Captain Swing Peldon Wages Riot

CAPTAIN SWING - PELDON'S WAGES' RIOT

Agricultural Disturbances 1816 - 1836

Captain Swing was the name given to the mythical leader of agricultural labourers in their attempts to force their employers to give them a living wage. The Swing riots were in the early part of the nineteenth century peaking in 1830 locally. Many counties throughout England were involved and here in Peldon, labourers were driven to protest to their masters for higher wages.

In the 1830s, life in Peldon for the ordinary people, most of whom would be agricultural labourers, was a struggle to exist. Following a series of cold winters and wet summers agriculture was in the doldrums. There was unemployment, lack of food, and inadequate Poor Law assistance. For those who could find work, annual contracts were no longer offered and labourers were employed by the day or did piecework. If the weather was bad, they didn't work and if they didn't work they didn't earn.

Added to that, by 1800 farm machinery was beginning to take over the work hitherto done by man-power. Essex farmers were among the first to use threshing machines and by 1830 they were commonly in use, there were even contractors hiring out equipment. Efficient drainage was essential in this area of heavy clay, and the mole plough came into its own, many farmers finding it more economic than hiring labour. Most of the winter work for agricultural workers was threshing in the barns and with the advent of the threshing machines little work was available and many could not earn enough to feed their families and pay rent.

Prices of wheat always fluctuated but during the Napoleonic Wars (1800 - 1815), the price of wheat had shot up and the farmers had become wealthy and with that wealth came status and a disinclination to share their homes with their men. Gone were the days that the farm labourers 'lived in' and were housed and fed by their masters 'each labourer as well as servant was regarded as one of the farmer's own family, for whose good conduct and appearance, the master was in some degree accountable' Chelmsford Gazette

But by 1814 the price of wheat fell, agriculture went into a depression, farmers got into debt and labourers were faced with accepting lower wages or redundancy.

On a positive note, at the turn of the 18th/19th century the use of the small pox vaccination was a major step forward in health care but as a result of fewer deaths and an increase in population the downside was a surplus of labour. The labour market was then flooded by soldiers returning home from the Napoleonic Wars.

The cottages rented to the workers, far from being the 'chocolate-box' image we have in our heads when we think of rural England today, would have had no insulation, no sanitation, no water, little light, smoking fires and damp. Games Farm here in Peldon, we know from the censuses in Victorian times, was multiple occupancy, the outlines of a further two front doors, now blocked off, still visible inside the house. We believe three families were living in Games Farmhouse at times in its history. Many very large families would live in a small cottage with only three rooms.

Agricultural labourers worked long hours for poor pay. In the summer, from 6 a.m. to 6p.m. In the winter, 7am - 5pm or from sun-up to sun-down. Piece workers could earn more than day labourers but often aged prematurely because of the punishing hours, often 4.a.m - 8pm.

Meals for the average family would include bread with maybe a bit of butter or cheese for breakfast, bread and cheese for lunch and a Vegetable Pie for the evening. Maybe on a Sunday they would add to that a small amount of pork or bacon. At times of high wheat prices potatoes had to become a staple instead of bread made with wheat flour.

There was an abundance of game all around but due to the Game Laws only the landowner was licensed to shoot game such as rabbits, hares, woodcock, quail, pheasants and partridges. A tenant farmer couldn't even shoot the rabbits devastating his crops because it was the landowner who had the licence. The act in 1817 designed to reduce poaching could lead to transportation of the offender, often to Van Diemans Land (Tasmania). Needless to say, offences under the Game Laws were most frequent in years of particular hardship.

There had already been food riots in Colchester due to high food prices so with such a struggle to exist it was hardly surprising that labourers' demands for increased wages reached their climax in this period; the machinery that was taking away their work, threshing machines and mole ploughs targeted for destruction. There were instances, although none recorded in Peldon, where 'machine wreckers' took hammer and axe to farm machinery and incendiarists set alight haystacks, threshing machines and farms to express the workers' discontent.

Then there were the 'Swing' letters - threatening letters often a precursor to direct action signed by the mythical leader of this movement, Captain Swing.

Sir, Your name is down amongst the Black hearts in the Black Book and this is to advise you and the like of you, who are Parson Justasses, to make your wills. Ye have been the Blackguard Enemies of the People on all occasions, Ye have not yet done as ye ought,.... Swing

Sir, This is to acquaint you that if your threshing machines are not destroyed by you directly we shall commence our labours.  Signed on behalf of the whole ... Swing

Examples of original Swing letters from E.J. Hobsbawm and George Rude, Captain Swing

Discontent in Essex first peaked between 1816 and 1819. Locally, a report in the Chelmsford Chronicle in February 1816 stated a blaze gutted a barn at West Mersea and destroyed a stack of wheat and some oats, the blaze being visible as far away as Purleigh. In April 1816 a threshing machine was set on fire in Mile End. In October the same year machinery was broken at Layer Breton, one of the rioters threatening to 'run through' Mr William Sach with a pitchfork.

