In order to understand the feelings of the agricultural workers in 1830, when the Swing Riots broke out, we should revise the conditions that they had experienced in the previous 10 years, as to their incomes and their food consumption.
Our most useful “optical witness” for the living conditions of the agricultural population in the South of England in the 1820’s is William Cobbett, in his “Rural Rides”. There is a general idea, that Cobbett devotes a large part of the book to denouncing the horrible poverty of these persons. But actually in about 80 % of the pages he talks about the beauties of the English countryside and towns, and about the state of the farming; in these passages, there are no comments about the poverty of the people. In from 5 to 10 % of the pages he talks about national politics and the economy. There are about 30 pages in which he writes of the extreme poverty and the low incomes in Wiltshire and N. Hampshire.
On only one occasion does he see a threshing machine, and never refers to one nearby.
It is not true that all the agricultural labourers were hungry throughout the decade of the 1820’s. The following chart shows that the “winter weekly wages” (average of the country) were above the price of a bushel (60 lb.) during the decade. The “rule of thumb” at that time was that if a family had a weekly income of an amount equal to the price of a bushel of wheat, they could cover their expenses, eating all the wheat they needed and a little meat. We see that the income, averaged over the country, was 1.50 bushels in 1822-24 and 1.35 bushels in the years from 1825 to 1832. Kent was generally 2 shillings above the average, and Wiltshire 2 shillings below the average (but Wiltshire had a lot of allotments).
(Own calculation in Chapter 12 of this study)
In the “Rural Queries” sent out and answered in 1832, we see that of a total of 899 parishes reporting, in 71 cases it was estimated that the family “could not subsist on their earnings”, in 212 cases they could subsist (without more detail), in 125 cases they could scarcely subsist, and in 491 cases they could buy meat.
(His Majesty’s Commissioners for Inquiring into the Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Laws; Report; Rural Queries, session 1834, vols. xxx-xxxiv, p. lxxxix; but the queries were in fact answered in 1832)
There is a detailed investigation of the wages, cost of living, and real wages (indices), of some South-Eastern counties in:
Richardson, Thomas Lill; The Standard of Living Controversy 1790-1840, with Special Reference to Agricultural Labourers in Seven English Counties; Thesis submitted for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the University of Hull, May 1977.
Real Wages (Index 1790 = 100)
|Wages||Cost of Living||Real Wages|
(*) Kent, Real Wages: 1815-1824 = around 95; 1825-1830 = around 100
Richardson, 1977, Appendix 26
From the above table, we see that the real wages in 1830 in these counties were a little above the 1790 level, and a little above the 1815 level. So we may suppose that the agricultural workers were not poor and hungry in the decade 1820-1830.
From the Minutes of Evidence of the Select Committee investigating the Poor Laws, sitting from December 1830 to April 1831, we can extract the comments of the witnesses (farmers, magistrates, land agents, etc.), with respect to the situations in different counties.
|Conditions of men |
|Conditions of men |
not in steady
|Bedford||8s.||“Eat nothing but |
|“30 of 130 not |
|Kent (Weald)||10s.6d.||12s.||“Eat wheaten bread |
of the finest quality,
|Wiltshire (North)||8s.||7s.||“Not in great |
|Sussex (Weald)||10s.||12s.||“They eat bread, |
a little meat,
a little cheese”
|Northampton||9s.||“They eat bread, |
|Wiltshire (North)||8s. 6d.||“Bread and cheese |
very little meat”
|Surrey||15s.||“Never so badly |
off as they are
|Sussex (East)||11s.||“Those in regular |
work are very
they eat wheaten
|“Few out of employ |
in the winter”
|Lincoln||15s.||“Not at all in a bad |
|“No general distress”|
|Middlesex||12s.6d.||“As good as any time |
I can recollect”
|“In the parish, none |
out of employment”
|Sussex (West)||10s.||12s.||“Eat bread, bacon, |
|Sussex (West)||9s. 6d.|
|Sussex (Weald)||10s.||12s.||“Condition below |
its proper level”
|Somerset (Wells)||9s.||“Perfectly satisfied |
with their pay,
|“The poor have |
|Berkshire (East)||12s.||“Better off than I |
have ever seen them”
|Sussex (West)||10s.||12s.||“Are in a very |
|Hertford||10s.6d||“Much better off |
than ten years ago”
|Berkshire (East)||9s. 6d.|
At that time, the bushel of wheat cost from 7 to 8 shillings. The general idea was that a medium-sized family required a monetary amount of about three quarters of a bushel per week, and a large family required one bushel. But a large proportion of the agricultural families consumed about 25 % by volume of their carbohydrates in the form of potatoes, which cost at a maximum one halfpenny per pound, or 8 pence for a quarter part of a bushel (or they cultivated the potatoes themselves in allotments, which cost close to zero). The poorer agricultural families in the West of England ate barley, and those in the North ate oats, both of which cost about 60 % of wheat. Thus those families with 8 shillings a week could – but with difficulty – cover their weekly needs.
Additional to their weekly standard payments, the man could in some weeks carry out task work, which was valued at 50 to 70 % more than the normal day, and received a double wage during the harvest month. The wife and children could save 3 – 4 weeks of wheat consumption through gleaning of the fallen seeds; usually the eldest boy (10 to 15 years old) would have paid work on the farm, which brought another 3 shillings. On the other hand the family had to pay rent for the cottage, clothing, and fuel (wood or coals).
