Captain Swing

This essay has a total of 893 words and 4 pages.

Captain Swing

Hobsbawm, E. J. and Rude, George (1975) Captain Swing. New York, NY: W.W.
Norton and Company, Inc., 384 pp.


Captain Swing is an enjoyable collaboration between E. J. Hobsbawm and George Rude that
depicts the social history of the English agricultural wage-laborers' uprising of 1830.
According to Hobsbawm and Rude, historiography of the laborers' rising of 1830 is
negligible. Most of what is known by the general public comes from J. L. And Barbara
Hammond's The Village Laborer published in 1911. They consider this an exceedingly
valuable work, but state that the Hammonds oversimplified events in order to dramatize
them. They placed too much emphasis on enclosure, oversimplified both the nature and
prevalence of the "Speenhamland System" of poor relief, and neglected the range and scope
of the uprising. Hobsbawm and Rude do not claim to present any new data, and believe that
the Hammonds will still be read for enjoyment, but believe that by asking different
questions, they can shed new light on the social history of the movement. Therefore, this
book tries to "describe and analyze the most impressive episode in the English
farm-labourers' long and doomed struggle against poverty and degradation."

In the nineteenth century, England had no peasantry to speak of in the sense that other
nations did. Where families who owned or occupied their own small plot of land and
cultivated it themselves, apart from work on their lord's farms, farmed most of Europe,
England's "peasants" were agricultural wage-laborers. As such, both tithes and taxes hit
them hard. Lords and farmers were also against tithes and taxes and tolerated or even
welcomed some outcry against them. Most county leaders in 1830 agreed with the laborers,
but the government in London did not.

Further, enclosure eliminated the common lands whose use had helped the very poor to live.
As a result, the relationship between farmers and laborers changed to a "purely market
relationship between employer and proletarian." At the same time, work once done by annual
servants was given over to wage labor. Farmers were driven by income rather than social
concerns and it was cheaper to pay a small wage for all positions and let laborers pay
their own living out of it than to provide them room and board, however minimal.

The laborers were not revolutionary, however. They did not wish to overturn the
traditional social order. They merely demanded the restoration of their meager rights
within it. Unfortunately, they only had five forms of protest or self-defense available to
them. They occasionally protested against wage cuts or demanded higher wages, grasped ever
tighter to parish poor relief, resorted to crimes such as stealing food or poaching game,
performed acts of terrorism such as incendiarism, and destroyed the machines which created
or intensified unemployment. Threshing machines took away the standard winter labor,
creating high unemployment at the worst time of year and generating an almost universal
hatred of them among laborers. Of these, the most ambitious was the destruction of
threshing machines, but poaching was most indicative of increasing social tensions in the
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