The Selborne and Headley Workhouse Riots of 1830

The talk by John Owen Smith last approximately 45 minutes,
and is 'illustrated' in sound by short extracts from a tape of the radio play 'Condemned'

For the more adventurous organisations, a couple of the scenes from the stage play 'Riot!' can be included,
with members of the audience stepping forward to take the parts.

In all cases, the speaker will bring along background material (copies of original letters, etc) for perusal,
and will stay to answer questions after the talk.

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The following is a guideline of the contents of the talk:—

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, including the Selborne rioters, did the same to the workhouse at Headley, some 7 miles away. Also, the parsons in both villages were 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 Australia 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?

We'll have a look at the dramatic events of these two days and their aftermath later, 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. But first let's consider what had happened fifteen years earlier.

At Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon was finally defeated, and this should have been good news for Britain. As we might say today, the country expected a 'peace dividend' and a period of prosperity, and for some this became a reality, but for the agricultural labourers, especially in the South of England, it was bad news.

During the years of war with France, the country had increased its production of food to sustain the war effort and, with many men abroad in the army, those remaining to work the land were in demand and, by the standards of the time, well paid. But with the end of hostilities, the need for food production diminished and, with men now returning from the army, the labourers found their services were less and less required. In many cases they had no work to go to at all.

Not only this, but the price of corn, and therefore the price of bread, rose steadily. Bread was the staple food for labouring families, and as wages went down and prices went up, many found themselves to be almost literally starving in their own villages.

There was a form of parish support for those who were hard up. This consisted of a 'dole' of money from the so-called Poor Rate, to which all tax payers in the village contributed. An unemployed man was given parish work to do if possible, such as mending pot-holes in the roads or assisting local farmers, for which he was paid a small amount of money. If he could not be found work, then he was given a benefit based on the price of a 'gallon loaf' of bread per week. Such a loaf, so called because it was made using a gallon of water, cost 1/6d at the time.

If he had a family, a man would also receive 'dole' money to support them according to a scale fixed by the local magistrates. This was supposed to be sufficient to prevent actual starvation, but was never generous.

Now farmers saw that in this situation, instead of employing labourers and paying wages themselves, they could hire men who were on the dole for less money. Not only that but, since the dole was paid for by all rate-payers in the village and not just the farmers, it meant that these people were, in effect, subsidising the farmers' labour costs. Not surprisingly, the other rate-payers did not think much of this, and felt the farmers should pay their own labourers' wages.

But the farmers argued that they in turn had little money to play with, as so much of it went to the church as tithes. Now tithes were an old-established form of tax whereby a landowner would give a tenth of his produce to the church each year—'tithe' being old English for 'tenth'. The original idea was to give the church sufficient to enable it to maintain the clergy and care for the poor. However over the centuries the poor had been cared for by other means, and the tithe was now seen as simply adding to the existing wealth of the church.

By 1830, most tithes were paid as a sum of money rather than in actual produce, the clergy having found it difficult to go round collecting their tenth of corn, hay and such crops—but the same amount of money was demanded of the farmers year in, year out, whether the harvest had been good or bad. This meant that in a poor season the farmers had a real problem in finding the means to pay the tithe, and the labourers' wages suffered as a consequence.

The two summers of 1829 and 1830 were bad ones, together with a very severe winter between, and this seems to have been enough to trigger what has been called the last peasants' revolt in England.

It started in Kent towards the end of August, and spread steadily through the southern counties of Sussex, Hampshire, Wiltshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Somerset. Known as the 'Swing Riots' due to the signature of a mythical Captain Swing which appeared at the bottom of a number of threatening letters written at the time, the targets of the rioters were largely twofold: they smashed up the new agricultural machinery, mostly threshing machines, which they felt were taking away their winter work; and they put pressure on the church to reduce the amount in tithes it took from the farmers.

