Thursday, 15 August 2019

Peterloo: 200th anniversary

With the 200th anniversary of the unprovoked attack by the forces of the local state on an unarmed crowd in Manchester while there is no question about the significance of the event, there are important questions about what the impact of the ‘massacre’ was in the short and longer term and what its continuing significance is for democracy today.  This post examines those issues.
 
Habeas Corpus  was revived early in 1818 and the Seditious Meetings Act lapsed in July. However, economic distress returned in late 1818 and radicalism revived in 1819 reaching its peak in the ‘Peterloo Massacre’.[1] The Thistlewood group may have failed to raise London during the Spa Fields riot but continued with its conspiratorial plans. They considered plans for a rising in London in October 1817 and in February 1818 plotted to assassinate Sidmouth and other members of the government.[2] In 1818, Thistlewood was imprisoned for a year for challenging Sidmouth to a duel.[3] The rest of the group, led by the Watsons, mollified their tactics and continued their mission in association with Henry Hunt making significant progress in Lancashire.
 
Although the industrial districts of Lancashire were one of the centres of radical reform, by 1819 there was mass mobilisation in all the major cities. A massive meeting of workers had assembled on St. Peter’s Field to see off the ‘Blanketeers’ from Manchester in 1817. The following year saw strikes aimed at restoring falling wage levels showing workers’ discipline and organisation, with meetings and marches in Manchester and Stockport.[4] Pressure created by poor economic conditions reached a peak in 1819 greatly boosting the appeal of radical politics amongst cotton weavers in south Lancashire. Mass meetings for parliamentary reform and for the repeal of the Corn Laws took place in Stockport and Manchester during the first half of 1819. By July, workers were drilling on the moors outside working-class districts in Lancashire, something paralleled in other parts of the country and as many as 2,000 workers paraded in semi-military formation along the High Road from Manchester to a reform meeting in Rochdale.[5] These preparations were primarily aimed at improving organisation for a mass meeting at St. Peter’s Field originally planned for 2 August and delayed until 9 August.[6] The meeting in Manchester was part of a broader national effort for July and August 1819 that saw large meetings in Birmingham, Leeds and London.[7]
 
The local ruling elite in Manchester had already prepared for mass radical action. In July, the local magistracy formed an ‘Armed Association for the Preservation of the Peace’ and enrolled Special Constables. A letter from Joseph Johnson, one of the leaders of the Manchester Patriotic Union, to Henry Hunt asking him to chair the meeting was intercepted by government spies and interpreted as meaning that an insurrection was planned. The government responded by ordering the 15th Hussars to Manchester and local yeomanry was also mobilised. Local magistrates had already been advised by the Home Office that the intention of the meeting to elect a MP was a serious misdemeanour and this encouraged them to declare the meeting planned for 9 August illegal.[8] If this was intended to discourage radicals, it failed. Hunt and his supporters were determined to assemble and a new meeting was organised for 16 August.
 
Assembly points were announced where people in the towns and districts surrounding Manchester could gather and then march in disciplined contingents to the meeting on 16 August. This was an expression of local and community identities as well as demonstrating respectability as proof of their right to manhood suffrage.[9] The local radical committees made it clear that no weapons were to be carried by the contingents but they were drilled in the fields round Manchester, buttressing the authorities’ fears. Manchester’s ten magistrates met at around 9.00 am to discuss what action to take on Hunt’s arrival but after ninety minutes had come to no firm conclusions. They then moved to a house on the south-eastern corner of St. Peter’s Field to allow them to observe the meeting. Concerned that the meeting might degenerate into a riot or more seriously rebellion, a substantial number of regular troops and militia yeomanry were deployed.[10]
 
There was a confident and festive atmosphere as the contingents gathered and prepared to march. Bands played and banners were unfurled. Oldham’s banner was of pure white silk with the inscriptions: ‘Universal Suffrage, Annual Parliaments--Election by Ballot’, and ‘No Combination Acts’ while Saddleworth’s was jet black with ‘Equal Representation or Death’ in white over two joined hands and a heart. One of the banners carried by the Stockport contingent read: ‘Success to the Female Reformers of Stockport’. It has been estimated that women made up about 12 per cent of the crowd was and a particular feature of the meeting was the large number of women present. By the time the contingents assembled on St. Peter’s Field, they were packed in so tightly that one contemporary commented that ‘their hats seems to touch’, and numbered 60,000 people, six per cent of the population of the county of Lancashire and up to a half of that in the immediate area round Manchester. The casualty list suggests that most lived within a three miles radius of the centre of the city.[11]
 
At around noon, several hundred Special Constables were sent into the field and formed a corridor through the crowd between the house where the magistrates were watching and the hustings of two wagons lashed together. Whether this was intended by the magistrates to provide a route that could be used to arrest the speakers or not, some in the crowd pushed the wagons away from the constables and pressed around the hustings to form a human barrier. Hunt arrived at the meeting shortly after 1.00 pm and was joined on the hustings by John Knight, a cotton manufacturer and reformer, Joseph Johnson, the organiser of the meeting, Thacker Sexton, managing editor of the Manchester Observer, Richard Carlile and George Swift, a reformer and shoemaker. There were also a number of reporters, including John Tyas of The Times whose account was widely used in contemporary accounts, John Smith of the Liverpool Echo and Edward Baines Jr., the son of the editor of the Leeds Mercury.[12] Seeing the enthusiastic reception that Hunt received, William Hulton, chairman of the local magistrates decided to arrest him and others on the platform.
 
