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Rural workers in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England were not passive victims in the face of rapid social change. Carl J. Griffin shows that they deployed an extensive range of resistances to defend their livelihoods and communities. Locating protest in the wider contexts of work, poverty and landscape change, this new text offers the first critical overview of this growing area of study.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Understanding Rural Protest

Abstract
Against repeated evidence that rural workers not only could conceive of alternative social worlds and did protest their lot, social commentators in eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century England often asserted that such protests were either mere rebellions of the belly — the reflexive reactions of the animal — or the acts of the instigated. As Hannah More, in her patronising Village Politics (1793), attempted to ‘prove’, the seduction of the seditious words of Tom Paine was incomplete, for Tom Hod the village mason could not understand the complexities of politics let alone decode the Rights of Man.1 ‘Instant’ histories of the so-called ‘Swing riots’ of 1830 — against the mechanisation of agricultural practices and the immiseration of rural workers at the hands of penny-pinching farmers and poor law officials (see Chapter 6) — were also quick to assert that this most intensive and widespread of all rural rebellions could not have been the work of agricultural workers and artisans alone. The mythical leader of the Swing rioters, ‘Captain Swing’, was variably reported to be a decayed small farmer, the son of a tenant farmer, and a former farmer with Irish connections, his followers either smugglers, ‘the most lawless men in the village’, or simply those mindlessly swept along.2 Even against attempts by Victorian antiquaries to better understand the major revolts and rebellions of medieval and early modern England,3 the protests of Georgian England obdurately remained in the scholarly mind the work of foreigners, Jacobites attempting to restore the House of Stuart to the monarchy, revolutionary Jacobins attempting to mimic the 1789 French Revolution, and the asinine.
Carl J. Griffin

Chapter 1. Work, Worklessness and the Poor Law

Abstract
Until recently our received historical understanding was that, by the start of the eighteenth century, the English rural worker was already landless, reliant on his/her own labour and the poor laws. Those who toiled in the fields and farmyards, woods and workshops were wage labourers whose fortunes were dependent upon the mercies of a powerful landed elite, parish officers and the market. Rural society was thus clearly divided into three groups: the landed nobility, the farmers, and the poor.1 In contrast to continental Europe, England was famously a country of capitalist farms, much of the country already being enclosed. Kent was by then all but bereft of open fields, while, according to J.R. Wordie, by 1600 Cheshire, Cornwall, Devon, Essex and Lancashire were also ‘enclosed counties’.2
Carl J. Griffin

Chapter 2. Rural Workers, Custom and the State

Abstract
To understand protest, we need to understand law. For, as Andy Wood has suggested, law framed what was ‘allowed’, determined what bore judicial consequence, and even opened up spaces of possibility. Under the terms of the 1715 Riot Act, for instance, if fewer than twelve people were gathered, then their protest was not a ‘riot’.1 Some practices, such as complaining deferentially to magistrates over the stinginess of parish doles, were deliberately framed so as to remain inside the law. Such was the hegemonic power of the law that it was even used by the poorest members of society to protect and secure their rights and property against the rich. Law was everywhere and everything related to it. Indeed, beyond the levying of taxation, the poor laws were the key way in which rural workers and the central state interacted. But while relief claimants knew how the poor laws operated — asserting their rights as enshrined in law through ‘pauper letters’ (letters sent by those residing outside of their parish of settlement in an attempt to claim poor relief) and in making complaints before magistrates — there is no sense that rural workers ever believed they were interacting with something beyond the parish state. This chapter then shifts the scale from these profoundly local engagements with centrally devised law (and social policy) to consider a series of rather less mediated interactions between the emergent central state, its laws, and rural workers.
Carl J. Griffin

Chapter 3. Land and Environmental Change

Abstract
Studies of enclosure have proved to be arguably the most enduring field of rural historical enquiry — and with good reason. For without first understanding the changing structure of land ownership and land use it is impossible to grasp the complexities of the emergence of agrarian capitalism, and even the making of the landless proletariat. Yet notwithstanding this historiographical pre-eminence, and in contrast to the centrality of land disputes to agrarian change in Scotland and Wales, the role of opposition to enclosure in England has often been underplayed.1 Indeed, while earlier rural histories, typified by Chambers and Mingay’s The Agricultural Revolution, often acknowledged that many enclosures provoked resistance, it was not until the late 1980s that attempts to understand these oppositions went beyond considerations as to whether enclosure improved or worsened the lot of rural workers.2 The enclosure of commons and wastes, so revisionist studies suggest, always represented a dislocation in the way of life of rural workers, and as such, on whatever scale enclosure was enacted it always generated resistance. Opposition could occur over many years, both pre- and post-enclosure; coalesced around often surprising cross-sections of rural society; and deployed across a wide variety of protest practices. What follows also contends that while studies of enclosure have been critical to the advance of a less narrowly social rural history, they have tended to shadow other major land use and environmental changes in the English countryside.
Carl J. Griffin

