13.5. Kent and East Sussex

The workers (not only agricultural) in Kent had been suffering financially since 1828:

In early 1828, Sir John Holywood, in Waltham and Elmsted, was giving beef and bread to 632 families; the town of Folkestone was running a “food society” to provide soup twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, as well as organising the distribution of coals.

In the Winter of early 1829, a number of the “better classes” were giving food to children, and the Soup, Bread and Coal Society in Folkestone resumed its operations. 

The magistrates of Kent, through the offices of the local M. P., Sir Edward Knatchbull, sent a letter in December 1829 to the Duke of Wellington, the then Prime Minister, requesting that he take action to help the county:

“… the deep and unprecedented distress which, from our personal and local knowledge, we are enabled to state prevails among all classes throughout this county, to a degree that must not be only ruinous to the interests of individuals, but must also, at no distant period, be attended with serious consequences to the national prosperity.”

In the first days of June 1830, a memorial as to the situation of emergency in Kent was presented to Henry Goulburn, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, personally by a number of parish officers, and with confirmation by Sir Edward Knatchbull.  

(Black, 2017, quoting articles from the “Maidstone Journal”)

“The fact is indisputable that many of the labourers are in a very degraded and wretched condition, wholly unable to provide for themselves more than the bare necessaries of existence, and these of the most humble kind and limited in quantity.”

(The Maidstone Journal, 16 November 1830; quoted in Richardson, 1977, p. 160) 

The weather in all England had been bad from Summer 1828 to Spring 1830. In June, July and August 1828, there were heavy rains, which damaged the wheat before and during the harvest. The winter of 1828-29 was cold, but not excessively. The Spring and Summer months of 1829 were wet and cold, and the corn harvested in end Summer 1829 was of low quality. The Winter of 1829-1830 was very cold, the coldest since 1813-14. The weather in Summer 1830 was somewhat wet, but the harvest could be brought in. 

As the price of wheat increased over the limit fixed in the Corn Laws, wheat could be imported. In August, 1,400,000 quarters of wheat were imported or released from controlled warehouses, and this reduced the price from 72 shillings per quarter in August to 62 shillings in October. The 1,400,000 quarters corresponded to the yearly consumption of 1,400,000 persons.

(Tooke, 1838, pp. 194-199)

The difficult situation was not caused solely by low incomes and low poor law payments in 1829 and previous years, additional to the climate problems. It was principally caused by a nationwide recession and deflation in 1829, and the first months of 1830.

The Duke of Richmond …. knew not that it originated in distress; but this he would say, that last year, previous to his bringing forward a motion on the subject, the table of their Lordships’ House was loaded with petitions from the suffering agricultural labourers, ….”

(Cobbett, Political Economy, 1830, House of Lords, 6th November 1830, p. 653)

Petitions as to the horrible economic situation, loss of incomes for business and for workers, and hunger among the people, were sent to Parliament. The petitions of the last months of 1829 and the first months of 1830, were geographically as follows:

Bedfordshire (1), Berkshire (2), Buckinghamshire (5), Cambridgeshire (2), Cornwall (2), Cumberland (4), Derbyshire (1), Durham (2), Essex (5), Gloucester (7), Hampshire (44), Herefordshire (1), Hertfordshire (2), Kent (54), London (5), Lancaster (6), Lincoln (3), Northamptonshire (4), Norfolk (15), Nottinghamshire (2), Northumberland (4), Rutland (1), Suffolk (16 ), Surrey (3), Sussex (9), Shropshire (9), Somersetshire (1), Staffordshire (2), Warwickshire (10), Worcestershire (3), Wiltshire (2), Yorkshire (10).

In each county, generally there was one petition submitted by the County Sheriff, in representation of a meeting of the gentry, clergy, magistrates and landowners in the county. On the other hand, from Kent and Hampshire we have a large number of petitions, as they were presented by each parish. There are petitions that have been signed by 3,000 to 25,000 persons.

According to the texts, all forms of employment and commerce have been affected: agricultural workers, farmers, textile factory workers, domestic weavers, pottery manufacturers, shipbuilders, shipowners, lead miners and manufacturers, banking, merchants.