So we see that a family, with the father in continuous employment, and with 8 shillings standard wage, could eat sufficient bread, and some cheese, butter, and meat; but they had to work hard!
But it is not that simple. The figures above are for the men in continuous employment over a number of years with “their” farmer, and at standard “weekly winter wages”, which were generally constant over all of one county. With these wages, the men could have a decent life (obviously, these are farm workers, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, so that the word “decent” has to be understood in these terms). Men in this situation were generally referred to as “able-bodied men”; the term only on a few occasions was used to describe their bodily characteristics.
In all the years from 1815 to at least 1833, and in the majority of the agricultural counties in the South of England, about 30 % of the workers in the countryside did not have continuous employment on a farm, and had to find casual work at a much lower wage level, be “employed” by the parish at repairing roads etc., and/or receive “relief” payments from the parish to “make up” their incomes to a minimum fixed by the local magistrates (for an example of the different sources of income through the year, see Richardson, 1977, pp. 155-156). Nearly all of them did find work in the harvest season. Some of them suffered hunger in the winter months. There are a number of descriptions of these difficult conditions.
So to understand the income level and the possibilities of food consumption, we have to take the higher of the wages from the farmer, and the “support level” from the parish.
We also have to distinguish between the labourers with continuous employment with one farmer, and those who have to look for work, or be employed or paid by the parish:
“The state of the labourer is distressing in a degree not recollected, I believe, by any. Regular labourers, retained by their old master, are not included in this description. Their wages, of course, have fallen but having regular work, …. the fall in prices in most of what they have to buy, is nearly equal to that of labour. This description of labourers, under masters tolerably liberal, suffer less than any. … It is among the labourers who have not constant employ that the greatest distress prevails. ….. To lower their expenses the farmers endeavour to keep fewer labourers …. In some larger villages and towns, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, and more men are employed at low wages, by order of the magistrates, under the surveyor of highways, lifting stones for the roads, smoothing the roads, etc.”
(A farmer from the parish of Bealings; Board of Agriculture, The Agricultural State of the Kingdom, 1816, pp. 315-317; quoted in Richardson, 1977)
“How do you account for wages not falling, when you say the number of labourers out of employ is greater: how is it wages do not drop?” “Because we most of us have a certain number of men that we employ both summer and winter, and we give them 2s. a day in winter, and by task-work they will make about half-a-crown; it is only those who have no fixed masters that are thrown upon the rates; we might perhaps want one or two each if we could afford to employ them.”
“If there are a number of men on the market not employed, does not that lower the rate of wages?” “No, not with us; I keep a set of men, and if a man does not commit a fault I keep him on in constant work, and give him 2s. a day, and frequently give him task-work, by which he can make 2s. 6d. and 3s.”
(Underline by this author)
(Select Committee Agriculture, 1833, Mr. William Simpson, Farmer and valuer, N. Riding, p. 145)
“Are the Committee to understand that in your opinion the agricultural labourer now employed, receiving the average rate of wages, is better off than he has been at any period in your knowledge?” “I think so; but it is the surplus labourers that are suffering, of which there are many in almost every parish, and these men are very badly off.”
“If there are many surplus labourers in every parish, how is it that the rate of wages does not fall from competition?” “It is generally the wish of the landlord that the wages should not fall below a certain standard, and I do not find, generally speaking, the farmers very desirous to bring them below a fair price; they pay the surplus labourers very bad prices, but the constant labourers are very well paid.”
“How is the selection made between the surplus labourers and the constant labourers?” “The surplus labourers are men that nobody will employ; they are generally men of the worst characters in the parish, and no one will employ them if he can help it, but those that do employ them say, “I do not want you, and if you must be employed I will give you a very low price.””
“For what period of the year is this surplus labour so redundant?” “It commences very soon after the harvest, and they remain in that state until the spring work comes in; you may take it from November to March.”
“Are they employed for the rest of the year?” “They are.”
(Select Committee Agriculture, 1833, Mr. Robert Hughes, steward to landowners, near Salisbury, Wiltshire, pp. 55-56)
To understand numerically the situation of the under-employed (“superfluous”) workers, we can inspect the incomes from poor relief (money that was supposed to cover the difference between minimum requirements and real earnings), expressed in the equivalent of the price of a bushel of wheat:
(Baugh, D. A.; The Cost of Poor Relief in South-East England, 1790-1834; Economic History Review, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Feb. 1975), pp. 50-68)
We see that the money amount corresponds to about 0.3 quarters of wheat per year per capita (total inhabitants of the county). If we suppose that 30 % of the population is under-employed, this is 1.0 quarters of wheat per capita, that is per family member in this segment. It was generally calculated in England that a person (average of adults and children) needed to eat 1.0 quarters of wheat per year, so that the money from the parish approximately covered this.
The preceding calculation does require some large adjustments:
- the family did have to pay additionally to the wheat or loaves, other food such as potatoes, bacon and cheese;
- they also had to pay for clothing, fuel (wood or coals), and cottage rent;
- the parish did not have to pay the man during the summer months, as everyone in the village had work at that period;
- in the total of the outgoings of the parish, there were also included payments to the elderly, to the infirm, to orphans, to women with bastards, and to widows without support from children.
The fact that the data shown above are roughly constant through the years, does not necessarily mean that the situation of the men assisted was the same all the time. It may be the case, that the amounts shown are due to the amount of money that the parish officers could collect through the rates, which would be nearly constant. But the amount of money that the poor would need, could be more than this quantity in really bad years.
