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The Dever Valley Swing Riots

In the autumn of 1830, the Hampshire countryside erupted behind Captain Swing!

Whitchurch has a proud tradition of direct action from the Cow Riots of 1600 to the 19th century Election Riots and the Salvation Army riots that won the Right to Peaceful Protest for the country. Whitchurch was also caught up in the Swing Riots although, the focus for discontent in North Hampshire was centred along the Dever Valley villages just to the south.

A number of factors led to the Swing Riots, not least the effects of the Enclosure of the common land and the formation of the large private estates that now shape the landscape of the North Hampshire Downs; this had reduced the peasant population to a state of subservient destitution.

Short contracts of work were the consequence of a series of poor harvests, wages were at an all-time low, the price of bread had rocketed, and the hated threshing machines were robbing labourers of winter work; facing the prospect of starvation over winter, an unsettled, disgruntled workforce began to emerge.

In the autumn of 1830, desperate villagers drew up a petition to the King. Signed by 177 men of the parishes of Wonston, Barton Stacey and Bullington, the petition described in graphic detail their state of misery with ‘not that sufficient to satisfy our hunger ….. we have not clothes to hide the nakedness of ourselves ….. nor fuel with which to warm us’.

The responsibility fell to Joseph Mason to walk the long 60-mile trail across the Downs to Brighton to deliver the petition to the King. He arrived but was sent away. The petition eventually found its way to William Cobbett a reforming campaigner and pamphleteer, who had reported on the plight of the agricultural labourers in his ‘Rural Rides’ and was agitating for direct action.

In November 1830, a crowd of 800 gathered in Sutton Scotney seeking donations of food, increased wages, and the destruction of threshing machines; some farmers received advance warning signed by the infamous figurehead known as ‘Captain Swing’ and negotiations were attempted, the protestors believing that in this way their grievances would be recognised.

The Duke of Wellington, the Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire however, was determined that any riots should be crushed and the severest penalties handed down to village leaders. The Mason brothers and other leaders were transported, but popular radicalism in the countryside continued and just four years later farm workers in a village in West Dorset formed a trade union; these men would become known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

This Spring, Whitchurch WaW will launch a new trail out to the Dever Valley villages; The Test & Dever Way (Rivers, Railway and Riots) passes by the Coach & Horses Inn in Sutton Scotney which proudly displays a commemorative plaque recording the names of the villagers who signed the petition to the King, ‘they challenged injustice in defence of their rights and they should not be forgotten’. See Whitchurch, Hampshire – What to do


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