Captain Swing - a rural rebellion
But this hasn't always been the case.
In the early part of the 19th century, many of the people living in rural Sussex were so poor and hungry that they were driven to widespread rioting, acts of violence and arson in October and November of 1830.
These disturbances became known as the Captain Swing Riots.
WHO WAS CAPTAIN SWING?Captain Swing didn't exist.
He was an entirely mythical figure whose name was sometimes used to sign the threatening letters that labourers sent to farmers.
Like today's terrorists, it soon became obvious that an unknown enemy is far more frightening than an identifiable foe and so the practice of invoking Swing's name caught on.
This meant that conspiracy theorists had a field day and the search for the mysterious hand behind the Swing Rebellion was a source of consternation for the authorities in London, as well as local grandees in Sussex.
What were the riots about?Life was pretty tough for the poor in Sussex in 1830.
It was so hard to make ends meet that huge parts of the rural community made some of their living from smuggling goods along the Sussex coast. Even inland, contraband had to be hidden and transported on to London.
Hunger and poverty drove many to poaching and theft too.
But by 1830, although crime detection was pitiful and the rule of law sketchy in some parts of Sussex, punishments for those who were convicted of poaching, theft, or smuggling were draconian - usually involving execution or transportation.
The catalyst for the riots, however, was the introduction of mechanical threshing machines.
Rural labourers realised that the threshing machines meant that the amount of paid work available in the countryside would soon reduce drastically. And that meant unemployment, poverty and eviction from their homes.
Where did the Captain Swing Riots start?The riots started in Kent.
Typically a farmer would receive an anonymous note, often signed by "Captain Swing", telling him that unless he destroyed his threshing machine then his barns, haystacks and house would be burned down, probably while he and his family were asleep.
Night after night fires started by roving mobs lit up the countryside. For many farmers, danger and destruction was a matter of when, not if.
Understandably, Kent farmers were frightened by the initial wave of attacks and generally gave in to the demands of the rioting farm workers.
This only made the rioters bolder.
Farm workers now started confronting farmers asking for higher wages and other improvements to their conditions. Rectors were told to lower tithes by armed gangs. Often their demands were met.
The rebellion hits SussexBy the time the rebellion swept into Sussex, it had an established and successful modus operandi and plenty of momentum.
Excited and now-experienced rebels travelled by night across the countryside to strike at farms who would not comply with local farm workers' demands. West Sussex's long history of major night time operations by village smuggling gangs meant that this type of operation was hardly new to Sussex folk.
Often people were forced to join up with the rebels against their will, as happened to some men at Arundel.
There are stories of confrontations between workers and their landlords all over the county. One at Halnaker near Chichester ended peacefully when the Duke of Richmond told the mob that they should return home and talk later. Another such confrontation in Lancing ended up less happily with the local landowner taking a severe beating.
The authorities responded by posting soldiers at Uckfield. Many of the gentry formed temporary bands of special policemen and there were successful operations to thwart the rebels at Arundel, where they were peacefully dispersed by a large law enforcement presence.
Often, however, these forces were chasing shadows, arriving long after the reported mob had dispersed.
Fires continued to spring up all over West Sussex, with the biggest being a huge blaze near the coast at Worthing that could be seen for miles around.
Eventually the riots swept on westwards throughout the English countryside leaving Sussex behind. While there was never any evidence of an organised attempt to overthrow the government, the Captain Swing Riots were an expression of fear and anger by the very poorest people in Sussex - people who saw that even their meagre way of life was severely threatened by the introduction of new technology.
- Our History index
- 16th century iron Industry
- Museums in West Sussex
- Roman Sussex
- Saxon Sussex
- Smuggling in West Sussex
- St Mary's House, Bramber
- The Pulborough - Midhurst railway
- Weald and Downland Museum
- Wey and Arun Canal
- Windmills in West Sussex
- Sussex's coastal history
- Torberry Hill - an iron age burgh
- Cissbury Ring - flint mines
- Archaeology groups
- Arundel Castle
- Arundel Cathedral
- Brighton history groups
- Brighton Pavilion
- Chichester Canal
- Chichester Cathedral
- Family history groups and info
- Historic Buildings to visit
- History societies in Sussex
- The History of West Sussex
- Sussex history - key dates
- Arundel Guide
- Bognor Guide
- Burgess Hill Guide
- Chichester Guide
- Crawley Guide
- East Grinstead Guide
- Haywards Heath Guide
- Horsham Guide
- Littlehampton Guide
- Midhurst Guide
- Petworth Guide
- Shoreham-by-Sea Guide
- Steyning Guide
- Worthing Guide