It was in the autumn of 1830 that the agricultural labourers, mainly those in the southern half of England, rose up against their masters in an effort to better the lives of themselves and their families. By the beginning of 1831, instead of the improved working and living conditions they had hoped for, many families found themselves worse off with the breadwinner confined to prison or worse still on board the hulks awaiting transportation to either New South Wales or Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was then called, and many of those left behind described as 'on the parish.'
The riots seem to have been caused by a number of factors the main ones being, poor living conditions, low wages, at least three years of poor harvests, that of 1829 being followed by a very severe winter which caused further distress to the farm labourer and his family, the last straw in some areas appears to have been the introduction of the threshing machine, these machines were seen by the labourer as taking away his winter employment. It was the threshing machine that was to become the main target for destruction during the disturbances.
The first threshing machine was destroyed at Lower Hardres in Kent on 28th August 1830, but before this, there had been several cases of arson reported and a threatening letter had been received at Mildenhall in Suffolk as early as February 1830. The trouble spread north and west from Kent, reaching a peak in mid November, by which time most counties south of a line from Norfolk in the east to Worcester in the west had been involved in one way or another. Threatening , or "Swing", letters (so called as many of them were signed by the mythical 'Captain Swing') were however received as far west as herefordshire and incudence of arson occurred as far north as Carlisle.
The main counties from which men were transported were Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Dorset, Essex, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Huntingdonshire, Kent, Norfolk, Oxfordshire, Suffolk, Sussex, and Wiltshire. One or two were also sentenced to transportation in Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Derbyshire, Herefordshire, Hertfordshire, Shropshire, Somerset, and Staffordshire. Other counties where rioting and machine breaking took place include Nothamptonshire.
The disturbances took a variety of forms. 'Swing' letters were sent to farmers and manufacturers threatening the destruction of their property if they failed to remove the machinery or raise the wages. Stacks and barns were fired, and there were riotous assemblies with demands being made for higher wages and reductions in the tithes. Attacks were made on workhouses and overseers. In some counties machinery and wrought iron foundries were attacked. In Buckinghamshire attacks were made on the recently installed machinery at several paper mills along a three-mile stretch of river between Loudwater and Chepping Wycombe. Paper mills were also attacked at Colthrop, in Berkshire, and Lyng and Taverham in Norfolk. Also in Norfolk machinery was destroyed at Robert Calver's sawmill at Catton and the mill itself was set alight. At Wilton in Wiltshire a large mob caused around £300 worth of damage at John Brasher's woolen cloth factory. Machinery valued at £2,000 was demolished at Tasker's Waterloo Foundry at Upper Clatford near Andover in Hampshire, while at Fordingbridge in the same county it was East Mill, Samuel Thompson's sacking factory and William Shepherd's threshing machine factory at Stuckton that bore the brunt of the labourers anger. There were riots involving some Kidderminster carpet weavers, where needle-stamps and presses were destroyed by workers at Redditch in Worcestershire, but it is not certain that these were directly related to the labourers’ movement. In many instances of machine breaking, particularly in Berkshire, Hampshire and Wiltshire, the mob made demands for money, beer or food in return for what they termed 'their services'. Many of those involved in this were to be charged with robbery when they came to trial.
The disturbances spread rapidly from one county to the next, taking less than a week to reach Wiltshire from Sussex. The organisation of the movement was almost entirely on a local level with leaders or 'Captains' being chosen from the community. There were however some leaders who worked outside their own areas, the most notorious being 'Captain' or 'Lord Hunt', whose real name was James thomas Cooper. He led a number of riots in Hampshire, Wiltshire, and Dorset. He was executed at Winchester on 15th January 1831. However, in most instances band of men from one village travelled around the farms and hamlets in their area, gathering men, demanding higher wages, destroying machinery, and in some cases levying money, as they went. News of what was happening passed quickly from one village to the next and it was not long before another band of men with similar grievances were making their way around their area. In many counties the trouble was short lived. For example, the riots reached Hampshire around the 10th November and were virually all over by the 26th of the same month.
