HAHG Lecture: The Swing Riots

Two volunteers from the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading, Jenny Knight and Kaye Gough, introduced the Museum to the Henley Archaeological and Historical Group at their monthly meeting on 2 April. The Museum was established as part of Reading University in 1951, but has since been moved to Redlands Road, and was refurbished in October 2016.

They followed this with a vivid and fascinating account of the Swing Riots of the 1830s, a series of protests against the mechanisation of agriculture – a sort of farming equivalent of the Luddites. There was no single cause of the riots; the loss of jobs through the mechanisation of threshing was the ostensible motive, but the influence of the French Revolution, the economic aftereffects of the Napoleonic wars, the uncompromising character of the Duke of Wellington and the hardship caused by a series of bad harvests all played a part.

Rioting occurred in many parts of England, starting in Mildenhall in Suffolk in February 1830, but the talk focused on a couple of local outbreaks, in Hungerford and Kintbury in November of that year. Groups of 30-40 protestors roamed the areas over several days, threatening farmers and landowners, demanding money, bread, cheese and beer, and destroying threshing machines. The protests were soon suppressed by the military and the participants detained in Reading. The subsequent trials resulted in imprisonment or transportation of many, and one individual, William Winterbourne, was hanged on 11th January 1831 for his crimes.

Next month’s talk will be on 7 May, when Dr Dave Carless will talk to the Group about the archaeology of Blewbury and its area, with emphasis on the Saxon period.