 
Jonathan Andrews, the Chief Constable, expressed the view that he would need military assistance given the crowd round the hustings. Hulton then sent two letters, one to the commanding officer of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry and a second to Lieutenant-Colonel Guy L’Estrange, overall military commander in Manchester asking for support since he considered ‘the Civil Power wholly inadequate to preserve the peace.’ It was the Yeomanry that arrived first at about 1.40 pm. With instructions to escort Deputy Constable Joseph Nadin to the hustings with the arrest warrant, the militia set off down the narrow corridor formed by the Special Constables but quickly got bogged down by the crush. The Yeomanry, inexperienced in crowd control, panicked and began hacking the crowd with their sabres. Nadin reached the hustings and arrested Hunt, Johnson and several others but by this time matters were out of control.
 
 
Hulton saw these events as an assault on the Yeomanry and when the regular troops arrived at 1.50 pm, they were ordered to disperse the densely packed crowd. The Hussars formed line across the eastern edge of the Field and charged into the crowd while the Cheshire Yeomanry moved from the southern edge of the Field at about the same time; the result was carnage but within ten minutes the crowd was dispersed. Peace was not finally restored in Manchester until the following morning and in Stockport, Oldham and Macclesfield rioting continued during that day. Eleven of the fatalities occurred on St Peter’s Field. Others, such as John Lees of Oldham, died later of their wounds, and some like Joshua Whitworth were killed in the rioting that followed the crowd’s dispersal from the field. Of the 654 recorded casualties, at least 168 were women, four of whom died either at St Peter’s Field or later as a result of their wounds.[13]
 
There was a wave of public support for the radical cause and even The Times attacked the actions of the Manchester magistrates. The mass movement for reform was not appreciably set back by the Peterloo massacre and this demonstrated the moral bankruptcy of aristocratic government. A huge crowd estimated by The Times at 300,000 lined the streets of London to greet Hunt after his release from jail. There were meetings all over England, especially in the north-east counties where more than 50,000 miners marched into Newcastle from surrounding districts. In October and November, workers across the country stocked pikes and other weapons to defend themselves and their meetings. Drilling and armed demonstrations were reported in Newcastle, Wolverhampton, Wigan, Bolton and Blackburn. The massacre reinforced radical imagery of abusive state power contrasting the uncontrolled passions of repressive state apparatus in the role of Edmund’s Burke image of the hellish mob with the restraint, order and moral purity of the people. Sir Francis Burdett’s ‘Address to the Electors of Westminster’, published in the Black Dwarf nine days after the massacre, made clear the unconstitutional, unchristian and un-English violence of the authorities in turning on a defenceless people. The radical movement may have held the moral high ground but, for Hunt and the radical leadership, the problem was how to translate this into practical actions. Most radicals, who maintained a constitutionalist stance, relied on the government responding to the threat of physical force by conceding reform.[14] This increased support for firm government action when public order and property were threatened and was anyway unlikely to succeed. The radical leadership failed to harness this backlash against the government and within weeks lost the initiative. In Lancashire, radicalism was riven by division between the majority who supported Hunt and a conspiratorial minority and by the arrest of key figures on 22 December 1819.[15] Threatening violence was one thing, translating it into open rebellion another. What radicals from Hunt to Feargus O’Connor never satisfactorily resolved was: ‘What happens when the government says no?’
 
By contrast, the authorities locally and nationally responded to Peterloo decisively and the use of violence was officially endorsed. The Manchester magistrates held a supposedly public meeting on 19 August, so that resolutions supporting the action they had taken three days earlier could be published. Cotton merchants Archibald Prentice, later editor of The Manchester Times and Absalom Watkin organised a petition of protest against the violence at St Peter’s Field that also questioned the legitimacy of the magistrates’ meeting and within a few days it had collected 4,800 signatures.[16] Parliament was not sitting between 13 July and 23 November 1819 delaying any parliamentary scrutiny of the government’s actions. Liverpool and Sidmouth had advised the Manchester magistrates against taking any precipitous action and may have been privately appalled by the magistrates’ rashness, but they had little choice but publicly to approve their actions.[17] On 27 August, Sidmouth informed the magistrates of the thanks of the Prince Regent for preserving the public peace. Such was the centrality of the magistracy to effective government that Liverpool was prepared to risk temporary excoriation by supporting them. Those involved in the assault on the crowd were also exonerated. Later, in April 1822, a test case was brought against four members of the Manchester Yeomanry at the Lancaster Assizes but the court ruled that their actions had been justified in dispersing an illegal gathering and they were acquitted.[18]
 