Wiltshire: “the most alarming distress affects both the agricultural and manufacturing districts of that county”; Coventry: “the silent work of destruction which is now proceeding with such amazing rapidity among all classes of the agricultural, manufacturing, trading and laboring population of this once flourishing and happy kingdom; ….”; Nuneaton:  “the depression in the price of wages has never found a parallel in the memory of the oldest individual now living”;  Bedwick in Warwick: “they have never experienced anything like the calamity and distress which has so generally prevailed during the last twelve or fifteen months”; Croydon in Sussex: “that such of the Petitioners as have been engaged in the cultivation of the soil have been gradually becoming more and more distressed for the last twelve years, but that during the last two years the distress has become overwhelming”; Benball in Suffolk: “that they can hardly find language forcible enough to state to the House the injurious and demoralizing effect that the decreasing demand for labour is producing on the lower classes of the community”; Leominster in Hereford: “that the Petitioners are wholly of the class of working farmers, and that in the last two years very many of them, so far from receiving a fair remuneration for their labour, did not make one shilling towards their rent”.

The Bishop and Bath and Wells: “Having always taken a great interest in the condition of the poorer classes, I shall trouble the House with a few observations on the subject of the dreadful distress that now pervades the all classes of His Majesty’s subjects; and I can assure your lordships that no idea can be formed of the extent to which this misery has increased.”

(England in 1830: being a Letter to the (late) Earl Grey, laying before him the Condition of the People, as described by themselves, in their Petitions to Parliament, unsigned; Simpkin, Marshall, and Co., London, 1847 (reprint of original of 1830)).

The causes of the distress were generally felt to be:

– the contraction of the currency, to the disadvantage of those who owed money, 

– as a result of the previous point, the farmers and manufacturers could not charge prices for their products, which covered their costs, and the working men could not receive wages from the farmers and manufacturers, which covered their basic needs,

– the restrictive calculations of Poor Law payments, 

– the uncontrolled increase of imports, 

– the excessive level of taxes, which were in great part used to pay sinecures in the government and financial obligations of the government.

We may say that the “Swing Events” in Kent started with the destruction by fire of hayricks and a barn on the 1stJune at Orpington. There were twelve more cases of arson in June and July. The fires as such did not cause much alarm, as there had been a few cases in the previous months and in 1829.

            What changed the magnitude of the effect was the destruction of five threshing machines in the extreme east of Kent, on 24th, 28th, and 29th of August. From this date onwards, the “disturbances” took the form of burning hay ricks, violent bands going around the county, the sending of threatening letters, signed by a (non-existent) Captain Swing, and negotiations of wage rises under pression from crowds of workers. The county was in a state of terror during three months. See the account in the Spectator in:


Eleven threshing machines were destroyed on the 18th, 20th, and 22nd of September. During October, there were actions of firing hay ricks, destroying threshing machines, and sending threatening letter; it is not proved that there was any coordination between the persons behind these different activities. In some cases, the farmers who had reason to suspect that a mob would come to break their threshing machine, voluntarily destroyed it themselves, so as not to have any trouble with the mob (this took place in a greater proportion in Hampshire, Wiltshire, and Berkshire). 

On 23rd-24thOctober there was a trial in Canterbury of the first persons accused of breaking threshing machines; the men received lenient sentences. But this had a negative effect, in that apparently the workers thought that they could multiply their activities without risk. More threshing machines were broken up; bands of men armed with sticks and agricultural implements went about the country; crowds assembled in front of farms or country houses, “asking” for increases in wages (starting with Hollingbourne, East Sutton, and Langley, all small villages near Maidstone, on the 28th and 29th of October).

In Sussex a speech was given by Cobbett at Battle on 16th October, which the Government took as a call to rebellion. The first violent event was a strike at Battle on 1st-2nd November, requiring an increase of wages from 8 shillings to 12 shillings a week. From that date, there were continually acts of arson, and threatening letters. On the 5th November, the overseer in Brede was forcibly ejected from the town; this triggered the disturbances in East Sussex.  

From late October in Kent and East Sussex (particularly in the High Weald) there were also a number of peaceful and semi-peaceful meetings of crowds of workers with farmers, landowners, and magistrates. Their idea was to increase their wages to about 2s. 3d. in winter and 2s. 6d. in summer, to increase the parish unemployment payments for families with more than two children, and to reduce the abuses of the parish overseers. The crowds were in some cases well-informed, in that they understood that the farmers were not in a good financial situation, and it would be necessary to have their taxes and tithes reduced. The only violent action in a town was in Horsham, with a crowd of 1,000 to 2,000 persons.

At the end of October, the movement in East Sussex transferred also to West Sussex. On the 15th November, and following days, a number of threshing machines were broken up.   