The second period of discontent peaked 1829 - 1831. In February 1829, a fire caused damage estimated to cost £500 on a farm where a machine was in use in East Mersea.

Then there were the 'riots' or mass uprisings. In early December 1830 there was a mass meeting on Mile End Heath, Colchester of between 200 and 400 labourers. and there were eleven arrests.

'The wage riots followed the same pattern in most of the villages. A small group of ringleaders went round the farms persuading or forcing men to join them. Having collected a crowd of 100 or more labourers, the leaders called on farmers demanding higher wages usually 2/- or 2/3 a day with beer' S.W. Amos Social Discontent and Agrarian Disturbances in Essex

On 10th December 1830 a wage riot took place after a small group of labourers in Peldon had visited their colleagues in the night and early morning to compel them to join their number. Their objective was to seek a daily wage of 2/3d and beer from their employers. One labourer was told 'if you don't get up, we will take you bed and all'. According to A.F.J. Brown in A Meagre Harvest almost all the labourers of Peldon took part.

Three men identified as the ringleaders, were arrested and appeared the very next day before magistrates at Colchester Castle, William Lappage, William Warner and William Smith.

Colchester Castle, December 11. - At a full Bench of Magistrates this day - Sir George H. Smyth, Bart [Baronet], the Chair, Wm Lappage, Wm. Warner, and Wm. Smith, labourers, were fully committed to take their trials at the ensuing Quarter Session to be holden for this county, for unlawfully assembling a large body of labourers in the parish of Peldon, and adjoining parishes, for the purpose of demanding of their employers an advance of wages. It appeared from the evidence adduced, that the prisoners, early in the morning of Friday last, by three o'clock, went to various other labourers residing near them, and desired them to get and accompany them for the above purpose; that in so doing a very large number soon assembled and proceeded to the several farmers, called them up, and demanded more wages, and took many men from their work against their will. In consequence of which, the above three men, being the ringleaders, were apprehended.-A great many of the gentry and farmers residing in the various parishes in Colchester Division, attended this meeting and were sworn as special constables, and the Magistrates sit every day this week, for the purpose of swearing in other special constables, and any other business that may be brought before them. The Essex Herald Tuesday 14th December 1830

On 4th January 1831 the three men were subsequently tried at the Quarter Sessions in Chelmsford having

'tumultuously and unlawfully assembled at Peldon and with many others at present unknown conspiring by force to raise their wages and committing a riot'.
SENTENCE: convicted of riot. To be imprisoned and kept to hard labour'.

William Lappage was sentenced to 12 months hard labour, William Warner 15 months and William Smith 6 months. They at least avoided Transportation.

In those days, hard labour often amounted to road building, quarrying or walking on a treadmill within a prison. In Colchester Gaol there was no room for a treadmill and any prisoner sentenced to hard labour would be sent to the county Gaol in Chelmsford in Springfield Road. The entry in The Eighth Report of the Committee of The Society for The Improvement of Prison Discipline and for The Reformation of Juvenile Offenders published in 1832 gives a detailed description of what conditions Lappage, Warner and Smith would find in the newly redesigned Chelmsford Gaol at the end of 1830. A sobering thought that they would at least be better fed - and educated - than hitherto.

SPRINGFIELD - New County House of Correction April 1830
This prison has been completed since the last Report. It now comprises fourteen divisions with an airing yard to each. There are 225 sleeping cells. No women are confined here. A treadmill has been erected, with eight separate wheels, there are also two crank-wheels and two capstans for pumping up water.

Prisoners not sentenced to hard labour make and mend the clothing and shoes. The dietary for each prisoner is 1 and a half lb of good wheaten bread, a quart of beer, and 1 and a half ounces of oatmeal made into gruel, with onions for dinner. Prisoners at hard labour are allowed each, daily, 4 oz of brad and 2 oz of cheese in addition. The hours of daily labour are 10 in summer and 6 in winter. Each prisoner has a coarse woollen dress with a striped shirt. Each cell is furnished with a straw bed, 2 blankets and a rug. The cost of clothing and bedding is about 3l.10s per annum. The chaplain reads prayers every morning; and he reads portions of the Scriptures, when the prisoners are assembled for instruction. He also performs the morning and evening church services, and preaches a sermon on Sundays. A schoolmaster attends daily to instruct the prisoners; and they are supplied with Bibles and other books. During the last year 242 prisoners were taught to read.

There is incidentally, a William Lappage in the 1841 census, eleven years later,a landlord of the Peldon Rose. In the 1881 census a William Smith aged 70, a widower born in Peldon and described as an 'agricultural labourer unable to work' is a lodger in a cottage in Sampsons Lane with Thomas King aged 32, an agricultural labourer. Are these our rebels?

