DURING the course of English history, and particularly in the nineteenth century, there have been many occasions when ordinary folk have risen up against tyranny and injustice. At the same time, many people continue to assume that only two historical interpretations of that particular period exist: the Whig interpretation on the one hand, and that of the Marxian on the other. Indeed, this is the limited dichotomy that is taught in almost all colleges and universities.
That which is ordinarily attributed to the Marxists, and which pertains to the formula of ‘the oppressed versus the oppressors,’ is certainly not the ideological property of the dialectical materialists themselves and the continuing struggle against the extreme monopolisation of the few in detriment to the many is something that existed long before the likes of Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) arrived on the scene in the middle of the century. This problem, which has led to a large number of political, social and economic developments being blatantly hijacked by the Left, many of them perfectly worthy causes, should not lead us to assume that a significant number of them were not spontaneous.
One such example is the agricultural labourers revolt of 1830, which is also known as the Swing Riots. This affair took place as a result of the fact that the lives of ordinary men and women were threatened by a combination of low wages and new technological developments. Ironically, perhaps, by far the best source of information on this important rural insurrection, Captain Swing, was compiled in 1973 by E.J. Hobsbawm and George Rudé, themselves Marxist historians and testimony of the continuing efforts of such people to associate anti-capitalist struggle with their own obnoxious creed. However, to give Hobsbawm and Rudé their due, they rate among the few people to have actually bothered to recount the tumultuous events of 1830. This fact alone should demonstrate why National-Anarchists and other genuine opponents of the system must reject the narrow parameters that have been determined by mainstream academia and create their own schools of learning.
Slightly before the Swing Riots began, William Cobbett (1763-1835) published an account of his journeys through the English countryside on horseback. This important work, Rural Rides, is an invaluable source for those seeking to establish the motives behind the agricultural rebellion itself and Cobbett tells us a great deal about what life was really like for rural labourers. In 1825, Cobbett had found that in north Hampshire the average wage amounted to 6d a day. In addition, if a labourer was not receiving as much as 7d a day – which was considered to be an adequate rate – he was able to receive a relief supplement from the local parish. This included ‘a gallon loaf a week for the rest of his family.'
In fact Cobbett was surprised to discover that agricultural families received less food than the criminal inhabitant of the average nineteenth-century prison. Two modern historians, Christabel Orwin and Edith Whetham, consider the lives of the rural poor of the south and south midlands of England to have been ‘probably the hardest of all at this period.' The same source explains how wages were paid in weekly fashion, with nothing at all paid for those days affected by wet weather. Hobsbawm and Rudé claim that, previously, during the 1790s, the
labourer’s income was by custom, convention and justice a living wage, though a very modest one.
Forty years later, however, there was a difference of opinion between what was considered to be a ‘living wage’ and what the agricultural labourers themselves considered to be a fair rate of pay towards the basic sustenance of themselves and their families.
Such discontent soon led to the subsequent rebellion, which began in rural Kent with the destruction of several ricks at Orpington on June 1st, 1830. On August 28th of that year, a threshing machine – soon to become a symbolic object upon which labourers would vent their anger and frustration – was destroyed at Canterbury. This form of industrial sabotage eventually spread to upwards of twenty counties, each found in the lower wage bracket of agricultural England. It soon became apparent that labourers were demanding, rather than requesting, a fair increase in wages.
By October, the direct action tactics of the workers had spread across parts of Surrey and Sussex, but the spirit of resistance took a more defiant turn as mass demonstrations began to take place in broad daylight. On November 15th, in the Sussex village of Ringmer, labourers had demanded a wage of 2s 6d for married men and 2s for those who were single. This strategy appears to have failed, one particular example being at Goudhurst in Kent on the same day, when labourers were forcibly dispersed by a troop of twenty-five dragoons.
