Cambridgeshire - 'Captain Swing' and the Reverend Moberley

Due to the discontent caused by introduction of the Poor Laws and farm machinery reducing the number of available jobs violence became an everyday part of Cambridgeshire life including the now infamous Littleport Riots.

The introduction of workhouses caused resentment even before the Poor Law Reform Act of 1834 (list of Poor Law Unions). Workhouse related incidents were recorded at Bassingbourn in 1832, and Royston in 1851. The building of the Linton workhouse was delayed by threats of arson and, upon completion, it was attacked, and windows smashed. Even these revolts did not impede the implementation of the Poor Laws.

The Reverend F. H. Moberley, of Kingston, enraged by the injustice he saw, started a concerted anti-Poor Law campaign, calling the Act 'tyrannical, unconstitutional, anti-scriptural, anti-Christian, unnatural, cruel and impolitic'. He saw it as degrading workers, inciting them to crime as an alternative to the workhouse. The separation of men and women within the workhouse confines destroyed the family and, from a christian viewpoint, encouraged promiscuity and-worse still-homosexuality. Cambridgeshire saw a series of public meetings being held causing pressure to be placed on the Rev. Moberley by the authorities in the form of the Earl of Hardwicke, Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire, the Home Secretary, Lord John Russell, and Moberley's superior, the Bishop of Ely; this was ineffective. Protestations continued after 1837, a petition of 35,000 signatures was collected, submitted and ignored, The implementation of the Act never being impeded.

From this conflict rose insurrection by various groups who fired hayricks and houses, smashed farm machinery and sent threatening letters. From these acts of violence rose a mythical leader 'Captain Swing' who was alleged to be the instigator and coordinator of these acts. Sympathy was gained from farmers when demands were made to end tithes, as they were similarily burdened but this was limited as labourers also wanted wage increases, and to stop the installation of more threshing machines that were removing much of the landworkers' precarious winter employment.

The movement in Cambridgeshire concentrated on arson, beginning in November 1830 with a series of conflagrations-in Coveney, Willingham, Coton, Pampisford, Chatteris and March. There were riots at Balsham, Horseheath, and Abington Piggotts, machine-breakings at Croydon, and sheep-stealing at Whittlesey. Convicted men were treated severely, two arsonists were hanged for firing ricks. Waterbeach, Eaton Socon and Soham were regular scenes of arson and in 1846 12 men were charged in a single assize, at March, with sheep-stealing. Cambridgeshire foolishly resisted the introduction of a police force; and when village police were finally appointed, they were far from safe. One constable at Cheveley was attacked by sheep-stealers, others murdered at Burwell and Hilgay. The 'respectable' created Protection Associations, offering high rewards for information about miscreants, but villagers hid their own and punished informers mercilessly.

This violence shows the extremes to which labourers had to go to influence their condition. Political or union activity was impossible without the vote or legal sanction for collective bargaining. All non-violent opportunities were eagerly taken up. The short-lived Grand National Consolidated Trade Union had an active Cambridgeshire branch in the 1830s; the Chartists were equally busy in the fens after 1837. One experiment sought to bypass conventional politics entirely. The socialist Robert Owen started a commune in Manea Fen, at Colony Farm. Designed in 1838 as a 200-acre co-operative under the motto 'Each for All', it was an ambitious project serving as a model for labourers elsewhere. Colonists erected buildings, organised recreation and education, and worked the land communally for vouchers redeemable at the community store. A newsletter was produced, and widely distributed but this did not have adequate financial backing and, beset with drainage problems, the 'Cambridgeshire Community Number One' also harboured internal dissension. The leader, William Hodson of Upwell, eventually resigned being closely followed by others which saw to it that the community was dead by 1851.

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Last Updated on: 13 January 2000
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