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The Rural War: Captain Swing and the Politics of Protest.

The Rural War: Captain Swing and the Politics of Protest. By Carl J. Griffin. (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2012. Pp. 360. $105.00.)

The Swing Riots--which began in August of 1830 and spread rapidly throughout the South, Southeast, Midlands, and other parts of rural England--represented perhaps the most significant protest by agricultural laborers of the nineteenth century. Rural laborers attacked threshing machines, wrote threatening letters, and engaged in incendiarism on a large scale. They also participated in protests against low wages, inadequate poor relief, tithes, and migrant laborers. The eventual government crackdown on Swing rioters resulted in more than five hundred transportations and nearly twenty executions. Although the most intense period of the protest was between August and December of 1830, "Swing-like" incidents continued to occur for many years throughout the country.

For decades the historiography of these events was dominated by Eric Hobsbawm and George Rude's 1969 Captain Swing: A Social History of the Great English Agricultural Rising of 1830, a pioneering work of "history from below" and a landmark in the study of popular protest. However, over the last fifteen years there has been a renewal of scholarly interest and research into this uprising that has demonstrated that Hobsbawm and Rude failed to capture the full extent and nature of this very serious challenge to rural authority. Clearly, after forty-five years, there is a need for a comprehensive monograph-length examination of the full range and scope of this protest.

Carl Griffin, along with Adrian Randall, Steve Poole, Michael Holland, and Kristina Navickas, has been at the forefront of this resurgence in interest in the Swing Riots and is well qualified to produce such a monograph. Griffin's The Rural War: Captain Swing and the Politics of Protest is an in-depth examination of the Swing movement in the four southeastern counties where the protests began and were the most intense. The monograph is well organized, clearly written, thoroughly researched, and fully utilizes and engages with the considerable secondary literature, taking positions on many of the most active historical debates about the risings.

Griffin examines the longer-term social and economic context that produced the Swing Riots and provides a narrative and analysis of the protests and their spread. This demonstrates that Hobsbawm and Rude underestimated the number of Swing incidents as well as the importance of incendiarism. He argues that the politics of Swing had strong connections and overlap with radicalism, the reform movement, and radical discourse, while remaining grounded in local experiences. There is also a welcome exploration of the gender politics of the risings in which Griffin not only examines the participation of women in the protests but also the ways in which many Swing incidents were informed by perceived threats to the masculinity of rural laborers. Finally, the author looks at the consequences of this rural resistance, which was by no means "crushed" by government repression in 1830 but continued for many years in a variety of forms to be a threat to farmers and rural authority. In the short term, the actions of the rural laborers prevented the spread of threshing machines and acted as a temporary brake on depressed wages, but they were also instrumental in the introduction of the 1834 New Poor Law and the 1840 Rural Constabulary Act, both of which went directly against the interests and desires of rural protesters. The Rural War is an excellent contribution to the literature and would be very useful in upper-level undergraduate or graduate courses.

Christopher Frank

University of Manitoba
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Author:Frank, Christopher
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2015
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