Captain Swing is an enjoyable collaboration between E. J. Hobsbawm and George Rude that depicts the social history of the English agricultural wage-laborers’ uprising of 1830. According to Hobsbawm and Rude, historiography of the laborers’ rising of 1830 is negligible. Most of what is known by the general public comes from J. L. And Barbara Hammond’s The Village Laborer published in 1911. They consider this an exceedingly valuable work, but state that the Hammonds oversimplified events in order to dramatize them. They placed too much emphasis on enclosure, oversimplified both the nature and prevalence of the “Speenhamland System” of poor relief, and neglected the range and scope of the uprising. Hobsbawm and Rude do not claim to present any new data, and believe that the Hammonds will still be read for enjoyment, but believe that by asking different questions, they can shed new light on the social history of the movement. Therefore, this book tries to “describe and analyze the most impressive episode in the English farm-labourers’ long and doomed struggle against poverty and degradation.” In the nineteenth century, England had no peasantry to speak of in the sense that other nations did. Where families who owned or occupied their own small plot of land and cultivated it themselves, apart from work on their lord’s farms, farmed most of Europe, England’s “peasants” were agricultural wage-laborers. As such, both tithes and taxes hit them hard. Lords and farmers were also against tithes and taxes and tolerated or even welcomed some outcry against them. Most county leaders in 1830 agreed with the laborers, but the government in London did not.
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Further, enclosure eliminated the common lands whose use had helped the very poor to live. As a result, the relationship between farmers and laborers changed to a “purely market relationship between employer and proletarian.” At the same time, work once done by annual servants was given over to wage labor. Farmers were driven by income rather than social concerns and it was cheaper to pay a small wage for all positions and let laborers pay their own living out of it than to provide them room and board, however minimal. The laborers were not revolutionary, however. They did not wish to overturn the traditional social order. They merely demanded the restoration of their meager rights within it. Unfortunately, they only had five forms of protest or self-defense available to them. They occasionally protested against wage cuts or demanded higher wages, grasped ever tighter to parish poor relief, resorted to crimes such as stealing food or poaching game, performed acts of terrorism such as incendiarism, and destroyed the machines which created or intensified unemployment. Threshing machines took away the standard winter labor, creating high unemployment at the worst time of year and generating an almost universal hatred of them among laborers. Of these, the most ambitious was the destruction of threshing machines, but poaching was most indicative of increasing social tensions in the villages.
Theoretically, political devices such as petitions and delegations were available tools as well, but agricultural wage-laborers had neither political rights nor the experience to put them to use. Local correspondents almost universally attributed the riots of 1830 to unemployment and harsh treatment of laborers. The winter of 1829 had been particularly hard. The unemployed, tired and hungry, knew that they would not likely survive another winter as hard. Aware of the French revolution and Britain’s own upcoming elections, which offered the promise of a Whig overthrow of the Tories, English laborers rebelled against the cause of their hunger. Laborers destroyed their first threshing machine on the night of August 28, 1830. This became the characteristic feature of their uprising of 1830, although it was only one of many. Other forms of revolt included arson, threatening letters (signed by “Captain Swing”), inflammatory handbills and posters, robbery, wages meetings, and assaults on overseers, parsons, and landlords. Spreading from county to county, the universal demand was for a living wage and an end to rural unemployment. In spite of the severe living conditions suffered by the laborers and their informal support from many of those against whom they rebelled, the rioters were punished severely. Of 1,976 prisoners, 252 were sentenced to death and nineteen were actually executed. 505 were sentenced to transportation to penal colonies and 644 were imprisoned. Less than half (800) were acquitted or bound over. The defeat of the 1830 rising did not end the laborers’ efforts, however. While some might claim that the failure of the revolt plunged the laboring class into dumb acquiescence, Hobsbawm and Rude argue that it woke the farmers and nobility to the inner strength of their hitherto silent workers. Hobsbawm and Rude, in this collaborative effort, made use of an enormous amount of primary and secondary source material yet managed to produce an eminently readable work which looks at the rebellion from a social, rather than purely economic, point of view.