Captain Swing

     Captain Swing is an enjoyable collaboration between E. J. Hobsbawm and George

Rude that depicts the social history of the English agricultural
wage-laborersí uprising of 1830. According to Hobsbawm and Rude,
historiography of the laborersí rising of 1830 is negligible. Most of what is
known by the general public comes from J. L. And Barbara Hammondís The Village

Laborer published in 1911. They consider this an exceedingly valuable work, but
state that the Hammonds oversimplified events in order to dramatize them. They
placed too much emphasis on enclosure, oversimplified both the nature and
prevalence of the "Speenhamland System" of poor relief, and neglected the
range and scope of the uprising. Hobsbawm and Rude do not claim to present any
new data, and believe that the Hammonds will still be read for enjoyment, but
believe that by asking different questions, they can shed new light on the
social history of the movement. Therefore, this book tries to "describe and
analyze the most impressive episode in the English farm-labourersí long and
doomed struggle against poverty and degradation." In the nineteenth century,

England had no peasantry to speak of in the sense that other nations did. Where
families who owned or occupied their own small plot of land and cultivated it
themselves, apart from work on their lordís farms, farmed most of Europe,

Englandís "peasants" were agricultural wage-laborers. As such, both tithes
and taxes hit them hard. Lords and farmers were also against tithes and taxes
and tolerated or even welcomed some outcry against them. Most county leaders in

1830 agreed with the laborers, but the government in London did not. Further,
enclosure eliminated the common lands whose use had helped the very poor to
live. As a result, the relationship between farmers and laborers changed to a"purely market relationship between employer and proletarian." At the same
time, work once done by annual servants was given over to wage labor. Farmers
were driven by income rather than social concerns and it was cheaper to pay a
small wage for all positions and let laborers pay their own living out of it
than to provide them room and board, however minimal. The laborers were not
revolutionary, however. They did not wish to overturn the traditional social
order. They merely demanded the restoration of their meager rights within it.

Unfortunately, they only had five forms of protest or self-defense available to
them. They occasionally protested against wage cuts or demanded higher wages,
grasped ever tighter to parish poor relief, resorted to crimes such as stealing
food or poaching game, performed acts of terrorism such as incendiarism, and
destroyed the machines which created or intensified unemployment. Threshing
machines took away the standard winter labor, creating high unemployment at the
worst time of year and generating an almost universal hatred of them among
laborers. Of these, the most ambitious was the destruction of threshing
machines, but poaching was most indicative of increasing social tensions in the
villages. Theoretically, political devices such as petitions and delegations
were available tools as well, but agricultural wage-laborers had neither
political rights nor the experience to put them to use. Local correspondents
almost universally attributed the riots of 1830 to unemployment and harsh
treatment of laborers. The winter of 1829 had been particularly hard. The
unemployed, tired and hungry, knew that they would not likely survive another
winter as hard. Aware of the French revolution and Britainís own upcoming
elections, which offered the promise of a Whig overthrow of the Tories, English
laborers rebelled against the cause of their hunger. Laborers destroyed their
first threshing machine on the night of August 28, 1830. This became the
characteristic feature of their uprising of 1830, although it was only one of
many. Other forms of revolt included arson, threatening letters (signed by

"Captain Swing"), inflammatory handbills and posters, robbery, wages
meetings, and assaults on overseers, parsons, and landlords. Spreading from
county to county, the universal demand was for a living wage and an end to rural
unemployment. In spite of the severe living conditions suffered by the laborers
and their informal support from many of those against whom they rebelled, the
rioters were punished severely. Of 1,976 prisoners, 252 were sentenced to death
and nineteen were actually executed. 505 were sentenced to transportation to
penal colonies and 644 were imprisoned. Less than half (800) were acquitted or
bound over. The defeat of the 1830 rising did not end the laborers' efforts,
however. While some might claim that the failure of the revolt plunged the
laboring class into dumb acquiescence, Hobsbawm and Rude argue that it woke the
farmers and nobility to the inner strength of their hitherto silent workers.

Hobsbawm and Rude, in this collaborative effort, made use of an enormous amount
of primary and secondary source material yet managed to produce an eminently
readable work which looks at the rebellion from a social, rather than purely
economic, point of view. I enjoyed reading this book and would recommend it to
anyone who desires and in-depth description of the social causes of a rebellion
by men who many believed did not have it in them to rebel.


Hobsbawm, E. J. and Rude, George (1975) Captain Swing. New York, NY: W.W.

Norton and Company, Inc., 384 pp.