This Bloody Crew - the
Selborne & Headley Workhouse Riots of 1830
John Owen Smith
NOTE: During October 2002, a production of this play was on tour the Hampshire/Surrey border, including performances at Selborne and Headley see details :
A stage dramatisation of the events which shook two villages - originally run as a Community Play
Availability: Usually despatched by return of post
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Front cover: View over Selborne from The Hanger; and Selborne Workhouse (Fishers Buildings) today
Back cover: Headley Workhouse (Headley Grange) today
Paperback - 36 large pages, plus period illustrations and maps of area
John Owen Smith; ISBN: 1-873855-01-X; Nov 1993
Associated titles: One Monday in November Not Fit to Live in England A Parcel of Gold for Edith
Reviews . Description . Publisher's Notes . Inside Flap . Contents . Dramatis Personae . Excerpt . Riot website . About the Author . Further information
"... a community triumph" (Alton Gazette)
"... not only informative, but also thoroughly entertaining" (Alton Herald)
"... left the audience wanting more" (Bordon/Haslemere Herald)
"... very alive" (Bordon/Petersfield Post)
Written as a community play, this illustrated script relates to the so-called 'Swing' riots which spread through the south of England in the year 1830, taking the particular happenings in the two neighbouring Hampshire villages of Selborne and Headley as an example. Suitable for schools or societies with an interest in this period of social unrest.
One Monday in November in the year 1830, a mob several hundred strong attacked the workhouse in Selborne, Hampshire, turned out the occupants, burned or broke the fittings and furniture, and pulled down the roof. The next day an even larger mob, containing some of the Selborne rioters, did the same to the workhouse at Headley, some 7 miles away. The parsons in both villages were also coerced into promising to reduce by half the income they took from tithes.
Less than a month later, at a special court hearing in Winchester attended by no less a person than the Duke of Wellington, nine local men were sentenced to transportation (commuted from a death sentence in the case of eight of them), and all but one sailed for the antipodes in the Spring of 1831 never to return.
These are the bare bones of the story. But why did the riot start? Why were the two workhouses attacked? And why were some of the supporters and leaders of the mobs seen to be not oppressed labourers, but relatively well-to-do artisans and farmers?
In this play we cover the dramatic events of the two days and their aftermath, piecing together the sometimes contradictory reports and legends which have grown up during intervening years around the names and deeds of those involved in the action.
After 22 years of war with France, the high taxation levied on the landowners led to raised rents and decreased wages for rural workers. High prices caused by trade interruptions and intermittent years of poor harvests coupled with the increasing use of mechanisation culminated in the Labourers' Revolt of 1830.
Stimulated, perhaps, by the earlier 'Bread or Blood' riots in East Anglia, the events spread rapidly through Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset and up to the Welsh borders. The speed of the revolt confused the Government. Some suspected the French, some the hand of the mythical 'Captain Swing', others believed William Cobbett to be responsible.
Widespread anger over lack of work and low wages was fuelled by local frustration over high tithes paid to the Church, and the reliance on the existence of the Poor Rate to supplement insufficient wages.
The time for change had come.
This play was first performed in October 1993 by The Selborne Players
Dramatis Personae (with correct ages in 1830 where known)
Scene 13 - Outside Selborne Vicarage, Monday 22nd November 1830
(The sound of the Trumpeter's horn is heard off-stage. Robert Holdaway enters at the head of the mob and stops outside the Vicarage gate.)
Holdaway Vicar Cobbold, are you at home?
(There are shouts from the mob.)
Harding Knock the gate down and drag him out.
Bone Burn the place down.
Cobb We should have done that at the werk'us.
Holdaway No mischief, I said. We can put a good case without causing a row.
(There are angry mutterings from the Mob. William Cobbold appears at his gate.)
Vicar Mr Holdaway, may I ask the meaning of all this?
Holdaway I think you know full well, vicar. We want a reduction in tithes and an increase in your contribution to the Poor Rate.
Vicar But you know the majority of the tithe goes straight to Oxford. I have no say in the matter.
Holdaway But six hundred pounds a year goes to you. How can you justify six hundred pounds a year when others around you in the village are out of work and whole families starving?
Vicar I contribute to the Poor Rate as much as any landowner in the village does.
Holdaway No other landowner in the village is taking in £600 a year. Will you reduce the tithes you take from the village?
Vicar By how much?
Holdaway By half. We think £300 a year is quite enough for you.
Holdaway Oh I think you'll find it possible vicar, if you think about it for a while.
