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One For the (Farm) Workers? Perpetrator Risk and Victim Risk Transfer During the ‘Sevenoaks Fires’ of 1830

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 October 2017

Independent Scholar The Granary, Elses Farm, Morleys Road, Sevenoaks Weald, Kent, TN14 6QX 01732


The now extensive historiography of the ‘Captain Swing’ disturbances of 1830–1 contains two notable lacunae. Firstly, no thorough investigation has been undertaken of their first major episode, the ‘Sevenoaks Fires’ of summer 1830. Secondly, the overwhelming historiographical focus on Swing's perpetrators has ignored its victims almost entirely. This article therefore examines why particular farmers were singled out for incendiary attack in the area, what tactics they and the authorities employed in response and what that meant for social relations subsequently. The evidence reveals a trend towards greater accountability on the part of the elite and a growing confidence sometimes shown by the lower orders in challenging them. It does so, moreover, within an overarching framework of risk and risk transfer, since this provides an entirely new historiographical perspective on both the Fires and Swing generally. Finally, this approach is extended to suggest how it may have underpinned competing conceptions of Poor Law provision among the town's elite, post-Swing.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2017 

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1. Home Office, The National Archives (TNA HO) 52/8, fol. 302.

2. Griffin, Carl, The Rural War: Captain Swing and the Politics of Protest (Manchester, 2015), pp. 7781 Google Scholar. The importance of the area in popular perceptions of Swing's inception is evident in how the eponymous ‘hero’ of The Genuine Life of Francis Swing (London, 1831) claimed to have been born in Sevenoaks (p. 3).

3. Hobsbawm, Eric and Rudé, George, Captain Swing (London, 1969)Google Scholar; Randall, Adrian, ‘ Captain Swing: a retrospect’, International Review of Social History, 54 (2009), 419–27 (419)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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5. All of these attacks are recorded on the Family and Community Historical Research Society (FACHRS) database. There were some other victims besides those described in this article. Also, occasional arson attacks had taken place in West Kent from 1827, or even earlier. See Burgoyne-Black, Shirley, ‘Swing: the years 1827–1830 as reflected in a West Kent newspaper’, Archaeologia Cantiana, CVII (1989), 89106 Google Scholar.

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7. Griffin, Rural War, p. 129. Beck's ‘Risk Society’ approach argues that, while all societies have been exposed to random, natural risks such as disease, in later, post-industrial periods, the focus is far more on human agency, since people are seen both to cause risks and to be responsible for their minimisation.

8. For an example of how risk transfer worked in another, late Victorian Kentish context, see Taylor, Iain, ‘Pressure groups, contested “land-spaces” and the politics of ridicule in Sevenoaks, Kent 1881–85’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 21 (2016), 322–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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24. Griffin, ‘Violent’, 171; Griffin, ‘Combination’, 450; Griffin, Rural War, p. 165.

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27. The Times, 17th September 1830. Her husband William had died in 1825. <>.

28. The Times, 17th September 1830; 1841 Census; Brasted tithe award schedule, 1844, <>.

29. Centre for Kentish Studies (hereafter CKS) U78/T7; <>; CKS P42/5/2; Clarke, Dennis and Stoyel, Anthony, Otford in Kent: A History (Otford, 1975), p. 192 Google Scholar; CKS P279/4/1; William Gigg, Map Book of Legh-Masters Estate, 1809, Surrey Record Office, ref. 7658/2/1.

30. Killingray, David and Purves, Elizabeth, Sevenoaks: An Historical Dictionary (Andover, 2012), p. 134 Google Scholar; Wells, Roger, ‘Social Protest, Class Conflict and Consciousness in the English Countryside, 1700–1850’, in Reed, Mick and Wells, Roger, Class, Conflict and Protest in the English Countryside 1700–1850, ebook edn (Abingdon, 2015)Google Scholar.

31. South Eastern Gazette (hereafter SEG), 19th October 1830, p. 3.

32. Griffin, Rural War, pp. 95–6, 180; Kentish Weekly Post, 7th December 1830; Wells, Roger, ‘The impact of the Sturges-Bourne acts during the agricultural depression, 1818–35’, Southern History, 23 (2001), 52115 (91)Google Scholar. For a later nineteenth-century example of the ‘politics of ridicule’, as I term it, see Taylor, Iain, ‘Pressure groups, contested land-spaces and the politics of ridicule in Sevenoaks, Kent, 1881–85’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 21 (2016), 322–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33. The relevant parish records for Shoreham are no longer extant; Bromley Library ref. P277/8/5; CKS P330/5/18; Parliamentary Papers (hereafter PP) Commission of Inquiry into Charities in England and Wales, 30th Report, 1837 #101, p. 522; CKS P330/8/5; P279/11/3; Clarke and Stoyel, Otford, p. 192.

