1831: Edmund Bushby, Swing rioter

Add comment January 1st, 2016 Headsman

On New Year’s Day of 1831, Edmund Bushby was hanged in Horsham for arson committed during southern England’s great agricultural labor rising, the Swing Riots.

“Captain Swing” was the rebellion’s namesake, a Ned Ludd-like legendary archetype, a figurehead who could never swing from the gallows. Swing was a long-suffering tenant farmer fallen desperately below subsistence and ready to fight back, and it goes without saying that in this the fictional “captain” mirrored his very real cohort — who were known to sign the captain’s anonymizing name to their letters threatening prosperous farmers: “work, money, or fire”.

Wages in Britain, which perhaps were mired in a generations-long slide to begin with, had cratered painfully following the Napoleonic Wars. And few felt the pinch more sharply than the working class in the rural economies of England’s southern half from East Anglia, Essex and Kent clear across to Somerset and Devon. Here, without the wage prop that coal mining was already beginning to confer in the north, the situation in the fields grew desperate.*

Years later, in 1851, James Caird would draw an east-west line through the English countryside — a wages line, he called it. North of that line, Caird noticed, agricultural workers were still being paid better than their brethren to the south by an enormous margin, 30% or more.

And so with the onset of harder times, like a devastating financial crash in the 1820s, this was also the line below which every farmhand existed at the edge of utter destitution — mitigated only by a niggardly allotment of poor relief forever squeezed smaller by its donors, the local landowners.** This zone of rural immiseration was the home of Captain Swing.


From Stuart Macdonald, “The progress of the early threshing machine”, Agricultural History Review, 23:1 (1975). It’s available online in pdf form here.

In 1830, following two consecutive years of crop failures, English radical William Cobbett published his survey of the countryside’s growing want in his Rural Rides. Written over the course of several years previous, it was a prescient appraisal.

As far as I had an opportunity of ascertaining the facts, the farmers feel all the pinchings of distress, and the still harsher pinchings of anxiety for the future; and the labouring people are suffering in a degree not to be described. The shutting of the male paupers up in pounds is common through Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Left at large during the day, they roam about and maraud. What are the farmers to do with them? God knows how long the peace is to be kept, if this state of things be not put a stop to.

Those words Cobbett set down late in 1829. By the summer of the following year, labor rebellions began breaking out in these counties.

This wave of mutually inspired resistance saw villages’ working classes take the offensive against their local grandees. Beginning that summer, farmers’ hay ricks were set ablaze by secret arsonists; resistance rapidly metastasized from that point. (See this pdf.) “Burnings were necessary to bring people to their senses,” one Swing radical proclaimed — to force the rural gentry to come to terms with the plight of their neighbors.


1844 Punch magazine cartoon. (Source)

Following a long tradition of English machine-wrecking, Swing rioters also turned their fury on hated threshing machines, which were popping up by the hundreds and promising to displace still more of the shrinking wage share available in the countryside. (A very cheap portable machine invented in 1829 augured especially ill for the workers whose labor it would obviate; see N.E. Fox, “The Spread of the Threshing Machine in Central Southern England”, The Agricultural History Review, Vol. 26, No. 1 (1978).)

Nearly 400 were reportedly destroyed from 1830-1832 — and typically the owner of the machine would then be mulcted £2 per thresher for the dismantling labor. (In the subsequent assizes, these forcibly exactions were prosecuted as highway robbery.)

A countryside threatening to go up in flames like the farmers’ ricks inspired the requisite shock and exercise of state suppression, beginning with an aggressive investigation with widespread prosecutions in the last weeks of 1830. By the time it was all said and done, 252 people were sentenced to die and although all save 19 of those were commuted to transportation, the effect of a few very public examples would scarcely be neglected. Thomas Hardy,† born in 1840 the son of rural Dorset stonemason, would later describe his father’s recollection of the Swing days:

My father saw four men hung for being with some others who had set fire to a rick. Among them was a stripling boy of eighteen … with youth’s excitement he had rushed to the scene to see the blaze … Nothing my father ever said to me drove the tragedy of life so deeply into mind.

Edmund Bushby was one of these misfortunate souls marked for the scaffold instead of Australia. (Another Swing arsonist, Thomas Goodman, was to have hanged immediately after Bushby. Goodman was reprieved but was not told of it until after Bushby died.)