We see that there were different sectors of the population:

  • destroying threshing machines;
  • burning of hay-ricks; 
  • general violence in the countryside;
  • threatening letters;
  • wage negotiations.

There is no evidence that these groups had persons in common, or that there was cooperation between them. There is also no evidence that in the direct wage negotiations, the labourers used threats of breaking machines, or of burning ricks, if they did not gain the amount that they wanted.

“It has been the opinion of the Magistracy in our neighbourhood, that the threatening letters sent to individuals did not emanate from the labourers.”

(Cobbett, Political Register, Vol. 70, Labourers’ War Sussex, 20th November 1830, p. 785)            

It is remarkable, that if the main cause of the riots was the insufficiency of wages, during two months there were no negotiations about wages, or even demonstrations or placards about wages, or even demonstrations or placards about this need. 

The reason for the riots in Kent and East Sussex was not insufficient wages in the case of those who had a steady job.  

“The Earl of DARNLEY said the disturbances in Kent could not have arisen from the lowness of the rate of wages, as it was a singular fact that the wages of labour were higher in the disturbed district than in any other place in the South. He believed the disturbances did not arise from an inadequate rate of wages, but from the superabundance of labourers, and the want of employment. Throughout that part of Kent the wages of an able-bodied man were two shillings a-day; and if the farmers were disposed to give, as he understood some of them had agreed to give, two shillings and sixpence, then in his opinion the distress would be increased; because the farmer could not afford to employ so many labourers at two shillings and sixpence as he had formerly employed at two shillings.” 

(Cobbett, Political Register, 1830, Vol. 69-70, Proceedings in Parliament, Nov. 12, Burnings, pp. 774-776)

“He wished to state one fact before he should sit down; the part of the county of Sussex in which the labouring population was in the most deplorable condition, had been free from outrage during the late disturbances.” 

(Hansard, Special Commissions – Amnesty, House of Commons, 08 February 1831), (Mr. J. Smith, M. P. for Sussex, p. 293)

Kent was absolutely not a poor county.  It had the highest reported annual income in Southern England, with 34 pounds a year (av. 13 shillings a week). 

(George R. Boyer, The Old Poor Law and the Agricultural Labor Market in Southern England: An Empirical Analysis, Journal of Economic History 46 (1), 113-135, Cornell University. ILR School, 3-1986, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/5a8e/2cc66aff37d65333124b7f5fd7b079ef49f1.pdf, Table 1, p. 122)

We can make a judgement as to the incomes of the labouring classes in Kent, making reference to the deposits in the Saving Banks of the county. The Savings Banks were intended for savings by the non-rich inhabitants of each region, i.e. “the labouring classes”. In Kent in November 1829 there were 23 savings banks, with 16,683 depositors, at an average of 31 pounds each. In comparison to the number of depositors, there were in total 95,000 families (including rich and professional) resident in Kent. The amount of 31 pounds is roughly equal to one year’s gross earnings of a labourer, or 50 % of the costs of construction of a cottage.

From these data, we cannot see clearly the savings of the agricultural labourers. We know that in general, 15 to 20 % of the depositors in the savings banks were farm labourers. But it must be clear that a number of these labourers had enough surplus over and above their expenses, to save a good amount each year.

(John Tidd Pratt, The History of the Savings Banks in England, Wales, and Ireland, Rivington, London, 1830; p. 79)

In Sussex, there were 8,455 depositors in 12 banks, with an average amount of 30 pounds.

It was not clear that why the riots broke out in 1830, when 1828 and 1829 had been much more difficult for the poor labourers in Kent, as it had rained a great deal, and the winters had been very cold. There had been failures of the wheat crop and of the hop harvest, and large-scale infection of “rot” in the sheep (all caused by the rains).

“The Marques of CAMDEN would venture to assert, that the distress in Kent at present was not to be compared with what it had been last year. Surely they must have suffered more in a severe winter than in a genial autumn. The fact was, that what the other side of the Channel had sent forth had done much to disturb the people throughout the county (hear, hear !). From his heart he pitied the deluded men who had engaged in the system of breaking threshing machines, and other acts of outrage; but he still contended, that if this arose from hardship and misery, the case was still more pressing last year during the severe winter.

The Duke of Richmond …. knew not that it originated in distress; but this he would say, that last year, previous to his bringing forward a motion on the subject, the table of their Lordships’ House was loaded with petitions from the suffering agricultural labourers, ….”