Ironically, the farmers were largely in favour of what their labourers were trying to do, and even encouraged them to riot, to a greater of lesser degree. The new agricultural machinery, at least in its early form, was not proving to be a very efficient replacement for manpower, particularly when labour rates were so low, and several farmers were quite glad of the excuse to get rid of it. And as far as the church was concerned, of course they were all in favour of paying less to the church in tithes.

Therefore we see reports of some farmers dismantling their own machinery, and more or less encouraging their labourers to mob the local parson.

Selborne, being perhaps a somewhat conservative area, had no machinery to break—but there was a vicar for whom little love or respect was felt in the community, and he became the target of a very personal attack.

His name was William Rust Cobbold. He was aged 54 at the time, and had been given the living of Selborne in 1813 by Magdelen College, Oxford, in whose gift the parish was. We gather from notes at the College that he was described as being 'of bilious constitution with yellow-tinted complexion' and that he did not bear kindly or patiently with ignorant people. Ever since he arrived in the village he had apparently been in constant conflict with his vestry, and William Cobbett, passing through Selborne on one of his Rural Rides in 1823 notes:

"As I was coming into this village I observed to a farmer who was standing at his gateway, that people ought to be happy here, for that God had done everything for them. His answer was that he did not believe there was a more unhappy place in England, for that there were always quarrels of some sort or another going on. This made me call to mind the King's proclamation, relative to a reward for discovering the person who had recently shot at the parson of this village. This parson's name is COBBOLD, and it really appears that there was a shot fired through his window. He has had law suits with the people and, I imagine, that it was these to which the farmer alluded."

Writing in 1946 after some letters in Cobbold's hand relating to the troubles had been found, one commentator gave his own opinion of the man:


Early on the morning of Monday 22nd November 1830, a mob some 300 to 400 strong gathered on the Plestor, the village green outside the vicarage in Selborne.

But the adult male population of Selborne was only about 200 at the time, so where had the rest come from and why? We may never know, although events which happened the next day may give us a clue.

The mob went to the vicar and told him they must have "a touch of his tithes". Cobbold first of all seemed to treat this as a joke, stating that if his income was reduced he "could not do the good he was in the habit of doing". The mob was in no mood for compromise however, and told him the tithes must be reduced to £300 a year, adding that this was "quite enough and according to our regulation." It is not clear whose regulation they meant, but by implication it probably came from the farmers.

They said they would give him some time to make up his mind, and then, while some of the mob stayed behind to keep an eye on him, a large part went down to the workhouse, about half a mile away.

Now the master of the workhouse, John Harrison by name, was no better loved in the village than the vicar. The population had obviously 'had it in for him' for some time, and seemed to decide that this was the day to go and teach him a lesson. In a contemporary letter Edmund White, the great-nephew of Gilbert White, writes: "a circumstance once happened in the Selborne poor house which excited an universal feeling of disgust at the proceedings they were introducing as a system, I allude to their chaining the poor creatures to the wall, which was so strongly taken up by the magistrate."

This sort of treatment was probably not uncommon in many workhouses up and down the country, but the fact remains that during the entire course of the 'Swing Riots' only this mob, both here in Selborne and the next day in Headley, attacked and sacked workhouses. Was it because the Masters here were so much more hated than elsewhere, or simply that in other places the opportunity never occurred? We can only guess.

However, when the mob arrived at Selborne workhouse they found that Mr Harrison was not at home, though his wife and family were. We may find this strange, considering that he must have known something was going on—in fact one of the farmers later claimed that they had warned him the previous evening. Perhaps he had gone to seek help, perhaps away on unavoidable business—we do not know. The mob "gave the mistress of the house notice to quit before night", but she seems not unnaturally to have taken fright and left the house with her family almost immediately, some say through a back window.

An Edward Ticknell recollected later in court how, on hearing that there was trouble, he had gone to the workhouse and found the mob there "pulling tiles off the roof, breaking up furniture and smashing windows." A fire had been started and he saw someone throwing water on it. "John Newland was there, blowing his horn and carrying flags", he said, and in a short time the house was unroofed, the doors, crockery and windows broken, feather beds pulled to pieces, the furniture destroyed and burnt, and Harrison's grandfather clock thrown on the fire.

