The agricultural riots which occurred at the close of the year 1830 will long be remembered in the southern districts of England, to which they were confined. The revolutionary disturbances which, during the year, had marked the progress of events on the Continent, were not without their effect upon the agricultural, as well as the manufacturing population of Great Britain; and interested demagogues were easily to be found, willing and ready to fan the feeling of dissatisfaction which prevailed among the labouring classes, and to produce discontent where none already existed, with a view to the excitement of dislike for the higher ranks of society, and of insurrection against the government of the day. The poverty of the lower orders had done much to produce that hatred to property which induced these riots, and the inattention to their wants was urged by them as a sufficient justification for the mistaken and guilty course which they adopted.
The outrages, which commenced in the county of Kent, where undoubtedly the agricultural labourers were in a state of the very greatest misery, soon extended themselves through the whole of the southern counties of England, and the progressive march of incendiarism was as much feared as that of an invading army. Bodies of men proceeded through the whole line of country which we have pointed out, making converts to their atrocious principles, and their track was testified by the devastating effects which were produced. Stacks of grain and farm buildings were everywhere burned and consumed; and so determined were the monsters in the work of destruction, that none dared to oppose them, or to raise their hands to stop the dreadful deeds which every hour brought to light. Day after day bodies of men were seen passing from farm to farm, breaking all the machinery on the premises, the employment of which they looked upon as the cause of all their distress; and night after night, the secret incendiary plied his dreadful occupation, with a success which promised to produce the most dreadful desolation.
The limited exhibition of the ordinary constabulary force had no effect in checking the progress of these riots, and it was not until the yeomanry and finally the military were called out, that the fearful proceedings of the enraged mob were stopped. Meanwhile through Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Middlesex, Suffolk, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Wiltshire, Hampshire, Somersetshire, Dorsetshire, Devonshire, and Cornwall, had the work of destruction proceeded; and where the general body had not shown itself, local discontent had been sufficient to change the character of the simple labourer to that of the midnight incendiary. Notice was usually given of the intention to fire in threatening letters, signed "Swing," and the determination expressed seldom failed of being carried out.
In the course of several months, during which these outrages continued, many rioters were apprehended and lodged in jail, and the eventual firm proceedings of the magistrates did much to check the mischievous progress of wilful devastation. In many instances, small villages gave up their peaceful character, and assumed the appearance of military encampments, so long as the fear of danger remained in their vicinity, and not unfrequently the alehouse or the justice's mansion was converted into a temporary lodging for the prisoners. The first convictions which took place for these atrocious acts of violence were at the quarter sessions for the county of Kent, held at Canterbury on the 24th November, when many prisoners were tried and convicted upon charges of machine-breaking and riot. For the former offence a man named Reid, who had previously suffered imprisonment for lead-stealing, was sentenced to transportation for life; while John Stannard, William Siddars, William Stone, Thomas Strood, Henry Andrews, and Henry Halke were sentenced to seven years' banishment from the scene of their offences. Other prisoners, who were convicted only of assault and riot, were ordered to be imprisoned for terms varying from six months to two years; and the discovery by the labourers thus of the responsibility to which they subjected themselves did much towards quelling the disturbances, which even yet had not ceased.
Proclamations were subsequently issued offering rewards for the apprehension of all offenders, and before the conclusion of the year a vast number of prisoners had been taken into custody.
At the succeeding assizes these persons were brought to trial, and in Wiltshire, Hampshire, Buckinghamshire, and other counties, where the disturbances had assumed the most serious character, the prisoners were tried under a special commission.
Our space prevents our going into the particulars of one tithe of the cases which were tried, or even of those where the malefactors were ordered for execution. Of the latter the number was small as compared with the whole amount in custody, but many of their cases were attended with circumstances of great atrocity. At the assizes at Maidstone, Lewes, and other places on the circuits within the jurisdiction of which these occurrences had taken place, a great number of prisoners were convicted and sentenced to death. Many of the wretched men ascribed their guilt to their having paid attention to the lectures or the writings of Mr. Cobbett; and it is a remarkable fact that few of these rioters stated that they had been driven to the commission of crime by their poverty.
At the Hampshire special commission, held at Winchester, the offences which were brought under the consideration of the learned judges who presided, were those of machine-breaking, arson, extorting money by threats with intent to procure an increase of wages,-- and near 300 prisoners were found guilty. On Thursday, the 30th December, 1830, Mr. Baron Vaughan, as the senior judge, proceeded to pass sentence on those who had been convicted. In the dock there were twenty prisoners, in rows of five each; and the other prisoners were so disposed in the jury box and elsewhere as to hear all that passed.
The judges having put on their black caps, James Thomas Cooper, Henry Elridge, and John Gilmour, were called to the bar. The first two were found guilty of destroying the machinery employed in the manufactory of hemp and flax, the property of Messrs. Thompson, at Earl Mill, in the parish of Fordingbridge; and the latter for destroying the machinery employed in the foundry of Messrs. Robert and William Tasker, in the parish of Upper Clatford; to which the law affixed the punishment of death. Cooper had been particularly active as the captain or leader of the rioters, and was mounted on a horse giving the word of command. He was called Captain Hunt.