34. CKS P42/8/5.

35. Griffin, Protest, p. 141.

36. For the makeshift economy, see for example, Tomkins, Alannah and King, Steven, eds, The Poor in England 1700–1850: An Economy of Makeshifts (Oxford, 2010)Google Scholar; TNA MH 12/5315, 11th September 1835.

37. CKS PS/Se/Sm2-3; P330/5/18.

38. CKS P330/12/11.

39. Fowler, Simon, Workhouse: the People; the Places; the Life Behind Doors (Richmond, 2008), p. 127 Google Scholar; CKS P330/12/11; PP 1843 #44 Appendix A1, p. 201, quoted in Jones, ‘Speenhamland’, 288.

40. CKS P330/8/5; P330/12/10; The Poll for the Knights of the Shire, to Represent the Western Division of the County of Kent in Parliament (Maidstone, 1835), pp. 144, 145; A Copy of the Correspondence between the Rev. Thomas Curteis, vicar of Seven Oaks . . . and Francis Barnett, Relative to the Distribution of Sacramental Gifts in the Said Parish (London, 1833), pp. 5, 12.

41. SEG, 13th May 1834; Kent Weekly Post (hereafter KWP), 20th October 1829, p. 3.

42. Bells Weekly Messenger, 4th December 1825, p. 8.

43. Sevenoaks Library ref. B546; CKS U840/E50; Maidstone Journal (hereafter MJ), 14th October 1834, p. 4.

44. SEG, 11th August 1835, p. 1.

45. PP, 3rd Annual Report, Poor Law Commissioners 1837 (#546-1; 546–2), p. 118 (Image 122); PP, 30th Annual Report, Charity Commissioners 1837 (#101), p. 608 (Image 608).

46. CKS U442/O67, October 1839; The acquittal was covered in MJ, 17th March 1840, p. 2.

47. KWP, 20th October 1829; Bromley Library ref. P277/8/2.

48. Morning Post, 28th October 1834.

49. CKS U269/E86; MJ, 19th October 1830.

50. Griffin, Rural War, p. 79.

51. Ibid., p. 320; Killingray and Purves, Dictionary, p. 133.

52. Sacramental Gifts, pp. 15–16.

53. See, for example, Saunders Newsletter, 16th November 1830, p. 1; Griffin, ‘Mystery’, 37.

54. SEG, 14th September 1830; CKS U442/O67.

55. Sacramental Gifts, p. 16 (fn); CKS U442/O67.

56. Wells, ‘Rebels’, p. 148.

57. MJ, 5th October 1830, p. 3.

58. Diary of William Knight, vol. 1, 24th November 1832.

59. Mary Barker-Read, ‘The Treatment of the Aged Poor in Five Selected West Kent Parishes from Settlement to Speenhamland (1662–1797)’ (unpublished PhD thesis, 1988), p. 310.

60. Burchardt, Jeremy, The Allotment Movement in England, 1793–1873 (Woodbridge, 2002), pp. 70, 74–97Google Scholar; MJ, 9th May 1837.

61. TNA B 3/3380.

62. Knox, Thomas, An Exhortation to the Poor (London, 1831), p. 26 Google Scholar.

63. Tucker, John, Sermons Preached in Southborough Church, vol. 1 (London, 1834), pp. 205, 208Google Scholar.

64. CKS P330/4/10; P279/4/1; P205/5/1; <>; Bowden, V. E., The Story of Kemsing in Kent (Kemsing, 1994), pp. 76, 81Google Scholar ; MJ; 17th August 1830, p. 1.

65. MJ, 25th September 1832, p. 2.

66. London Metropolitan Archive, Sun policies #528/1084360 (9th December 1828) and #528/1084360 (7th September 1830).

67. HO 64/1/109; The Times, 8th September 1830; 17th September 1830; 15th October 1830; 23rd October 1830; SEG, 17th August 1830; SEG, 26th October 1830.