The mob then came back for the vicar, who had been "expostulating for three quarters of an hour" with that part of the mob left outside his house. We are told he "heard something and went towards the workhouse, and met some persons running in great fear" who warned him to "take care of himself, as the mob were coming back and bent on mischief."

Here we may imagine the somewhat amusing spectacle of the snobbish Rev Cobbold running quickly back to his house, where he waited until the mob returned to The Plestor. They pressed against his gate, and he asked them what their object was. They repeated that he must lower his tithes to £300 a year—Cobbold apparently told them "they could not be in earnest." According to Mrs Cowburn, the wife of a London solicitor who wrote to her husband that evening telling him what she had seen and heard, the mob gave Cobbold half an hour to make a decision, and "when that time had expired, just 5 minutes more", before "a rush was about to take place upon him and his house."

Apparently Robert Holdaway was prominent in holding back the mob at this juncture. Farmer Bridger claimed it was the farmers who asked him to do it, but Holdaway had his own reasons for being there. Cobbold had persevered for years to have Holdaway expelled from The Compasses, the only Public House in Selborne at the time, where he had been landlord. Cobbold eventually succeeded in this, and Holdaway had been unemployed since. During the arguments that arose during the expulsion, it seems that Cobbold told Holdaway he would show him "no mercy." Holdaway was now able to turn the tables and embarrass the clergyman with a display of Christian charity, saying to him: "Now, sir, you once told me you would have no mercy on me—you see I have had mercy on you."

And here for the first time we see the direct involvement, or rather non-involvement, of the Selborne farmers. Cobbold says that several farmers (some reports say ten) were present, but they "merely looked on tamely." He claimed that one of them, who was High Constable, said it was no use to resist such a mob, and another, Hori Hale, said, 'For God's sake accept of £300 a year; if you don't you'll be murdered and your house pulled down.' Seeing such lack of support by those from whom he might reasonably have expected more, he "found it necessary to submit", adding that nothing but a firm conviction that he "should otherwise be destroyed" induced him to do so.

Mr Hale told the mob that the vicar had agreed, at which they cheered and asked "to have it in black and white." Cobbold then sent Henry Eade, a churchwarden, into the vicarage to draw up an agreement, and when it was brought out he signed it. The mob called for the farmers to witness it, which those present did with a show of reluctance in some cases. Then the contents of the paper were read out, and the mob asked for a copy of it to be made—the original was given by Mr Cole, the vicar's bailiff, to farmer Bridger, and the copy given to a representative of the mob.

The mob then demanded £5 for beer, which Cobbold says he "told them they should not have." He claims the farmers let him down again, for he says that "one of the principal farmers proposed that I should let them have £2 worth of beer, and put it down in the poor-book. I said, 'Do as you like.'" But farmer Bridger's version of events is rather different, as he says that Cobbold "was the first to propose its being charged to the Parish account, and mentioned how much he thought each man should have." The farmers, he says, had "refused for some time to give any beer, and only consented at last on condition the mob should immediately disperse and go to their work."

Whoever suggested it, the beer was ordered by the farmers and brought out in buckets to the men; and the bill which came to £3 17s was duly charged to the Poor Rate. Then the mob dispersed, having remained outside the vicarage and "conducted themselves in a particularly violent manner" for three hours according to vicar Cobbold. The farmers, strongly admonished later by the trial judge for their inaction, pleaded that they were forced to attend. We may rather think that they were there to ensure they got what they wanted out of the day's proceedings.

Although those farmers present outside the vicarage had signed the paper then and there, the mob wanted every farmer in the parish to sign it, and Robert Holdaway was appointed to take the paper round to the rest over the next two days. He was the person acceptable to both labourers and farmers alike—and this was his downfall.

He wanted to go round collecting signatures on his own, but the mob wouldn't hear of itthey wanted to see it with their own eyes, and more to the point, they wanted to press more labourers to join them for action the next day, when they planned to go to Headley in the next parish.