Mr. Baron Vaughan addressed these men with great eloquence, and in the most feeling manner, on the enormity of their offences and the necessity in their persons of making a severe example with the view of deterring others from the commission of similar offences hereafter. Having pointed out the aggravated character of the conduct of the prisoners, he forewarned them that their fate was fixed, and there remained for them no hope of mercy on this side the grave. His lordship then passed the awful sentence of death.
Cooper and Elridge were deeply affected -- the latter nearly fainted; but Gilmour behaved with the most stoical apathy.
Robert Holdaway, James Annalls, and Henry Cooke were then placed at the bar. They had been convicted -- Holdaway of demolishing, with others, the poor-house belonging to the parishes of Headly, Bramshot, and Kingley. -- James Annalls, of robbery from the person of William Courtnay, of Barton Stacey; and Henry Cooke, of robbery from the person of Thomas Dowden. These were all cases of peculiar aggravation, and as in the case of the three previous convicts, the prisoners were told to prepare for death, from which no hope of reprieve was to be entertained. In alluding to the crimes of these men, Mr. Baron Vaughan made the following important remarks:-- "I believe that there are a little short of a hundred persons whose lives are now forfeited to the state for their participation in the guilt of these transactions. It is my firm and decided conviction, that many persons engaged in them under a delusion, and instigated by the practices of artful and evil-designing men. I state publicly, that in the course of these trials we have found few instances -- and I am not certain that I could lay my finger upon one -- in which the pinching spur of necessity has compelled the offenders to the commission of their offence. They are, in general, persons of a different character and description. We find among them carpenters, blacksmiths, sawyers, and others, whose wages are admitted to be adequate to their wants, and who yet take an active part in perpetrating these outrages. Not only persons in the handicraft trades which I have just mentioned, but occupiers of land, gardeners, and others who labour under no necessity and suffer no want, have been found strenuously engaged in stimulating those who were in more want than themselves to the commission of those crimes, I am happy, however, to observe, that there are but few, if there are any, instances in which downright want has proved the cause of the commission of offence."
Many other prisoners were also sentenced to death with an understanding that the extreme punishment would not be inflicted, but that they would be transported for life; and the remainder were ordered to undergo various terms of transportation and imprisonment.
The trials of the persons charged with committing outrages in the county of Berks commenced on Tuesday, 28th December, at Reading. The prisoners who were first placed at the bar were W. Oakley, W. Smith, alias Winterburne, D. Bates, and Edmund Steele. They were charged with robbing J. Willis, Esq. of five sovereigns. It appeared that on the 22nd of November, two large mobs assembled in the neighbourhood of Hungerford and Kintbury, and after demolishing the windows of several houses, proceeded to the Town-hall of Hungerford. A deputation from each mob, of which the prisoners were the leading characters, was then admitted into the magistrates' room. They demanded twelve shillings per week wages, the destruction of machines, and a reduction of house-rent. Oakley, in a violent manner, demanded 5l.; and Bates, who had a sledgehammer in his hand, flourished it, and struck it on the ground, saying, with an oath, "We will have the 5l. or blood." Others cried out, "We will have blood for blood." The mob, which was about 400 in number, also became exceedingly clamorous, and the magistrates then gave them 5l. -- The jury found all the prisoners Guilty.
D. Hawkins, W. Chitter, J. Pullen, W. Haynes, D. Yarlick, G. Rosier, J. Field, J. Cope, C. Smith, J. Dobson, W. Oakley, W. Winterborne, J. Watts, T. May, J. Tuck, E. Steel, and D. Bates, were then tried for rioting and destroying machinery belonging to Richard Gibbons, at Hungerford. On the 22nd November, a mob, consisting of about 400 persons, went to Mr. Gibbons' manufactory; they had sledge-hammers, bludgeons, handhammers, sticks, &c. They rushed into the factory and broke the machinery, which was worth about 260l. -- The jury found all the prisoners Guilty, except Haynes and Smith.
The trials were continued up to the succeeding Tuesday, and a great number of men were convicted of offences of a similar character, marked by different degrees of aggravation; the greater part of whom were sentenced to transportation for seven years.
On the latter day, however, the commission was brought to a close, and Oakley, Winterburne, and a man named Darling, were left for execution; but the sentence was carried out only in the case of Winterburne.
At Salisbury, the commission was opened on Friday, 31st December; and its proceedings did not terminate until Monday, 10th January. On that day such of the prisoners as had not received sentence at the time of the conclusion of their trials were brought up. Peter Withers and James Lush were severally sentenced to death, amidst a most distressing and heart-rending scene in the court. Lush appeared to be dreadfully sensible of his situation, and during the whole period occupied by the address of the learned judge, lay on the bar in a state of dreadful anguish, crying with the most piteous groans for mercy.
It would be useless to follow the course of these dreadful proceedings through the country, or to attempt adequately to describe the scenes of misery and wretchedness produced to the families of the misguided men, who were in custody by their dreadful acts. At Dorchester, Exeter, and the other assize-towns in the west of England, scenes such as we have alluded to occurred, and in almost every place some miserable wretches were left to expiate their offences upon the scaffold, while others were doomed to suffer transportation from the scene of their former happiness and of their crimes.
Notwithstanding these events, however, it was long before the country assumed that position of peace and quietude for which its agricultural districts had always been remarkable.
On the 17th August, 1836, it was announced in the House of Commons by Lord John Russell, that of 216 persons sentenced to be transported for their participation in the offences of this period, all but ten, who were suffering punishment for crimes committed in the colonies, had been pardoned.