The amounts of “pensions” for the elderly, the infirm, and widows, were usually in the range of 30 % to 60 % of the total outgoings for “relief” of persons. Thus the payments to men in lieu of wages were not as excessive as they seemed. Following, two cases of the total yearly outgoings in Wiltshire in 1829-30:
(Select Committee of the House of Lords appointed to consider of the State of the Poor Laws (1830 & 1831), Report, p. 375, p. 376)
The different types of payments by the parish administration to persons of working age were, when necessary:
- “allowance in aid of wages”, that is, “making up” the income of the family, to an amount which was supposed to be enough for the minumum necessities of the family; the amount was calculated on the basis of the “bread scale”, which was a grid with the cost of a quartern loaf, crossed with the number of persons in the family;
- “child allowance” which was an additional payment per additional child, even for families with sufficient wages + income, calculated as a monetary amount when there were more than three children;
- payment of the rent of the cottage where the family lived, but only for the poorest families;
- employment by the parish, in laying out roads, in excavating gravel pits, or maintaining fields which were property of the parish (the wages for single men were much less than those for married men);
- minimum payments in cash, in the case that the administration could not find any physical work for the man.
These payment classes have to be compared with the different employment situations of the men / families:
- the man had continuous employment during the year with a farmer, and at sufficient wages;
- the man had continuous employment during the year with a farmer, but at border-line wages;
- the man had full agricultural employment during the harvest month, partial employment in the other spring and summer months, and work with the parish in the autumn and winter months;
- the man had parish work during the year, and in some months, only a minimum wage from the parish.
This means that:
- the man in continuous employment with good wages, was in a situation where he could cover food and other expenses of the family;
- the man in continuous employment with insufficient wages, had his wage “made up” to a level, where he had just enough to buy food and other needs;
- the “surplus” man might find work with the parish, but at low wages;
- if the parish could not find work for the man, it would pay him a low daily tariff.
(For a detailed exposition of the payments, see: Judith Hill, Poverty, Unrest and the Response in Surrey, 2006; Chapter 4, Providing for the Poor outside the Workhouse, Chapter 5, Provision for Indoor Relief)
William Cobbett sent a “message” to the Government in his “Political Register” in November 1830. He showed that the amount paid by the parish, according to the tables authorized by the local magistrates in each case, were scarcely enough to buy the bread that the family needed, and which obviously left no money over to pay for their other necessities.
“Here is, at the present price of bread, 2s. 7d. a week for a man to live on and to work on. This is the scale published and acted on by the Magistrates of the Stourbridge Division [Dorset], in 1828. In some counties it is less. Why, then, LORD GREY, and then think further inquiry necessary, if you can. The quartern loaf is now 10d. Let us see, then, here are one man, one woman, one boy or girl of fifteen, one boy or girl of fourteen, one boy or girl of eleven, one little child; and for these six, here are 8s. 9d., including their earnings; that is to say, here are ten and half quartern loaves amongst the six; that is 43 lb. of bread; that is to say, 7 lb. 3 oz. of bread for each to live upon for a week, and to work upon too; and NOTHING for drink, fuel or clothing, or bedding, or washing! Look upon this, Lord Grey, and then think of extinguishing the fires by a proclamation that does nothing but menace!”
(Cobbett, Political Register, Vol. 70, 27th November 1830, p. 807)
But apparently the magistrates were being generous. The standard weekly wage in Dorset was from 7 to 8 shillings at that time. This would mean even the agricultural labourers with constant employment were not able to buy all the bread they needed. What is the explanation?
What was happening, as a differentiation between the farm workers and the under-employed, was that the “weekly winter wage” was a base amount, and those labourers who worked for a farmer, had many other income possibilities. These were: double wages for the harvest month, task-work at approx. 50 % higher rate per day, income from the wife or the children, gleaning. Particularly in Dorset, the farmers generally helped “their” workers in other aspects. They gave the man a cottage without charging rent, they paid for doctors’ visits, they allowed the man to collect fallen wood for their fire, and in bad years, they sold him wheat at perhaps one shilling under the market price.
The man without work, then, apparently had a guaranteed income from the parish which was equal to the basic wage of those labourers with steady employment. In the harvest month and the hay month, he did have real income from the work. He was supposed to tell the parish overseer weekly about all the income he had from casual work, so that he could not have a total income above the magistrates’ figure. This of course required control by the overseer. From the next source we see that this was not always the case.
“The word “scale” is unknown, but the thing exists as effectually as if it were published at every Petty Session. Every Parish Officer and Pauper knows that a Man with a Wife and three Children is entitled to have his wages “made up” (such is the phrase) to 12s. a week; and is entitled to 1s. 6d. per week for every Child beyond three; and without entering into any rigid account as to the average of his earnings. Extra receipts are supposed to go for clothes and extra payments; in reality, they often go to the beer shop.”
(Giles Miller, official of the parish of Goudhurst, Kent, answering a question of the “Rural Queries”, 1832.
Bagshaw, Peter; The 1832 Poor Law Commission’s Answers to Rural Queries. Goudhurst, A Case Study of a Wealden Parish; Archaeologia Cantiana, 1998, 118: pp. 63-76)
The parish official in Goudhurst in the Kentish Weald (where a “wage negotiation” took place in 1830) replies to the questionnaire, with the information that the man without employment would have a 12 shillings weekly payment, which was more than the agricultural wages in the majority of the counties, and certainly covered the food costs. But he also says that income from casual work in the farms or in the village, which legally should be reported to the overseer, was “pocketed” by the man. In general, the parish officials did check this, so that the man had his total real income of the week made up to the magistrates’ figure.
