October’s presentation was “The Workhouse and the Agricultural Workers’ Strike of 1830’’, given by historian Terry Faull. Even today, more than 70 years since the last workhouse was closed, the name “Workhouse’’ can still provoke strong feelings. The establishment of Poor Law Unions and their workhouses was part of a deliberate government policy which was developed in response to a series of events across Southern England.
In 1830 agricultural workers, fearful of winter starvation for themselves and their families, rioted against their employers and their introduction of mechanisation. Within living memory, the official reaction to these so called “Swing Riots’’ cast a long shadow.
In his talk Terry described the events which led up to the disturbances and how the authorities, fearing that this was the beginning of a revolution – such as those taking place elsewhere in Europe, decided to suppress any dissent. Nevertheless the riots played their part in demanding change and led to Chartism, the growth of Friendly Societies, the trade union movement and the spread of Methodism.
The old Elizabethan system of relief for poor, ill and aged people was based on a person’s home parish and, although it was strict, it was administered by those who knew local conditions. The enclosure of common lands together with the increased mechanisation of agricultural work and availability of labour led to increasing demands on this system.
In the summer of 1830, it became apparent that the introduction of mechanical threshing machines would deprive workers and their families of one of the few ways of supplementing their already limited incomes of about £35 per year. Terry demonstrated the use of an antique flail which separated the wheat. Prior to the invention of the machine, a group of 4 labourers would flail on the floor of a threshing barn to the rhythm of traditional folk songs.
Across Southern England, farms and estates which had purchased machines were warned that unless the threshers were taken out of use, they would be destroyed by the workers. More than 1000 Swing riots took place and, although none resulted in any significant harm to a person, 252 rioters were sentenced to death and 500 transported.
In addition, the government introduced a new system of poor laws where the regime in the workhouses was planned to create conditions which were so harsh that people would dread having to go there. Living conditions were to be worse than that of the poorest farm labourer. Men and women were separated and families split up. Although Devon and Cornwall only experienced a handful of such riots, Terry explained that the opening of the workhouses in 1837-9 across the West Country was a direct result of this harsh policy. Tavistock Workhouse opened in 1837 with spaces for 300 inmates. It was recorded that the Christmas treat here was a quarter of a teaspoon of sugar per person. He listed some of those who were sent to Tavistock Workhouse including William Crossing who was the author of the Guide to Dartmoor. He spent 12 weeks there in 1925.
Terry suggested that one of the purposes of history was to help people to act better today and in the future. The Swing Riots contributed to the demand for reform and, while much progress has been made, we should remain alert not to respond to injustices by creating new tyrannies.