13.7. Wiltshire, Hampshire, Berkshire

The “Riots” in these counties took place in the southeastern half of Wiltshire, some parts of northern Hampshire, and the southwestern quarter of Berkshire, with a few events in Dorset; all were wheat areas. 

(See detailed maps in: Trevor Wild, Village England, I. B. Taurus, London, 2004, Fig. 5, p. 58, using information from Hobsbawm and Rudé; Bethanie Afton, “A Want of Good Feeling”, 1830, Fig. 1, p. 238; Berkshire Record Society, Historical Atlas of Berkshire, 1998)

In these counties, the events started and ended very quickly. In the total of these counties, they took place from 15th to 30th of November; in each village or parish, they were suppressed within 3 days. Bands of men (100 to 300) went from one village to another, breaking threshing machines, and extorting money from the farmers; there was little burning of ricks, and no threatening letters.

The routes taken by the men, and the dates, were as follows:

(Andrew Charlesworth, ed., An Atlas of Rural Protest in Britain, 1548-1900, Taylor & Francis, 2017, p. 154) 

This map shows that the uprising was not spontaneous in each place, rather it was transmitted from village to village by the groups of men. “It was a curious fact, that most of the riots in Wiltshire took place on the same day. Nine-tenths of the riots in that county occurred upon the 25th of November, and the whole of them took place from the 23rd to the 26th of that month.” 

(Mr. Benett, M.P. for Wiltshire; Hansard, Special Commissions – Amnesty, House of Commons, 08 February 1831, p. 289)

Apparently Cobbett knew that something was going to happen!:

“The very week that he gave a good character in that House to those men in the county of Wilts, Mr. Cobbett expressed himself to this effect – “Ah!, Mr. Benett, you know little of the county of Wilts, you will not see the peasantry peaceable there many days.” He had certainly spoken of their peaceable disposition ten days previous to those riots, and they were peaceable when he described them as such.”

(Hansard, Special Commissions – Amnesty, House of Commons, 08 February 1831, p. 289)

Recorded Incidents of the 1830 Unrest in Hampshire:

 (Afton, 1987, “A Want of Good Feeling”, Fig. 3, p. 240)

(Afton, 1987, “A Want of Good Feeling”, Fig. 4, p. 241)

The numbers of threshing machines broken were: Berkshire 78, Dorset 10, Hampshire 52, Wiltshire 97. These numbers are not strictly indicative of the size of the outbreak.  In many cases, the farmers destroyed the machines themselves, or left them unattended so that the rioters could break them up. The farmers did not want violence on their properties.

Mr. Henry Hunt, M. P.

“With respect to the destruction of thrashing machines, of which the public had lately heard so much, it was important to bear in mind — what he was prepared to prove at the bar of that House — that in nineteen out of twenty cases the misguided labourers were encouraged by the farmers whose machines they were destroying. In some instances the farmers gave money for this purpose; and in one case the farmer, his own machine having been broken, cried out, «Smash away, let us all be on an equality.» Some actually offered their machines to be destroyed on condition that they should be all put on a level.”

(Hansard, Special Commissions – Amnesty, House of Commons, 08 February 1831, p. 254)

“My Lord, you will perhaps be surprised to hear that the greatest number of the threshing machines destroyed have been put out for that purpose by the farmers themselves.”

Letter from Mr. Williams, J. P. in Marlbourough, to the Home Secretary

(Hammond and Hammond, The Village Labourer, p. 241)

 “Some of the farmers [Norfolk] are now breaking their own thrashing-machines, in order to keep the mob off their premises.”

(Cobbett, Political Register, Vol. 70, State of the Country, Suffolk, 4th December 1830, p. 914)

It is not, and was not, clear why the labourers should revolt at this date. The harvest had been sufficient, and the weather was good. We have letters sent by the wife of the parish priest at Alton, East Hampshire, to members of her family. Mrs. Hare had arrived at Alton in early 1829, and experienced the violence of a mob in November 1830.

Alton, Nov. 25:- …….. The greater part of our rioters are men who earn from twelve to twenty shillings a week at the Wharf, and spend it all at the beer-shops.”