In all Wiltshire from 1818 to 1833, the parish administrations calculated the “making up” amounts using the “Hindon Scale”, which was a version of the “Speenhamland Table” of 1795. The full version of the grid covered four pages, and below we have an example of the calculation.
Select Committee able-bodied persons, 1828, Appendix, pp. 60-62, Hindon Scale, Wiltshire, 1817-1832
From this page, we see that – with the quartern loaf at 7 ½ pence in 1828 – the man and his family with six children had a right to 10 shillings 9 pence; this was the cost of 17 quartern loaves. For a family with three children, it would have been 7 shillings 3 pence. But then, he would not have had to request relief, as his real income was 9 shillings; this was the equivalent of 14.5 quartern loaves. In both cases, the income was sufficient to cover the food and other expenses.
In all the parishes of Berkshire, from 1800 to 1833, an updated “Speenhamland scale” was used. In general, the amounts were the monetary values of 4 quartern loaves for the man, 3 loaves for the wife, and 2 loaves for each child. This would be a total of 13 quartern loaves for a family with three children, or in money terms of 1828, 8 shillings 2 pence.
(Report of the Commissioners for Inquiring into the Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Laws, 1834 (but answers from 1832), answers to Question 25: “Assistance to Families” for parishes in Berkshire)
(But the original Speenhamland scale of 1795 gave 18 quartern loaves to a family with three children !!!)
In Hampshire, the “bread scale” for a family was one gallon loaf plus 6 pence per head. (Select Committee Agriculture, 1833, Mr. James Comely, Farmer, Hampshire, p. 187). In 1830, for a family with three children, this would have been 10 shillings 6 pence.
We have an apparent contradiction as to the opinions of the magistrates as to the level of wages or parish allowance payments, which the agricultural families are receiving.
In Question 53 of the Rural Queries, a number of the magistrates say that a principal cause of the riots was the “low wages and the distress”.
But in a number of the answers to the “Rural Queries”, the question as to the amount of the “support level” is phrased as “the magistrates are satisfied that the man can look after his family of three children with (i.e.) 8 shillings a week”. The same type of information is given in the hearings of the Select Committees.
The explanation is in the phrase: “As parish allowance is reduced to the lowest amount which is conceived necessary for subsistence ……” (Extracts from the Information received by His Majesty’s Commissioners, 1831, Reply of Mr. Courthope, Magistrate resident in Ticehurst, Sussex, Question 11, p. 48)
And also in: “… the acts of a peasantry bowed down to the lowest possible amount of wages on which they could exist;….”(“Rural Queries”, Report of Poor Law Commissioners, 1834, referring to 1832, Question 53, Magistrate residing at St. Mary, Reading, Berkshire)
So really the idea was that the “support level” for needy families should be fixed, such that the family had just enough for the food and other expenses, but nothing more. Since the amount of actual consumption of bread for a family with three children should be about 8 quartern loaves, and the family needs 50 % additional money for other food, rent, clothing, and wood/coals, they would need the money equivalent of 12 quartern loaves, or 10 shillings at 1830 prices. Nobody starved (and the deserving cases could go into the workhouse), but they could not save anything or have any other expenses. (*)
On this basis, the families “on the parish” in Kent and Sussex had no problems, and those in Hampshire, Berkshire, and North Wiltshire in 1830 were just on the line. But those in South Wiltshire in 1830 were below the line, because – as we shall see in a later sub-chapter – in the preceding two years they had had two wage reductions of one shilling each.
It would seem that the low level of incomes and food consumption would not alone have been enough to push the labourers to revolt. The conditions were made worse by the bad treatment by the overseers, and the work on the roads and stone-breaking (the men called it “convict labour”).
(*) “It appears from all our returns, especially from the replies to question 53, of the Rural Queries, that in every district, the discontent of the laboring classes is proportioned to the money distributed in poor’s rates, or in voluntary charities. The able-bodied unmarried labourers are discontented, from being put to a disadvantage as compared with the married. The paupers are discontented, from their expectations being raised by the ordinary administration of the system, beyond any means of satisfying them. “They, as well as the independent labourers, to whom the term “poor” is equally applied, are instructed”, says Mr. Chadwick, “that they have the right to a “reasonable subsistence”, or a “fair subsistence”, or an “adequate subsistence”. When I have asked of the rate distributors, what “reasonable”, “fair”, or “adequate” meant, I have in every instance been answered differently; some stating they thought it meant such as would give a good allowance of “meat every day”, which no poor man (meaning a pauper should go without); although a large proportion of the rate-payers do go without it.” ….. The violence of most of the mobs seems to have arisen from the idea that all their privations arose from the cupidity or fraud of those entrusted with the management of the fund provided for the poor.”
(Report of the Commissioners for Inquiring into the Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Laws, 1834, General Remarks on Outdoor Relief, pp. 49-50)
We have a very interesting graph, showing the relationship between the wages paid by the farmers, and the “support minimum” paid by the parish, for 261 parishes in England, taken from the answers to the “Rural Queries” at price level 1832 (but apparently Kent and Sussex are not included in the sample).
