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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Surrey and Sussex

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Immigration and Emigration
Emigrant's house in Canada
© National Archives of Canada
The Petworth emigration experiment

The Napoleonic Wars took their ravaging toll, reducing the male population. But those fortunate enough to return to England found themselves actually questioning their luck. They had come back with high expectations of finding living conditions better than when they left for war, but many were so disillusioned with their lot, they became involved with the "Swing Riots".

Captain Swing

In 1830, rural workers of the arable south and east of England rose-up in the Swing riots. Letters were sent to landowners threatening them with arson, with a common signature of the mythical "Captain Swing". These letters, inferring swinging from the gallows, were sent to pressurise landowners to comply with labourers? demands.

Farm worker
Agricultural workers would scratch a living as best they could
© West Sussex Record Office
They demanded higher wages and an end to the threshing machine which they saw as destroying their winter employment. They reinforced their demands with hayrick-burning, the destruction of threshing machines and cattle-maiming.

According to The Times, on 29 November 1830, the boys at Eton wrote a letter as a joke, to protest to the Headmaster about excessive use of their "thrashing machine", or birch.

Few, if any, of the writers were brought to trial, so it is not known how many of the letters were real or fake. There was a lack of literacy in the farm labour force, so relatively few of the letters were likely to have been written by the labourers themselves. But one that may have been is that addressed to a farmer in Norfolk: "J. Deary mind your yards be not of a fire dam you D."

The social and financial gap between landowner and labourer was widening. Landowners were wielding their not inconsiderable influence on the government to make political changes that directly benefited them. Meanwhile, the hapless farm labourers had their wages slashed at the same time as farm owners were increasingly using new agricultural machinery - accelerating the demise of labour intensive farming.

Poverty, hunger and deprivation were rife, and in that environment, civil unrest overflowed. The first farm workers' riots started in Orpington, Kent, in the summer of 1830 and they quickly spread to Sussex. Men struggled to support their families on six shillings a week.

On 18 November 1830, the Swing Riots in Sussex came to a head in Horsham. About 1000 farm labourers assembled and marched to their local church, where they demanded that the magistrates signed an agreement meeting their new wage demands of 2s 6d (about 25p in today's money) a day. But the magistrates' reaction was swift. The labourers were immediately arrested and thrown into the county gaol.

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Brian(R), brother Kenneth(L) and sister Pauline(M) with Amah in Kuala Lumpur, Malaya, 1930
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