The government did not intend to give in to radical demands for parliamentary reform as was made very clear by the Prince Regent at the opening of Parliament in November 1819:
 
I regret to have been under the necessity of calling you together at this period of the year; but the seditious practices so long prevalent in some of the manufacturing districts of the country have been continued with increased activity since you were last assembled in parliament.
They have led to proceedings incompatible with the public tranquillity, and with the peaceful habits of the industrious classes, of the community; and a spirit is now fully manifested, utterly hostile to the constitution of this kingdom, and aiming not only at the change of those political institutions which have hitherto constituted the pride and security of this country, but at, the subversion of the rights of property and of all order in society.
I have given directions that the necessary information on this subject shall be laid before you; and I feel it to be my indispensable duty, to press on your immediate attention the consideration of such measures as may be requisite for the counteraction and suppression of a system which, if not effectually checked, must bring confusion and ruin on the nation.[19]
 
Repression was re-imposed and coercive legislation, the ‘Six Acts’, was quickly introduced in December 1819. The Seditious Meetings, Training Prevention and Seizure of Arms Bills were designed to prevent intimidation and violence.[20] The Newspaper Stamp Duties and Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Bills were intended to curb agitation in the radical press.[21] The former increased the stamp duty on newspapers and cheap pamphlets to 4d while the Misdemeanours Bill restricted the right of appeal of those charged with such offences. This gave the government powers to deal harshly with even slight expressions of discontent. However, ministers resisted calls for an increase in the standing army but did mobilise loyalist support with the Home Office using the loyalist press as a counterweight to the often seditious publications in the radical press. Loyalist public meetings were hurriedly called, loyal addresses heaped praise on the government and volunteer forces were organised by local elites. This proved highly successful but marked the last occasion when ministers felt they could rely on loyalist support and propaganda to regain and sustain control. Peterloo had highlighted the tenuous nature of authority in industrial and urban Britain and led, in the 1820s, to a fundamental review of how best to maintain law and order.[22]
 