It appears that the “support minimum” is practically independent of the wage paid by farmers, and is between 8 and 10 shillings a week, corresponding to 9.5 to 12 quartern loaves per family per week, or 1.4 to 1.75 quarters of wheat per person per year (but from the individual information a little below, we see that in Kent and Sussex the support level was somewhat higher, and certainly enough for a normal food consumption).
(Clark, Page; Welfare Reform, 1834; p. 9)
Detailed information per parish, of wages, and parish “support level”:
1824, Select Committee on Labourers’ Wages
Extracts from the Information Received, Poor Law Commissioners, 1833
|Lenham||Kent||13s. 6d |
|Brede||Sussex||13s. 6d. |
|Northiam||Sussex||13s. 6d. |
|Ewhurst||Sussex||13s. 6d. |
|Kirdford||Sussex||13s. 3d. |
|Sussex||10s. 6d.||1s. 6d.|
|West Wycombe||Bucks||9s.||9s.||1s. 6d.|
|Whole County||Cambridge||11 Q.|
(*) After the increases due to the “wage negotiations” 1830
We have a document made out by Mr. Francis Pym, Magistrate of Cambridgeshire, in December 1830, resuming the information received from all the parishes and hundreds (125) in the county. This was presented to the Commisioners. Cambridgeshire was a medium-level (wages 10 to 11 shillings) agricultural county.
(House of Lords, Minutes of Evidence … Poor Laws, 1830-1, pp. 398-415)
The total of labouring men was 8,900, plus 4,400 young men and boys of 10 to 20 years old.
In 75 % of the parishes, the number of “generally out of employment” was given as “none”; in the other cases, the men were paid for roadworks, etc., and/or money through the poor rate.
The weekly wages paid by farmers were 10 to 11 shillings without beer, or 9 to 10 shillings with beer.
The single men were in many cases paid less than the married men, 1 shilling or 2 shillings less.
In 50 % of the parishes, the majority of the families had a plot of land (rented or free), but only to grow potatoes.
In all the parishes, the administration gave fuel or clothing or both to the poor (in some cases, only to widows); in general, this was free, and in some cases, at reduced prices.
Following we have the answers of the magistrates and vicars to the Question 53 in the “Rural Queries”, “Can you give the commissioners any information respecting the causes and consequences of the agricultural riots and burning of 1830 and 1831?”:
|We will see that the reasons for the Swing Riots were basically, with respect to the “surplus labourers”, the multiplication of the low (but not starvation!) wages, with the bad treatment and degrading parish “employment”, leading to conversations in the beer-shops with “trouble-makers”.|
I think they arose from the very bad state of mind of the labourers, who were sent in numbers to
idle on the roads without any one to look after them; thus affording opportunity for evil-disposed persons to disseminate evil principles among them; and advantage was taken of this,
I am persuaded; they were too ill-paid before the riots, and this gave ground to work upon.
We have had one fire in this Parish, and no rioting; supposed to have been the work of
The causes, in my mind, were principally the lowness of wages; no task-work, or, if given,
restricted in earnings; and several others mentioned before.
The causes; the low rate of wages; the harsh treatment of the Labourers; the desire to depress
them; the general feeling of distrust and animosity existing between the agricultural labourers
and their employers. The consequences; an increase of wages to the labourer, but
unaccompanied by any better feeling; less discontent, however, because less suffering.
I should state, however, that there was no rioting or burning in this Parish.
I conceive the riots and burnings of the years 1830 and 1831, arose from the distressed
and wretched state of the poor; and this wretchedness was the natural consequence of
the maladministration of the Poor Laws.
When the riots first broke out, had the punishment been more severe than three days’
imprisonment for breaking machines, we should not have heard of so many riots and burnings.
Happily this Parish has hitherto escaped; and although riots did take place in the neighbourhood,
they must be attributed to want of employment in the winter, the lowness of wages,
a general discontent among the labourers, and the example set by riots in other parts of
Wherever the commencement of riots was met with energy, they were suppressed without
difficulty. Riots were contagious; they may be traced with geographical precision.
The fires that occurred in this neighbourhood, were generally attributed to the spite of individuals. General dissatisfaction as to wages could not have been the cause.
I consider the proximate causes of the riots in this county, to have been a prejudice
against machinery, and the contagious example of neighbouring districts. A consequence of
the then rise of wages has been, increased resistance on the part of the farmer to employ
so many hands, and a conviction in the minds of the labourers, that their wages would be
received without exertion, and that the Magistrates can enforce them.
Actual distress in labourers and mechanics; the low rate of wages; the idea that threshing
machines kept them out of employ, and lowered wages; beer-houses; violent tracts and
seditious preachers; political feeling; the example of France; they were encouraged by many
who were not in any distress themselves. Consequences; a temporary increase of wages;
the discontinuance of machines; wages again lowered; an impression that rioting will
Low wages and real distress amidst a too abundant population; and the village beer-houses
offered the opportunity, for introducing to one another their thoughts and feelings, and enabled
them to act in concert in the riots.
The general mal-administration of the Poor Laws, which in most of the disturbed districts made
the labourers totally dependent on the parish, and not on their own exertions. In this place, there
was no riot or burning, which I attribute to the kindness with which the poor are treated by
the farmers in general.
The causes appear to me an insufficiency of wages, and consequent deterioration of character,
much aided by mere example. The fires and riots have happened in the this immediate
neighbourhood in the most populous parishes. Consequences; rather better wages and
more extensive employment of the poor. It may be observed that incendiarism first began
in Kent, a county notorious for smuggling, and of course presenting great facility to the
lower classes of procuring spirits. I know not whether inadequacy of wages was the primary
cause of offence, but I know for certain that cheap spirits will always produce abundance of crime.
