain Swing'.
Historians argue that the widespread and accelerated character of the riots were a function of the failure of the authorities to react rapidly and punitively, as they had to agricultural rioting in 1816 and 1822. But they also suggest that the rioters themselves were often implicitly appealing to ‘moral economy ‘ traditions of rural protest (that assumed a give and take between landowners and those working on the land, and counted on a degree of tolerance towards protest), and that the changing character of land ownership and agricultural employment meant that these older traditions were now breaking down, to the cost of the protesters. Initially lenient sentences might have been taken as signalling traditional sympathy for their cause, but they were followed by far more punitive measures. Agricultural rioters also seem to have been aware that growing demands across the country for political reform meant that there was some collateral sympathy for their cause.  And, faced with these demands, the government dithered, bing unsure how best to react.  Ironically, when a new Whig administration was formed at the end of November 1830, it took a much more determined stance against the rioters, and it was able to rely on wider public support in doing so, because it was willing to press for political reforms (which was very much the wider and more popular interest outside agricultural communities).
The results were harsh: in Hampshire alone, 300 men were tried by a special Commission in December 1830, and 101 being sentenced to death – although all but 3 of the sentences were commuted.  117 men from Hapshire were transported to Australia (447 in total were transported to Australia and Tasmania from 21 Ccounties).
A great deal is often swept under the label of Swing Riots - such as the Otmoor Riots of 1830 (q.v.). However, it is important to sift through the evidence and distinguish the eruption of long-standing local grievances from the more general contagion of anti-machinery hostility and economic distress in the south and east of the country. The image is by Cruikshank, and represents Captain Swing as the devil, indicating a turn in sympathies against the rioters.