SOME HISTORY

About 200 years ago, all was not well in the countryside.   Workers felt threatened by new machinery.  They felt that their landlords were heartless.  So they protested calling themselves "Swing Rioters".  When nothing changed, some took to burning hayricks and other forms of lawlessness.  The authorities reacted harshly.  Many were imprisoned, transported or executed.

 

Now, in our new millennium, new machinery once again threatens the lives of the rural working people.  Zero hours contracts and minimum wage.  AI and robots replace you and me... 

Courtesy of Wikepedia

Early 19th-century England was almost unique among major nations in having no class of landed smallholding peasantry.[8] The Enclosure Acts of rural England contributed to the plight of rural farmworkers.[9] Between 1770 and 1830 about 6 million acres (24,000 km2) of common land were enclosed.[9] The common land had been used for centuries by the poor of the countryside to graze their animals and grow their own produce.[9] This land was now divided up among the large local landowners, leaving the landless farmworkers solely dependent upon working for their richer neighbours for a cash wage.[9] Whilst this may have offered a tolerable living during the boom years of the Napoleonic wars, when labour had been in short supply and corn prices high, the return of peace in 1815 resulted in plummeting grain prices and an oversupply of labour.[8]

According to social historians John and Barbara Hammond, enclosure was fatal to three classes: the small farmer, the cottager and the squatter.[10][11] Before enclosure the cottager was a labourer with land; after enclosure he was a labourer without land.[12] In contrast to the Hammond's 1911 analysis of the events, the historian G. E. Mingay noted in his 1997 book that when the Swing riots broke out in 1830, the heavily-enclosed Midlands remained almost entirely quiet, but the riots were concentrated in the southern and south-eastern counties, little affected by enclosure.[13] 

 

Also according to J. D. Chambers and G. E. Mingay, the Hammonds exaggerated the costs of change when in reality enclosure meant more food for the growing population, more land under cultivation and on balance, more employment in the countryside.[14] The modern historians of the Swing riots, Eric Hobsbawm and George Rudé, cited only three of a total of 1,475 incidents as being directly caused by enclosure.[15] Since the late 20th century, those contentions have been challenged by a new class of recent historians.[16] The Enclosure movement has been seen by some as causing the destruction of the traditional peasant way of life, with surplus peasant labour moving into the towns to become industrial workers.[17]

In the 1780s, workers would be employed at annual hiring fairs (or mops), to serve for the whole year. During this period the worker would receive payment in kind and in cash from his employer, would often work at his side, and would commonly share meals at the employer's table. As time passed the gulf between farmer and employee widened. Workers were hired on stricter cash-only contracts, which ran for increasingly shorter periods. First, monthly terms became the norm; later, contracts were offered for as little as a week.

 

[18] Between 1750 and 1850 the farm labourer faced the loss of his land, the transformation of his contract and the sharp deterioration of his economic situation; by the time of the 1830 riots he had retained very little of his former status except the right to parish relief, under the Old Poor Law system.[19]

Historically the monasteries had taken responsibility for the impotent poor, but after their dissolution in 1536-9, responsibility passed to the parishes.[20] The Act of Settlement in 1662 had confined relief strictly to those who were natives of the parish.[21] The poor law system charged a Parish Rate to landowners and tenants, which was used to provide relief payments to settled residents of the parish who were ill or out of work.[21] These payments were minimal, and at times degrading conditions were required for their receipt.[1][20] As more and more people became dependent on parish relief, ratepayers rebelled ever more loudly against the costs, and a lower and lower level of relief was offered.[22] Three and a half "one gallon" bread loaves were considered necessary for a man in Berkshire in 1795.[22] However provision had fallen to just two similar-sized loaves being provided in 1817 Wiltshire.[22] The way in which poor law funds were disbursed led to a further reduction in agricultural wages, since farmers would pay their workers as little as possible, knowing that the parish fund would top up wages to a basic subsistence level (see Speenhamland system).[22][23]

To this mixture was added the burden of the church tithe.[24] Originally this had been the church's right to a tenth of the parish harvest.[24] However the earlier collection of goods in kind had been replaced by a cash levy that was payable to the local Church of England parson and went to pay his (often considerable) stipend.[25] The cash levy was generally rigorously enforced, whether the resident was a Church member or not, and the sum demanded was often far higher than a poor person could afford.[25] Calls for a large reduction in the tithe payment were prominent among the demands of the rioters.[25]

The final straw was the introduction of horse-powered threshing machines, which could do the work of many men.[1][26] They spread swiftly among the farming community, threatening the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of farmworkers.[26] Following the terrible harvests of 1828 and 1829, farm labourers faced the approaching winter of 1830 with dread.[1]

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