Convicted at the busy Lewes assizes of torching farmer George Oliver’s wheat in East Preston, Bushby hanged firmly‡ before a crowd of “eight to nine hundred persons,” according to the January 4 Morning Chronicle reprint of a Sussex Advertiser report,

three parts out of four of whom appeared to be agricultural labourers, who seemed deeply affected at the awful scene, and the most profound silence prevailed amongst them. The Sheriff’s javelin men surrounded the gallows, and two companies of foot guards were drawn up on the square, in the centre of the town, a considerable distance from the jail, and not within sight of the populace. Every thing passed off with the utmost order and decorum.

After the body had been suspended the usual time, it was cut down and delivered to the friends of the deceased for interment, who were waiting with a cart to receive it.

* The southern counties, nearest London, were also the areas where enclosure was most advanced and the rural labor force most thoroughly proletarianized.

** To add to the woes, comfortable parish parsons also had a customary right to exact a cash tithe that their flock could scarcely afford in bad times.

† We have met Thomas Hardy several times in these pages; his was surely a soul sensitive to the plight of the condemned. Hardy [probably] set the action of his short story “The Withered Arm” (with its gallows climax) in the Swing Riots period.

‡ His reported last words on the scaffold: “I hope you will take warning from my fate; and, my dear fellows, always attend to the Sabbath-day.” If accurately reported — and unironically uttered — this ageless gallows formula so irrelevant to Bushby’s situation surely attests to the power of a cliche. There is a good chance that Bushby heard these words spoken by some other hanged fellow in his lifetime, and knew them described more widely than that as the sort of thing everyone ought to say before turning off.

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1813: The Yorkshire Luddites, for murdering William Horsfall

1 comment January 8th, 2013 Headsman

This is the bicentennial of the hanging of three Luddites for the murder of manufacturer William Horsfall.

“Luddite” has come to refer imprecisely to a wide range of anti-mechanization machine-wrecking in early 19th century Britain; however, it’s most properly applied to a specific 1811-1816 movement.

While often understood casually as a sort of mindless technophobia, wreckers — Luddites and otherwise — actually had material labor grievances. New more efficient power looms reduced skilled workers to the ranks of unskilled subsistence labor, or to those of the superfluous unemployed.

With trade unionism illegal (and severely repressed), their means of resistance were of a desperate character. Lord Byron, almost alone in Parliament, rose to defend them: “These men were willing to dig, but the spade was in other hands; they were not ashamed to beg, but there was none to relieve them. Their own means of subsistence were cut off; all other employments pre-occupied; and their excesses, however to be deplored and condemned, can hardly be the subject of surprise.”

Hence, Byron sarcastically remarked, “new capital punishments must be devised, new snares of death must be spread, for the wretched mechanic who is famished into guilt.” Parliament did indeed extend its capital statutes to the protection of these new looms.


Via

“Wrecking,” in the analysis of the late Eric Hobsbawm, “was simply a technique of trade unionism in the period before, and during the early phases of, the industrial revolution.”

Hobsbawm quotes a Nottingham town clerk describing the way textile manufacturers “acquire entire control of their workmen” by putting them to work on the owners’ power looms rather than hiring out workers who use their own looms. “Perhaps the most effectual manner in which the combination [read: proto-union] could coerce them was their former manner of carrying on war by destroying their frames.”

And the descriptor “war” was not far off.

The Luddites — so named for legendary loom-smasher Ned Ludd — proliferated in 1811-1812. Beginning in Nottingham with a protest against falling wages signed by General Ned Ludd and the Army of Redressers, they tapped a wellspring of discontent.

It was a time of war, of economic crisis, of spiking wheat prices whose rise to an 1812 record peak further immiserated those who scraped to earn a living by the sweat of their brow. A generation after the French Revolution, with Napoleon rampant on the continent, English elites had reason to fear their own legitimacy stood on unstable ground.* In 1811, the king even went mad.

And they thrive well who from the poor
Have snatched the bread of penury,
And heap the houseless wanderer’s store
On the rank pile of luxury.

-Percy Bysshe Shelly, “The Devil’s Walk” (1812)

From their birthplace in Nottingham, Luddite societies spread out through textile country, conspiring by moonlight to break into factories and smash up frames or commit other acts of industrial sabotage. (There’s a pdf timeline here) Byron, the Luddites’ defender, owned that the night before he departed a recent visit to Nottingham, “forty frames had been broken the preceding evening as usual, without resistance and without detection.”