Alton, Dec. 10:- The odd thing about the riots is, that this is not a year of scarcity. There has been no hard winter and no uncommon pressure of any sort to raise this outcry. And when one sees that half of the discontented are men who spend their money at the beer-shops, and who might get ample if they chose, it rather hardens one against sympathy with their distress, and inclines one to think the lenity and indulgence granted in return for their proceedings, not the best-judged. Our carpenter alleged as a reason for the riots here – “O they are so ignorant in this county, ….“ “

(Letters from Maria Hare, wife of Augustus Hare, parish priest of Alton Barnes, Hampshire)

(Augustus C. Hare, Memorials of a Quiet Life, George Routledge & Sons, New York, 1874, https://archive.org/details/memorialsquietli00hare, p. 355 and p. 359)

“Do not you think that the persons concerned in the disturbances in Wiltshire might have got work if they had wished?” “I have no doubt of it.”

“Do not you think they arose from delusion among the peasantry, and attempts to inflame their minds, rather than from pressure or actual distress?” “Certainly.”

(Select Committee on Agriculture, 1833, Mr. Richard Webb, Land agent, land surveyor, farmer, Wiltshire, p. 52)

“The weather remained cold until the end of February (Hampshire Chronicle 8/2/1830). The spring and summer, however, were warm and sunny (op. cit. 5/4/30, 7/6/30, 12/7/30,6/8/30). The harvest in July and August was good – “wheat was excellent in quality and abundant in quantity”; barley and oats yielding “an extraordinary quantity and better in quality for some years past” (op. cit. 6/9/30). “October was changeable but good for field labour and winter wheat sowing was largely completed that month” (op. cit. 8/11/30).

(Afton, Bethanie, 1987, “A Want of Good Feeling”, p. 246)

“I am sorry to say that Stratton and Micheldever [villages] have been the most active. Those I have been most kind to and who were best provided have taken the lead. The motive which has operated on the minds of my people has not been distress but a revolutionary spirit.” 

(Thomas Baring, the major landowner in Wiltshire, Journals, quoted in Afton, Bethanie, “The motive which has operated on the minds of my people”: 1988, p. 114)

Statistics of the Savings Bank at Alton:

22,000 people in the Division, 4,200 families, 2,400 employed in agriculture.

Wiltshire: 6,779 depositors in 10 banks, average 37 pounds.

Hampshire: 7,311 depositors in 10 banks, average 38 pounds.

Berkshire: 7,007 depositors in 10 banks, average 34 pounds.

The uprisings in Wiltshire, Hampshire, and Berkshire were not caused by hunger and poverty. With respect to exactly those persons who were arrested and tried at Winchester, we have a report of their earnings:

“I have brought with me a Return which was prepared by The Reverend Mr. Hodson, the Chaplain of the County Goal of Wiltshire, with respect to 101 Persons who were committed to Prison, and tried at the late Special Commission of the County of Wilts, stating the Names of the Individuals, their Age and Profession, also the Parish in which they resided, and the Rate of Wages they received weekly, and the Amount of Parish Relief they received in addition.  The Persons to whom it relates come from a Number of Parishes in the Southern Part of the County. It appears by this Return, that out of the 101 Individuals, One of them received 15s. per Week; One of them received 12s. per Week; One of them received 9s. per Week; Seventeen of them received 8s. per Week; One of them received 7s. 3d. per Week; Forty-eight of them received 7s. per Week; Three of them received 6s. 6d. per Week; Nine of them received 6s. per Week; Eight of them received 5s. per Week; Five of them received 4s. per Week; Six of them received 3s. per Week; and One of them received 2s. 6d. per Week.”

“Have you had an Opportunity of observing, whether, in cases where the Labourer’s Wages are made up out of the Poor’s Rates, they are managed as economically as where the Labourer receives the same Amount entirely in consequence of his Labour?” “Perhaps I am not a fair Judge of that, but I am inclined to believe that they are quite as economically managed; and the Wonder has always been to me, how it is possible so small a Sum as the Wages amount to so economically as the Poor do.”

“Is any Addition made to the Wages in Harvest?” “There is, invariably, I believe.”

“To what Amount?” “I think, upon the Average, 2s. a Week in Addition; from Eight to Ten Shillings a Week is the Harvest Price, and they generally add a Pound for the Harvest Month.”