(Cobbett, Political Economy, 1830, House of Lords, 6th November 1830, p. 653)

“Do you consider the last Two or Three Years as average Crops in your Neighbourhood, or that the Prices have been forced up by inadequate Produce?” “The last Three Years have been the worst that I can remember in the County of Kent, owing to the Rot in Sheep, and wet summers producing miserable Crops of Corn.”

(House of Lords, Minutes of Evidence …  Poor Laws, 1830-1, p. 17, Weald of Kent, Thomas Law Hodges,  M. P. and acting Magistrate)

The wages given in general in Kent in 1830 and in preceding years were about 12 shillings a week (winter), which was sufficient for the families to eat well.             

”What are the Wages Farmers give now to their regular Labourers in your District?“ “They vary; but I should think the Wages given by Farmers for some Years past would be from 10s. to 12s. in Winter, and from 13s. to 15s. in Summer, and probably averaging 12s. through the Year. For those going with Cattle, and therefore necessarily employed entirely at weekly Wages, I should think 12s. a Week Winter and Summer, with an additional 20s. or 40s. for the Harvest Months, was the common Price. Other Labourers may receive from 10s. to 12s. a Week when employed at daily Wages; but they are employed, especially when they have Families, in Task Work, whenever there is an Opportunity; and during that Time they may, if they please, earn much more, and as much often as from 12s. to 15s. even in the Winter, and proportionally more in the Summer, so as to make their whole Earnings considerably more than those of the former Description. In several Parishes the Farmers have lately agreed to advance Wages, so as to secure to the able-bodied Labourer 13s. 6d. in Winter, and 15s. in Summer, and in some of those Parishes they declare that that is very little, if at all, more than they were able to earn before.”

(House of Lords, Minutes of Evidence … Poor Laws, 1830-1, Mr. Thomas Partington, Chairman of the Quarter Sessions, East Division of the County of Sussex, p. 77)

“What does an able-bodied Man earn in the Harvest Months generally?” “I think he will earn from 4 l. to 5 l.”

“What would his Wife get by leasing or gleaning?” “That is very uncertain; it depends on the State of the Weather and other Things; sometimes they pick up very little; in a large Family, I think, they pick up enough to serve them for, perhaps, Three Weeks.”

“What do the labourers live upon principally?” “They live principally upon Wheaten Flour in the Shape of Bread or Puddings, Bacon and pickled Pork constantly, and occasionally some other Meat. There are few of them who do not consume more or less Butter and Cheese; Milk, when they can get it, but rarely; Tea very universally, and in considerable Quantities. They do not drink Beer in their own houses. Their Wives and Families partake nearly the same Food as themselves. These Remarks I wish only to apply to my Parish and the Districts near it, but I believe that the Habits of most in our District are nearly similar. I do not mean it to apply to other Parts of the County, particularly to the Weald.”

“What is the Price of such Tea as they drink?” “About 5s. a Pound; but they get it dearer by buying it in small Quantities in the Chandler’s Shop.”

“What is the Price of the Quartern Loaf in your District?” “The Labourers mostly bake their own Bread; and reckoning Flour at 1s. 6d. the Gallon, which is the present Price, or perhaps rather above it, it comes to about 2 ½ d. a Pound, 10d. the Four-pound Loaf; about 10 ½ d. the Quartern.”

(same witness, p. 81)

“Can you inform the Committee what the State and Condition of the Labourers in that Division [Weald of Kent] was during the last Winter, as compared with any former Period, Ten or Twelve Years ago?”  “Very little different from what it was Ten or Twelve Years ago.”

(House of Lords, Minutes of Evidence … Poor Laws, 1830-1, Thomas Law Hodges, M. P. and acting Magistrate, Kent, p. 14)

“What is the Rate of Wages in your Parish?” “The Rate of Wages was 12s. a week ‘till Two Years ago. The Farmers then became so distressed that we reduced them to Half a Guinea a Week [10s. 6d.] with the Promise, that if Times mended they should be raised again. Accordingly, about Six Weeks or Two Months ago, long before any Disturbances took place in the County of Kent, we happened to have a remarkably good Hop Year in the Weald of Kent; the Farmers received more Money than they had for several Years past; and I proposed to them that they should redeem their Pledge to the Men, and give them 12s. a Week. There was not the least Objection; they were raised to 12s. a Week, which they are now receiving.” 