Terrified manufacturers — some were known to have armored their establishments with what amount to siege fortifications; others, to outfit homes with early panic rooms as bolt-holes in the event of a Luddite attack — met this mob action violently. Westminster put 12,000 troops into Luddite country to fight the wreckers.

And the wreckers fought back.

William Horsfall, owner of a Marsden wool mill with 400 employees, had vowed to “ride up to his saddle in Luddite blood” … which promise gave a poetic twist to his actual fate: while riding on Huddersfield‘s Crosland Moor** in April 1812, a group of Luddites lying in wait opened fire on him and shot Horsfall through the groin.

“As soon as he fell after being wounded the inhuman populace surrounding him reproached him with having been the oppressor of the poor — they did not offer assistance,” an officer later reported. “Nor did any one attempt to pursue or secure the assassins who were seen to retire to an adjoining wood.” A fellow-manufacturer helped Horsfall to an inn, where he expired painfully 38 hours later.

It was several months before the powers that be were able to crack it.

Eventually, the energetic Huddersfield magistrate Joseph Radcliffe† was able to exploit the threat of hanging to force a Luddite cropper‡ into impeaching his confederates in the plot. This investigation is covered in marvelous detail at the Luddite Bicentenary blog, an outstanding resource on the period in general, but for our purposes we’ll sum up to say that the hunt for Horsfall’s killers wound up zeroing in on George Mellor, Thomas Smith, and William Thorpe.

They were tried over 11 hours on a single day, January 6, 1813 (summary: 1, 2, 3, 4).

That was a Wednesday.

That Friday, the three hanged in their manacles behind York Castle under heavy military guard to forestall any possible rescue, having never admitted any part in the murder. The authorities judiciously eschewed a more demonstrative (and potentially riot-inducing) execution at the scene of the crime.

“The number of people assembled was much greater than is usual in York, on those melancholy occasions; but not the slightest indication of tumult prevailed, and the greatest silence reigned during the whole of this solemn and painful scene,” the Leeds Mercury reported§ — and darkly explicated the intended lesson of the scene for other machine-wreckers.

all those who may have been so far infatuated as to become members of such societies should, from this moment, and by one common consent, desist from taking another step in furtherance of their objects. They must now see that they have stood on the brink of a frightful precipice, and that another step might have plunged them into that gulph which has overwhelmed their less fortunate associates.

The mailed fist deployed against wreckers in 1812-1813 did indeed smash the movement. Still, sporadic Luddite attacks would continue as late as 1816, and Luddite veterans went at the fore of the 1817 Pentrich Rising … just outside the place it all began, Nottingham.

* It was in just this period — in fact, only a few days after William Horsfall’s murder — that Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was assassinated. Given the conditions abroad in the land, many an elite feared upon first notice of this event a revolutionary rising … although Perceval’s killer turned out to be a deranged merchant whose confused private grievance had nothing to do with Britain’s social tensions.

** Not far from the spot of Horsfall’s murder — and a standard stop on every present-day Luddite commemorative walk — you’ll still find William Horsfall Street.

† Radcliffe’s exertions in the war against the Luddites secured for his family a still-extant baronetcy.

‡ Benjamin Walker, the Luddite informer who sent Mellor, Smith, and Thorpe to the gallows, was denied the advertised £2000 reward and wound up a beggar in London.

§ Leeds Mercury report via a reprint in the London Times of Jan. 12, 1813. (Also see this excerpt.)

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1769: Two weavers, for the Spitalfield riots

4 comments December 6th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1769, two weavers hanged in East London in a bitter fight over wages and labor power.

Spitalfields, the East London district also known as the stomping-ground of legendary jailbreaker Jack Sheppard, was the capital of a thriving English silk-weaving industry. It had attained 18th century prosperity thanks in large measure to the decision of William and Mary to invite Lyons Huguenots being hard-pressed by the French crown to relocate their talents across the channel. This now-domestic industry* quickly began supplanting formerly dominant French imports.

In 1713 it was stated that silks, gold and silver stuffs and ribbon made here were as good as those from France, and that £300,000 worth of black silk for hoods and scarves was made annually. In 1721 the value of the silk manufactured in England amounted to £700,000 more than in 1688, when wrought silks were imported from France to the annual value of half a million sterling. (Source)

In this roaring and prestigious business, William Hogarth situated his 1747 Industry & Idleness plates: both the Industrious Prentice (eventually destined to become Lord Mayor of London) and the Idle Prentice (eventually executed at Tyburn) start off shoulder to shoulder at the Spitalfields looms.