(Select Committee of the House of Lords appointed to consider of the Poor Laws, Minutes of Evidence,  1830-1, Ordered to be printed, 7th December 1830)             

(We have similar information from riots in Essex. “… the rioters were in good employment for men in their condition. All those brought before the magistrates were said to be in full employment and receiving wages of 11/- of 12/- a week or more with beer. An examination of the overseer’s accounts of Great Clacton confirms that the ringleaders were not dependent on poor relief before the riots. The thirteen leaders of the Arkenden mob were found to have £ 4 9s. 0d. and six silver watches on them when arrested.”) 

(Amos, 1971, pp. 136-137)

With the bushel of wheat at 7 to 8 shillings, these wages as such are just enough for a family to eat well, taking into account the harvest wage, and the extra earnings from task work. 

But the bad feeling of some of the labourers in Wiltshire may well have been influenced by the fact that they had had two decreases in wages in the previous 18 months. 

“What is the common Rate of Wages in your Parish?” “They were reduced again in the early Part of this Winter to 7s., without the Allowance usual for families; a Man with Two Children had 7s. I think that is lower than in any preceding period; last Year it was 8s. during the Winter, and 9s. during the Summer.” 

(Minutes of Evidence, Poor, 1830-1, Rev. Stephen Demainbray, Wiltshire, p. 34)

“ ….. I was asked with regard to the Rate of Wages in the Parish of Long Newnton; there is a considerable Difference between the Rate of Wages in that Part of Wiltshire and the Rate of Wages in the central Part of Wiltshire; in the central and Southern Part the Wages are considerably lower than they are in the Northern. For a great length of time, in both Parts, it has been an invariable Practice of Overseers, where Persons are receiving a very low Rate of Wages, and requiring much more than their Wages to maintain their families, to make up the Difference out of the Poor’s Rates; and the Consequence has been, that in some of those Parishes they have reduced the Wages to a very low Amount; and I am sorry to say that to that we in a great measure attribute the unfortunate State of Insurrection in which the Southern Part of the Country was during the last Autumn. ….”  

(House of Lords, Minutes of Evidence … Poor Laws, 1830-1, Mr. Thomas G. B. Estcourt, M. P., referring to Gloucester and Wiltshire, p. 373)

But if the bad feeling among the men was caused by decreases in wages in 1828-30, then we may have doubts that they were hungry in the previous years.

“You had some riots in that neighbourhood, had not you?” “The riots began where the men were best paid.”

“Did the rate of wages rise there?” “Yes, it was 10s. and 11s. there before, and it rose to 12s. and 13s., and it has gone back to 10s. and 12s.; but that is as great now, because the price of wheat is reduced in that proportion.” 

(House of Commons, Select Committee on Agriculture, 1833, Mr. Charles Osborn, Farmer, surveyor, and land agent, Havant, Hampshire, p. 465) (Havant “the most easterly part of Hampshire”)

There is a different tone in a letter from the M. P. for Devizes:             

“My Lord, I have great satisfaction in informing your Lordship that this country is become perfectly quiet, the poor people having returned to their work with great good humour. I lament that they should have obtained an increase of Wages by such violent means but such is the total want of feeling of the Farmers towards the common labourers that I fear they would never have got it without. Their crying wants would never have reached the unfeeling hearts of these people otherwise. In most of the villages mostly agricultural they paid the labourer only 7/- a week and in Hungerford 8/- a week whearas by common consent they ought to receive 10/-. I am speaking of course of able bodied labourers – lesser wages will be paid to others according to their power of earning their pay. I never saw such happiness as has been produced by this change. It is a great step from 7 or 8 to 10/-, more than they ever expected to receive but no more than meets their want. “

(Letter of John Pearse, M. P. for Devizes, to the Home Secretary, 5th December 1830)   

The labourers in Wiltshire (3 % of the agricultural labourers in England) did have, probably, the lowest basic wages in England in 1830. But they had a great advantage …  the allotments. Wiltshire was generally supposed to have the largest number of allotments in England. With these plots of ground, rented from the farmer, the labourer could grow potatoes, barley and wheat; the larger part of the potato crop was eaten by himself and his family. A part of the potato crop, together sometimes with barley, would be used to fatten a pig, which could be sold or eaten. Another advantage was that the labourer could work on his plot, on those days when the farmer had no work for him.