(same witness, p. 16)

“In the Division in which you act, what is the usual Allowance to a Man and his Family per Head per Week?” “That depends upon the Number of his Family. For 12s. a Week he is expected to maintain himself, his Wife, and I think Three Children. They have a great deal of Piece-work, as it is called, in that District; in fact, they often earn as much Money in Winter as they do in Summer. There is a great deal of Wood-cutting; they earn  2s. 3d. a Day at that Work. In the Summer there is Timber-felling, Bark-stripping, and there is Hop-work. That, though the wages may be called 12s. a Week, a good Labourer does not earn so little as 14s. or 15s. a Week all the Year round, when in regular Employ.”

“… when I mentioned, as Piece-work, the Wood-cutting, the Timber-felling, and Hop-work, I ought to have included the Harvest-work.”

(same witness, p. 17, p. 18)

“Will you state what the Food of the Labouring Classes is in your Parish?”

“They generally get Pork and Bacon and Bread. When we were making the Alteration respecting the Families, by giving 18d. to the Third Child, I went round to them when a great many of them were at Dinner; and I think I never saw a Set of healthier Children than they were; and there was not a House I went into but what had Meat upon the Table – at least Pork or Bacon.” 

(Minutes of Evidence Poor Laws, 1830-1, Mr. Thomas Turner, Overseer, West Sussex, p. 115)

We have information given for the village of Lenham in Kent in 1833:


QueriesVicarChurchwardenAssistant Overseer
6. What might an average labourer obtaining an average amount of employment expect to earn during the year, including harvest work?  His wages, independent
of his allowance according to the number of his family, would amount to 35 l.,
and he might expect to earn, in addition, 1 l. or
2 l. at harvest.
A good labourer in constant employment will earn 2s. 3d. per day, wet day excepted. With a little task-work, which he will have at harvest and hopping, he will average 2s. 6d. per day: he must not be sick during the year.An industrious
Labourer  might earn
40 l. or 45 l.  
7. What might his wife and four children, aged 14, 11, 8, and 5 years, expect to earn?From 3 l. to 5 l.They may earn in harvest and hopping two or three pounds: there is no employment at any other time.They might collectively earn 5 l.
8. Could the family subsist on these earnings? And if so, on what food?I think they might. On bread, cheese, or butter; tea, and occasionally salt pork.They can buy more food now wheat is about 8s. per bushel for 2s. 6d., than they could for       3s. 6d., when wheat was about 15s. I think they could. They could subsist on bread, cheese, bacon, suet-puddings, and potatoes
14. Is relief or allowance given according to any, and what, scale?Man and wife, with 1 or 2 children, 12s; 3, 13s.;4, 14s.; 5, 15s. 6d.; 6, 17s.; 7, 18s. 6d.; 8, 20s.Yes. The single man 5s; man and wife 10s.; ditto, 1 child, 12s.; 2, 12s; 3, 13s.; 4, 14s.: 5, 15s.; 6, 17s.; 7, 18s. 6d.; 8, 1l.; to lay about in the roads. It is given according to an arbitrary scale adopted by the magistrates; viz., two children, 12s.; three, 13s.; four, 14s; five, 15s. 6d.; six, 17s.; seven, 18s. 6d; eight, 1 l.
19. Can you give the Commissioners any Information respecting the causes and Consequences of the Agricultural riots and Burning of 1830 and 1831?I conceive the present system of Poor Laws tends to alienate the lower classes from those they have been in the habit of looking up to; renders them idle and improvident, and congregating them in large bodies on the roads, without the wholesome restraint of a master, affords an unchecked opportunity to a few bad characters of inciting others to indulge in wanton mischief, and often more serious crimes.Yes. The want of employment for our labourers, and their knowledge of the abuse which causes the land to be left to run to waste.In the Eastern Division of Kent, no doubt inadequate wages produced discontent and riot. Many dissatisfied persons here imagined this a favourable opportunity to extort a more liberal scale of payment, and entered for such purpose into a combination to enforce it. They succeeded in their demands.  It did not arise from distress here, as the people were paid much more liberally than in East Kent. 

(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, Communication of Ashhurst Majendie, example of Lenham, Kent, pp. 6-7)

It is not clear that the labourers were really suffering hunger in 1830:

“On the preceding night [4th November, 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)

“I have gone to the different Pot Houses in the Villages, disguised among the Labourers, of an evening, and all their talk is about the wages, some give 1s. 8d. per day some 2s. some 2s. 3d. … all they say they want is 2s. 6d. per day and then they say they shall be comfortable. I have every reason to believe the Farmers will give the 2s. 6d. per day after a bit …. They are going to have a meeting and I think it will stop all outrages.”

