PREPARATIONS are being made to mark the 200th anniversary of major disorder in Hampshire.

The ‘Captain Swing’ Riots and the subsequent Winchester Grand Assize of 1830 is a hugely important but largely forgotten part of Hampshire history.

Thousands of farmworkers rebelled against mechanisation and poor living and working conditions. One of the epicentres was the Dever Valley near Winchester.

Organised by the English Project, a variety of commemorative events are planned over the next five years in the run-up to a major performance and exhibitions in 2030 including a re-enactment of the Grand Assize in the Great Hall.

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The Captain Swing Riots erupted in the Autumn of 1830 after a decade of growing impoverishment among agricultural labourers. Barely able to feed themselves and their families, workers began burning ricks, destroying threshing machines (the new technology of the 1820s) and demonstrating across more than 60 Hampshire villages.

‘Captain Swing’ was the notional leader of the rioters and many threatening letters were sent out in his name. Against this background, the Duke of Wellington, then the Lord Lieutenant of the county, decided to crack down hard. Around 300 men were arrested and brought to trial in the Great Hall. Most were found guilty and sentenced either to death, transportation to Australia or gaol sentences. The impact on the Hampshire rural community was devastating but many of the issues behind the ‘Swing’ unrest are still pertinent today from the impact of technological innovation to the language of protest.

Martin Tod, leader of Winchester City Council, who has been made official patron, said: “I am delighted to support this Bicentenary project. It feels very contemporary in the issues it is addressing and it will also allow us to take a District and County-wide view of Winchester’s role.”

Also endorsing the project was John Denham, the former Southampton Itchen MP, who said: “The Swing Riots are a fascinating story of 200 years ago that has a great deal to say about the people whom we are today.”

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Meanwhile Tony Williams, another patron and formerly a senior lawyer, added: “The Swing Riots raise issues about what type of protest is acceptable and how people express their concerns about rapid change in which there are losers as well as winners. It poses the question, what mechanisms of dissent and protest are available which don’t destroy society?”

The Recorder of the Winchester Judge Angela Morris made clear her support for the Bicentenary Commemoration saying that it was striking how the Duke of Wellington had called on the judiciary back in 1830 to ‘get stuck in and sort out’ the unrest.

However, since then the language and the rule of law had evolved significantly and she hoped that process would become clear in the course of the project.

Following the launch announcement during the Heritage Open Days a taster programme was put on in the Council Chamber featuring potted histories of Swing events in St. Mary Bourne and along the Dever Valley plus folk songs of the time and, finally, a re-enactment of the delivery of death sentences on three of the accused rioters. It brought the session to a sobering conclusion.