The leading Whigs were unanimous in their denunciation of the brutality, but were divided on how closely they should involve the party in the popular protest movement being promoted by incensed radicals. The few Whig initiatives achieved little. Earl Fitzwilliam supported the Yorkshire county meeting on 14 October. It adopted the resolutions he drafted: the right to public assembly and condemnation of unlawful interference with it and a demand for an inquiry into Peterloo.[23] This spurred further Whig meetings in nine English counties--Norfolk, Cumberland, Yorkshire, Hertfordshire, Durham, Westmorland, Berkshire, Cornwall and Herefordshire--in October and those in Surrey, Northamptonshire, Wiltshire, Northumberland and Essex in November were unsuccessful, while in Hampshire and Middlesex they were cancelled when an emergency session of Parliament was announced. The dismissal of Fitzwilliam as Lord Lieutenant of Yorkshire on 21 October angered Whigs of all opinion and even Lord Grey, their far from animated leader, encouraged attendance for a robust parliamentary campaign. Distaste for the barbarity of Peterloo and the government’s reaction to it reinforced Whig belief that an effective measure of parliamentary reform was essential. On 18 February 1820, Lord John Russell argued the case for transferring seats from boroughs disfranchised for corruption to unrepresented industrial towns, specifically calling for the disfranchisement of Grampound. He withdrew his motion when government ministers accepted his proposals and Grampound was disfranchised in 1821, but its seats went to the county of Yorkshire.[24]
[1] Read, Donald, Peterloo: The ‘massacre’ and its background, (Manchester University Press), 1958, remains a useful study while Walmsley, R., Peterloo: the case reopened, (Manchester University Press), 1969, is a detailed study that over-reacts in its defence of government, local and national, Marlow, Joyce, The Peterloo Massacre, (Rapp and Whiting), 1969, Reid, R., The Peterloo Massacre, (Heinemann), 1989, Phythian, Graham, Peterloo: Voices, Sabres and Silence, (History Press), 2018, Riding, Jacqueline, Peterloo: The Story of the Manchester Massacre, (Head of Zeus), 2018, and Poole, Robert, Peterloo: The English Uprising, (Oxford University Press), 2019, provide contrasting narratives. Manchester Region History Review, Vol. 3, (1), (1989) contains several useful articles; Poole, Robert, ‘”By the Law or the Sword”: Peterloo Revisited’, History, Vol. 91, (2006), pp. 254-276, is the most recent reappraisal. See also, Bush, M. L., The Casualties of Peterloo, (Carnegie Publishing Ltd.), 2005.[2] ‘Trials for High Treason’, London Courier and Evening Gazette, 16 June 1817, pp. 5-6. ‘State Trials’, Morning Chronicle, 17 June 1817, pp. 1, 2, 3, 4..[3] ‘King v. Arthur Thistlewood’, Morning Chronicle, 15 May 1818, p. 2.[4] ‘Striking for Wages’, Morning Post, 21 July 1818, p. 2, [5] ‘Reform Meeting at Rochdale’, Morning Advertiser, 29 July 1818, p. 2, suggests a procession of at least 5,000 people; see also, ‘State of the Disturbed Districts’, Morning Post, 2 August 1819, p. 2.[6] ‘State of the Disturbed Districts’, Morning Post, 4 August 1819, p. 2.[7] Peterloo Massacre containing A Faithful Narrative of the Events, which preceded, accompanied and followed the fatal Sixteenth of August 1819….Edited by an Observer, 3rd ed., (James Wroe), 1819 Ibid, Bamford, Samuel, Passages in The Life of A Radical, Vol. 1, pp. 176-226, remains a central, if written in retrospect, narrative of events on 16 August 1819. Bruton, Francis Archibald, Three Accounts of Peterloo and The Story of Peterloo, (The University Press, Manchester), 1921, prints eye-witness accounts by Rev Edward Stanley later Bishop of Norwich and written in 1821, Sir William Jolliffe, first Baron Hylton and a Lieutenant in the 15th Hussars first published in 1847, and John Benjamin Smith, businessman and strong advocate of Free Trade, probably written in the decade before his death in 1879 and strikingly corroborative of Bamford’s account.[8] ‘Manchester Meeting’, Morning Advertiser, 5 August 1819, pp. 2, 4.[9] Navickas, Katrina, Protest and the Politics of Space and Place, 1789-1848, (Manchester University Press), 2016, p. 82[10] The military presence consisted of 600 men of the 15th Hussars, several hundred infantry, a Royal Horse Artillery unit with two six-pounder cannons, 400 men of the Cheshire Yeomanry, 400 Special Constables and 120 cavalry of the relatively inexperienced Manchester and Salford Yeomanry. The Manchester and Salford Yeomanry was largely made up of local merchants, manufacturers, publicans and shopkeepers, all rabid opponents of the radical movement.[11] Ibid, Bush, M. L., The Casualties of Peterloo, p. 19.[12] Detailed accounts of the meeting included those u ‘Manchester Reform Meeting’, Leeds Mercury, 21 August 1819, p. 3 ‘The Manchester Meeting’, Morning Post, 19 August 1819, p. 2, ‘The Manchester Meeting and its Dispersion by Force of Arms’, Liverpool Mercury, 20 August 1819, pp. 7, 8, [13] Ibid, Bush, M. L., The Casualties of Peterloo, pp. 30-31.[14] Demson, Michael, and Hewitt, Regina, (eds.), Commemorating Peterloo: Violence, Resilience and Claim-Making during th Romantic Era, (Edinburgh University Press), 2019, Morgan, Alison, Ballads and Songs of Peterloo, (Manchester University Press), 2018.[15] The Trial of Henry Hunt, Esq, John Knight, Joseph Johnson and others for Conspiracy, (W. Molineux), 1820.[16] Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 29 November 1819. Vol. 41, cc357-370, detailed the presentation of the Manchester petition.[17] Cookson, J. E., Lord Liverpool’s Administration, 1815-1822, (Scottish Academic Press), 1975, pp. 178-199, Mitchell, Austin, The Whigs in Opposition, 1815-1830, (Oxford University Press), 1967, pp. 125-137.[18] ‘Bishop Stanley’s evidence at the trial in 1822’, in ibid, Bruton, Francis Archibald, Three Accounts of Peterloo and The Story of Peterloo, pp. 25-38.[19] Hansard, House of Lords, Debates, 23 November 1819, Vol. 41, cc1-3.[20] Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 2 December 1819, Vol. 41, cc594-678. Hansard, House of Lords, Debates, 2 December 1819, Vol. 41, cc578-594, Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 6 December 1819, Vol. 41, cc757-804, Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 7 December 1819, Vol. 41, cc816-851, Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 8 December 1819, Vol. 41, cc863-878. [21] Hansard, House of Lords, Debates, 6 December 1819, Vol. 41, cc706-755, Hansard, House of Lords, Debates, 10 December 1819, Vol. 41, cc977-989.[22] Gardner, John, Poetry and Popular Protest: Peterloo, Cato Street and the Queen Caroline Controversy, (Palgrave Macmillan), 2011, pp. 11-102, examines the cultural response to Peterloo by Samuel Bamford, William Hone and Shelley.[23] Smith, E. A., Whig Principles and Party Politics: Earl Fitzwilliam and the Whig Party, 1748-1833, (Manchester University Press), 1975, pp. 347-353. See also, Barber, Brian, ‘William Wrightson, the Yorkshire Whigs and the York ‘Peterloo’ Protest Meeting of 1819’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, Vol. 83, (2011), pp. 164-174. See also the debate on the state of the country, Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 30 November 1819, Vol. 41, cc517-569.[24] Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 18 February 1820, Vol. 41, cc1612-1614, Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 28 April 1820, Vol. 1, c39, Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 9 May 1820, Vol. 1, cc237-241, Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 19 May 1820, Vol. 1, cc480-520, Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 5 June 1820, Vol. 1, cc863-868, Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 12 February 1821, Vol. 4, cc583-606, Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 2 March 1821, Vol. 4, cc1068-1076, Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 5 March 1821, Vol. 4, cc1077-1078, Hansard, House of Lords, Debates, 11 April 1821, Vol. 5, cc151-153, Hansard, House of Lords, Debates, 10 May 1821, Vol. 5, cc626-633, Hansard, House of Lords, Debates, 14 May 1821, Vol. 5, cc693-698, Hansard, House of Lords, Debates, 21 May 1821, Vol. 5, cc853-858, Hansard, House of Lords, Debates, 24 May 1821, Vol. 5, cc973-974, Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 30 May 1821, Vol. 5, cc1043-1046.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