(Report from Mr. D. Bishop, a London Police Officer, to the Home Office, from Deal on 11th November 1830)

(Hammond and Hammond, The Village Labourer, 1920, p. 224)

(The interesting part is the use of the word “comfortable”. This gives the idea that the labourers were already earning enough to eat well, and they wanted more, if they could obtain it.)

The number of threshing machines destroyed in Kent was 82 (plus 2 in Sussex, and none in Surrey); as given in the detailed list in the thesis of Carl Griffin, “As Lated Tongues Bespoke’: Popular Protest in South-East England, 1790-1840”. All of these actions were in the extreme East of Kent, that is, east of a meridian through Canterbury; in the other 80 % of the county of Kent, there were no cases. But of these machines, nearly half the number were broken by identifiable criminal gangs, and about 10 by the farmers themselves. 

We have accounts of a large number of meetings between crowds of labourers and farmers and magistrates. In all cases, the men are requiring an increase in basic wages and in the parish payments for large families; in some cases, the removal of the poor-law overseers. In not one case do they require destruction or suspension of use of threshing machines.

Thus the use of threshing machines, and their supposed effect of reducing the amount of employment, were not a priority for the agricultural labourers in Kent.

There were about 20 peaceable and semi-peaceable meetings (the term “wage riots” is not correct), as reported in Hammonds and Griffin. The only violent rioting in a wage meeting was in Horsham.

“During the disturbances of the year 1830, very serious riots took place here [Horsham], the effects of which are felt up to the present time, not only in the increase of the rates, but in the disaffected and malicious conduct of the lower classes. The more respectable inhabitants live in continual dread of the destruction of their property.” 

(Extracts of Information, Report on Horsham by C. H. McLean, p. 76)

The groups who were negotiating with the farmers, were in general peaceful:

“From the farmers they demand 2s. 6d. in summer, and 2s. in winter, as their wages for work, and constant employment. They go from farm to farm, accept what is offered in the shape of drink, victuals or money, and generally conduct themselves with firmness and moderation.”

(Gentleman’s Magazine, November 1830, p. 459)

“Divested of its objectionable character, as a dangerous precedent, the conduct of the peasantry has been admirable. There is no ground for concluding that there has been any extensive concert amongst them. Each parish, generally speaking, has risen per se; in many places their proceedings have been managed with amazing coolness and regularity; there has been little of the ordinary effervescence displayed on similar occasions. The farmers have notice to meet the men; a deputation of two or more of the latter produce a written statement, well drawn up, which the farmers are required to sign; the spokesman, sometimes a Dissenting or Methodist teacher, fulfils his office with great propriety and temper. …… The farmers universally agreed to the demands they made; that is, they were not mad enough to refuse requests which they could not demonstrate to be unreasonable in themselves, and which were urged by three hundred or four hundred men after a barn or two had been fired, and each farmer had an incendiary letter addressed to him in his pocket.”

(Special correspondent of The Times, 17th November 1830, quoted in: 

Hammond and Hammond, The Village Labourer, pp. 223-224)

A similar peaceful behavior was noted in Suffolk: “Today, when something like a general rising seemed to be apprehended, nothing has appeared but a few straggling parties asking, with moderation, for an increase of wages and where refused, retiring without illtreating or insulting anybody. And really my Lord considering how much substantial grievance these poor creatures have to complain of …. it is to me astonishing to me that they have kept within such bounds.” (Letter from Col. Brotherton to Lord Melbourne, 15 December 1830; quoted in: Black, 2017)

“Now gentlemen this is wat wee intend to have for a married man to have 2s and 3d per day and all over two children 1/6 per head a week and if a man has any boys or girls over age for to have enough that they may live by there labour and likewise all single men to have 1/9 a day per head and we intend to have the rents lowered likewise and this is what we intend to have before we leave the place and if ther is no alteration we shall proceed further about it. For we are all as one and we will keep to each other.”

(Paper carried around various parishes. Mayfield, Kent, 12th November 1830), (Griffin, 2001, p.74)  

In Kent, the wage assemblies only started on 28th October, that is, two months after the first threshing machines were destroyed. Which suggests that increases in wages were not that urgent. But even then, the wage assemblies in Kent only took place in the Weald, where the agricultural wages were somewhat lower, around 10 shillings instead of 12 shillings in the rest of the county.

