THE CHANGING FACE OF RURAL REBELLION

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Last Saturday’s working class history day-school, organised by the White Horse (Wiltshire) TUC in Bradford was a great success; there were over 60 people in attendance, many of them trade unionists, but also people interested in local history.

The mix of speakers worked well I think, with Steve Poole and Adrian Randall adding the rigour of professional academicians, although Professor Randall was also visibly emotional in discussing the powerful story of the Trowbridge martyr, Thomas Helliker, hanged in 1803 for a crime he was almost certainly innocent of.

Derique Montaut gave a personal recollection of how he became a militant convenor in the British Leyland factory (Pressed Steel) in Swindon during the 1960s, how he joined the Socialist Labour League (SLL), and his evolution from Trotskyist firebrand to Labour councillor. Dave Chapple and Rosie MacGregor gave an interesting account of the lives and times of Idris and Phyllis Rose, the pair of Communist Party councillors who held seats in Trowbridge during the 1960 and 1970s, until local government reorganisation in 1974. An interesting aside to which is that the reforms brought in by a Labour government destroyed the rural base of the Labour Party, who often had many councillors, and even control of small rural Urban District Councils, but they have rarely managed to win control of rural county councils.

Nigel Costley, Regional Secretary of South West TUC gave a very interesting talk, with slides, about the Captain Swing rebellion that had swept across the chalk lands to resist the introduction of threshing machinery, and also extended down into the cheese valleys. Seeing photographs of the villages and houses where these disturbances took place certainly brought home the immediacy and specificity of the rebellion.

The question of local particularity seems to have a bearing on the evolution of social rebellion during the course of the nineteenth century, as moral economy became replaced with political economy. I had not really appreciated before Adrian Randall’s talk that the shearmen (known as croppers in Yorkshire) who worked the final stages of woollen cloth, were relatively wealthy men, who controlled part of the production process in a workshop system with a hierarchy of apprentices and master craftsmen. The machine smashings and mill burnings were therefore conducted by a tightly-knit community of people who were used to respect and influence in their towns, who knew each other closely and personally, using what they saw as justified force in the face of a threat not only to their livelihoods but to the whole sense of moral community that the local economy rested upon.

The machine breaking outrages were therefore a rebellion of those last survivals of an old economic and social order that relied upon face to face relationships of trust and reputation, and were now endangered by the impersonal threats of machinery and standardisation.

This was an important difference between the machine breakers in the mill towns, like Bradford and Trowbridge at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and the Swing rebellions of the next generation, which involved the much less powerful actors of the rural poor. But the Swing Rebellion did share this character of being a reaction to a challenge to the moral foundation of the agricultural economy. The photographs shown by Nigel Costley brought it home to me, that the form of protest of these riots was deeply personal. These were rebellions of agricultural workers who not only intimately knew each other, but also individually knew the squires and farmers who were dispossessing and ruining them, and who lived in the same villages, and worked the same land. The introduction of machinery, on top of the land enclosure that had preceded it, was an abandonment by the squires and the rural rich of the social contract.

Steve Poole’s talk addressed the often overlooked fact that Chartism, the massive democratising political movement of that century, had very weak roots among the agricultural working class. So in Wiltshire it was strong in the mill towns, but not in market towns like Devizes. Indeed, there was a hope among many of the rural poor that the new Queen would restore the moral economy of the past, and a fear that perhaps political reform was a step in the wrong direction; this apprehension was reinforced by the threats of the employers.

A fascinating connection here: that just over the border into Dorset, there was a Chartist meeting of 8000 labourers at Blandford, but they had assembled mainly to hear George Loveless speak – one of the Tolpuddle Martyrs who had returned from Australia. Indeed, during the trial of the Martyrs for joining a trade union, accusations were made that they had been involved in the Swing rebellions.

So the strands of riot, machine breaking, political reform and the birth of rural trade unions were interwoven, as a capitalist revolution tore up the former moral compact of the pre-industrial agricultural economy, and created a modern working class in the countryside. Trade unionism and politics – the forms of social rebellion appropriate for those selling their labour power in an impersonal capitalist economy – replaced the forms of riot and destruction of property that relied upon personal face to face relationships, and which expressed outrage at the betrayal of trust as the rural rich reneged upon the social contract.

Next year we hope to have a similar day-school in Swindon, and White Horse TUC will publish a booklet based upon this weekend’s event.

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