13.8. Defence of the Farms by the Labourers

In the West Country, those labourers who had fixed employment with a farmer, did not take part in the violent riots and machine breaking. Rather, they volunteered to guard the property of the farmer or the landowner:

“During the riots which disgraced this county and the country in the latter part of the year 1830, my labourers rallied round me as one man; we conquered upwards of 300 of the rioters, as I have always found that 5 men embarked in a good cause, are equal to 50 in a bad one. I left my home without apprehension, and assisted in putting down riots in other parts of the county. During my absence my thrashing machine was at work; on my return my property was as secure as when I left it; and I feel proud to say, that throughout the parish of Winterbourn, there is not a single labourer but would at this moment risk his life in defence of his master or his master’s property.”

(Mr. Bott, Labourer’s Friend Society Meeting, Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, 21 February 1833) 

”Do you conceive that any of your Parishioners had any thing to do with that fire?” “No, I have not the most distant Idea of it. The whole of them offered to watch every Night if I would let them; and there are Twenty-eight Men that watch nightly by Turns; they take it alternately; Four watch each Night once a Week, for which I pay them; but they are all anxious to watch; and they would be very glad, I believe, to detect any Person that was to commit that sort of thing, and they would stand by to protect any of our Property, to a Man.” 

(Select Committee to Consider the Poor Laws, 1830-1, Minutes of Evidence, p. 111)

Sir Thomas Baring, a progressive landowner, had heard of a band of several hundred man, “… advanced resolutely expecting to fight when conceive his surprise he found that the band was composed of his Stoke men who heard he was in danger, had mustered over to the Grange armed themselves out of the carpenter’s shop, stuck spruce in their hats and called themselves the Spruce body. He was affected even to tears ….”

(Afton, “The Motive which has operated…..” 1998, p. 114)

“Have any of your pauper Tenants joined in the late Disturbances in the County of Wilts?” “None; on the contrary they have come forward to a Man to defend Property if necessary; there has been within Seven Miles of this Place some Disturbances, at a Place called Sherston, but they did not join in.” 

(Minutes of Evidence, Poor Law, 1830-1, Mr. Richard Pollen, Chairman of the Quarter Sessions of Hampshire, but referring to North Wiltshire, p. 66) 

“Had you fires or disturbances in your neighbourhood?” “In my neighbourhood we had fires, though not very much in North Wilts. I am happy to say in my parish the labourers behaved themselves very wisely; they all willingly came forward to assist me in case of any dissatisfied people coming into the village, to prevent them doing me any mischief.”            

“You had some fires not far from you?” “Yes, we had; my labourers all volunteered to keep watch nightly, to detect incendiaries.” 

“Have you a thrashing-machine?” “Yes.”

“Do you keep it?” “Yes, I have kept it.”

“It remains unbroken?” “Yes.”

“Are there many more labourers out of employ than there were in 1812 in your parish?” “There are more labourers; but I have made a sacrifice of property to keep them employed; I could perhaps have had my labour done at less expense than I had; and that is the reason perhaps why I have not gained so much as some others.”

“From feeling you paid a higher rate of wages than your labour would allow?” “No, I employed a greater number; I paid the same rate of wages as other persons.”

“Do you think others from intimidation are doing the same thing?” “I do not know that they are; I did not do it from intimidation.”

“Do you think any farmers in North Wilts are employing a larger number than their profit will allow, from whatever cause?” “Yes.”

(Select Committee on Agriculture, 1833, Mr. William R. Brown, Farmer, Wiltshire, p. 515)

“Have you had any riots in Hampshire within these 14 or 15 years? “There were riots in the year 1830; but that was quite upon another question; that was upon the question of machinery; the labourers rose because they objected to the thrashing machine, not on account of game.”

“Was it in consequence of low wages?” “No; it was in consequence of their not being employed, and their attributing their non-employment to the thrashing machines which were put up; there was that cry at the time.”

“Do you know whether gentlemen preserved game before and in the year 1830, and consequently resided upon their properties?” “Quite as much as now.”

“That did not prevent the riots, and it did not prevent the outcry against the use of machinery?” “I cannot say whether it prevented the riots or whether it caused them; but I know that upon my estate, and on the estates contiguous to mine, our men assisted to put down the riots with great energy, and that the ringleader, a man who was afterwards hung at Winchester, who had come from Kent, was taken very near my place by some of our own labourers.”

“Were the riots in the neighbourhood of your property?” “They were all, I believe, men from Sussex, Kent, and from the eastern end of Wiltshire, but they were not joined by any people in Hampshire that I could make out, for that part of the country rose against the offenders. It was entirely attributable to that that they were defeated, for we had no troops within 50 or 60 miles; they were entirely put down by the farmers and the labourers.”

“Then it was not the labourers in Hampshire that complained of the machinery?” “It was not; I only said that those were the complaints of those men who had met them; we had no thrashing machines.”

“Then the riots were occasioned by the invasion of persons from East Wiltshire and from Kent, complaining of the use of machinery in those counties?” “They began in that way, and they proceeded to every sort of violence, attacking houses and marching with armed force to the westward; they were stopped near Ringwood, and were defeated and dispersed.”

“Do you happen to know whether there were riots in the neighbouring counties of Dorsetshire and Wiltshire?” “Yes, there were.”

“Do you know whether those were occasioned by the people themselves, or by a similar invasion to that which you had in Hampshire?” “I believe that the leaders came from other parts of the country; in fact, I know that they did; that was proved at the trials: I believe that in Dorsetshire the people in a certain district rose of themselves.”

“Do you know anything about the preservation of game in those counties?” “I know very little about it.”

“Do you know whether gentlemen reside upon their properties in those counties?” “Very much; perhaps in Dorsetshire more than anywhere.”

“But there were riots in Dorsetshire owing to the lowness of the wages?” “I do not know what they were owing to.”

“You do not happen to know what the rate of wages is either in Hampshire, or Dorsetshire, or Wiltshire?” “I can only speak of my own estate. The farmers are now giving about 9s., and I give from 9s. to 12s.; the farmers make those men pay 40s. a year for their cottages, and I give them their cottages rent free.”

(Select Committee on the Game Laws, Earl of Malmesbury, 31 March 1846, Parliamentary Papers, Volume 9, Part 2, Reports from Committees, Game Laws, Part II, Session 22 January – 28 August 1846, Ordered, by the House of Commons, to be printed, 6 July 1846)

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