Different witnesses gave different causes of the disturbances in Kent: 

“The cause of the riots and burnings were manifold. Many people, at first, thought they were fomented by artful persons, with the view of effecting a political change; but I confess this always appeared to be absurd. I consider, and always did, that they (the riots) originated in the low wages and neglect of the labourer for some years previously; the latter (the burnings), with very few exceptions, were done to revenge private injuries. 

I confidently appeal to the trials under the special commission in 1830 for the confirmation of these remarks.”

(Report from His Majesty’s Commissioners for inquiring into the Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Laws, House of Commons, 21 February 1834, Section “Riots”, John Alex Ross, Curate, Westwell, Kent, p. 503)

“I have always considered that the riots and burnings in 1830-31 originated with persons above the common labourer, who set them afloat from a wish to promote mischief and disturbance in the county. Much mischief was also done by the press, by the writings of Cobbett, Carlisle and others, which were taken exclusively in nearly all the ale and beer houses, where they were read and commented upon by all the lower classes who frequented those houses, and who would allow no publications of a contrary description to be brought into the houses; so that the poison had its full operation, without any antidote to correct its mischievous effects. I speak here of what I know for a fact, and I have known instances of men who had for years had been steady respectable labourers, good fathers of families, and completely trusted by their masters, who were completely altered in their conduct, and ruined by this dreadful system. ….. I have never met with two opinions as to the very mischievous tendency of the beer-houses, which have destroyed the comforts of more labourers’ families than anything else which has come under my observation.”

(Report from His Majesty’s Commissioners for inquiring into the Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Laws, House of Commons, 21 February 1834, Section “Riots”, George Fellows, Wrotham, Kent, pp. 503-504)

The basic questions as to the influence of the (supposedly) insufficient earnings as causes for the riots, are “did the labourers in general receive less than 12 shillings a week?”, and “was 12 shillings a week absolutely not enough to cover the needs of the family?”

“With us it is certain the disorders did not arise from any distress, for all hands were employed on their winter work at 12s. per week; or from any political feeling, the labourers having but two ideas, to collect money by a species of begging, and afterwards to get drunk; but neither did it arise from revenge or malice. Burnings we had none, nor was any person either injured or attempted to be injured in life or limb.”

(Report from His Majesty’s Commissioners for inquiring into the Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Laws, House of Commons, 21 February 1834, Section “Riots”, Mr. R. Walter Forbes, Farmer, Rolvenden, Kent, p. 504)

It therefore seems clear, that the majority of the agricultural workers in Kent earned enough to eat well, and used the general insecurity in the county to obtain an increase in wages.

The “trigger” for the start of violence in Kent, was apparently the second successive failure of the hop harvest:

“21. Can you give the commissioners any information respecting the causes and consequences of the agricultural riots and burnings of 1830 and 1831?” “Having no local knowledge of the eastern part of Kent, where, I believe, the agricultural disturbances commenced in the summer of 1830, my views may be mistaken; but 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. Whether the burnings which had likewise commenced at this period originated with the labourers, is more than I can pretend to explain, but I am satisfied they were very soon adopted by them as a means of revenge against those whom they considered their oppressors. The lenient punishment of the Kent sessions, as well as the increase in wages which was recommended and adopted in Kent, instead of conciliating (as expected), tended only to encourage combinations in the adjoining parts of the county. I conceive the latter to have been the more immediate exciting cause of the risings in the eastern part of the Sussex bordering on Kent, where the disturbances first assumed a serious aspect. The same cause for diminution of labour, viz., a failure of the hop crop, did not exist in that neighbourhood, 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 in Paris had given rise to a notion amongst the lower orders, that the means of redressing their grievances were in their own 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 too generally reduced, and the numerous shifts and contrivances which had been resorted to in various parishes to relieve the farmers from the burden of what they considered surplus labour. …” 

(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, pp. 42-60)

The failure of the growth of hops may appear not very important, but in fact the income from this activity was fundamental for a large part of the labourers in Kent and Sussex. The whole population went out to the fields, and also a large number (20,000 in the 1820’s) came from South London to work.

“The country itself furnished a great number; as it is the custom for women, of almost every degree, to assist at the hop picking. The town of Maidstone is nearly deserted, in the height of the season. Tradesmen’s daughters, even of the higher classes; and those of farmers and yeomen of the first rank, and best education, are seen busy at the hop bins. Beside the people of the neighbourhood, numbers flock from the populous towns of Kent; and many from the metropolis; also from Wales; hop picking being the last of the summer works of these intinerants.

