The English Peasants Rise, for the Last Time: August 29, 1830
This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.
When King George IV died on June 26, 1830, his 64-year-old brother, the Duke of Clarence, came to the throne as King William IV. Unlike George IV, William IV began his reign as a popular monarch. Disliking pomp and ceremony, he often walked through the streets of London as an ordinary subject would. He chose not to live in Buckingham Palace and for a time contemplated turning it into a barracks for soldiers. William was also a hard and efficient worker. He was a welcome change from George IV.
In parliamentary elections that took place between July and September 1830, the Tories lost seats to the Whigs. The Tories were still in the majority, but Wellington could not get enough support in the House of Commons and so was forced to step down as prime minister. In his place, the king appointed Charles, Earl Grey, as prime minister. Earl Grey was a Whig and a longtime supporter of parliamentary reform.
Earl Grey took office as prime minister at a time of national emergency. Ground down by poverty, hunger, and oppression, peasant laborers throughout England had risen in revolt. The first outbreak of violence occurred in the southeastern county of Kent on Sunday, August 29, 1830, when 400 laborers destroyed threshing machines belonging to local farmers. The laborers took out their anger on the machines because they did the work of many men and so put men out of work. Without employment and with no other way of making a living, the workers and their families faced not only poverty, but starvation. Workers directed their anger not only against threshing machines but also against Church of England clergymen (the “parsons”) who held several benefices at once and lived well off the tithes paid by the farmers, who employed the laborers. The more farmers paid in tithes and taxes to the parsons and great aristocratic landlords, the less they had to pay workers.
Throughout September and into October and November, the number of workmen’s riots increased and spread from Kent to other southern counties. Mobs of workers destroyed machines and haystacks. They demanded “satisfaction” (money payment) from local farmers, parsons, and others. Members of mobs would approach a farmer or parson’s house and demand what they considered their rightful pay. Yet, besides wrecked machines and burned haystacks, the rioters committed no acts of murder. The only death that occurred during the months of rioting was the shooting of a rioter by a soldier. In some cases, local landlords met with the mobs and promised to raise their wages—upon which the mob cheerfully broke up, and its members returned to their homes.
Beginning in mid November 1830, the riots spread from the south into nearly every county of England. To the upper classes, it looked like a “French Revolution” was happening on English soil. The Home Office secretary in London commanded local magistrates to put down the insurrections, but the magistrates replied that they did not have enough troops to do so. Some magistrates sympathized with the rebellious laborers. Finally, in early December, Lord Grey’s government took harsher measures against the mobs of rioting laborers. By the beginning of 1831, the rebellion that has been called the Last Laborers’ Revolt had been crushed.
The rioting workmen were shown little mercy in the trials that followed. Though hardly any workers suffered the death penalty, about 450 were exiled to British colonies overseas, either for a period of many years or for life. Some were condemned to “labor at the will and for the profit of another”—that is, they were made slaves. Some of the exiled workers were in their teens and had been condemned simply for being part of a mob where one or a few others had demanded “satisfaction.” Men were separated from their wives and children, never to see them again. Courts refused to hear any claims that the workers were driven to what they did by extreme want and inhuman treatment.
Some in Parliament, however, thought the best way to deal with the suffering peasants was to raise their wages or give them a share in property ownership. Some members suggested “home colonization”—taking lands that were not being farmed and dividing them among propertyless laborers and their families. Such a measure would have gone some way to restoring to peasants what they had lost under the enclosure movement, but the aristocratic members of Parliament would hear nothing of “home colonization”; and in 1831, the House of Commons rejected it.
Two Songs of the English Folk
Like those of other nations, English folk songs tell of the joys and sorrows of the common folk — and sometimes of preternatural occurrences. The first of the folk songs presented here, “Swansea Town,” tells a story common to folk song — of the return of a sailor after a long absence, who tests his beloved and finds her faithful. The second, “Tam Lyn,” is one of the few surviving English folk songs of a mortal who crosses into the magical realm of Faerie. Both are performed by the 1960s-era folk group, The Watersons.