Saturday, 1 August 2009

Captain Swing in Sussex and Kent by Mike Matthews

Captain Swing in Sussex and Kent by Mike Matthews
The Hastings Press (2006). £7.99 pp118
ISBN 1904109136

A highly enjoyable book that covers a rural phenomena that has been largely overlooked, and oddly overshadowed by the more famous yet arguably less effective Luddite movement which the Swing Riots largely mirrored.

Basically, the Swing Rebellion of the early 1830s was a rural response to the introduction of the Threshing Machines which threatened rural labourers with unemployment and wage suppression. Taking the form of burnings and machine smashing, often accompanied by warning letters signed by the mysterious Captain Swing, this movement effectively delayed the mass import of threshing machines into the countryside by about two decades, and provoked national interest with The Times following proceedings closely, and sending reporters out into the fray.

This book documents their early beginnings in Kent, and follows their progress as they spread across the border into Sussex and finally touching Hampshire. Given the spread of these activities, and the direct impact the issue had on rural villages, it is likely that the majority of our Kentish and Sussex ag lab ancestors mentioned in the 1841 census would have been at least touched by the Swing activities, if not directly involved. Consequently, any understanding of what happened and its social impact offers us a rare insight into the daily lives and mind sets of that largely undocumented section of society.

Matthews has an engaging and very readable style which makes the document sources and newspaper extracts that he uses very accessible, and helps build a very vivid picture of the fears and desperations that both lead to the Swing Riots - and of those who were caught up in their consequences. The book contains a wealth of news articles, quotes and analysis, with many of the participants and their targets named - which is great for Family Historians! Even if ones own ancestors aren't directly named, there is a short bibliography and notes section which provides further avenues for research, and I would defy anyone with rural ancestors in these counties not to feel impelled to research their area a bit further after reading this book! So many of our ancestors will have been involved, and it is clear that the riots produced a considerable amount of paperwork. There will be many names on family trees that will be padded out by those resources!

A remarkable period that deserves to be better known within the annals of history. And a striking example of just how vulnerable the ruling elite were when the labouring classes united in their own defence. Highly recommended.

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