A few days before the picking begins, the lanes, and village greens, swarm with these strolling pickers; men, women, children and infants; living as much in a state of nature, as the American Indians, or the savages of the Southern Hemisphere; plundering the country of whatever they can easily lay their hands on, as fruit, potatoes, and more valuable articles. But these are evils of the hop culture, which cannot be avoided, in a country where more are grown, than can be harvested by its own inhabitants.” 

“The earnings of pickers rising from seven to twelve shillings, a week. [in 1798]” 

(Marshall, John, The Rural Economy of the Southern Counties, comprizing Kent, Surrey, Sussex, The Isle of Wight; …., London, J. Nicol, 1798; Vol. 1, pp. 242-243, p. 249)

The effect of the hop harvest was very useful for the workers, especially those who did not have a steady job through the winter. They earned double rate in the wheat harvest in August, and then again double rate in the hop harvest in September; their wages from hops might be a quarter of their earnings of the whole year. If the hops failed, as they did in 1829 and in 1830 (due to mildew), it was a hard blow.

From the information in a previous section for 1833, we can see the new wages for Kent and Sussex, which had, in fact, not increased much:

“Is the expense of labour on the farm different from what it was formerly?” “Yes; I go back 50 years [1783; before the French Wars and the high prices]; my father paid his labourers 1s. 6d. a day, I pay 2s. 3d., and usually 2s. 6d. where it is an able-bodied man; I need not go back further than 45 years, which is in recollection as to that rate of wages.”

“This you have mentioned is the usual rate of wages?” “Yes, 2s. 3d. appears to be the universal price for an able-bodied man.”

“Can any able-bodied man insure 1s. 9d. a day through the county of Kent?” “No, not the superfluity of labourers; the portion of labour I allude to is that of the steady men, employed from one end of the year to the other, whom we do not suffer to lose a day’s work; but our supernumeraries we take according to their ability, and some may be inferior; I never pay a man less than 2s. a day if he is an able-bodied man.”

“Has the price been increased since what are called the agricultural riots or disturbances?” “No, it was so before.”

“No alteration has taken place in the price of agricultural labour in consequence of those disturbances?” “Not in the Isle of Thanet.”

(Select Committee on Agriculture, 1833, Mr. John Cramp, Farmer (tenant), Kent, p. 263)

“Supposing a man has a wife and four children, what quantity of bread will they consume?” “They will consume about a quartern loaf a day.” [Families who ate predominantly bread, consumed in general 1 ½  quartern loaves a day; this means that in this case one third of their consumption by volume, was potatoes, meat, and vegetables]

“What is the price of the quartern loaf?” “I think about 10d.”

“Their bread will cost them 5s. 10d. a week?” “Yes.”

“You pay them 13s. 6d. a week?” Yes.”

“That leaves, after the payment of the bread, the clear sum of 7s. 8d.?” “Yes.”

“They have that to expend on the other necessaries of life?” “Yes.”

(Select Committee on Agriculture, 1833, Mr. John Cramp, Farmer (temant), Kent, p. 264)

“What sort of wages do the men get that are employed?” “Our men earn by task-work from 15s. to 16s. a week, and to a labourer by the day we give 2s. 3d., and in some instances 2s. 6d.”

“Are those wages much the same as they have been used to be?” “They have been the same since 1814; up to that time they paid 2s. 6d. a day, and in some instances 3s., where they were very able-bodied men.”

“Is the condition of those on the rate very much worse than those in constant employ?” “Certainly, their allowance from the rate is not at all equal to what they can earn.”

“What is the allowance from the rate to an able-bodied man?” “I cannot say, but it depends on their families, and I scarcely ever go to a parish meeting.”

“How is it that the farmer pays these high rates of wages, when there must be great competition for labour?” “I have a set of men that have worked for me for some years, and so has every farmer in the parish, and if they are good and honest set of labourers we do not think of taking advantage of them because there is a competition, since they cannot live comfortably with less wages.”

(Select Committee on Agriculture, 1833, Mr. William Taylor, Farmer, Kent, p. 294)

“Is the produce of corn less than it was Fifteen Years ago?” “In the Weald of Kent, much less.” 

(Minutes of Evidence, Poor, 1830-1, Thomas Law Hodges, M. P. and acting Magistrate, Weald of Kent, p. 25)


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