Angela Buckley shares how to find out if your rural ancestors took part in the Swing Riots.
Life was tough at the turn of the 19th century and many working families struggled to survive, especially in the countryside. Most of us have ‘ag labs’ in our family tree and in 1830, their increasingly difficult living conditions forced them to take desperate measures to preserve their traditional way of life.
The changes experienced by agricultural labourers began with land enclosure during the 18th century – smaller holdings were enclosed to form larger farms, owned by tenant farmers, and common land used by villagers for grazing livestock and growing crops was restricted. In 1795, the Speenhamland system was adopted, which linked the minimum income to the size of family and the fluctuating price of bread. This led to low pay, which was exacerbated by cuts in parish relief – farm labourers were dependent on seasonal work, which was scarce, particularly in the winter. In 1815, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, unemployment rose further, when returning soldiers and sailors competed for work. As a result many rural families suffered intense poverty.
Furthermore, the technological developments at the end of the 18th century had started to transform the agricultural landscape. The first horse-drawn threshing machine was introduced in 1784 and, in the 1830s, machines began to replace manual labour in the fields. Along with the deteriorating conditions, this direct threat to the farmworker’s livelihood led to the widespread unrest known as the Swing Riots.
Rioting and arson
The first threshing machine destroyed by farmworkers was in Orpington, Kent on 28 August 1830. The protests quickly spread to Sussex and then to other southern counties and East Anglia. The north of England was not as affected, as wages were generally higher and many labourers worked in factories and mills. Action included threatening letters to landowners, attacks on local authority figures, machine breaking, damage to property, cattle maiming, robbery and arson. Handbills and posters were circulated demanding an increase in wages, a reduction in tithe payments and the destruction of farm machinery. To preserve the anonymity of protesters, letters were signed by the fictitious figurehead, ‘Captain Swing’. The rioting lasted throughout the year, reaching a peak in November. Some 400 machines were destroyed and countless hayricks and barns set on fire.
The local authorities responded harshly to the disturbances and some 2,000 trials of rioters and breakers took place. These were mostly held at the local quarter sessions, with Special Commissions set up in some counties, such as Hampshire, Wiltshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. 19 men were executed, 644 imprisoned and 505 transported.
The majority of those transported were held on the notorious prison hulks – decommissioned ships moored in Portsmouth and London to ease overcrowding in prisons. After a short stay, the convicts boarded ships to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and New South Wales in Australia. The sea journey took about four months, in deplorable conditions. Most of the prisoners never returned.
If members of your family worked the land in the early decades of the 19th century, then there’s a good chance they took part in the Swing Riots, and there are plenty of sources to help you find out more about their involvement. The best place to start is at The National Archives (TNA), where there is a wealth of material relating to crime and punishment during that period.
Most of the relevant records at TNA are held in the Home Office series (HO). These include HO series 26 and 27 (the criminal registers for England and Wales 1791–1892); the quarterly returns for convicts in prison and prison hulks (1802–1876) in HO8; and the prison hulk registers and letter books (1802–1849) in HO9. There are also records in other series, such as the registers of convicts in prison hulks between 1818 and 1831 in ADM6 (the Admiralty records); and the Departmental Accounts for Convict Hulks (1802–1831) in T38 of the Treasury records.
There are some excellent research guides on the TNA website (www.nationalarchives.gov.uk). Begin your search with the guides under the heading, ‘Criminals, courts and prisons’ – the guide on ‘Criminal Transportees’ is particularly useful. All guides provide helpful information and links to specific databases.
Once you have located records for your ancestor, there are different options for accessing them. Some are available to download on the TNA website. You can also visit The National Archives at Kew in person to view them for free, or access them via commercial websites, such as Ancestry (www.ancestry.co.uk) and Findmypast (www.findmypast.co.uk). Both these sites have extensive collections of digitised criminal records. For example, Ancestry holds the criminal registers HO26 and HO27 and the prison hulk registers HO9, whereas Findmypast offers access to material such as the quarterly returns of convicts (HO8) and the petitions for clemency (1762–1854) from TNA series HO17 and HO18. (www.thegenealogist.co.uk) holds the Convict Transportation Registers for 1787–1867. Enter your ancestor’s name in the general searches on any of these websites and you should be able to find any relevant records quite easily.
If your ancestor stood trial during the Swing Riots, you can then search for the court records. Quarter sessions records are usually held in local record offices, some of which have online indexes. The records for the assizes courts (1559–1971) are at the National Archives, in the ASSI series.
The Black Sheep Search website (www.black-sheep-search.co.uk), hosted by Jill Chambers, is a valuable resource for those looking for Swing Rioters. Here you can find information about the riots and prison hulks, as well as lists of offenders by county. In addition, Jill has published a series of ‘Machine Breakers’ books containing firsthand accounts of the events and the subsequent trials. Copies are also available at the Society of Genealogists’ library (www.sog.org.uk/the-library).
Contemporary newspapers may reveal more information about specific events and their reports are often more detailed than the formal records. The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk) has over 12 million pages online, including many regional publications. The archive can also be accessed via Findmypast.
For ancestors transported to Australia or Tasmania, there are many ways to find out what happened to them once they arrived. The National Archives holds the records of transportees to Australia (1787–1879) in series HO10 and HO11, both of which can be downloaded free from the Discovery catalogue (discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk).
There are many websites dedicated to transportation. An invaluable source is Convicts to Australia, www.convictcentral.com, which is a good portal to other repositories, including the state libraries of Queensland and New South Wales.
Back home, shortly after the Swing Rioters were sent to the penal colonies, campaigns for their pardon began in Parliament and, by 1834, half of those transported had been granted their freedom. By the 1840s, most of them had been released, the majority of whom decided to remain overseas.
- Swing Unmasked: The Agricultural Riots of 1830 to 1832 and Their Wider Implications, Michael Holland, FACHRS Publications, 2004, ISBN 9780954818005
- My Ancestor was an Agricultural Labourer, Ian H. Waller, Society of Genealogists Enterprises Ltd (revised edition), 2002, ISBN 978190346298-0
- Criminal Ancestors, David T. Hawkings, The History Press (2nd edition), 2009, ISBN 9780750950572