Thursday, 17 July 2014

Captain Swing

Last night I was over at a local musical evening (it's an 'open mic night' without any microphones) and a local poet performed a poem about the last men to be executed in England at the scene of their crime. The poem started a discussion about the forgotten history of working people in this country, like the Captain Swing riots.
In 1830, three men burned the hay ricks of a farmer, in protest at low agricultural wages (7/6 a week, which was low even by the standards of the time, and caused great hardship among the working poor) and were hanged for it.
This was part of the Captain Swing protests - they were campaigning for higher wages, higher levels of parish relief (the benefit system of the time) and against the new threshing machines which were taking away their jobs. Agricultural wages were so low that families depended on the parish relief to survive. The situation was not dis-similar to today, where the bulk of the benefit bill is paid to people who are in employment but who cannot survive on the low wages they receive.
Captain Swing was probably not a real person, but the name was used by the protesters when they sent threatening letters to farmers who owned threshing machines or paid low wages, usually before the farmer's hay ricks or barns were burned down, or their threshing machine destroyed.
William Cobbett, who wrote about agricultural reform, among other things, observed the change in agricultural practice. Large farms originally employed farm servants, who lived at the farm and got bed and board, on year long contracts. This was changing to the hiring of casual day labourers, who came in to do the work but lived elsewhere, and were only paid for the days they worked rather than for the whole year.
Cobbett said that the farmers preferred this, as it was cheaper for them than having live-in farm servants. It was, of course, worse for the labourers, especially when there was a surplus of people looking for work.
The authorities cracked down on the protests brutally, sentencing 500 people across England to transportation to Van Diemen's Land, as Tasmania was then known. Around 19 people were executed.
However, agricultural wages did rise a little, for a while, to as much as 10/- a week
and threshing machines fell out of general use.

The next stage for the labourers was unionisation....

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