Chapter 4. Community, Custom and Religion: Unsettling the Everyday

Abstract
Community is a word — and a concept — that has been central to the foregoing chapters. The rate-paying community; the idea of protest as doing ‘good work’ for the community; the importance of community context in understanding social relations; the working community; custom as a regulator of community tensions; the role of community sanctions in condemning violence; community support for gangs; the established community: all have been mobilised to help explain protest. Clearly, in many ways, community mattered in deciding when to protest, who protested, what was protested against, and what form protest took. Protest, in short, always occurred in the context of some fracture in community relations, typically at the scale of the local community — the township, the parish, the district — or, increasingly so in relation to popular politics, at the somewhat more diffuse scale of the nation and even internationally. Shifting from the analysis in Chapters 1 to 3 of the key generators of protest, this chapter systematically explores this importance in two ways. Initially, through a study of cultures of dissent and what form dissent took, before considering the importance of religion in informing and underpinning protest cultures, and, finally, the link between custom and protest.
Carl J. Griffin

Chapter 5. Protest Practice

Abstract
The publication of Andrew Charlesworth’s Atlas of Rural Protest marked a turning point in the way historians conceptualised the geography of protest. Through its 182 pages of detailed maps and supporting text, the Atlas suggested two things. One, that ‘overt’ protests tended to cluster in time and space; and two, that some areas appeared to be more protest prone than others. While both conclusions could in part be a function either of the unevenness of existing studies or the patchiness of archival coverage, it is hard to deny, for instance, that the mining areas of Cornwall were hotspots of food rioting or the Fenlands of Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire were particularly prone to enclosure rioting.1 Community context mattered when it came to protest: specifically, past successes and failures; work types and the economic base; local systems of control and support; and the juxtaposition between work and welfare. As noted in Chapter 4, and to paraphrase David Underdown and John Bohstedt, differing community types might generate very different protest histories, though, of course, the structure of a community could change dramatically over even short spaces of time.2 Through a detailed analysis of the totemic protest practices of food rioting and incendiarism, what follows seeks to move beyond a reductionist model of how and where protest happened to instead offer a more fluid understanding of the resort to protest.
Carl J. Griffin

Chapter 6. Rural Rebellion

Abstract
According to Charles Tilly, social movements were ‘invented’ in the Western world during the later decades of the eighteenth century, the organised agitation against colonial rule in Boston, America, and against John Wilkes, MP’s arrest on the charge of seditious libel in London being critical turning points. To Tilly, the ‘innovation’ in techniques of protest, and emphases on financing and public displays ‘pioneered’ an entirely novel ‘synthesis’ of crowd action with formal appeals to supporters and the authorities. The English, and others, had made public claims and engaged in popular public politics before, but the events of 1768 marked something altogether new: the ‘converting, expanding, standardizing, and combining’ of earlier forms of popular expression into ‘disciplined vehicles for the expression of the popular demands’. If this was not the moment at which the social movement was hatched, it was, against the background of ‘war, parliamentariaztion, capitalization, and proletarianization’, the point at which popular public politics moved ‘toward social movement forms’.1 By 1812, Tilly argued, all aspects of what we understand to be fundamental to social movements were in place, the increasing emphasis on institutionalised campaigning and a national basis for campaigns and co-ordination being especially distinctive compared to late eighteenth-century protests.
Carl J. Griffin

Chapter 7. Rural Popular Politics

Abstract
Tucked away at the beginning of the second ‘part’ of E.P. Thompson’s seminal The Making of the English Working Class is a short chapter devoted to ‘the field labourers’. While historians of rural England have noted that 26 pages out of a total of 940 represents an imbalance between rural and urban workers — it being, in the words of John Rule and Roger Wells, ‘essentially a book about London’s artisans and the industrial workers of the north and midlands’ — the chapter has proved influential for one critical assertion. The field worker was not the inarticulate, slow-witted, bestial ‘Hodge’ of popular Victorian imagination; rather, so claimed Thompson, by 1830, ‘political ideas of further significance were abroad’. Moreover, this presence had temporal depth. The brief ‘agitation’ of the early to mid-1790s democratic movement ‘diffused its ideas into … many corners of Britain’. By the time the movement was put down there were individuals ‘in every town and in many villages … with a kist or shelf full of Radical books, biding their time, putting in a word at the tavern, the chapel, the smithy, the shoemaker’s shop, waiting for the movement to revive’.1 At first, this claim lay untested. Indeed, in his review of Captain Swing, Thompson took Hobsbawm and Rud© to task for ignoring, as he saw it, clear evidence of radical agitation — that is, politicking to extend the vote to a wider constituency — in the mobilisation.
Carl J. Griffin

Conclusion

Abstract
While the landscapes of large parts of rural England had changed markedly since 1700, the protest landscape in many ways remained little changed by 1851. The major forms of protest deployed by rural workers in the early years of Victoria’s reign would have been familiar to those who tilled the land and worked in rural industries in the final years of William III: the making of threats; riotous assembly; incendiarism; maiming; and the destruction of property. Indeed, the three major agrarian rebellions of the early nineteenth century were arguably the most widespread resort to riot the countryside had witnessed since the Civil War. It can even be asserted, albeit with less conviction, that the ‘new’ forms of protest that rural workers were deploying with increasing confidence from the 1830s — specifically radical politics and trades unionism — were already present in the protest canon of 1700. Persistences, underpinned by the defence of custom, the potency and transmission through time of popular cultural forms, and the fundamentally unchanging nature of grievances, were profound.
Carl J. Griffin
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