Swing Rioters: Between 1930 and 1932, many farmers in England were attacked by rioters. The rioters destroyed threshing machines, burnt barns and haystack and sometimes burnt the entire farmhouse. Farmers used to receive threatening letters which were signed by ‘Captain Swing’. This was a mythical name used in the letters and the rioters came to be known as Swing Rioters. The letters urged the farmers to stop using the new machines because the new machines were depriving the poor peasants of job. The government took stern action and people were rounded up on suspicion. 1,976 prisoners were tried, nine men were hanged, 505 men were transported and 644 were put in jails.
Before the late eighteenth century, large parts of English countryside were open. There was no partition of land to mark the ownership. Peasants cultivated on strips of land around the village. At the beginning of each year, each villager was allotted a number of strips to cultivate for which the decision was taken at a public meeting. Usually a farmer was given strips of varying quality to ensure equitable distribution of good and bad land to the farmers.
The land beyond these strips was called the common land. All villagers had access to the commons. The commons were used as pasture and for collecting firewood and fruits. Rivers and ponds were used by all for fishing and the common forests were used for rabbit hunting. The common land was essential for the survival of poor.
But things began to change from about the sixteenth century. The price of wool went up in the world market in the sixteenth century. Due to this, the rich farmers wanted to expand wool production in order to earn profits. For improving their sheep breeds and to ensure good feed for them, the rich farmers started taking the control of large areas of land in compact blocks. They began to divide and enclose common land and built hedges around to demarcate their property. The poor peasants were driven out from the enclosed fields. The enclosure movement proceeded very slowly till the mid of the eighteenth century.
But after the mid-eighteenth century, the enclosure movement caught momentum. Between 1750 and 1850, about 6 million acres of land was enclosed. The British Parliament passed 4,000 acts to legalise these enclosures.
The enclosures which were made in the sixteenth century were meant for sheep farming. But those made in the late eighteenth century were for grain production. The English population increased rapidly from the mid-eighteenth century. The population of England multiplied over four times between 1750 and 1900. From 7 million in 1750 the population of England became 30 million in 1900. Increased population meant increased demand for foodgrains.
This was also the time when Britain was industrializing. More and more people began to migrate to the urban areas. With an increase in urban population, the demand for foodgrain increased and so did the prices.
At the end of the eighteenth century, England was at war with France. This war disrupted trade and import of foodgrains from Europe. This further aggravated the price rise of foodgrain in England. The higher prices encouraged the landowners to enlarge their enclosures for grain cultivation. The landowners also pressurized the Parliament to pass the Enclosure Acts.
Before 1780s, rapid population growth was usually followed by a period of food shortages in England. But after that, the food production matched with population growth. In 1868, England was producing about 80% of the food it consumed and the rest was imported.
This growth in food-grain production could be possible because of bringing new lands under cultivation. Pasturelands, open fields, forest commons, marshes, etc. were taken over by landlords and turned into agricultural fields.
The simple innovation used by farmers in this period was growing turnip and clover. These crops helped in improving soil fertility; by replenishing the nitrogen in soil. Moreover, turnip was a good fodder crop also.
Enclosures were now seen as important for making long-term investments on land and for planning crop rotations to improve the soil. Enclosures also helped rich landowners to expand the land under their control and produce more for the market.
With the expansion of enclosures, the poor could no longer have access to the commons. They could not collect firewood or graze their cattle, or collect apples or hunt small animals for meat. The poor were displaced from the land. Most of the poor from the Midlands were forced to move to southern counties in search of livelihood. The southern part was most intensely cultivated and hence there was a great demand for agricultural labourers.
During earlier period, the labourers usually lived the landowners. They used to eat at the master’s table and helped him through the year. But this practice was disappearing by 1800. Labourers were now being paid wages and employed only during harvest season. The landowners also cut the wages in order to increase profitability. Thus the poor suffered from job insecurity and unstable income.
During the Napoleonic Wars, prices of foodgrains were high and farmers vigorously expanded production to grab the opportunity. This was the time, new threshing machines had come into the market. The farmers began buying those machines, as they feared a shortage in labour.
Once the Napoleonic Wars ended, thousands of soldiers returned to the villages. They were looking for work to survive. This was also the time when grain from Europe began coming into England. Prices declined as a result and an Agricultural Depression set in. The landowners reduced the cultivated area and demanded a ban on imports. They also tried to cut the workforce and wages. The unemployed poor moved from village to village in search of job. This was the situation which gave rise to the Swinging Riots.
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