68. Hobsbawm and Rudé, Swing, pp. 225–6.

69. The Times, 23rd October 1830.

70. MJ, 24th December 1833, p. 1; SEG, 21st February 1837, p. 1; SEG, 27th March 1838, p. 4; SEG, 20th April 1841, p. 1; <> (Thompson is misspelt as ‘Simpson’ in the web transcript).

71. MJ, 27th November 1832, p. 4.

72. MJ, 14th October 1834, p. 4; MJ, 15th October 1833, p. 3.

73. Morning Post, 20th June 1833; 19th October 1833; The Standard, 19th October 1833; Bells’ Life in London, 16th June 1833; The Spectator, 15th June 1833, p. 9; Paris Reformer's Magazine, 1833, p. 7; Bristol Mercury, Leicester Chronicle, and Manchester Times, all 15th June 1833; SEG 22nd October 1833; 27th August 1833; 13th August 1833; 19th November 1833. See also Diary of William Knight, vol. 1, 27th October 1833.

74. London Gazette, 25th September 1846; Canterbury Journal, 18th April 1846, p. 1; SEG, 14th April 1846.

75. 1871 Census, Sevenoaks.

76. Diary of William Knight, vol. 1, 27th October 1833; SEG, 27th August 1833.

77. Wells, ‘Rebels’, p. 140.

78. The Report from the Committee of Secrecy (House of Lords Sessional Paper 002, printed 27th May 1799. See also CKS U1590/C78, a letter to Stanhope from the Society offering him their ‘warmest applause’ for his work, 7th May 1794.

79. Dyck, Cobbett, p. 152.

80. Wells, ‘Rebels’, p. 135; MJ, 19th October 1830, p. 4.

81. Diary of William Knight, vol. 1, 13th August 1832; 28th August 1832.

82. Cobbett's Weekly Political Register, 16th March 1833; SEG, 16th December 1834, p. 4. Among its first actions was a petition to the House of Commons against the Irish Coercion Bill, and also for the abolition of the tithe system in Ireland, see Morning Post, 16th March 1833, p. 1.

83. SEG, 16th December 1834, p. 4.

84. SEG, 19th February 1833.

85. Diary of William Knight, vol. 1, 3rd March 1833; 13th August 1832; 9th February 1833; vol. 2, 2nd June 1835; 1st April 1835; vol 1, 23rd Aug. 1833. Knight voted Liberal when he was first able to vote, in 1868: Poll Book, p. 203.

86. Killingray, David, ‘Grassroots politics in West Kent since the later eighteenth century’, Archaeologia Cantiana, CXXIX (2009), 3354 (38)Google Scholar.

87. Diary of William Knight, vol. 1, 23rd August 1833.

88. Maidstone Gazette, 16th November 1830.

89. Griffin, Rural War, p. 322.

90. TNA HO 40/27 (2), fols 54–7.

91. The Times, 17th September 1830, p. 3.

92. Scriven, ‘Dorchester’, 6.

93. Brundage, Anthony, The English Poor Laws, 1700–1950 (Basingstoke, 2002), p. 59 Google Scholar; Green, David, Pauper Capital: London and the Poor Law 1790–1870 (Farnham, 2010), p. 16 Google Scholar. Arthur Chichester sat as an Irish MP from 1826–31, voting for the abortive 1831 Reform Bill. He was raised to the peerage, as Baron Templemore, by Lord Grey at William IV's coronation. <>.

94. Wells, ‘Resistance’, p. 94.

95. Curteis, Thomas, A Letter to Robert Peel on the Principle and Operation of the New Poor Law (London, 1842), pp. 10, 19, 20, 24Google Scholar.

96. Wells, ‘Resistance’, p. 107.

97. West Sussex Record Office, Goodwood #1455 fol. 542, November 1834; see also TNA MH 12/5315, vestry meeting, 8th December 1834.

98. Lees, Lynn Hollen, The Solidarities of Strangers: the English Poor Laws and the People, 1700–1948 (Cambridge, 1998), p. 116 Google Scholar.

99. Baxter, G. R. Wythen, The Book of the Bastiles (London, 1841), p. 163 Google Scholar.

100. MH 12/5315, 4th October 1834.

101. Wells, ‘Rebel’, p. 107.

102. Kentish Gazette, 15th September 1835; Diary of William Knight, vol. 2, 5th September 1835.

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