13.1. Threshing Machines

We have seen in an earlier chapter, that the threshing machines were accepted in Scotland and in Northern England in the period 1790 to 1815. From the farmers’ point of view, because they made the operation more efficient, and because they made up for the shortage of hands, due to the number of men taken for the Army and Navy during the French Wars. The men were also in agreement, because the work of manually threshing with the flail was physically demanding and they had to work with the air filled with the dust of the broken stalks.

The argument as to connection between the threshing machines and the Swing Riots is:

  • the machines caused unemployment amongst the labourers; 
  • the threshing work with the flail was the most important source of income, during the winter months;
  • the Swing Riots took place in 1830, because the farmers in southern England had just accelerated the installation of the machines.

The last part is just not true. There is not one piece of evidence that farmers in southern England installed threshing machines in the period from 1815 to 1830. It would have been stupid, as they knew that the labourers could not absorb any reduction in their earnings, and that they would have reacted violently. But more important, the farmers did not have any money for investment in machines; the majority were losing money in their operations. Further, they could not take up loans to buy the machines, as from 1826 to 1831 there were restrictions on credit (no power-looms were built either!). 

The reality is different:

  1. the use of threshing machines did not cause loss of work among the labourers, rather the men who had been working with the flail were sent to other tasks, one or two men were put to operating the machine, and women and children were put to collecting and twining the stalks;
  2. the farm workers had an irrational idea that the machines were causing the unemployment in the winter half-year (although it was really due to the excess of men, after the return of 300,000 men from the armed forces in 1815-1816);
  3. the better classes could not understand why the men had this strange idea, which was in contradiction to the facts.

We have comments from farmers and other persons as to the idea of loss of employment due to the machines:

“The scarcity of labourers in many districts, owing to the increase of trade, and the immense number of hands employed in the army and navy, furnishes another argument for the general introduction of thrashing machines. It is a circumstance that cannot fail to excite surprise, that those machines are scarcely known in many of the best cultivated English counties, notwithstanding that their utility is universally acknowledged wherever they have been erected. Some objections have been offered by English farmers, as if the saving in one way would be compensated by the increased expence in another; in other words, that if thrashing machines were brought into general use, a great many labourers would be thrown out of employment, which, of course, would serve to raise the poor rates. Experience, however, is, in every case, the surest guide. The very same argument was used in Scotland when machines were first introduced; and yet it has been found that the savings made by the farmer in this way enabled him to employ more labourers than before. …. Every invention that lessens the expence of farm labour enables the farmer to employ additional hands in carrying on other works; and, in all improved farms, these works are so numerous, that employment can never be wanting for labourers, as long as the means of paying them remain with the employer.

The mode of harvesting in England, however, is much against the use of thrashing machines; and indeed it is against the process of thrashing in whatever way it is performed. In many counties, all the grain, with the exception of wheat, is cut by the scythe, and of course is not bound up into sheaves in that regular way as when it is cut by the sickle. Oats, in particular, cannot be thrashed clean with a machine, unless the heads or ears are fairly and equally exposed to the beaters or scutchers. If either this grain or wheat passes irregularly or unequally through the feeding rollers, the beaters have little power, and are unfitted for the process of separation.”

(Robert Brown, Treatise on Rural Affairs ….., Olifant and Balfour, Edinburgh, 1811, pp. 338-339) 

“Do you use Threshing Machines in your Parish?” “No; there has been but one in the Parish.”

“Do you know what Advantage results from the Threshing Machines?” “I have heard there is no Advantage results from them; that it is considered that it takes as many Hands and costs as much Money as threshing by the Hand.”

“It is considered to spoil the Straw, is it not?” “It breaks the Wheat a good deal, and it wants a good many hands; it is considered as expensive to thresh with Machines as with Hands.”

(Select Committee of the House of Lords appointed to consider of the State of the Poor Laws (1830 & 1831), Report, Mr. Richard Holloway, Overseer, Shipley, Sussex, p. 41) 

“Are there any Threshing Machines in your Parish?” “None belonging to any Farmer in the Parish; now and then one has been brought into the Parish, when a Farmer has wished to thresh out Corn in a very hasty Manner; but the general Report of the Farmers is, that it is not beneficial, on account of the breaking of the Straw.”

(Select Committee of the House of Lords appointed to consider of the State of the Poor Laws (1830 & 1831), Report, Rev. Charles Reverell, Rector, Northamptonshire, p. 58)

“Do you use Thrashing Machines in your Part of the Country?” “Yes.”

“Are they esteemed there a great Benefit to the Farmer?” “I think Farmers begin to be convinced that they are not so, because they damage the Straw, and they are almost as expensive to them, taking into Consideration the prime Cost [capital investment], and keeping them in order.”