Want of remunerating employment.
The low wages, and mischievous men who had sufficient wages, talking and advising others
to riot, that they might have an increase of wages. The great depression of wages, and
mischievous men taking advantage of that to excite the people to riot, in order to obtain an
increase of wages, which they succeeding in getting.
ST. MARY, READING
From the best information I could procure, it is my belief that the riotous proceedings of 1830 and 1831 were the acts of a peasantry bowed down to the lowest possible amount of wages on which they could exist, enjoying few comforts, and lacking some things considered
(by common consent) the necessaries of life.
The causes were; 1. General excitement by the example of successful insurrection in France
and Belgium; 2. Wages too low; 3. A misconception of the effects of machinery.
The consequences; 1. Increase of wages; 2. Disuse of machinery. There were no riots or
burnings here, though 42 were taken, and 27 convicted in the adjoining Parish.
Riots, by reading newspapers; burning, by ranting; for they all say, do what they will,
it is no sin.
The first symptoms of riot shown in the county of Berks, were, we believe, in this Parish; and as
far as our observations go, the causes appear to be, – the example of the Kentish labourers;
the excitement of the labourers’ minds, caused by reading certain violent publications in the
beer-shops. We have had no burnings in the Parish.
The immediate exciting cause, the bad example of Hants and Sussex. The tumult was not serious
with us, and easily put down. The burnings were perpetrated, it seems clear, by labourers without concert, seeing how practicable and difficult of detection they had proved in other cases.
The consequences have been, I think, to direct the attention of landlords and farmers to the
physical and moral improvement of the labourer. In some instances higher wages were promised than the real market price, on the spur of the occasion. This has led to distrust and discontent
where the agreement was afterwards broken, and to a ruinous outlay on the part of the farmer
where it was adhered to; but on the whole, all bad effects seem to be wearing out, and the
It has been suggested, that the new beer shops may have had some share in producing these
riots, by giving greater facility to disorderly meetings.
We had no commotions in this parish. The causes and commotions will be best known where they were experienced. I should suppose that the loss of employ, and extreme low rate of wages,
occasioned by the pressure of the tithe system, must have influenced these unhappy proceedings.
I think I can account for this in a great measure, for in the West of England the agricultural
labourers were paid so badly, that the whole income of a man and his wife, with 3 children,
was but 8s. per week, and in many instances only 7s., which drove them to desperation.
Yes; the violent language of many public speakers, the seditious publications read in every ale
and beer house, the facility of concealed drinking in beer houses, the facility of selling game, have undermined the former honest thoughts of the lower orders, made them dissatisfied with the
situation Providence has placed them in, and brought all above them into contempt, and
engendered a hope of plunder by a convulsion of the State.
Causes; evil-disposed persons worked upon an ill-paid discontented peasantry, who, for want of
employment in the winter months, were in the habit of spending their time in those rural pests,
the beer shops. Consequences; great destruction of property, heavy pecuniary charges on
counties, parishes and individuals; and, for a time, unprecedented misery in the families of
The best and steadiest labourers were unsettled, mutual confidence destroyed, and alarm
prevailed through this and the six adjoining counties. The wages of a labourer with a family,
were, in most instances, raised from 9s. to 10s. a week, and of a single man in proportion.
The effect of evil-minded persons exciting the poor, who suffered from extremely reduced
wages, especially the unmarried.
|The main reason for the large proportion of men without agricultural employment in the parishes of the southern half of England, was that the farmers did not have enough capital or enough cash-flow to pay a larger number of labourers, and/or to pay good wages to all. This was due to the contraction of the money supply in the previous years, and the resulting reduction of prices of agricultural produce. This situation also meant that the number of acres cultivated for cereals was less than before.|
“Is it your Opinion that there is sufficient Employment within the Parish for the whole Population?” “Certainly there is sufficient Employment upon the Land, if the Farmers had sufficient Capital to employ them, and more than sufficient Employment for them. I am satisfied that if the Farmers were able to employ the whole in doing the necessary Work of their Farms, to keep them up in a proper State, we should not have one Man out of Employment.”
“Why do you think it has not been cultivated by Farmers as it would be for their own Interest?” “Because the Farmers have not Capital.”
“To what is the Diminution of Capital to be attributed; to Profligacy on their Part, or what?” “I think to the Difficulties which have attended the Farmers in the last few Years.”
“To what is that owing?” “To the reduced Price of the Produce of the Land of every Description.”
“And to the increased Rate of the Poor’s Rates?” “No; Poor’s Rates have diminished.”
“In Reference to the Answer you gave, stating that there was sufficient perpetual Employment for all of the Labourers of the Parish, did you state that from your own Opinion, or from the Information of Farmers who have communicated that to you?” “From the Information of the Farmers. I asked them at my last Tithe Dinner, where I met them in great Numbers, that Question, whether, if they had Capital enabling them to employ the whole, they would have Employment for all residing or belonging in the Parish; they said, yes; and they went further; they said they should be very glad, if the Landlord would advance the Money, to pay an additional Rent for the Money so advanced, from a Conviction that it would improve their Land.”
