I’d suggest that quite a significant number of historians got into the business through starting off a family tree. I know that was part of the process for me – as soon as the links with the world beyond the writing on a census return started to go *clunk* I thought that maybe something like this was for me. I’ve talked about the fun of microhistory before – well, a genealogy is a fertile ground for many such stories that speak of larger things. And for most people it’s a history from below too – not many of us are from aristocratic stock.
It has to be said, I have no history of family from the midlands at all, but apparently that needn’t stop me. I certainly didn’t expect that, when opening a book on Black Country folk songs, I’d come across a song about the tiny Hampshire village in which I grew up. But such is the joy of the links going clunk, that it opens up a wider story.
Many people are familiar with Luddism, the destroying of machinery that was perceived to be threatening work and wages during the early industrial revolution. In fact, many people proudly proclaim themselves Luddites even today. The movement was named after a possibly mythical Ned Ludd who destroyed two stocking frames in 1779; his image morphed into that of General or King Ludd, symbol of the general protests of the 1810s. It’s a tragic story really: a movement that arose during the hungry latter years of the Napoleonic wars against a backdrop of mechanisation across all sorts of industry. It’s no wonder the working people rebelled against this. The sad fact though is that the machinery wasn’t the root of the problem – structural inequality is a product of raw capitalism, not technological innovation.
A few years later, a similar protest movement sprang up in the agricultural regions of Kent and swiftly spread across the South of England and East Anglia. The protestors were agricultural labourers, some of the worst afflicted by the nineteenth century, and their destruction took in hundreds of threshing machines as well as workhouses, tithe barns and even some poor cattle. The grievances were many: the settlement laws that tied labourers to their parish, Enclosures of land leading to radical new farming techniques, the change in employment practices from spring hirings to cash contracts, and the Speenhamland system of poor relief which reduced wages and degraded living standards across the board. The decay in the traditional hiring system and the ‘modernisation’ of work-time was nicely summed up by a German writer describing the (much worse) situation in Ireland:
[The landlords are] even worse than the great Polish and Russian proprietors, who at least build houses for their peasants and furnish them with food in times of Famine. This the Irish landlord does not do, because his tenant is a free man, though with only the inconveniences of freedom – such as hunger, want and care – without any of its advantages.”Quoted in MacRaild (1999) Irish Migrants in Modern Britain 1750-1922 (p25)
The introduction of threshing machines touched the blue paper and the destructions kicked off at harvest time, 1830, just a month after France’s July Revolution. The protestors again found a figurehead for themselves (cf. the Rebecca Riots), this time in the definitely fictitious Captain Swing, after whom the protest has come to be known. “Captain Swing” would send threatening letters to intended victims, some of them pretty fearsome:
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
Quoted in Hobsbawm and Rudé (1969) Captain Swing
Although starting in Kent, the largest protests were in Hampshire and Wiltshire, with 208 incidents recorded in each. On November 23rd 1830, a mob was formed in the village of Owslebury, a few miles South of Winchester, which proceeded with threats from farm to farm. Now I know Owslebury – it’s where I grew up. It seemed at the time a non-descript village in the middle of the countryside with little to distinguish it, despite the best efforts of the teachers at the charming primary school to instill some local pride. In fact, the village lies on the route of a Roman Road and the ancient Pilgrim’s Way, and has been inhabited for many hundreds of years – the land is mentioned in the Domesday book, the church has been there since at least the fourteenth century, Marwell Hall is reputed to be the site of Henry VIII’s wooing of Jane Seymour, and William Cobbett passed through on his Rural Rides in the 1820s.
Also unbeknownst to me while I grew up was that several generations of my mum’s forefathers were residents of the village, since at least 1800. The Pipers lived in various parts of the parish over time, and it’s William Piper (1789-1872) that I have most detail of. He married up by the looks of things – although an Ag Lab, he married one Mary Ann Stevens Stanbrook (1793-1847), daughter of Moses Stanbrook (1777-1868), steward to the Earl of Northesk when he was at his home in Longwood, in the West of the parish. Longwood House (aka Rosehill) had been a lordly seat for many years, and the estate has a history at least back to 1589. Steward there was probably a decent job, or so you’d have thought. When Moses Stanbrook was in charge of business at Rosehill in November 1830, I wonder if he’d heard of the wave of destruction heading across his county?
As it turned out, a mob led by local farmer John Boyes (or so it was alleged) rocked up at Rosehill on 23rd November. It had made its way across the commons and moors of Owslebury picking up participants and arrived at the big house demanding to know where the machinery was. Moses answered the door with some trepidation I should imagine. On finding out that there was only a beaten-up old winnowing machine on the premises, the mob promptly destroyed it and demanded payment of five sovreigns for their services, which seems somewhat unreasonable. Poor old Moses had to stump up his own money as Northesk wasn’t at home, but although a steward was a reasonable job it wasn’t all that: he managed to scrape together £5 instead which was accepted. Here accounts vary: Boyes and others were charged with assault on Stanbrook, and Moses testified to this extortion. The mob moved on to Marwell House (where the zoo is now) breathing threats and violence, and Boyes headed to a local pub (which, in another turn, is located at the bottom of the hill on which I lived for the first 20 years of my life and is now a farmhouse). It actually seems that he did more to quell further unrest than he did to incite that day’s problems, and the case was the subject of national and political debate and intervention. The events are shrouded in varying shades of opinion, both in testimony and in print.
I don’t find any of my other relatives’ names amongst those arrested, thankfully, and of the relatives I know about, most were either old folk or children at the time. I can’t question William Piper about his whereabouts at the time, but I’d like to hope he’d have stepped in to stop the attack on his 53-year-old father-in-law if he’d been there. Mary, I expect, would have been busy looking after a two-year-old Charles Piper, my great-great-grandfather.
The wider story makes a fascinating article by Alan Howkins, which details the extent of the mob’s activities that day as well as their eventual punishment – William Adams, Nicholas Freemantle, James Fussell and John Boyes were sentenced to transportation to Van Diemen’s Land. (Incidentally, I have another ancestor on a completely separate branch who suffered the same fate, I’ll have to have a dig around that one). Howkins’ article also introduces the song ‘The Owslebury Lads‘, which is the one I found in Jon Raven‘s book and that led to this post:
On the thirteeth of November, eighteen hundred and thirty
Our Owslebury lads they did prepare all for the machinery,
And when they did get there, my eye! how they let fly;
The machinery fell to pieces in the twinkling of an eye.
CHORUS: The mob, such a mob, you have never seen before,
And if we live this hundred years, you never will no more.
Normally, it’s not too hard to pick a side on historical debates. I’m with the little guy. But here, the little guys were picking the wrong fight (the machines weren’t the problem here, in the long run, just a symptom), and against the wrong person (whether or not Moses gave a fair testimony is impossible to say, but looking at his background, he doesn’t seem all that different from the little guys themselves. Perhaps Swing is best seen as an outburst of frustration, a cry from the depths of poverty with problems of articulation.
- Howkins, A. (2010) “The Owslebury Lads”. Southern History vol.32, pp.117-38
- Hobsbawm, E. and Rudé, G. (1969) Captain Swing. Republished last year by Verso.
- There’s a great account by a relative of John Boyes here
- The letter-writin’, ale-quaffin’, beard-liberatin’ chair of the London Socialist Historians Group, Keith Flett, has edited a forthcoming book on the history of riots in this country which is sure to be worth a read. As a councillor for Tottenham, he probably knows more about the subject than many. He’s written here on the modern version of a machine taking your job.