How did the rural economy change between 1780 and 1850?

Between 1780 and 1850, economic change had far-reaching effects on British society. From being an overwhelmingly rural and agricultural society, Britain was transformed into a manufacturing and urban society. This chapter examines how and why this process occurred, its effects on rural and urban society and the ways in which working people responded to these changes.

In what ways did farming change between 1780 and 1850 and why? How ‘revolutionary’ was this? Change in farming took place far more slowly than in the dynamic manufacturing industries. Output increased by less than fifty per cent between 1700 and 1800 compared to nearly two hundred per cent in industry and commerce. However, the most significant advance was not in yield per acre but the amount of land under cultivation by about half. Total corn output rose from 15 million quarters in 1750 to 19 million by 1800 and 25 million in 1820. By 1800, the number of sheep reached 26 million and cattle num­bers stood at 4 million. There were, however, imports of grain and cattle from Europe. The achievement appears even more moderate when it is remembered that the major part of the increase in grain output was the result of the expansion of cultivated.
 
Changes in farming techniques.

Increased productivity in farming was the result of a combination of improved techniques of farming (many of which predated 1780), mechanisation (though its impact can be overstated) and the enclosure of large areas of land.

New crops
The most important change in agriculture lay in improved techniques of farming: the introduction of new crops, greater attention to soil fertility, and improved livestock breeding. The impact of new fodder crops was widely felt.[1] They had been introduced from the Low Countries in the mid-seventeenth century and were widespread by the 1750s. Their impact was of major importance. They allowed large waste areas to be brought into cultivation.[2] These included extensive areas of light soil on scarp land England that had previously been used only as sheep runs but also the areas, which had previously been left fallow. New rotations were introduced and spread throughout the eighteenth century. The most famous was the four courses of wheat, turnips, barley and clover introduced in Norfolk in the late-seventeenth century. A second consequence of the new crops was that they underlay the increase in livestock production in the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries by providing winter-feed.

Improving soil fertility
A variety of other methods was used to improve fertility. The supply of manure remained of critical importance in maintaining the fertility of the soil. Until 1850, the main source of manure was animal dung hence the importance of new root crops and legumes which made it possible to keep more animals. Dung was also brought in from outside and farmers within reach relied heavily on ‘town muck’.[3] They also made use of industrial waste materials--coal ashes, soot, waste bark from tanneries, bones, pulverised slag from ironworks, and marl and lime. Guano, the dried droppings of seabirds, began to be imported in 1835 but quantities remained small until the 1840s. ‘Artificial’ fertilizers were introduced on a commercial scale in the 1840s.
Drainage was not a new problem in 1780. Some surface drainage was achieved by the ridges and furrows created during ploughing. The importance of effective under-drainage was not recognised until the mid-eighteenth century. Joseph Elkington had proposed the making of borings to enable water to pass through the impervious stratum to a porous one in 1764 and James Smith used shallow drains in the 1820s. However, it was not until the appearance of a tile-making machine invented by Thomas Scraggs and mole or drainage ploughs in the 1840s that the clay lands were brought into more productive farming.[4]

Improved livestock breeding
Livestock breeding improved considerably during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Robert Bakewell emerged as Britain’s foremost livestock expert by the 1770s but he extended the work of earlier breeders. His work was built on by the Culleys, the Collings and Jonas Webb. Bakewell’s pre-eminence rested with his improved longhorn cattle and the ‘New Leicester’ sheep. Though both his sheep and cattle had defects--his longhorns were wanting in milk and fertility and his sheep fattened too quickly--he did succeed in producing animals ready speedily for the market.

Better machinery
Advances in stock, drainage, fertilizers and crops emphasised the need for improved farm tools and machinery. Before 1800, changes in implements, other than ploughs, proceeded slowly. Mass-produced tools originated in the 1780s and by the 1840s, Robert Ransome of Ipswich was producing as many as eighty-six different designs of ploughs to suit local needs. From 1786, Andrew Meikle’s threshing machine began to be adopted and horse-drawn reapers appeared in the early decades of the nineteenth century.

