There could be few more peaceful places today than the Meon Valley, so it might be a surprise that it, was once the scene of riots and insurrection.

The introduction of agricultural machinery – particularly threshing machines – meant that when the corn was harvested in the autumn the winter work of many labourers was replaced by automation.
Threshing machines meant few workers were needed – and no work meant no pay.

In August 1830, collective violent action by agricultural workers against such machinery in Kent spread quickly through Sussex and into Hampshire. Since the Meon Valley was largely dependent on agriculture, farm labourers were actively involved. 

Letters were often sent to employers stating the workers’ case and threatening to burn down barns and haystacks if they did not destroy the new machinery. The letters were signed by a Captain Swing, a made-up name representing the anger of the labourers in rural England who wanted a change in their circumstances, the right to contracted labour, fair wages and no machines.

Hampshire Chronicle: Captain Swing

Traditionally, agricultural workers attended a local hiring fair and secured a year-long contract that brought security. A succession of poor harvests meant that many landowners started offering only short contracts for work – for a week or a few months instead of the annual arrangement. Combined with the Enclosure Acts, which reduced the availability of common land previously used by the poor for growing crops and grazing cattle, many of the poorest faced destitution.

Those labourers with large families were generally given preference for more secure agricultural work, while young single men could often only find work mending roads, which paid just half a crown per week (12.5p). Most labourers in the Meon Valley lived in hovels with little access to even the most basic facilities. Wages were often ten shillings (50p) a week or less, which could not support a family at the minimal subsistence level. Labourers were often not paid in cash but in kind. William Cobbett (1763–1835), a reforming campaigner who farmed much of the land in and around Swanmore, sometimes paid his workers in flour: he considered this fair since they received it at wholesale prices. He also wrote about the appalling conditions for agricultural workers in “Rural Rides” and campaigned for the abolition of “rotten boroughs”, thinking this would ease the poverty of farm labourers.

Hampshire Chronicle: A typical threshing machine from the 1830s

The Hampshire troubles intensified in November 1830 with riots in Andover spreading to Stockbridge and King’s Somborne on the 21st and Selborne on the 22nd. In the Meon Valley, matters came to a head on Tuesday 23rd November, when labourers gathered in large numbers on Shedfield Common and headed for Wickham. They were armed with their normal working tools: spades, axes and stakes. 
Mr Pole, a local magistrate, arrived and read the Riot Act, but the men refused to disperse so he sent for the army and violence broke out. Three of the ring leaders – William Abraham, John Smith and William Varndell – were captured while a Major Campbell addressed the labourers asking them to let him know their complaints. They told him that they could not live on their low wages and were demanding 12 shillings (60p) a week. After assurances by the Major that their grievances would be looked into, the mob broke up and the arrested men were sent to Winchester Gaol.

There were many incidents across Hampshire, far more violent than those in the Meon Valley, with more than 400 men committed to Winchester Gaol. 
1830 was a “year of revolutions” across Europe with the monarchy overthrown in France and violent uprisings in Belgium, Italy, Poland and elsewhere. The authorities were determined to prevent similar outbreaks in Britain, so treated any sign of insurrection with a heavy hand. 

The trials were held in the Great Hall in Winchester and anyone who set fire to a stack of hay was sentenced to be hanged. It was normal that prisoners awaiting trial were brought out to watch the victim die. Many prisoners were transported to the Australian Colonies, their papers marked VDL for Van Diemen’s Land or NSW (New South Wales). Some were acquitted or sent to a house of correction. 
As for the three arrested in Wickham, their charge sheets read: “Charged this day in the Parish of Wickham with riotous and unlawful assembly and armed with offensive weapons”. William Abraham and John Smith, both aged 26, were sentenced to one month in the house of correction, while William Varndell was given six weeks. 

Nicholas Freemantle of Corhampton was charged with more serious offences and sentenced to death, which was commuted to transportation for life. He was transferred to the prison hulk York in Portsmouth Harbour and then transported to Van Diemen’s Land. 
Thomas Burgess was acquitted after a letter provided by George Butler of Soberton stated that he was working on his estate and therefore not involved – which was fortunate since he had eight children.

Hampshire Chronicle: William Cobbett painted in 1831 by George Cooke

A particularly important Hampshire event was when the labourers of Sutton Scotney sent a petition to the King, which is worth quoting: “That many of us have not food sufficient to satisfy our hunger, our drink is chiefly the crystal element, we have not clothes to hide our nakedness of ourselves, our wives or children, nor fuel to warm us, while at the same time our (employers) barns are filled with corn, our garners with wool, our pastures abound with cattle, and our land yields abundance of wood and coal, all of which display the wisdom, kindness and mercy of our creator.”
Joseph Mason walked the 60 miles from Sutton Scotney to Brighton to deliver the petition, but after waiting was told that the King could not accept it. He and his brother Robert were later convicted of robbery on a series of trumped up charges: the brothers were clearly “trouble-makers” and had to be removed. They were transported to Australia where both made a success of their new lives.

While the authorities were determined to put down the riots with deliberate judicial terror – of the 250 or so sentenced to death only 19 were eventually hanged and the rest transported – the uprisings did have an effect as a wake-up call to everyone that things needed to change, which ultimately enabled the Great Reform Act of 1832 that extended the franchise to a slightly broader range of people and abolished most of the “rotten boroughs”.

In the Meon Valley things gradually improved, with industrialisation bringing a wider range of available work. These jobs needed a better-educated workforce and schools opened throughout the region – including in Swanmore in 1833. 

By Crawford Wright