(Select Committee of the House of Lords appointed to consider of the State of the Poor Laws (1830 & 1831), Report, Rev. Henry Foulis, Magistrate, Lincolnshire, p. 96)

“In what Manner are the Wives and Children employed?” “With respect to ourselves, we have had three Thrashing Machines; we occupy about 900 Acres in that and the adjoining Parishes. It is almost all Arable Land, and it is all highly cultivated. The whole of it is cropped; and, by a large Outlay of Capital, we employ a great Number of Horses and a great Number of Persons; and without having those Thrashing Machines we could not get through our Business without a considerable Importation of Labourers. The Women are employed a good deal in the Barns, at the Thrashing Machines; there are three or four able-bodied Men who can thrash; and the additional Number is made up with their Wives and Children to each Machine.”  

(Select Committee of the House of Lords appointed to consider of the State of the Poor Laws (1830 & 1831), Report, Mr. Francis Sherborn, overseer, Hounslow, Middlesex, p. 109)

“What is the particular Advantage of employing Thrashing Machines?” “I have already said that we are short of Labourers, and we are obliged to employ a considerable Number of Persons that do not belong to the Parish. We are obliged to keep a great Number of Horses; and very often in the Winter-time those Horses have very little to do, and there is Employment by the Thrashing Machines for those Horses, and also for the Women and Children of the Labourers; and it enables us to get forward with our work; so that when the Weather is fine we can take all the Labourers to cultivate the Land much more advantageously with them than I could without them. In addition to what I have already said, I conceive that the Corn is thrashed cleaner; but it is no saving of Expence.”     

“Does it in fact enable you to employ more Labourers?” “We employ as many Labourers, certainly. I do not mean to say that we employ more able-bodied Labourers, but we employ as great a Number of Persons – the Women and Children belonging to the Families of the Labourers.”

(same witness, p. 111)

A witness to the Select Committee on Hand-Loom Weavers’ Petitions of 1835, the Rev. George Burges, a writer on political and economic affairs, brought in a calculation made by experts, referring to the costs of threshing 60 quarters of wheat per week. The threshing machine, including costs for damaged straw, and for the hire of the machine, came out 33 % more expensive. The use of the flail required 8 men during 10 days, and the use of the machine required 5 men and 4 women for 6 days.     

(p. 565)

Irrational ideas of the labourers

The Magistrate at Ticehurst in Sussex, when asked about the original causes of the outbreak of the riots in Kent and Sussex, gave the information that labourers who had lost the chance of their usual high wages during the hop harvest, decided to take their anger out on the threshing machines in their area:

“ …. the fund for labour in the hop districts depends materially, in the present distressed state of agriculture, upon the advances from the factor to the grower, on the credit of the expected crop. There being a decided failure in the gardens in that part of the country in the summer of 1830, a greater number of labourers were out of employ, and the thrashing machines became the first object of attack.”

(Extracts from the Information received by his Majesty’s Commissioners as to the Administration and Operation of the Poor Laws, 1833, G. Courthope, Magistrate, Ticehurst, Sussex, p. 42)

In Dorset, the amount of work in threshing was small, and thus it was not logical to destroy the machines:

“In Blackmore Vale, not enough corn was grown to provide many labourers with work threshing in winter, even if there had been no machines. Many were therefore forced to find parish work on the roads. So where threshing machines were broken in the Vale, this was probably not so much because they caused unemployment, as because they symbolised impersonal power over the labourers. (When Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles left Angel Clare, she had to get work harvesting, and felt how the machines «kept up a despotic demand upon the endurance» of the workers’ muscles and nerves.)” 

(The Dorset Page, Captain Swing, http://www.thedorsetpage.com/history/captain_swing/captain_swing.htm)

“The agricultural labourers took it into their heads that the introduction of machinery for threshing etc., was the cause of keeping down their wages and lessening the amount of labour.”

(W. S. Darter, retired alderman, “Reminiscences of Reading by an Octagenarian”,1885, quoted in Fox, Part 1, note 62)

“They were most of them agricultural labourers. When they came to my house, I went and met them. I knew they would try to break my machine, and I asked them what reason they had for doing so. They gave no reason. Hartford said, he had come to break it, and break it he would.“

(Machine Breaking – Salisbury Special Commission; The Annual Register, or a View of the History, Politics,and Literature of the Year 1831, Baldwin and Craddock, London, 1832; Chronicle January p. 5; Evidence of Mr. Ambrose Patient)

There are a number of statements made by members of the better classes (including Cobbett), that the men are “deluded” if they think that the threshing machines are taking away their employment:

“Some misguided, poor, suffering men in the county of Suffolk, have destroyed threshing machines. Why not ploughs, which are only digging machines? Why not spades, and thus come to our bare hands at once. But, why threshing machines? Is not the flail a machine?”