Mechanisation in farming was primarily a mid-nineteenth-century devel­opment. The threshing machine was first adopted in Scotland and by 1815 was common both there and in northeast England. However, it was not general in the south or in Wales until after 1850. Seed-drills were increasingly advertised in newspaper after 1820. Reapers and mowing machines did not appear until the 1850s and only became common after 1870. In 1850, most of British corn was still cut and threshed by hand. The unreliability of the early machines partly accounted for this. Far more important was the cost of labour. In the north, where labour costs were higher because of competition from non-agricultural employment, the early adoption of powered threshing was economic. It was more sluggish in the south where cheap labour was plentiful.[5] Some farmers kept the old methods to provide a major source of winter employment in order to prevent throwing their regular men on to the parish.[6]

The spread of new farming techniques altered the pattern of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century agriculture. Until the 1820s, arable prosperity shifted away from the heavy clay vales to the lighter chalk land, soils. Many were close enough to London to profit from the overall rise in grain prices after 1780. Change occurred more quickly on the lighter soils, more slowly on the heavy clay soils which suffered from a shorter growing season and a higher risk of harvest failure. Impor­tant though these changes were their impact would have been lessened after 1780, without the changes in the organisation of farming.
 
Enclosure

Enclosure did more than any other development to alter the face of the countryside.[7] By 1780, large areas of Britain had already been enclosed or had never known open field cultivation. It was important in improving the efficiency and flexibility of the open fields and in bringing into fuller use wastelands, marshes, heaths and hill grazing. Enclosure led villages to improve their road system, dig drainage channels, rebuild farmhouses, barns and byres and plant new hedgerows to provide windbreaks and shelter for stock.

Enclosure between 1750 and 1850 was largely as the result of parliamen­tary acts and fell into two phases. Thirty-eight per cent of all acts were concentrated between 1750 and 1780, with 630 acts in the 1770s. The second phase of activity occurred between 1790 and the mid-1830s, though 43 per cent of all acts were passed during the French wars. The first phase was concentrated on the heavier-soiled counties of Midland clay belts, the lighter clays of much of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. The second phase completed this process but included the lighter soils of East Anglia, Lincolnshire and the East Riding, marginal soils of the Pennine uplands and heaths of Surrey, Berkshire and Middlesex.

Many contemporaries were certain about increased productivity achieved in terms of both improved output and rent. Ten per cent increases in grain output occurred in Oxfordshire, Warwickshire and Northamptonshire when enclosed fields were compared with open ones and improvements of 25 per cent may well have been possible. For the landlord enclosure was a good investment. Rents were increased by 15 and 20 per cent but this was both a cause and a consequence of enclosure. From the 1770s until the end of the French wars, prices rose. This too helped landowners, who often relied on fixed rents for income, to enclose and renegotiate leases with tenants who benefited from rising prices.

There was a significant rise in prices from the 1750s to the inflationary prices during the French wars. This coincided with the growth of parliamentary enclosure. Rising wheat prices are attractive in explaining who large areas of commons and waste were enclosed after 1793 even though much of this was poor in quality and capable of only low yields. Relatively stable interest rates in the 1760s and 1770s coincided with the growth of enclosure while the higher rates during the American war of the late 1770s and early 1780s saw a significant decline. During the French wars, high interest rates and large numbers of enclosures coexisted. However, the level of prices was higher than the interest rates and in real terms, money was ‘cheaper’. Farmers could borrow money to enclose their land knowing that high wheat prices would enable them to repay their loans and still make a good profit.

After 1780, population growth increased the demand for agricultural prod­ucts. Price levels moved ahead more rapidly than in industry. These encouraged farmers to invest in change. British farming was highly capitalised by 1800. High-intensity arable farming was situated near the main centres of population in the band from Lancashire to London. Lower levels of investment occurred on the upland fringes where stockbreeding dominated. Rising population increased the supply of labour. In 1801, 3.3 million people or 36 per cent of the population of England and Wales were involved in agriculture, forestry and fishing. This represented an increase of about eight per cent since 1750 compared to the seventy per cent increase in total population. Although there were only slightly more people working in farming they were feeding more people. One person in 1750 fed 1.7 persons; by 1800, it was 2.5 people. The percentage of the total population employed in farming fell relative to other industries after 1800, but people employed continued to rise until 1850. Farming remained a labour-intensive industry with no dramatic breakthrough in mechanis­ation.

A chronology of change
 
Between 1750 and 1790, there was a gradual but consistent increase in all food prices paralleled by gradual but accelerating enclosure. Wheat increasingly became the staple grain food--89 per cent of Londoners were on a wheat diet by 1764. Potatoes were increasing important helping to explain demographic growth in Ireland and parts of Scotland. Homegrown food supplies were sufficient until the 1770s but after that, substantial imports were necessary. Corn prices began to rise faster than other prices and faster than wages. This stimulated further agricultural change.