But as the 18th century unfolded, even the most industrious Spitalfield weavers came under increasing competitive pressure especially from Chinese and Indian imports.

Although Parliament attempted to ban textile imports to preserve the domestic industries, Spitalfield workers were known to enforce their prerogatives directly by attacking people in the street thought to be wearing foreign prints. This simmering tension came to a rapid boil after settlement of the Seven Years’ War enabled England and France to resume trading — and a glut of French textiles to undermine weavers’ price controls.

Conflicts were no less fierce within the weavers’ community, between masters and laborers. Workers combined to maintain wages by attacking those thought to be undercutting prices.

In September 1769, one such action punished a wealthy anti-“combination” (for “combination”, read “labor union”) manufacturer named Lewis Chauvet, and cut the silk handkerchiefs right out of his looms.


From Season 3, Episode 2 of the BBC drama Garrow’s Law, which is directly based on this case. As of this writing, the entire episode can be found on YouTube.

Cutting silk from the loom was a rough method of enforcement by the labor combination. It had also been made a capital crime a few years before. And it turned out that Chauvet was ready to make his the test case.

Richly paying off a couple of independent artisan weavers for their questionable testimony, he secured the conviction of John Valloine or Valline (other alternate spellings are possible; the name clearly denotes the district’s Huguenot heritage) and John Doyle, two weavers allegedly part of the loom-smashing action. The accused denied it, Doyle reported to have fulminated at the gallows, “I am as innocent of the fact I am now to die for as the child unborn. Let my blood lie to that wicked man who has purchased it with gold, and them notorious wretches who swore it falsely away.”**

Manufacturers’ purposes were served just as well whether innocent or guilty. The point was labor discipline, not a few lost hankies.

Accordingly fixing “to strike Terror into the Rioters”, the crown ordered the execution to occur not at the Tyburn gallows, but right in the weavers’ backyard, adjacent Spitalfields at Bethnal Green.

This order actually delayed the sentence for the judiciary’s consideration of the minor point of whether this was allowed at all — since the actual boilerplate sentence read from the bench had specified “the usual place.” The wisest magistrates of the land considered the matter and in time agreed that “the time and place of execution was no part of the sentence” and therefore subject to His Majesty’s discretion. Bethnal Green it was.

They were therefore this morning taken in a cart from Newgate through the City to Whitechapel, and thence up the road to Bethnal Green, attended by the Sheriffs &c, with the gallows, made for the purpose, in another cart; it was fixed in the cross road, near the Salmon and Ball.


The Salmon and Ball pub, where the execution happened, today. (cc) image by Ewan Munro.

There was an inconceivable number of people assembled, and many bricks, tiles, stones &c thrown while the gallows was fixing, and a great apprehension of a general tumult, notwithstanding the persuasion and endeavours of several gentlemen to appease the same. The unhappy sufferers were therefore obliged to be turned off before the usual time allowed on such occasions, which was about 11 o’clock; when, after hanging about fifty minutes they were cut down and delivered to their friends. (cited here)

Vengeful weavers having their noses rubbed in their comrades’ executions smashed up Chauvet’s house in the riots on this date, and the powers that be decided that one hanging-day at Bethnal Green was plenty. A few other rioters convicted as confederates of Doyle and Valline were put to death at Tybun later in December 1769.

Years of violent labor conflict were finally quelled with the 1773 Spitalfield Weavers Act, a political compromise which protected the domestic industry from foreign competition and enabled magistrates to set wages.

Though this act stabilized a tense domestic situation, its effect over several decades was seriously problematic: a protected monopoly with wage-controlled workers maintained an increasingly obsolete system of labor-intensive manufacture that fell behind power looms coming online elsewhere.

As late as 1851 — mechanization wouldn’t fully take over until Britain’s trade liberalization of the 1860s — Charles Dickens visited Spitalfields, and saw a weaver

doing now, exactly what his grandfather did. Nothing would induce him to use a simple improvement (the ‘fly shuttle’) to prevent the contraction of the chest of which he complains. Nothing would turn him aside from his old ways. It is the old custom to work at home, in a crowded room, instead of in a factory.

Disallowed from taking lower wages even in bad times (or when cheaper cotton started displacing silk), many weavers sat completely unemployed instead — gradually sinking into a proletarianization they had fought to avoid. Spitalfield weavers eventually became one of the classic case studies in the laissez faire economics canon.

