Red Hot Pokers and Vitriol – High Wycombe’s Swing Riots

During the summer of 1830, the Swing Riots (named after a mysterious rioter called Captain Swing) spread like wild fire across southern Britain. They started with attacks on the much hated (labour-displacing) threshing machines and continued with wage and tithe riots and the wholesale destruction of objects of perceived oppression, such as workhouses, mill machinery and tithe barns. By the end of December 1830, 2,000 people involved in the riots were awaiting trial. Of these, 19 were executed and over 500 transported.

Wycombe Swing Riots
Wycombe Swing Riots

Here is just one day of High Wycombe’s part of the story.

A few weeks before our day begins, four strangers were spotted in High Wycombe, soon after this threatening letters were received by local farmers and mill owners. This followed a pattern that had been repeated in other Swing Riot centres. On 30th November Wycombe was the scene of a riot where between 100 and 600 (depending on the witness) people destroyed much mill property and several groups roamed the area demanding money with menace from any unfortunates they met.

Our part of the story began on Monday 5th December 1830, when a large group of paper-makers assembled at Flackwell Heath, armed with sledge hammers and crow-bars. They marched on the paper mill in Loudwater and forced an entrance. A shot was fired to intimidate the rioters, but it only increased their anger. The now rampaging mob broke windows and a quantity of vitriol was thrown over them, many were severely burnt.

The rioters continued and marched to Mr Allnut’s mill at Marsh Green, which was destroyed. Next they marched to Hayes Mill where Mr Hayes addressed the mob and told them that he had ordered his machine to be stopped and not restarted without agreement. He explained that if they destroyed his mill the 53 employees would be unemployed and he invited the leaders to enter and see for themselves.

Swing Riots
Swing Riots

Sadly it was to no avail and the rioters’ demolition commenced. One of Mr. Hayes’s workmen tried to stop them by brandishing a red-hot poker, but eventually he had to flee. The Reverend Mr. Vincent arrived and read the Riot Act.

The rioters moved next to Lansdale farm and smashed his threshing-machine before heading on to the Red Lion pub. Here, according to local accounts, they “plentifully regaled themselves with beer” before moving on to the Plaistow’s paper mill in Loudwater. The owner, having seen what was happening elsewhere announced that his machine would no longer be used but the rioters broke in and destroyed it anyway.

Colonel Vyse, the High Sheriff, arrived on the scene and, with a number of gentlemen, and tried to stop the riot. They were showered with stones and the Colonel’s face was badly cut. The rioters moved on to Hedge Mill and quickly destroyed the machinery there as well. By this time many of the Swing Rioters were overcome by fatigue, and several of them were in a state of some intoxication.

A local hunt, complete with a pack of stag-hounds, entered the fray and after a brief meeting with the authorities, began to make an impression on the rioters. Several shots were fired. One rioter was wounded in the chest and two others were taken away apparently lifeless, nine further rioters including the ringleader, who was not a local man, were arrested.

Six grenadiers from the Foot Guards arrived in post-chaises and took the prisoners to Wycombe, where they were placed in custody. Around £12,000 worth of damage had been done.

Sadly the main outcomes, on top of several hundred mill workers losing their jobs, were that the wage of an agricultural labourer dropped from nine shillings a week in 1830 to just six shillings a week in 1834 to just six shillings. Also in 1834 the Tolpuddle Martyrs formed a trade union to protest about the conditions for rural workers, but they were famously transported. Unions were not decriminalised in the UK until 1876.

I am not sure what happened to the rioters arrested our day but of the rioters from a few days before, several were heavily fined (£30) and were bound over to keep the peace for the rest of their natural lives, some were acquitted and several were transported for seven years. The ringleader was told by the judge that he was lucky to escape with his life.

Entertainingly one of the barristers was named “Mr Bligh” and although we go not know if he was actually related to the captain of the Bounty from just 41 years before, it has to be said he spoke for the defence!

Princess Victoria
The young Princess Victoria

Just three days before the riots in High Wycombe, the inhabitants of Great Marlow were rejoicing. They were visited by both her Royal Highness the Duchess of Kent and, even more auspiciously, by her daughter the Princess Victoria who was the heiress presumptive to the throne, (she became queen seven years later, in 1837). A newspaper of the day reported that it was “A most munificent act of her Royal Highness’s patronage of the town took place on Monday; when the vicar, the Reverend Card, laid the foundation stone of a new Sunday School, to be erected solely at her Royal Highness’s expense. This union of piety with benevolence has strengthened the esteem which the condescension of the royal visitants procured them there.

By Gerry Palmer


3 thoughts on “Red Hot Pokers and Vitriol – High Wycombe’s Swing Riots”

  1. Hello,
    I’m Jane Dunsterville, Mills historian in Flackwell Heath.
    Did you know that our local history group has researched the Riot in depth? The riot ringleaders all came from Flackwell.
    As a walk leader, I have led several ‘Riot Walks’, following the actual route and telling the story with pictures and original records.
    I will be giving a shortened ‘easy’ walk for the Arts Festival on 1st of May, leaving from The Swan at 10.30.
    Two of our Group have taken the information further: one has researched the families left behind. Another has followed their fate in Australia.
    Thank you for carrying the story, very much apart of our very local history,
    All the best,

    1. I have ancestors who were involved in the riots, I know of one who was transported to Tasmania Australia and another received 12 months hard labour both were originally sentenced to death.

      I am always looking for any information on them and the riots

      many thanks

    2. Hi Jane,
      I wonder if you could possibly put me in touch with the member of your local history group who has researched the swing rioters who were jailed but stayed in England.
      My ancestor was one of those involved and given the death sentence which was subsequently commuted to a prison sentence. Consequently, I am desperate for further information about the riots and the events which followed.
      I would be really grateful for any help anyone can give me.
      I would have loved to be able to join one of your walks but I live in Kent unfortunately.
      Thank you in advance,
      With kind regards,
      Jean May

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