(At this the Mob press forward. Holdaway raises his arm to stop them.)
Vicar Do I take it you are threatening me with violence if I do not comply? I am not a mere Poor House overseer you know.
Holdaway All the labourers in the village put together would not earn even £300 in a year. I suggest you act practically, Mr Cobbold. The farmers say they will pledge to pay higher wages if you sign a document to lower the tithes.
Vicar And what about shopkeepers and tradesmen such as yourself, Holdaway. You pay no wages to labourers - yet your tithes will also be reduced. No wonder I find you here leading this petition.
Holdaway We support those we do not employ, as you well know Mr Cobbold, by our contribution to the Poor Rate. Well, what do you say?
(Mutterings and movement from the Mob.)
Vicar (Looking anxiously at the Mob) It seems I am not in a position to offer much resistance. Very well, I will sign your wretched piece of paper ...
Vicar ... to reduce my share of the tithes by a hundred pounds a year.
Holdaway The demand is three hundred.
Vicar Mr Holdaway, let us be sensible about this ...
(The Mob press forward again. Holdaway raises his arm again to stop them.)
... One hundred and fifty then. This is open robbery.
Holdaway Three hundred, Mr Cobbold.
Vicar Could you live on half your wages, Mr Holdaway?
Holdaway I could if they were as fat as yours.
Harding Living on half my wages wouldn't make no difference to me - half of nothing's nothing, even I can figure that out.
Cobb Same here.
(The Mob starts to crowd in and make threatening noises again.)
Vicar (Looking around) It seems your threats leave me with little choice, Mr Holdaway.
Holdaway Threats? We've issued no threats vicar, only reasonable argument.
(More threatening noises from the Mob. Harding tries to rush at the Vicar - Holdaway pulls him back.)
Vicar (Unsettled) You have me at a disadvantage. Three hundred it will have to be.
Harding We'll have that in black and white.
Vicar I will have the Churchwarden write out an agreement.
Cobb What about giving a bit more to the poor then, vicar?
Vicar I already give my fair share to the Poor Rate.
Harding Could you live on two shillings a day, vicar?
Cobb With a wife and six children to support.
Vicar As the Lord's representative, surely it is reasonable that I maintain a certain standard of living.
Holdaway Times change and standards with them, Mr Cobbold.
Vicar There I must disagree with you, Mr Holdaway. Standards must be upheld at all costs.
Holdaway At all costs, vicar?
Vicar Yes, at all costs.
Holdaway So you are not prepared to consider any increase in your contribution to the Poor Rate?
Vicar I am not, sir. You have already extorted enough from me today. I will yield no more.
Holdaway Well on your head be it. I will get the farmers here today to witness this agreement, and hope that it satisfies everyone.
Vicar And just remember, Mr Holdaway, that you will be seen as the leader of these lawless men. Whatever they do in the way of mischief will be held at your door.
Holdaway I thank you for your concern. And now we shall leave you in peace.
Harding (Shouting) Tomorrow we'll do Headley.
Cobb With Aaron's men.
Bone We'll smash the other werk'us.
Harding Burn it to the ground.
Cobb Kick the Shoesmiths out.
Bone Just like those Harrisons.
(There is considerable support from the rest of the Mob for this idea.)
Vicar I fear you are riding a tiger, Mr Holdaway. Good day to you.
(He retires into the Vicarage, closing the door)
Holdaway So much for the concern of the shepherd for his flock.
Harding What about that drink now Holdy?
Cobb Thirsty work, rioting.
Bone Let's take a collection.
Cobb From those with money.
Harding We'll need about £5 for a couple of drinks each.
Fitt (To Holdaway) It's all right Robert, the farmers will give £2 from the Poor Rate for drinks at The Compasses.
Holdaway From the Poor Rate?
Fitt Aye, that should buy them a pint each.
Holdaway Is this wise Charles?
Fitt We feel it's a way to show our appreciation without becoming too involved, in the eyes of the authorities.
Holdaway And before the mob demand it from you anyway.
Fitt Yes well, perhaps so Mr Holdaway, perhaps so.
Holdaway (Shouting to the mob) A pint for each of you at The Compasses - it's on the farmers.
(They exit towards The Compasses, followed by the mob.)
About the Author
John Owen Smith was born in 1942 and trained as a Chemical Engineer at London University, but spent most of his working life designing commercial Information Systems for the paper-making industry. Following redundancy, he 'fell' into researching and recording the local history of east Hampshire, where he now lives. His output of historical community plays, lectures, articles and books includes:-
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