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An illustration of the hated threshing machine, 1881.

An illustration of the hated threshing machine, 1881.

The Swing Riots in Oxfordshire

20 August 2021 (Updated 7 September 2021)

The first decades of the 19th century saw great hardship and unrest for the agricultural workers of England. The Enclosure Acts had seen them losing access to common land. Farming was becoming increasingly mechanised, as typified by the new threshing machines which automated the harvesting process and put farm labourers out of work. At the same time, men returning from the Napoleonic wars and an influx of workers from Ireland was causing a surfeit of labour which drove wages down.

As a result, it was increasingly hard for the rural population of southern England to support themselves and their families. People were starving and anger against the terrible conditions being experienced was beginning to boil over into violence.

Frustration turns to violence

On 28 August 1830, workers in Kent turned their anger on what they saw as the symbol of their suffering and began breaking into farms and destroying the hated threshing machines. As news of this spread, agricultural workers throughout England began to follow suit.

By the end of October over 100 threshing machines had been destroyed in what became known as the Swing Riots, named after the fictional 'Captain Swing', whose name was used to sign threatening letters to landowners and magistrates.

Captain Swing comes to Oxfordshire

The first outbreak of Swing-violence in Oxfordshire happened at Benson on Sunday 21 November 1830. A notice had recently been published informing the population that a local landowner named Thomas Newton had applied to Parliament to enclose a large portion of the land around Benson and nearby Ewelme.

In order to make this official, Newton or one of his representatives would be expected to pin notice of this application to the church door, and a large crowd formed outside St. Helen's Church to meet him.

When Thomas Newton failed to appear, the crowd moved South to Newton's home at Crowmarch Battle Farm and proceeded to destroy his threshing machines.

The violence spreads

Over the next few days, similar attacks were reported in the villages of Benson, Crowmarsh and Ewelme with hay ricks and farm buildings being set on fire and machinery destroyed. Before long the violence and destruction had spread throughout the country, with reports of similar incidents from as far away as Heythrop Park, Chipping Norton and Banbury.

On the 25 November a King's Proclamation was given at Henley market, which offered £500 rewards to anyone who could apprehend those responsible for the 'outrages and incendiarism'.

Punishments for those found to have been involved in the rioting were harsh. In England, nearly 2000 were brought to trial for involvement in the riots. Only 19 were hanged for their involvement, but many hundreds were either imprisoned or transported to the colonies.

A positive result?

Although the methods used by the 'swing rioters' were violent and destructive, they were working towards a noble aim: to attain a living wage and end rural unemployment.

There was considerable sympathy for their cause, particularly from radical politicians like William Cobbett, and the events helped drive support for political change. This culminated in the Reform Act of 1832 that extended the vote to a much wider slice of the population.