Another, less confrontational tactic, was the series of threatening letters which were sent to, amongst others, parsons or justices of the peace, each signed by the mysterious ‘Captain Swing’. The letters hinted at further disturbances if their recipients were unwilling to acknowledge the demands. Most labourers, however, were unable to read, let alone compose a written demand for fair wages. The standard of literacy contained in the letters suggests that they were written by one or more intelligent men, something that was unknown among the agricultural labourers of the period. Some of the letters ‘affected an illiterate style', whilst others had a ‘gay, lyrical quality'. Even William Cobbett, himself a fierce defender of the rights of working people, found himself in the dock as the suspected leader of the disturbances, although he was later released without charge. It was certainly a fact that after Cobbett had spoken at various functions, riots had immediately broken out in the same district.
At this time, Continental Europe was in a state of political turmoil, although the failure of the Masonic elite to export the ideological tenets of its 1789 French Revolution across the English Channel – at least at that stage – meant that the Swing Riots were in no way orchestrated by any conspiratorial hand. This is something that even Hobsbawm and Rudé had to contend with during the course of their research. However, the public imagination ran wild and there was much talk of French and Irish spies, foreign revolutionaries, government agents, bigoted Protestants, itinerant Radicals and even O’Connell-supporting papists. The ruling class also began to heighten the tension and The Times newspaper, true to form, spread the myth that
in several instances we hear that the labourers have hoisted the [French] tricoloured flag.
As a result, foreigners were rounded-up in a confused display of xenophobic paranoia that was designed to safeguard against revolutionary collaboration from abroad. Despite the hysterical rumours, the Swing Riots were always a decidedly English phenomenon.
There is even less evidence to suggest that the riots were in any way co-ordinated or part of a cross-county strategy. Indeed, in the words of one senior magistrate from Wiltshire, the
insurrectionary movement seems to be directed by no plan or system, but merely actuated by the spontaneous feeling of the peasants and quite at random.
This view is validated by the fact that the demands of the labourers differed from county to county, with different areas formulating their own distinct methods of action. Although there was clearly co-operation at a local level, with labourers marching from village to village and from farm to farm, this was inevitable and not enough to warrant the charge of organised resistance on a national or international scale. Financial geography was one determining factor relating to the way the riots spread, with the lowest-paid labourers being the first to revolt. If we combine the evidence surrounding the agricultural uprising of 1830, therefore, it is clear to see that the Swing Riots were caused by the failure of wealthy landowners to recognise to recognise the basic needs of those in their employ.
The rebellion itself illustrates how people can only stand so much before they inevitably adopt some form of determined resistance. The Swing Riots remain an important example in that their participants, according to E.L. Woodward, were
only asking for a living wage; there was no organised plot and no co-ordination between the various outbreaks.
Not that such co-ordination should be discouraged or overlooked, of course.
Finally, that such collective action can be initiated by individuals motivated by nothing more than a profound sense of justice and a simple desire for economic freedom, can only serve to frustrate the machinations of your average bourgeois Marxist and his or her crude manipulation of ordinary people.
1. Cobbett, William; Rural Rides (Harrop & Company, 1948), p.198.
3. Ibid., pp.198-9.
4. Orwin, Christabel & Whetham, Edith; A History of British Agriculture 1846-1914 (Archon Books, 1964), pp.80-1.
6. Hobsbawm, E.J. & Rudé, George; Captain Swing (Penguin, 1973), p.27.
7. Ibid., p.71.
9. Clapham, J.H.; Economic History of Modern Britain, Volume I (Cambridge University Press, 1932), p.76.
10. Hobsbawm & Rudé, op.cit., p.76.
11. Ibid., p.81.
12. Ibid., p.173.
14. Ibid., p.184.
15. Ibid., p.187.
16. Ibid., p.182.
17. The Times, 30th October, 1830.
18. H.O. 52/11, letters of 20th & 28th November, 1830.
19. Woodward, E.L.; The Age of Reform: 1815-1870 (Oxford University Press, 1962), p.79.