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The social history of Southern England in the early 19th century presents a paradox and a contrast: in 1834, a few friends and relatives of George Loveless 'swore an illegal oath', were transported to Australia, and were all pardoned after 3 years. They returned, and later became heroes of the Trade Union movement. A few years earlier, there were widespread riots affecting several counties of England, as a result of which 19 men were executed, over 500 transported, and 650 jailed. Yet everyone in Dorset knows the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, but fewer are familiar with that of the "Captain Swing" riots in 1830.
Unlike other countries, where most people who earned a living from the soil were peasants, occupying a small plot of land from which they could feed their family, in Eastern and Southern England most farms were worked by a few landowners, or by the rather larger number of their tenants. The bulk of the rural population was waged labourers.
But even by 1750, many labourers in Dorset could not find regular work, and most large villages had their Poor Houses. Sherborne workhouse opened in 1738, and by 1749 the Bere Regis one had had to be rebuilt and enlarged. Even small tenants had few rights when once their copyholds ran out. They too became labourers, and played no part in parish or village affairs.
So even in the latter part of the 18th century, there was unrest. In 1756, the harvest was poor, and there were food riots. In November 1764, people at Beaminster rioted because of the "exorbitant and unnecessary price of corn". The following year rioters at Stalbridge destroyed a bunting mill, and attacked another mill at Marnhull.
Vestry minute books tell of the "misery and degradation" caused by the old (Elizabethan) Poor Law. The Stalbridge poorhouse stood under the Ring tree, and the yard at the back was surrounded by hovels in which paupers were lodged. As late as 1826, 3 women (and 1 child) had 1/- a week for their support, and only one bed between them. A coroner's jury found the parish officers guilty of causing Mary Cole's death by neglect. The curate declared dogs were better off, as they had clean straw to lie on.
In the past there had been two kinds of farm workers: farm servants, who were (usually unmarried) men and women living in the farmhouse, employed on ongoing work as horsemen, carters, dairymaids, shepherds, etc. and normally paid by the year; and labourers coming in to work, paid by the week or day, or sometimes by piecework - on hedging, specialist jobs like sheep-shearing, or haymaking and harvest.
But in Eastern and Southern England by the early 19th century there was a surplus of day labourers. The population rose rapidly between 1751 and 1830. Fewer farmers took on living-in farm servants, and annual hiring fairs became rarer. William Cobbett claimed that farmers would no longer feed and lodge their workpeople, as they did formerly, because they could not keep them upon so little as they gave them in wages.
Until the end of the Napoleonic wars, price inflation stimulated farm production, and made farmers wary of committing themselves to high wages they might not be able to afford in less prosperous times.
Worst of all, as a result of the misguided decision of magistrates at Speenhamland in Berkshire, it became customary when harvests were poor and wages fell below subsistence level (because of the high price of bread, or the number of children in a family) to subsidise them out of local rates. Authorities elsewhere followed suit, and a "bread and children" scale became almost universal, though never law.