My Relative was a Swing Rioter

My Relative was a Swing Rioter

I’m thrilled to share another excellent post from family historian, Lynn Sharpe – this time it’s about the fascinating topic of the Swing Rioters:

Many family historians will be completely unaware they have Swing Rioter ancestors and relatives. I discovered my own Swing Rioter by sheer fluke; and until I researched his offence, I wasn’t even sure what a Swing Rioter was! It was fascinating to discover this aspect of social history and gave me a greater understanding of the testing times our ancestors lived through.

My Swing Rioter was Joshua Kemp (1803-1883). He was the younger brother of my great-great-grandfather, James Kemp (1788-1848). Joshua was born on 24th September 1803 at Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, which was also the birthplace of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson.

The majority of my early Kemp ancestors and relatives were illiterate; but Joshua wasn’t. He could read and write. Education wasn’t compulsory during the early 1800’s. However, Joshua must have received sufficient schooling to take on the post of Parish Clerk for Burnham Thorpe. Joshua’s name with ‘Clerk’ written beside it can be seen witnessing Burnham Thorpe marriages from 1824-1830 in the parish registers of All Saints Church. After 1830, Joshua’s name disappears from the registers; and it was in late 1830 that the Swing Riots began in earnest.

At this time, farmers, landowners, magistrates, poor law guardians and clergymen began receiving threatening letters signed by a mythical “Captain Swing.” Landowners and farmers were warned not to use threshing machines in preference to farm workers or suffer the consequences. Most agricultural workers at this time were unable to sign their name, let alone write threatening letters. This proves that literate people were involved in the Swing Riots.  In essence Swing Rioters were the agricultural equivalent of The Luddites who destroyed the machinery in northern mill towns. Instead of Ned Ludd, the Swing Rioters had “Captain Swing” as their namesake. Captain Swing was never identified. It is believed he never existed and was created by the rioters as a figurehead and fictional target for their opponents.

I discovered Joshua was a Swing Rioter when my second cousin once removed, Trevor Wright, had a newspaper surname search carried out by the newspaper library in Norwich for the surname of ‘Brett’. Joshua’s name appeared in one of these searches and Trevor sent me the article.

The 4 December 1830 edition of the Norwich Mercury stated:


Joshua Kemp, George Painter, and James Smith, have since been fully committed to Walsingham Bridewell for trial for breaking and destroying a threshing machine the property of Mr. William Brett, of Burnham Overy, in Norfolk.


Walsingham Court

Walsingham Court


The seeds of the Swing Riots were sown during the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815). With many able-bodied men away fighting, threshing machines were introduced to replace missing manpower. In addition, farm workers had been gradually transformed into short-term contract wage earners without security due to the demise of employing live-in farm servants. The introduction of mechanisation was the final straw because it deprived the rural workers of their essential and traditional winter employment of threshing the corn. In rural areas unemployment increased and poor law expenditure was cut. This led to an increase in crime; mainly due to poaching.

Poverty, desperation and discontent were rife in the agricultural areas of England. Following years of war, high taxes, high rents, low wages, and poor harvests, by late 1830 the agricultural labourers (without trade unions to represent them) were literally heading for the brink of starvation. With fewer jobs, lower wages and no prospect of improving conditions, the threshing machine provided a ready target for their anger. The scene was set for protest.

The Swing Rioters smashed the threshing machines and threatened farmers who possessed them. Workhouses and tithe barns were also attacked. The demands of the rioters were: more employment, higher wages, reductions in rents and tithe payments, better living and employment conditions and a halt to the introduction of threshing machines which threatened their livelihoods. However, many families ended up worse off due to the imprisonment of the chief breadwinner. Throughout England, 600 rioters were imprisoned, 500 sentenced to transportation and 19 executed.

After reading the newspaper cutting about Joshua I was eager to discover more. I Googled and found an entry about Joshua’s offence on the Roots Web Norfolk Archives.

