Captain Swing

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This article is about the threatening letters of the Swing Riots. For the Michael Barwis play, see Captain Swing (Barwis play). For the Peter Whelan play, see Captain Swing (Whelan play).
Horse-powered threshing machine

Captain Swing was the name appended to some of the threatening letters during the rural English Swing Riots of 1830, when labourers rioted over the introduction of new threshing machines and the loss of their livelihoods. Captain Swing was described as a hard-working tenant farmer driven to destitution and despair by social and political change in the early nineteenth century.

Swing Riots[edit]

Popular protests by farm workers occurred across a wide swath of agricultural England, from Sussex in the south to Kent in the east,[1] and they had a number of structural causes. The main targets for protesting crowds were landowners/landlords, whose threshing machines they destroyed or dismantled, and whom they petitioned for a rise in wages. They also demanded contributions of food, money, beer, or all three from their victims. Often they sought to enlist local parish officials and occasionally magistrates to raise levels of poor relief as well. Throughout England, 600 rioters were imprisoned, 500 sentenced to transportation, 19 were executed and nine were hanged.

The protests were notable for their discipline and the customary protocols favoured by the crowds, characteristics which were very much part of the tradition of popular protest going back to the eighteenth century. The structural reasons for the Swing 'riots' (or risings) are relatively straightforward: underemployment, low wages, low levels of relief, and competition for winter employment from machinery. However, the nature of the events of 1830 suggest that they may demand just as subtle an interpretation as the events of the previous century.

For most contemporaries, the riotous but largely bloodless actions of the crowds presented less cause for alarm than the high incidence of arson during the period of Swing (October to December 1830). Swing the rick burner was not only more destructive, but much harder to apprehend than the rioters in this heightened atmosphere of tension and hostility. The relationship between arsonists and protesters is difficult to assess – although there is little doubt that a relationship existed. Whatever the immediate motivations of the arsonists of 1830 and 1831, their actions undoubtedly gave added strength to the demands of the protesting crowds.

However, reform was in the air. Many protestors found sympathy in middle-class radicals who encouraged protesters to spread far from their original sources. Further, early sentences by magistrates against the rioters, even those who destroyed threshing machines, were fairly light. Thus, riots continued into 1831.

Examples of threatening 'Swing' letters[edit]

Sir, Your name is down amongst the Black hearts in the Black Book and this is to advise you and the like of you, who are Parson Justasses, to make your wills. Ye have been the Blackguard Enemies of the People on all occasions, Ye have not yet done as ye ought,.... Swing

Sir, This is to acquaint you that if your threshing machines are not destroyed by you directly we shall commence our labours. Signed on behalf of the whole ... Swing From E.J. Hobsbawm and George Rude, Captain Swing [2]

See also[edit]

Cultural references[edit]

Swing appears as a real person in the alternate reality fiction The Difference Engine. Captain Swing is also a 1989 album by singer-songwriter Michelle Shocked for Mercury Records. A character named Findthee Swing is a Captain in the Ankh-Morpork "Unmentionables" secret police in Sir Terry Pratchett's novel Night Watch

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Charlsworth, Andrew (1983). An Atlas of Rural Protest in Britain, 1548–1900. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 151. 
  2. ^ Gabriella Coleman and Finn Brunton, 17 July 2010, "Net Wars Over Free Speech, Freedom, and Secrecy or How to Understand the Hacker and Lulz Battle Against the Church of Scientology" at The Next HOPE conference

Further reading[edit]

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