(Italics in the original text)

(Cobbett’s Political Register, Volume 31, Letter to the Luddites, Nov. 30, 1816, pp. 679)

“The notion of our labourers in agriculture is, that Threshing Machines, for instance, injure them, because, say they, if it were not for those machines, we should have more work to do. This is a great error. For, if, in consequence of using a machine to beat out his corn, the farmer does not expend so much money on that sort of labour, he has so much more money to expend on some other sort of labour. If he saves twenty pounds a year in the article of threshing, he has that twenty pounds a year to expend in draining, fencing, or some other kind of work; for, you will observe, that he does not take the twenty pounds and put it into a chest and lock it up, but lays it out in his business; and his business is to improve his land and add to the quantity and amount of his produce. Thus, in time, he is enabled to feed more mouths in consequence of his machine, and to buy, and cause others to buy, more clothes than were bought before; and, as in the case of the ten sailors, the skill of the mechanic tends to produce ease and power and happiness.

The threshing machines employ women and children in a dry and comfortable barn, while the men can be spared to work in fields. Thus the weekly wage of the labourer who has a large family, is, in many cases, greatly augmented, and his life rendered so much the less miserable.”

(Italics in the original text)

(Cobbett’s Political Register, Volume 31, Letter to the Luddites, Nov. 30, 1816, pp. 685-686)

“It is conceived, that the opposition that has been raised against this practice, on the ground of its being calculated to deprive and prevent the labourers of employment during the winter season, is scarcely deserving of notice, as experience has fully shewn that no injurious consequences can result from it, as there must always be enough of other kinds of work at such periods, where farms are under a judicious mode of cultivation.”

(Abraham Rees; The Cyclopaedia: Or, Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences and Literature, Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme & Brown, London, 1819 ; Article “Threshing”)

“The thrashing machine has changed the employment of some of the stoutest of the peasantry, but it has brought into employment the labour of women and children, and thus has increased the earnings of larger families. If this machine, the power of horses, and the labour of women and children had not been introduced in this and in many parts of the country, it would have been very difficult to bring to market the crop of one year before the succeeding harvest. The employment of the female population, and of boys and girls from a very early age, is one of the chief circumstances which serve to reconcile the number of agricultural labourers with the manifest increase of demand for their labour. In this village at this season there are probably as many women and girls as men and boys employed. This change in the employment of the female population is of great moment in ascertaining the earnings of labourers’ families. The actual expenditure of the farmers for manual labour is altogether at variance with the popular accounts which are given of the wages of agricultural labourers.” 

(Brereton, Practical Enquiry into the Number of Labourers, 1825, pp. 81-82)

Mr. Justice Alderson at the Salisbury Assizes in 1831, gave the following statement to James Stevens and George Burbag, found guilty of being part of a mob:

“You are both thrashers and you might in the perversion of your understanding think that these machines are detrimental to you. Be assured that your labour cannot ultimately be hurt by the employment of these machines. If they are profitable to the farmer, they will also be profitable ultimately to the labourer, though they may for a time injure him. If they are not profitable to the farmer he will soon cease to employ them.” 

(Hammond and Hammond, The Village Labourer, 1920, p. 271)

In the Report of the Commissioners for Inquiring into the Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Laws, 1834 (but answers from 1832), Supplement, there are a number of answers from magistrates and vicars in the counties of Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, and Cambridgeshire, to Question 53: “causes and consequences of the riots”.
There are only five phrases mentioning threshing machines: “the prejudice entertained against threshing machinery” (Bedford / Sharnbrook), “prejudice against machinery” (Berkshire / Kintbury), “the idea that threshing machines kept them out of employ, and lowered wages” (Berkshire / Lambourne), “a misconception of the effects of machinery” (Berkshire / Speen), “an impression among labourers that machines were injurious to their interests” (Bucks. / Oving).  

In Scotland and the North of England there was no problem with the men, as the farms were large:

“Are thrashing machines in use?” “Yes, almost universally where the farms are of sufficient extent.”

“Is there very little thrashing done by hand?” “Very little, unless in the Highlands, where there is a small quantity of corn to thrash.”

“Do you think there are as many employed in winter?” “Yes, there are very nearly as many people employed on the thrashing machines as would thrash by flails.”

“There is no prejudice on the part of the labourer against machinery?” No, the prejudice is very trifling where it exists at all.”

(Select Committee on Agriculture, 1833, Mr. Thomas Oliver, Farmer and land valuer, Lothian,  Q. 2808, p. 134)

Note from the drawing below, that there are 5 men working on the machine; probably there are 3 women and children inside the barn, collecting and twining the straw, and moving the sacks of grain. The metal machinery is inside the box at the entrance to the barn, and is made to rotate by the chain running from the wheel moved by the horse. This does not show a great reduction of personnel, as is usually supposed.

