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Swingers of the World Unite,
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This review is from: Captain Swing (Pimlico) (Paperback)
In "Captain Swing" Marxist historians George Rude and Eric Hobsbawm collaborated on a detailed examination of the Swing Riots that swept through the rural districts of southern and eastern England in late 1830 through to early 1831. The rioters were motivated by their miserable living conditions during the protracted post-Napoleonic War slump, the introduction of threshing machines which curtailed their opportunities for winter work in agricultural areas, and the oppressive nature of overseers of the poor that went hand in hand with a gradual diminishing of the levels of outdoor relief from the relatively generous norms that applied after the Speenhamland decision of 1795.
The book is divided into four parts. "Before Swing" sets the scene with an examination of the historical context within which Swing occurred in relation to the development of agriculture in England, how the rural poor were dealt with, an appreciation of the world of the early 19th century village, before ending with a detailed look at developments in what was one of the most miserable periods for ordinary people in English history, the period after the Napoleonic Wars ended.
"The Rising" is a forensic account of the rising in the different regions that were affected by Swing, and ends with a general summary of the distribution of rioting, and the different character that the riots took in different areas. "The Anatomy of Swing" is a more detailed look at the patterns of revolt, those who were the victims of Swing (primarily farmers in some areas, the receivers of tithes in others, factory owners in a few areas) and who were their allies (often artisan workers, farmers - who supported Swing rioters when they thought they could be used to batter down their onerous tithe payments in return for an increase in wages).
Finally the authors look into the aftermath of the riots, the legal process as it took effect in the early swing areas of the south-eastern, and where in some cases the magistrates dispensed justice with relative leniency, to the rest of the country where a special commission dealt with rioters more brutally: in the end some 500 were transported to Australia and 19 hanged. The rioters themselves hadn't taken a single life and never intended too: property was their target, but judging by the number of executions and the number of those whose families and communities were torn apart by transportation the English ruling class judged the protection of property to be more important than life. Ironically (or par for the course) many of those transported ended up in Tasmania where the colonial policy vis-a-vis the aboriginals was functionally genocidal. The accounts of the life experience of those transported and who left their mark in official records, or other written matter behind them are fascinating.
I greatly enjoyed "Captain Swing" - more so than many of the books Hobsbawm wrote by himself so for me the collaboration with George Rude was a productive one, and though on occasions, particularly the numerous lists of villages through which the Swing riots spread given in the second part, it can be a little tedious, overall it delivers a fascinating and forensic re-creation of what was perhaps the last widespread peasants revolt in England.
Other books in a similar vein that are worth reading include E.P.Thompsons magisterial The Making of the English Working Class; Christopher Hills look at the lower orders in revolt during the revolutionary period (1640's and 50's) The World Turned Upside Down and his collection of essays on the 18th century Liberty Against the Law and Peter Linebaughs The London Hanged.