(Select Committee of the House of Lords appointed to consider of the State of the Poor Laws (1830 & 1831), Hatfield, Hertfordshire, Reverend. F. J. Faithful, Clergyman, pp. 344-346)
“You say that the produce of corn is considerably less in the district in which you reside, than formerly; to what do you attribute that?” “To the loss of capital on the part of the farmer.”
“And to the employment of fewer labourers?” “The employment of fewer labourers follows the loss of capital.”
“The loss of capital you attribute to the want of remunerating prices?” “Yes; his capital has dwindled away till it has gone down to nothing.”
(Select Committee of the House of Lords appointed to consider of the State of the Poor Laws (1830 & 1831), Thomas Law Hodges, Magistrate, Weald, Kent)
“The number of able-bodied labourers in the parish, as near as I could ascertain, is 190, exclusive of about 15 mechanics, most of whom apply to the parish for work in the winter months. During last winter (1831-2), there were 118 able-bodied men, married and single, upon the parish; this leaves 72 labourers to do the work upon 9000 acres of cultivated land, and 3000 acres of woodland. The general opinion, as far as I was able to collect it, seemed to be, that there is not more than sufficient labour in the whole parish for the cultivation of the land, but the want of capital among the farmers prevents the employment of it on the land.”
(Mr. McLean, one of the Assistant Commissioners of Inquiry, reporting, in 1832, as to the Parish of Kirdford, West Sussex; quoted in “The Union and the Parish”, 1837, p. 8)
“The Earl of Stamford bore testimony to the fact, that very great distress existed throughout the country, not only in the agricultural, but in the manufacturing districts. In consequence of the act of the legislature by which the currency was altered, men who were formerly in respectable circumstances were reduced to comparative poverty; their stock was sold to pay rates and taxes, and in numerous parishes they were reduced even to the necessity of mending the roads. Many of the labourers were obliged to take refuge in the workhouse, while others were passing their time in idleness, engendering feelings of insubordination and disaffection.”
(Hansard, 4 March 1830, Lords Sitting, Distress of the Country, p. 1247)
“Lord Nugent presented a Petition, with the same prayer, from Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, which also prayed for Parliamentary Reform. He would say nothing of distress in other places, but he could venture to assert that in Buckinghamshire it was very severe. The graziers and dairy farmers there were almost ruined, and if they paid rent at all, it was really paid out of their capital, for they were making no profit. The price at which they could sell their commodities did not pay for the expense of producing them.”
(Hansard, 16 March 1830, Commons Sitting, Distress of the Country, p. 380)
“Your Committee are induced to consider that the following important Facts have been established by the Evidence which they have collected for the Information of the House:-
First:- That there are extensive districts in Ireland, and districts in England and Scotland, where the population it as present redundant; in other words, there exists a very considerable proportion of able-bodied and active labourers, beyond that number to hich any existing demand for labour can afford employment:- That the effect of this redundancy is not only to a part of this population to a great degree of destitution and misery, but also to deteriorate the general condition of the labouring classes:- That by its producing a supply of labour in excess as compared with the demand, the wages of labour are reduced to a minimum, which is utterly insufficient to supply that population with those means of support and subsistence which are necessary to secure a healthy and satisfactory condition of the Community:- That in England, this redundant population has been in part supported by a parochial rate, which, according to the Reports and Evidence of former Committees specially appointed to consider the subject, threatens in its extreme tendency to absorb the whole rental of the Country: ….”
(Select Committee on Emigration, 1826, Report, pp. 1-2)
The labourers did know that the farmers did not have enough money to pay higher wages.
“On the preceding night [4th November 1830, in Brede, Sussex], the question of wages was discussed. It is true that the labourers complained of their wages, and being together they brought forward the question; but ——– says he is quite sure, that if they had not met for the purpose of turning out the overseer, they would never have met as they did for a rise of wages. They had no idea of it; for several said they would not mind being poor, if they could but be used with civility. Some proposed 2s. 6d. a day, from 1s. 9d. their usual wages, and some 2s. 3d.; but some said the farmers could not afford 2s. 6d., question considering their taxes and tithes, and the poor-rates, of which they knew the farmers were constantly complaining; but they all agreed that they should demand 2s. 3d. a day, and 1s. 6d. a head for each child, parish allowance, after the second. He thinks they did not on that night discuss whether the allowance to paupers in general was too small.”
(underline by this author)
(Extracts from the Information Received by His Majesty’s Commissioners, as to the Administration and Operation of the Poor Laws, Published by Authority, London, 1833, Report by Ashhurst Majendie, Communication of a Magistrate, example of Lenham, Kent, p. 33)
So did Cobbett:
“Let every farmer … call all the labourers together … explain to them the cause of his own poverty; that he is as poor as themselves and that it is not his wish to oppose them but that he was not able to pay them as he desires.” (reference lost)
“Make common cause with your labourers in all that is just; for that is the only way to stop the fires, and to save yourselves from ruin. Call them all together to your several parishes; explain to them the reasons why you are unable to pay sufficient wages; and join them in a Petition to Parliament for a reform of the Commons House, and for a great reduction of taxes. Do this, and the fires will stop and you will be safe, and the country will be put to rights again.”
(Cobbett, Political Register, Vol. 70, 27th November 1830, p. 820, Advice to the Farmers)
“[Knatchbull] also claimed that the root of the problem was that the farmers were very short of money and consequently couldn’t employ enough labourers and pay those they did employ properly: ….”