Drawing taken from a newspaper of about 1830


“The number of persons requisite for attending the mill when working is six: one person drives the horses: a second hands the sheaves to a third, who unties them: while a fourth spreads them on the inclined boards, and presses them gently between the rollers: a fifth person is necessary to riddle the corn as it falls from the fanners, and a sixth to remove the straw.”

“As to the comparative expense of these different machines, the erection of the horse-machine is the least: but then the expenses of employing the horses must be taken into consideration. One of this kind may be erected for 70 l. A water-mill will cost 10 l. more, on account of the expense of the water-wheel. A windmill will cost from200 l. to 300 l. sterling. In thrashing machines, however, cheapness should not be the only consideration. It often happens in machinery that things apparently cheap are ultimately very dear. Thrashing of corn requires a strong power, to which neither weak men nor slight machines are competent.”

“Six horses, for example, are capable of thrashing ten bolls [forty bushels] of wheat in an hour, or ninety-five in the space of nine hours and a half, or a working day; and 680 gallons of water discharged into the buckets of an overshot water-wheel of 15 feet diameter during a minute, will thrash the same quantity of grain.”  

Alexander Jamieson, Dictionary of Mechanical Science, London, 1827, article “Thrashing Machines”, Vol. 2, pp. 1000-1001.

Matthews, 2006, p. 112

It is not clear that the work of manually threshing the wheat gave the agricultural workers employment throughout all the winter half-year. The population of England and Wales was about 12,000,000 persons at this time, and the general estimation was that each person ate one quarter (480 pounds) of wheat per year, thus the production was about 12,000,000 quarters. A man could thresh about three-quarters of a quarter measure per day with the flail, so that 16,000,000 man-days would be required. But there were about 900,000 adult male agricultural labourers in the country, of which probably 50 % were in wheat-growing areas. Thus the volume of wheat could be threshed in 40 days, if the workers only were employed in this. 

Arthur Young, in his “Farmer’s Calendar” (1804), shows that the activity of threshing should take place in November, December, and January, of each year. But he also presents another 50 activities in each month. He also says “the threshers should always be chosen from the labourers with care …” (p. 524), which does not agree with the idea that threshing was the majority activity in man-days. 

The threshing machines in the South of the country were not sufficient in number to affect the employment of the labourers, either before 1830, or in 1830. In Kent and in Wiltshire, about 100 machines were broken in each, and we know that practically none were left after the Swing Riots. In Kent there were about 50,000 agricultural labourers (average of Census in 1801 and 1851), and in Wiltshire about 42,000. Even if the threshing machines took away the work of 5 men each – which would be an exaggeration – that would have been an effect of 500 men per county (in Sussex, there were very few machines, as in only a small part of the county was wheat cultivated).

It is very unlikely that many threshing machines were installed in the southern half of England after 1816. In comparison with the 21 patents for threshing machines issued in the period from 1789 to 1817, none was issued from 1816 to 1830 (information from Stuart MacDonald, The Progress of the Early Threshing Machine, The Agricultural History Review, Vol. 23, No. 1 (1975), p. 75). Jean-Baptiste Say, who visited England on a fact-finding project in 1814, wrote that “There is now scarcely a great farm in England where they do not employ, for example, a thrashing machine, by means of which, whenever dispatch is necessary, they can do more work in a day than they can by the ordinary method in a month” (England and the English People, 2nd Edition 1816, London, trans. John Richter; p. 37).  

After the Swing Riots, when in a number of areas the threshing work was again done by the flail, as the threshing machines had been wrecked, there was no improvement in employment for the men:

“You have stated, that during the war the average rate of wages was about a bushel a week for a man, and that at present it is considerably more than a bushel; during the period of the high price, was not a great deal of the agricultural labour done by task-work?” “Yes, and it is so now.”

“Since the resumption of the flail do the labourers work by task-work as much as they did before the introduction of the threshing-machines?” “Certainly not, for this reason; if they were to put them at task-work, the farmers say that they should not be enabled to employ so many, that they could then only employ a few men that would earn high wages, and the others would have no employment at all; and therefore, upon that principle they think it better to let them go by the day.”

(Select Committee on Agriculture, 1833, Mr. Robert Hughes, Land agent and surveyor, Wiltshire, Q. 1252, p. 64)

“Have all the threshing machines gone out of use?” “There are some in use now, but not many.”

“Is there one now where there used to be twenty?” “There is scarcely one in a hundred.”

“Are they getting up again?” “Very partially.”

“Has the destruction of those threshing-machines increased the demand for labour?” “A very little; I used threshing-machines myself, and I always found that I employed about as many labourers by working the threshing-machines as I did without them.”

“Have wages risen in the last two years in Wiltshire?” “They were partially risen immediately after the riots; and in some cases that is continued, and in others it is not; generally speaking, it has gone back to the old prices.”

(Select Committee on Agriculture, 1833, Mr. Robert Hughes, Land agent and surveyor, Wiltshire, Q. 1237, p. 64) 

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