Captain Swing and his riots in 1830s England

If you had an ancestor who was working on the land in the 1830s in England there is a chance that they were involved in the Swing Riots.

These started in the Elham Valley in Kent and quickly spread among the rural workers of the south and East Anglia. The unrest was caused by a number of reasons - machinery taking jobs from men, farmers offering lower wages, payment of tithes to the Church of England whether or not you were a member.

Threatening letters were sent to those who were considered in a position to resolve the situation signed by "Captain Swing" who was fictitious. If the warning was ignored it was followed by destruction of threshing machines, their engines, attacks on workhouses and tithe barns and later turned to burning hay ricks and other arsonist attacks.

If caught, the rioters faced imprisonment, transportation or execution. Of the 2000 (approx.) rioters who were caught 252 were sentenced to death (only 19 were hanged), 644 imprisoned and 481 transported.

There is a brief article on-line about the riots at

In the 1990s Jill Chambers wrote a series of books about the Swing Riots looking at individual counties and how the riots effected the population of that particular county etc.  These books are well researched including information on all aspects of the “riots” for instance each person charged is listed with the charge, age, sentence and 1841 census transcription (if found). Events in the county are diarised, trial transcripts, claims for rewards and so it goes on.

Auckland Libraries holds Jill’s books for Kent, Wiltshire, Buckinghamshire, Essex, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Hampshire as well as Michael Holland’s book Swing Unmasked: the agricultural riots of 1830 to 1832 and their wider implications which is available in print (reference copy and one borrowable copy) and CD.

You may find a family member who was involved in this important event in English history but even if they were not caught they may have participated and these books give you an insight into life for rural workers at a tumultuous time in history.

Author: Marie, Research Central