In 1836 with their situation no better, the farm labourers began to organise themselves into a Union, The Tendring Agricultural Labourers' Union, based in Thorpe Le Soken which had been an area where the riots and burning of machinery had been rife. Members were forbidden by the Union to work for less than 2/- a day or 12/- a week plus beer. No member was to work a threshing machine or seek employment on a farm where a machine was used. They were also forbidden to work with non-Unionised workers. If they were laid off the Union promised them daily pay. Not surprisingly there was considerable opposition not only from the farmers and the local newspapers, especially the Essex Standard and the Colchester and Chelmsford Gazette, but also from the Church.

What happened next is revealed in a letter to the newspaper from Peldon's own curate, Robert Eden where he condemned the Union as 'a wrong and unchristian alliance'.

TO THE AGRICULTURAL LABOURERS MEMBERS OF THE UNION. A settled conviction of the miserable destitution which you are bringing upon yourselves and families by your present thoughtless conduct, and a hope of being able to open your eyes to the gross delusion under which you have been acting, prompt me to address you without a moment's loss of time. "The Union" had extended itself into my parish, and very shortly enrolled amongst its members about 60 of my poor parishioners. It held out the most flattering promises - the certainty of being able to compel the masters to grant 2s. a day and beer ; or, in case the masters should disapprove of the Union, and discharge their men, that from the funds of the Union each discharged labourer should receive for the first week he was out of employment 6s, and for the subsequent weeks 12s. I could not wonder at my poor people catching at so tempting an offer. As I before said, many became members. I strongly remonstrated with them, but in vain. But now mark the consequences. Many of them were turned out of their places, and quitted masters for whom they had long worked. At the close of the first week they made enquiries to know whence their promised 6s.was to come ; and one of them, deputed by the rest, after being disappointed in his applications elsewhere, started, on Thursday last, for Bentley and Thorpe. The latter place being considered the head-quarters of the Union, and I suppose the centre of the Union's wealth. He returned from Thorpe late at night, disappointed and disgusted at the falsehoods by which he had been led on, and "bringing back with him," as one of the poor fellows told me, "nothing but wearied legs." In short he found the vaunted reports of the large sums of money which had been subscribed to be the most wicked falsehoods. That even, at Thorpe, the Treasurer there would not give him 2s. 6d.for his loss of his day's work, which he had been led to expect. The next day another member of the Union in my parish went to be present at the payment of the poor fellows, who were out of work in Layer-de-la-Haye. The applicants received nothing, for " nothing can of nothing come," and he saw several of them leave the Treasurer's room with tears in their eyes! It was impossible to keep up the delusion any longer. On Saturday night the members in Peldon met together, and with much sound sense and right feeling withdrew from a Union which had brought upon them nothing but loss, and which had only gained its footing amongst them by means of delusion and lies of emissaries from other parishes.
There is, my poor friends, no money, save what is extracted from your own pockets. Do not believe that my Lord Rivers or General Rebow have given a thousand pounds each. Do not believe that I have, for report has said so. I have given, and will give, nothing but the most sincere and affectionate advice to every one of you, to withdraw immediately from so wrong and unchristian an alliance, which attempts to deceive the better principled, by wickedly pretending to mix up religion with the rules, but which betrays its hypocrisy, by not hesitating to employ deceit and falsehood, to keep in existence a union, which every day is being disclosed by its unhappy victims, to be a curse not a blessing to the poor labourer. The lot of many of you is, I know, hard; but this is not the way to mend it. Your present step prevents your best friends from speaking in your behalf. Quit the Union, I entreat you, and then you will find, I am convinced, every good man combining to improve your condition ; and will place your masters in a position in which they may be able to consider the propriety of raising your wages or not. Believe me to be. Your sincere Friend, ROBERT EDEN Curate of Peldon. Peldon Rectory, July 20, 1836. Essex Standard 22nd July 1836

One can only hope that upon withdrawing from the Union the Peldon men were once more employed but sadly life did not get any easier.

As J L and Barbara Hammond write in

'the privileged classes had set up a code under which no labourer could take a single step for the improvement of the lot of his class without putting his life and his liberties in a noose'.

It wasn't to be until the 1870s that the next attempt at unionisation of agricultural labourers would begin.

Elaine Barker
Peldon History Project

I am indebted to S W Amos's thesis: Social Discontent and Agrarian Disturbances in Essex

Sources
E.J. Hobsbawm and George Rude, Captain Swing 
The Village Labourer J L and Barbara Hammond
A.F.J. Brown A Meagre Harvest

Every effort has been made to trace and correspond with copyright holders

Author: Elaine Barker
ID: PH01_CSW


This item is part of the Mersea Island Museum Collection. The information is accurate as far as is known, but the Museum does not accept responsibility for errors.