When the harsh winter of 1830 followed a poor harvest and caused reduced wages for labourers, agricultural riots spread across Norfolk and throughout the south and east of England. The labourers wanted to stop the spread of new threshing machines, which they viewed as a threat to one of their few winter employments. They targeted rich farmers, magistrates and clergymen, who received tithes (one-tenth of annual produce or labour given to the church). Threatening letters were sent, signed by a mysterious leader, ‘Captain Swing’, demanding wage rises, reduced tithes or destruction of threshing machines. One such letter, now held at the Norfolk Record Office, was sent to the Dean of Norwich Cathedral in October 1831; the cathedral owned a lot of land in Norfolk at this time. If demands were not met, the letter threatened, crowds of labourers would gather, burning hayricks and smashing agricultural machinery.
Some farmers, who agreed with the labourers’ tithe protests, and some magistrates, who wanted to keep the peace locally, were lenient towards the rioters. In November 1830, magistrates at North Walsham recommended that landowners discontinue using threshing machines and raise wages to 10 shillings a week. However, the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, who feared the work of political agents (the revolution of July 1830 in France had recently broken out) dealt with the rioters more harshly. Nationally, nine were hanged and 450 were transported to Australia.
According to local newspaper reports, the riots in Norfolk began on 10 November, when threshing machines were broken and stacks were fired at the farm of J. Hill in Briston. On 22 November, it was feared that an attack would be made on Melton Constable Hall, home of Sir Jacob Astley, but local gentlemen met the rioters at Hindolveston, seized the ringleaders and took them to Walsingham Bridewell. When the High Sheriff (the Hon. G.J. Miles) feared further attack, he sent a messenger to Elmham Park, where the gentlemen of the Norfolk Hunt were meeting that day. The horsemen arrived at Melton Constable and helped to disperse the angry crowd. The First Royal Dragoons were also sent from Norwich to put down riots in disturbed areas.
According to Mackie’s Norfolk Annals, in January 1831, lists of Norfolk Quarter Sessions prisoners contained the names of 108 people indicted for machine-breaking riots. Trials took place before Serjeant William Frere, Lord Suffield and Sir John Boileau, magistrates, at the Shirehall in Norwich. Of the rioters, 67 were found guilty of machine-breaking and 41 were acquitted. Nine were sentenced to transportation, including George Howes of Cawston who was transported for 14 years for his part in several local riots; the remainder received prison sentences ranging from two to three years to 14 days.
Quarter Sessions minutes and related letters, held at the Norfolk Record Office, document the sentences on agricultural labourers who took part in machine-breaking riots during the harsh winter of 1830. These riots, became known as the ‘Swing Riots’, after the labourers’ mysterious leader ‘Captain Swing.’
One of the accused labourers, Edmund Jarvis, was sentenced to nine months in Swaffham Bridewell, the last week in solitary confinement, for feloniously breaking a threshing machine. A letter written from Sir John Boileau, a local magistrate, to Mr Johnson, gaoler at Norwich Castle prison, in June 1831, reveals that, having made enquiries locally, Jarvis was, in his opinion, not of good character. He had broken the threshing machine which he was himself working and was earning, at the time, 18 to 20 shillings per week.
Magistrates sometimes recommended rioters, otherwise of good character, for early release. Another letter, from Fairfax Francklin, a farmer and prosecutor, relates to Samuel Smith. Smith was sentenced to prison at Norwich Castle for two years for a riot on Francklin’s farm in Attleborough, along with Robert Smith and James Stacey. Francklin’s letter reveals that he wanted the rioters’ sentences shortened: ‘tho’ they were amongst the most active on that occasion, I am quite convinced that they were greatly influenced by the instigation of others, and that the first and last of them (Robert Smith and James Stacey), who are both young, had always before that time conducted themselves peaceably … and that the other convict (Samuel Smith) has a wife and six children, who, tho’ they have never yet been chargeable to the Parish, stand much in need of their Father’s exertions for their future support.…’
Several capital offences of machine-breaking and arson were reserved for the Norfolk Lent Assizes held on 25 March 1831 at Norwich. One was the case of Richard Nockolds (also spelled Knockolds) who was accused of being the leader of a gang of men, including Robert Hunt and three brothers Josiah, David and Robert Davison, who had plotted arson at Swanton Abbott in January 1831. Nockolds was found guilty and sentenced to death for setting fire to a hayrick, the property of Richard Ducker of Swanton Abbot. Josiah Davison was also found guilty, but recommended for mercy, while Hunt and David Davison were acquitted. On 19 April, Nockolds was publicly hanged on Castle Hill in Norwich, one of the last people in Britain to be executed for a crime other than murder.
After the hanging, Nockolds’s widow exploited his execution in an unusual way to raise funds for her family. She exhibited his body daily at their cottage in Pockthorpe, charging onlookers one penny each to view his corpse, until his funeral at the church of St James at Pockthorpe.