It was the contagious aspect of the riots that alarmed the authorities, although they were rather slow to react at first. Some troops were dispatched to troubled areas but the Government left it to the rural magistrates to deal with the problem as they saw fit. When the new Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, took office in November 1830, it was seen that this was not enough. The Yeomanry were mobilized, special constables were sworn in and landowners organised their own forces made up of tenants and servants. By the end of December 1830, the main wave of rioting was virtually all over and almost, 2,000 men and women had been rounded up and were awaiting trial. The Government considered that the magistrates in Kent, who had already tried some of the rioters, were being too lenient and a Special Commission was set up to deal with those in what were considered to be the counties where damage had been most pronounced, Hampshire, Wiltshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Dorset. The remainder were to be tried at the Assize Courts or Quarter Sessions. The trials did not bring an immediate end to the disturbances. Riots and demonstrations continued into 1831, with several threshing machines being broken and, if anything, the number of cases of arson reported continued to grow after this time.
Almost before the trials were over petitions were organised by individuals and the inhabitants of numerous towns and villages throughout the country in an attempt to save those sentenced to death and to put in a plea for a reduction in the sentence of the others. In some cases the petitions had the desired effect but 19 men were executed, over 600 were sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment and around 500 were sentenced to transportation for either life, 14 or 7 years.
Their exile began with the move from goal to the prison hulks, for the majority of these men that meant a journey to Portsmouth and the hulk York. For many the stay on the York was short, those who sailed on the Eliza spent no more than a day or two, and by 6th February 1831, 224 men were on board the Eliza bound for Tasmania, or Van Diemen's Land as it was then called. By April 1831 most of the remaining prisoners were also on their way, either on their was to New south Wales on the Eleanor, or the Proteus bound for Tasmania. 98 of the 112 men on board had been convicted of machine breaking or connected crimes. These three ships took between 111 and 126 days to reach their destination.
Not all of those sentenced to transportation actually sailed. Some got no further than the prison hulks and after spending time there were pardoned. Several men, and two women, were to follow the three main ships, arriving alone or in twos and threes over the next few years, making them one of the largest ever groups to be transported as a result of what was possibly the worst ever disturbance in rural England.
The majority of the men were farm labourers; many of the Buckinghamshire men were described as ‘papermakers’. More unusual occupations included James Pumphrey, a road surveyor from Hampshire, Thomas Whatley a carpet weaver from Wiltshire; another Wiltshire man was blacksmith Maurice Pope who was also a prizefighter. In some cases more than one member of the same family was transported, fathers and sons, brothers, brother in laws and cousins.
The two women sentenced to transportation were Elizabeth Studham, from kent, who arrived in Hobart on the Mary in October 1831, and Elizabeth Parker who was sentenced to transportation for seven years for breaking a threshing machine at Tetbury in Gloucestershire but received a free pardon and was discharged from Gloucester Gaol in July 1831. She came up for trial again at the Gloucester Assizes, held on 28th March 1832, charged with stealing money from the person of Daniel Cole. She was found guilty and sentenced to transportation for life. She said on the Frances Charlotte, arriving in Hobart in January 1833.
On arrival in Australia the men were kept on board until all their details had been taken. This having been done they were then brought ashore. In 1831 the assignment system was still in operation and after being brought ashore the men were assigned either to government service or to individual settlers.
More than half the men transported were married with families at the time of the riots and after they had been in Australia a year or two a few of them applied to the Governor for permission to have their family brought out at government expenses. Other men had their families brought out at their own expense after they were free and some, not all of them bachelors, married in Australia and made new lives for themselves.
Even before the Eliza sailed efforts were underway in Parliament to try and obtain freedom for the men, but it was to be three years before Governor Arthur was directed to release the first 'machine breaker'. In August 1835, 264 'machine breakers' were pardoned and more were pardoned in the years that followed. By the mid 1840's the majority of the men had received their freedom, either by way of a Conditional or Absolute Pardon or a Certificate of Freedom. The only ones excluded were those who had been convicted of colonial offences. On the whole the 'Swing' prisoners were fairly well behaved. The conduct records for the Eliza and Proteus men show only minor offences in the main, most relating to drunkenness or the neglect of duty.
Those men who had received a Certificate of Freedom on the expiry of their sentence or an Absolute Pardon, were free to return to England if they wished or could afford to do so, some did. I have so far found more than twenty instances of men making their way back to England where they were reunited with their families after an absence in some cases of nearly ten years. For the vast majority of the men though there was to be no return to England. Most stayed on in Australia and made new lives for themselves, working as labourers, tradesmen, farmers and innkeepers. Some made their way to Victoria during the Gold Rush, others after much hard work, prospered, a prosperity they might not have achieved had they remained in England.
Over the last few years I have been contacted by a number of the descendants of those involved and I am indebted to them for all the details they have passed on to me on their particular ancestor and for putting me in touch with other descendants. It would seem that a number of those transported maintained contact with their former shipmates.