Years of shortage, amounting between 1795 and 1800, in 1808 and 1812 to ‘famine’, became more frequent. Local shortages and food riots were often caused by failure to distrib­ute supplies effectively. Increased demand was met largely by increased productivity. Grain output rose at the same rate as population: 14 per cent between 1793 and 1815. This was achieved by extending of the land under cultivation and the use of new crops and new breeds of livestock. The major problem facing farmers in this period was labour costs. The extent to which enclosure and new techniques required more labour is debatable but in some areas labour shortages pushed up costs further. Many farmers were forced to rely on casual workers. Yet, this did not lead to widespread mechanisation. Between 1790 and 1815, British agriculture increased its productivity by only 0.2 per cent per year. This compares adversely with the 0.3 per cent per year achieved between 1816 and 1846, a period regarded as one of ‘depression’.

Prices fell dramatically after 1814 and thousands were demobilised or released from war industries. The severity of distress was greatest on the clay land arable farms and least in dairy and stock-rearing districts or in areas like Kent where hops and fruit were important crops. Depression was closely linked to the flexibility of the land under cultivation. Farmers sought legislative support in the form of protection or reductions in taxes. The Corn Law of 1815 was the result. However, by the 1830s many farmers were adjusting their costs to lower prices or moving across to mixed farming. The social cost of ‘depression’ was most severe in areas with falling agricultural wages. Tariffs did little to protect arable farmers and provoked a violent reaction that the Anti-Corn Law League built on the 1830s and 1840s.

By the mid-1830s, British farming had got through its ‘depression’. The introduction of inexpensive drainage techniques liberated the clay lands from high production costs. Farming generally became more ‘scientific’, producing higher output at lower cost. From the mid-1840s until the 1870s, agricultural production rose at 0.5 per cent per year. There was a more intensive application of the techniques of mixed farming on the light soils of southern and eastern England and on the Lothian area of southeast Scotland. There was some shift on the clay soils, especially those in the north and west of England, to beef and dairy production. Railways reduced transport costs--cheap food had become both an economic and a political necessity. British farming was more productive in 1850 than it had been in 1780.[8]

The end of the French wars in 1815 saw up to a quarter of a million men demobilised. They had to be absorbed back into the labour force at a time when both farming and industry faced depression. This caused considerable distress in rural England where there was a surplus of workers. Farmers needed to reduce their costs (at a time of falling wheat prices) to repay loans they had taken out during the war when prices were higher. Rural wages fell.


Agricultural labourers were rarely at the centre of protest in the eighteenth century but this situation changed after 1780. Why did this change occur and why were the protests of farm workers largely confined to southern and eastern England? The agricultural revolution, especially enclosure, upset traditional rural society. There was a decline in hiring farm servants and ‘living in’ disappeared. Labourers were paid by the day or week and were employed for short periods for harvesting, hedging, ditching and threshing.[9] There was little guarantee of work. The social and financial gulf between farmer and labourer widened.

There was growing rural poverty in southern England. In 1795, Berkshire magistrates introduced a system of relief to supplement the wages of labourers. Similar schemes were introduced across southern England. This was known as the ‘Speenhamland system’.[10] The name gave the schemes a sense of uniformity that in practice they did not possess. Its attempt to redress low wages became part of the framework of labourers’ lives instead of a safety net in hard times. The system encouraged low pay and did not fully make up the difference between high prices and low wages. Wartime farming transformed much of southern and east­ern England into a region dominated by wheat production. Boom con­ditions ended abruptly in 1815, grain prices slumped while rents, fixed during wartime inflation, did not. Farmers were faced with falling profits and sought to reduce costs by cutting wages, quite possible in a labour market saturated by the demobilisation of the armed forces, or by introducing economies that technological innovations like the threshing machine offered.

The 1816 riots

Industrial workers, townsmen, cottagers and agricultural labour­ers were linked together in 1816 in ways not repeated in 1822 or 1830. There were three main types of protest. There were incidents in some market towns, a continuation of the tradition of food riots and collective action by textile workers. Agricultural labourers took little part in these. On the loam and clay lands of Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk, there were protests over the use of the mole plough and threshing machines and demands for a subsistence wage. The third series of disturbances was in the Fens, centred on Littleport and Ely. The diversity of rioters--one in three arrested was not an agricultural labourer and one in seven had some land--reflected the impact of enclosure and drainage and the particular effect of depression. The authorities at local level had limited resources at their dis­posal to stop riots spreading and, especially in the Fens, there were too few gentry to act collectively. Magistrates made concessions to stop the protest but the dramatic breakdown of law and order could not be tolerated by central government. Sidmouth ordered the military to be sent to Norfolk and Suffolk, not just in the Fens. Magistrates who had made concessions were overruled and harsh sentences were passed. Five rioters were executed and this, as much as anything, ensured that rioting spread no further.

Disturbances in 1822

Protest occurred in three areas in Norfolk in late February and early March 1822. All three involved the destruction of threshing machines and in contrast to 1816, these attacks were not simply symbolic, drawing atten­tion to the plight of the labourer, but were a campaign to sweep the machines away. Local magistrates acted quickly to prevent widespread disturbances and the use of the military drove the rioters underground.