* Just to be clear, Huguenots weren’t the first silk weavers in Spitalfields; it’s just that their arrival let the industry take off.

** The hanged man’s comrades made good his gallows menace. Peter Linebaugh, whose The London Hanged is an outstanding resource on the economic pressures that brought these weavers and many others to the gallows, relates:

At noon upon a cold and snowy day, 16 April 1771, [Chauvet’s paid witness against the weavers] Daniel Clarke … went walking in Spitalfields. It had been sixteen months since the hangings of the cutters whom Clarke had sworn against, and he must have thought the people cowed or forgetful. He was recognized. ‘There goes Clarke, that blood-selling rascal,’ was the shout, and instantly a small crowd gathered to badger and pester him. He took to his heels and found temporary refuge in the house of Mary Snee. The currents of popular memory run deep; now they flooded to the surface. A hundred people beset the house hurling maledictions. ‘They would hang him, or burn him, or stone him,’ said Mary Snee. He was cornered, stripped and dragged by his feet into the street, where he was led by the neck on a parade of humiliation. The crowds grew. Widow Horsford [wife of one of the weavers hanged later in December 1769 at Tyburn] was seen to ‘jump out of the loom’ at the news Clarke was cursed and dragged to the brick-fields. Children pelted him with dirt. Bespattered with muck, he was thrown into a pond where he was ducked within a breath of drowning. He was removed to a sandheap, buried, dug up and returned to the freezing water. It was estimated that the crowd numbered 3,000. While he could speak, he taunted his tormentors, saying ‘he would take twenty of them’. Widow Horsford said, ‘Clarke, Clarke, I am left a widow, my children is fatherless on account of you.’ Clarke answered, ‘Chauvet is worse than me,’ and then he expired. A grim ending that would be remembered for generations.

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1803: Thomas Hilliker, teen machine wrecker

9 comments March 22nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1803, 19-year-old apprentice Thomas Hilliker (or Helliker, or Heliker, or Hiliker) was hanged on doubtful eyewitness identification for having helped torch Littleton Mill near Semington during an anti-mechanization protest.

The youth’s affecting handwritten last letter, on display at the Trowbridge Museum, was recently selected by the BBC for its “History of the World in 100 Objects” series.

“Remember my last Fate …” Detail view of Thomas’s letter, as seen in the BBC series. (For the full letter: page 1; page 2) Images (c) Trowbridge Museum, and used with permission.

Executed Today is pleased to mark the anniversary of Thomas Hilliker’s hanging with a chat with Trowbridge Museum Curator Clare Lyall.

ET: Can you put in context the significance of burning down a mill in Wiltshire in the early 1800s?

CL: This was part of organized resistance against mechanization that had begun to turn violent. Mills at Warminster and Bedington had already been burned. There was widespread opposition to processes that were perceived as threatening jobs and this was indicated by many employees joining unions despite the union’s illegal status.

Thomas Hilliker was 19 when he died. What do we know about him? What kind of life did he lead?

Thomas was a literate, apprentice shearman. The job of a shearman was highly skilled and involved the cropping of the raised nap of the cloth to ensure that a finely knitted fibre remained. He was only two years into a five-year apprenticeship when he was arrested. We have little evidence about the type of life he led. There was a statement that gave him an alibi for the night of the burning down of Littleton Mill, when one of his friends found him drunk outside a cottage where he had been visiting and took him in there to spend the night in the kitchen. I guess from that we can conclude that like many teenagers he liked on occasion to drink alcohol to excess.

You’re quoted on thisiswiltshire.co.uk as saying that Hilliker “was probably the wrong guy.” Was he wrongfully executed?

There were contradictory statements about whether Hilliker was actually there holding the Mill manager prisoner whilst the Mill was burned. He also had an alibi for that evening and it would have been very unusual for senior union men to have involved a junior member with such a serious event. I think all this casts doubt on his guilt.

What did Thomas have to say to his family in this last letter? What does that tell us about his life?

It was a moving farewell to his parents and siblings with a request for them not to forget him and to stay out of trouble. I don’t think this was an admission of his involvement in the Littleton Mill incident but may refer to his membership of an illegal organization, a union which after what had happened to him might have considered wasn’t worth the risk.

As a curator, how do you present this artifact to visitors? What kind of reactions does it typically draw?

We present the letter in a display case which has a controlled environment and subdued lighting. There is a transcription of his final letter that is displayed on the outside of the case and adjacent to the letter.

Many people are moved by the letter and why he never told who the true culprits were.

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