(Griffin, 2001, p. 116, Sir Edward Knatchbull, M. P. for Kent, writing to Sir Robert Peel, Home Secretary)
The relations between the parish overseers on the one hand, and the labourers on the other were usually strained in the period 1815 to 1830. The situation was similar to the “inner-city poverty” in the United Kingdom in our days, with Housing Benefit, Income Support, etc. being paid restrictively by the Department of Work and Pensions. There were constant attempts by the labourers, generally the “surplus” (*) labourers, to find ways to receive more money than the overseer wanted to pay, or had the funds to pay; often the men had good incomes in the summer months, spent it all immediately, and required to be paid or partially employed by the parish during the winter half-year. The parish administrations tried to find ways to change the rules or to distribute the workers in different ways. The farmers on occasion changed the wages that they paid to the field labourers, so that the parish and rate-payers had to pay more. This difficult situation from the point of view of the workers, was exacerbated by the low wages that the workers on the parish received, by the practically useless work that they had to do, and the bad verbal treatment by the overseers.
(*) “… “You say that they [stacks of corn] were set on fire by the surplus workers, is that word, “surplus worker” in use amongst the labourers?” “Yes, it is.” “How long do you remember the word having been used amongst them?” “These three or four years.” “How did they get the word?” “The overseers first used it.”
(Report of the Commissioners for Inquiring into the Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Laws, 1834, Appendix A, Labourer in Sussex, did not want to give his name, interviewed by the Assistant Commissioner Mr. Edwin Chadwick in 1833, p. 14)
“On the preceding night [4thNovember 1830, in Brede, Sussex], the question of wages was discussed. It is true that the labourers complained of their wages, and being together they brought forward the question; but ——– says he is quite sure, that if they had not met for the purpose of turning out the overseer, they would never have met as they did for a rise of wages. They had no idea of it; for several said they would not mind being poor, if they could but be used with civility.
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(Extracts from the Information Received by His Majesty’s Commissioners, as to the Administration and Operation of the Poor Laws, Published by Authority, London, 1833, Report by Ashhurst Majendie, Communication of a Magistrate, example of Lenham, Kent, p. 33)
“The parish of Brede was the first place in Sussex where the riots broke out in Nov.1830; several causes are assigned; the appointment of the assistant-overseer was very obnoxious to the paupers. It is thought he did not exceed his duty; but the constant habit of resisting exorbitant claims almost of necessity caused some degree of harshness. Under his superintendence an attempt was made in the summer of 1829 to discontinue regular allowances for children; to revert to the old system of occasional relief under the direction of the vestry, according to the real wants of the applicant; ….”
(Extracts from the Information Received by His Majesty’s Commissioners, as to the Administration and Operation of the Poor Laws, Published by Authority, London, 1833, Report by Ashhurst Majendie, Communication of a Magistrate, example of Brede, Sussex, p. 30)
“You were saying that one of the present discontents arose from their not having such work as they wanted; do you mean parish work?” “No; what they want is regular husbandry work at fair wages; they do not like the parish work, which is one great cause of their discontent. In Hailsham parish last summer, the men who are made to drag the parish cart got four of the horses’ hoops of bells placed on their heads, and dragged the parish cart from Eastbourne to Hailsham market; when they were in the market one of them went with his hat to beg, and they got a good many shillings from people from out of the parish. Their own farmers would not give them any thing, but looked another way; they could not bear to see it, they were ashamed of it.”
“What other cause of discontent do the labourers set forth at this time?” “I do not recollect, except that they pray for the cheap loaf in every parish, and so does the tradesman as bad as the poor people.”
“Have they any discussion about the poor laws?” “Yes, they have; they are getting very impatient about it. Their say is, that the Government won’t do a thing for the poor man or they would have done it before.”
“Done what before?” “Why, to have then all employed according to the number of acres of land. In our neighbourhood it has been a good deal talked of that there would be an Act passed to force the farmers to employ them on the lands at the usual prices the workmen are receiving now, which I am confident would give good satisfaction to all those that are now surplus.”
“What do you mean by workmen?” “We call workmen they who are at work on the land and not for the parish. They are surplus who work for the parish, who are driven about like dogs more than men by the overseers. I am sure that many would as lieve be transported as draw the hand cart. They can’t bear it.”
“What wages do the workmen get?” “Two shillings a day in the winter, haying and harvesting they get half-a-crown, and by the great they will get more.”
“…. The parish money is chucked to us like as to a dog.”
(Report of the Commissioners for Inquiring into the Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Laws, 1834, Appendix A, Labourer in Sussex, did not want to give his name, interviewed by the Assistant Commissioner Mr. Edwin Chadwick in 1833, pp. 14-15)
“… but there were various causes of discontent which had created a feeling of much dissatisfaction amongst the labourers for some considerable time, and the then recent events at Paris had given rise to a notion amongst the lower orders, that the means of redressing their grievances were in their hands, whilst the beer-shops afforded facilities for union and combination which had never before existed amongst the agricultural population. The several causes of discontent to which I allude were, the reduced allowances from the poor-rates, principally effected by the assistant-overseers, which rendered them the first objects of attack by the labourers; the degraded state to which the single men were generally reduced, and the numerous shifts and contrivances which had been resorted to in various parishes by the farmers from the burden of what they considered surplus labour. These had long been producing an irritation which the circumstances of the moment brought into action.”
(Extracts from the Information received by His Majesty’sCommissioners,1831, Reply by Mr. Courthope, Magistrate resident in the parish of Ticehurst, Sussex, Question 21, p. 56)