History Group Talk September 2012


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                                                  Terry Faull gave a most informative talk on "The Swing Riots"

- What are the Swing Riots?
It was the name given to riots held in 1830 when numerous men were deported to Australia for organising a 'strike' withholding their labour in an effort to get better conditions for agricultural labourers. 

Why the word 'swing'? Was it due to those that were hanged or was it due to the fact that a 'threshing machine’ was being developed by a firm that had 'SWING' painted on the side of it?  This subject is very deep and tied into the poor wages and conditions that had developed within the farming industry, due mainly to the way that the wealthy had commandeered much of the land. (some of which had been land that the workers had made use of for generations). 
In 1831, 457 men were deported to New South Wales for periods of 7, 10 & 14 years hard labour. Before they went they were made to witness a hanging of 19 year old Henry Cook, a lad of very low intelligence, (brutal!). During the riots 2000 were arrested, 19 were executed, 500 were transported, 1 was whipped, 7 fined and 800 bound over.  "We have to work or we strike " was their motto. They wanted to improve their lot. Their quality of life had deteriorated from the time of the Poor Laws, when from 1601 - 1697, the people belonged to the parish, and the parish was responsible for their limited welfare. People were often removed back to their Home Parish, if they fell on hard times and were living away.  Outdoor relief was equivalent to 'the dole' while indoor relief meant being put into the workhouse. The Church House here at Widecombe was at one time the 'workhouse', and was controlled by "The Overseers of the Poor".  (Our parish documents will show details of this when we get them all digitised dated in the 17/18th C.)   Between 1760 & 1870, 7 million acres of common land was taken over by the landed gentry, (a sixth of England). Farm labourers lost their rights to graze on the open commons. Their call was ‘give us back our commons and you can keep your poor relief‘. These folk were able to manage by keeping a pig or other stock on the commons to help with their families. This was taken from them. During the winter months some men were able to earn a little more by threshing the corn in the barns with a 'flail'.  Marshall in his survey of Devon Agriculture 1796, wrote of how the poor were being treated. A poor man had to survive on 6/- (six shillings) a week. This created the ‘apprenticeship system’ where children were apprenticed from the age of 7 years till they were 21, and many were ill-treated.  (Widecombe parish have many examples of apprenticeship documents and the details of removal papers etc. These are being digitised.) An example was shown of how in 1829, £19. 10s. 0d was an annual wage and £18.17s.0d was the annual expenses. If the bread winner was ill and could not work for any reason they lived in total poverty. In comparison a miner earned £54.6s.0d, a teacher £69.3s.0d, a vicar £254.6s.0d while a large landowner earned £30,000 per annum. It was during these times that the large houses that we visit today were built with this huge wealth.  Some of these old threshing barns (recognisable generally by the fact of them having double doors in line with each other on the two sides of the barn, some with a double floor). Many of these have now been developed into houses, and the adjoining 'round-house', where the horses turned the barn machinery, have also made added features in these re-developments. This has meant that many have been conserved what otherwise may well have been destroyed.
In the South West, there were part time farmers, who did mining, fishing & quarrying, to earn extra funds. This whole period led also to the spread of Methodism and in c1856 also led to ‘Friendly Societies’ being formed where the ordinary man could pay a small amount each week into a fund which he could draw upon in times of need. The Odd Fellows and The Ancient Order of Foresters, to name but two such organisations!
The industrialisation of agriculture continued with the need for less and less workers on the farms and this insight into The Swing Riots was very informative and gave us all a lot to think about, especially as we continue to look at “Our Old Parish Documents“.


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