The Swing riots of 1830

The problem of pauperism was worst in south of a line from Norfolk to Gloucestershire. In these so-called ‘Swing’ counties, enclosure had taken place on a grand scale. In the 1820s, high poor rates led to increasing attempts to cut relief. Between 1815 and 1820, Poor Law spending was 12/10d per head; by 1830, it was 9/9d. Reductions were made by stopping people asking for relief. This created a hatred of the Poor Law but it is noticeable that between 1824 and 1830, rural crime rates increased by 30 per cent--mainly poaching and food thefts. Pauperism, desperation and discontent were almost universal in agricultural areas.

The Swing riots[11] lasted from August until well into December 1830 and took several forms. In some areas, there were demands for higher wages; in others, tithes were the issue; Poor Law officials and workhouses were attacked but the destruction of threshing machines was most widespread. The major difference between protests in 1816 and 1822 and those in 1830 was their scale. Although the ‘Swing’ riots are normally associated with southern and eastern England with over 3,000 incidents, workers across the North responded to the political and social unrest in 1830 and over 50 incidents of actions against farmers, whether threatening letters, machine-breaking or arson occurred in northern England between 1830 and 1834. Why was there such a widespread mobilisation of agricultural labourers in 1830? The aims of the rioters were remarkably similar throughout the ‘Swing’ counties. Men demanded a minimum wage, the end of rural unemployment and tithe and rent reductions. Farmers supported the labourers in the two latter demands.

The leaders of the riots were often craftsmen and the led were predominantly labourers, often paupers on poor relief. Rioters were usually young men, many of them married. Their concern was for a living wage. The riots began slowly and initially machine breakers were given lenient sentences. This was interpreted by many labourers as tacit approval of their actions and led to protests gathering momentum. Revolution in France in July gave rural protest a more threatening dimen­sion than in either 1816 or 1822. The Whig government made suppressing the disturbances its first priority on achieving power in mid-November. Concerted local action, especially by the gentry of Wiltshire and Hampshire, the use of troops and unwillingness of Lord Melbourne, the Home Secretary, to tolerate weakness or compromise on the part of local magistrates gradually restored order.
 
After Swing

Swing did not destroy the willingness of agricultural labourers across the country to protest. There was widespread, if unsuccessful, rural action against the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1835, rural trade unionism in the south-east and at Tolpuddle and protests in the form of arson. Labourers were experts in slacking in undetectable ways. More seriously, they could steal their employers’ corn, fruit and game despite the severity of sentence if caught; transportation to Australia was widely used. Sheep and horse stealing were capital offences until 1831 and arson remained so until 1837. Poaching was endemic in rural areas. Stacks could be fired, farm buildings lit, fences pulled down, animals maimed and drainage channels breached though the systematic nature of these actions died down after the 1840s. Rural protest after 1790 can be explained by the failure to understand the nature of change by both labourers and their employers. Change imperfectly understood aroused fear. This was made worse by ‘want’ and ‘distress’ and under- or unemployment.

[1] Fodder crops were used to feed animals in the winter.[2] Large areas of England consisted of wasteland. This land had previously not been cultivated because it would have been unprofitable to do so. The new crops ended this practice. They had the same effect on leaving land fallow for a year to restore its fertility.[3] ‘Town muck’, the product of the swelling urban population, was either given to farmers willing to take it away or sold by people who collected urban sewage: a further example of recycling waste products.[4] Britain’s soils can be divided into three broad types: sandy, chalk and clay. In the late eighteenth century, sandy soil was the easiest to cultivate because it was generally fertile and porous. Chalk soils were less fertile than sandy soils. Clay soil was very fertile but suffered from major drainage problems.[5] Winter employment was often provided by farmers for their regular workforce especially in southern England. This helped keep the parish poor rate at a lower level but also reflected the widespread belief that farmers had a paternal responsibility for their ‘men’. The same responsibility, however, was not applied to casual workers and there was chronic under-employment in rural England especially after 1815.[6] In 1851, James Caird, in his study of British farming, divided the country into high and low wage areas. In northern and parts of central England, where industrialisation was widespread, farm labourers’ wages were high. In southern England, where there was no alternative and attractive employment available supply exceeded demand and wages were significantly lower.[7] Enclosure was achieved either by agreement between the local landowners or, increasingly, by getting Parliament to pass an enclosure act.[8] Historians disagree about the impact of enclosure on rural labour. Some argue that farmers who had enclosed their land needed fewer workers. Others suggest that during and immediately after enclosure more workers were needed. In the longer term, the combination of enclosure and mechanisation led to a reduction in the agricultural workforce.[9] It had been customary for farm workers to be hired for a year receiving food, clothes, board and a small annual wage in return for work, only living out when they wished to marry.[10] The Speenhamland system was named after the village of Speen, near Newbury where the Berkshire magistrates met in May 1795.[11] The Swing riots were called after their assumed leader, Captain Swing. There is no evidence that the riots were coordinated in this way.