Cobbett found a large number of labourers working their potato plots in Wiltshire in 1830.

“As I came on the road, for the first three or four miles, I saw great numbers of labourers either digging potatoes for their Sunday’s dinner, or coming home with them, or going out to dig them. The land-owners, or occupiers, let small pieces of land to the labourers, and these they cultivate with the spade for their own use. They pay, in all cases a high rent, and, in most cases, an enormous one. The practice prevails all the way from Warminster to Devizes, and from Devizes to nearly this place (Highworth). The rent is, in some places, a shilling a rod, which is, mind, 160s. or 8l. an acre!. Still the poor creatures like to have the land: they work in it at their spare hours; and on Sunday mornings early: and the overseers, sharp as they may be, cannot ascertain precisely how much they get out of their plot of ground.”

(Cobbett, Rural Rides, 1830, road from Devizes to Highworth, September 1826, p. 439)

“A little way before I got to TUTBURY I saw a woman digging some potatoes, in a strip of ground, making part of a field, nearly an oblong square, and which field appeared to be laid out in strips. She told me, that the field was part of a farm (to the homestead of which she pointed); that it was, by the farmer, let out in strips to labouring people; that each strip contained a rood (or quarter of a statute acre); that each married labourer rented one strip; and that the annual rent was a pound for the strip. Now, the taxes being all paid by the farmer; the fences being kept in repair by him; and, as appeared to me, the land being exceedingly good; all these things being considered, the rent does not appear to be too high.- This fashion is certainly a growing one; it is a little step towards a coming back to the ancient small life and lease holds and common-fields! This field of strips was, in fact, a sort of common-field; …..  “


…….. The far greater of these strips of land have potatoes growing in them; but, in some cases, they have borne wheat, and, in others, barley, this year; and these now have turnips; very young, most of them, but, in some places, very fine, and, in every instance, nicely hoed out. The land that will bear 400 bushels to the acre, will bear 40 bushels of wheat; and, the ten bushels of wheat, to the quarter of an acre, would be a crop far more valuable than a hundred bushels of potatoes, as I have proved many times, in the Register.”

(Cobbett, Rural Rides, 1830, Tutbury, road from Marlborough to Gloucester, September 1826, pp. 474-475)

Cobbett gives us information about disturbances in other counties:

(Suffolk) “On Monday morning, at a very early hour, labourers, to the number of at least eighty or ninety, met in the parishes of Sturry and Westbene, and proceeding fron farm to farm, forced every man to join their body, who did not receive wages to the amount of half-a-crown a day, which they had fixed as the minimum. In many instances they were unsuccessful, as the workmen refused to accompany them.”

(Cobbett, Political Register, Vol. 70, Labourers’ War, Suffolk, 20th November 1830, p. 791)

(Norfolk) “Some of the farmers are now breaking their own thrashing-machines, in order to keep the mob off their premises.”

(Cobbett, Political Register, Vol. 70, State of the Country, Suffolk, 4th December 1830, p. 914)

(Gloucester) “On Wednesday morning a mob of between 2 and 300 persons surrounded the farm of Mr. Allen, at Iver, and began to pull it down. They were, however, opposed by the Magistrates and a strong party of constables, and several of the ringleaders were taken into custody. Some of the men who were captured were in full employ, and receiving 12s. per week.” 

(Cobbett, Political Register, Vol. 70, Rural War, Gloucestershire, 11th December 1830, p. 982)

(Bedfordshire) “On Thursday, a desperate riot took place in the village of Stotfield, Bedfordshire. For some days previous, indications of the pending storm were discoverable in the conduct and declarations of the labouring classes. On Wednesday evening, they began to assemble, and many of the more peaceable inhabitants were forcibly dragged from their beds; and compelled to join the rabble. They then proceeded to the residences of the more respectable inhabitants, demanding an increase of wages, &c.”  

(Cobbett, Political Register, Vol. 70, Rural War, Bedfordshire, 11th December 1830, p. 983)

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