I visited the Millennium Library at Norwich to see if I could find further details of Joshua’s trial and was thrilled to find the following newspaper entry in the 8th January 1831 edition of the Norwich Mercury:


Joshua Kemp, George Painter, and James Smith were charged on the oath of James High, farmer, with having on the 29th day of November last, riotously and tumultuously destroyed a threshing machine, his property, then in the possession of Wm. Brett, of Burnham Overy, a farmer, who had hired it of the prosecutor.

 In this case, Brett in his evidence stated, that on the 29th of November, between 11 and 12 o’clock, the rioters, in number about 50 persons, came to his house and said they came to break machines. The prisoner Smith said he came to break his threshing machine, which prevented an honest man’s day of work; the men had hammers. Smith called out for the mob to break it, saying: “It will be used again next week.” Painter and Kemp struck it with a sledge hammer and broke it; that is, the horse wheel only, which would cost 3 or 4 shillings to put in repair. This evidence having been corroborated by another witness, a farmer, the prisoners were all found guilty.


The sentences were announced in the 15th January 1831 edition of the Norwich Mercury. George Painter received 3 months imprisonment, James Smith received nine months and Joshua Kemp was sentenced to six months imprisonment. By this time Joshua Kemp was a married man with three children and another child on the way. One can’t help but wonder how Joshua’s wife and family managed while he was incarcerated in prison. Presumably they obtained parish relief or may have gone into the workhouse.


A typical Walsingham prisoner

A typical Walsingham prisoner


Once I had some dates for Joshua’s offence, I was able to look his case up in the Quarter Sessions at Norfolk Record Office. I found the documentation which described Joshua’s crime as: Felony – Destroys Threshing Machine. Although Joshua was held at Walsingham Bridewell, before his trial, he was sentenced to serve his 6 months term of imprisonment at Swaffham Bridewell in Norfolk and the last week was to be served in solitary confinement.

If you have agricultural labourer relatives who were living and working in England during 1830-1832, you stand a good chance of finding a Swing Rioter in your family tree. There are several ways of discovering them:

Visit the county record office for the areas you are interested in and trawl the Quarter Sessions for surnames between late 1830-1832. Some record offices have surname indexes for their Quarter Sessions which makes the search easier. Or you could search the court reports in major county newspapers for the surnames of your relatives.


Quarter Sessions record for Joshua Kemp

Quarter Sessions record for Joshua Kemp


If you prefer online research, trawling the newspapers on Find My Past for the appropriate years may yield results. Ancestry also has transportation registers on its website.

The book, Swing Unmasked is an extremely useful resource. It contains a list of offenders, plus their parish and date of offence. The book also lists the victims of the Swing Riots.

The following links have excellent information and research tips to assist finding Swing Rioters.

Joshua Kemp was fortunate. He served a short prison sentence rather than being transported. However, Joshua didn’t stay out of trouble and I’ll tell you how his story ends in another instalment. Although Joshua was a convicted criminal, his crimes weren’t evil or dastardly. The machine breaking and arson that occurred during The Swing Riots was the result of agricultural workers facing desperate times and trying to protect their livelihoods.


Many thanks to Lynn for another exceptional story – I can’t wait to find out what happened to Joshua next…





  1. Quite Interesting! Not sure if there are any in our trees but this will be something to keep a look out for!

    • Thank you – I’m glad you found it interesting and I hope you find some Swing Rioters in your tree. Let me know how you get on!

  2. Thank you for the interesting information on this page on my ancestor Joshua Kemp. Joshua’s son Henry is my great, great grandfather and his daughter Maria is my great grandmother. I often thank my lucky stars that Joshua did what he did to end up on a transport ship to here. I am a fourth generation Australian and my children are fifth generation and we have all had a wonderful life in our beautiful country thanks to him.

    • Hi Tracy, it’s wonderful to hear from you and thank you so much for getting in touch. I’m delighted to hear that Joshua’s actions ended so happily for the later generations of his family – it’s a fantastic end to a fascinating story. I assume you’re in touch with Lynn, but if not and you’d like to be, I can pass on your message to her. Thanks again and have a very happy Christmas!


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