You may well ask, why look for more action when they seemed to have achieved all they wanted in Selborne? We don't know for certain—but perhaps some of the 300 to 400 men in Selborne that day had been from Headley, and perhaps they now wanted Selborne to help them in return. For whatever reason, on the next day, Tuesday 23rd November at about 6am, a mob set out from Selborne to walk by way of a number of outlying farms towards Headley, and at each farm they stopped and pressed the working men to join them, and presumably got the farmer to sign the paper. When they finally arrived in Headley some 4 to 5 hours later there were more than 1,000 of them, waving flags and sticks.

Now the road they took into Headley happens to run past Headley Workhouse, and when they arrived here the mob stopped and threatened to attack it. Holdaway barred the way once more, but he also advised the Master that he'd better get out, because he couldn't hold the mob back for ever.

This Master, James Shoesmith, seemed to know Holdaway as we're told he greeted him with the words, "What Holdy, are you here?", whereupon Holdaway is said to have replied, "Yes, but I mean you no harm, nor your wife, nor your goods, so get them out as soon as you can, for the house must come down."

Shoesmith replied that they had "a number of old persons in the house and some children ill with a fever", and Holdaway said they would be protected and taken care of if the window where they were was marked. Shoesmith then tried to argue his case saying, "If any person can say I have acted unfairly by any poor man, let it be revenged on me, not on the house", and Eli Smith, a Headley farmer, confirmed later that he himself had "never heard any complaint of ill-treatment of any of the paupers in Headley Workhouse." Smith also claimed that he was only there because he had been pressed to do so, and said to Shoesmith, "I have done all in my power to try to dissuade them from doing this, but I have not succeeded."

At this point we are told that Shoesmith asked for time "to take out our traps", and Holdaway agreed to give him two hours. Some of the mob apparently rushed towards the house then, but were quickly called back by Henry James, a 38 year old man, nearly six foot in height and described variously as a Gypsy brazier, tinman, knife-grinder and soldier. It's unclear where he came from; he may have been one of the "forest dwellers and travellers" who, we are told, joined the mob en route, but we do know that Shoesmith says he was "not from Headley."

He seems to have had a commanding presence, for he apparently shut the gate and told the mob, "No-one shall enter here at present." He then volunteered to help Shoesmith remove his goods from the house while Holdaway led the rest of the mob off towards the Village Green, but he may have had less than honourable motives for doing this, since we hear later of his "large family" taking away some of the property belonging to the workhouse and selling it. Shoesmith nevertheless thanked him for his help at the time.

Now it wasn't just by chance that the Selborne mob had arrived here—Headley people had known from early morning that there'd be 'a row' there that day. Matthew Triggs and his brother, for instance, had been down to the workhouse at 8am to try and get their old Uncle Tuckey out, but Shoesmith hadn't let them take him.

Before the Selborne mob arrived, a smaller crowd of Headley people had mobbed their own Rector, Mr Dickinson, and got him also to agree to reduce his tithes by half. But it seems to have been a much more light-hearted affair than the Selborne event, and here we are told the women of the village also took part.

When Robert Holdaway eventually appeared on Headley Village Green at the head of the Selborne mob he met the Rector and was invited to go up to the Holly Bush pub with him, to attend the meeting there. He agreed, and they walked up the road together and went in. It seems the meeting went well, agreement was reached, and the farmers there collected £7 in a 'whip round' among themselves to give to the mob. But when Holdaway emerged to tell his men this, he found they had disappeared—reneged on their agreement and gone back down to sack the Workhouse.

At this, the Headley farmers told him he'd better get down there and stop them breaking it up. It was, after all, the property of the Headley rate-payers. He apparently called on Headley people nearby to help him, but they seemed to have been more interested in joining in the fun.

We have a verbatim account of what happened at the Headley Workhouse from Mr Shoesmith's testimony at the subsequent trial, as you hear in the play. He also added that there were about 30 gallons of home-made wine in his cellar, and that he saw a number of the rioters drinking his wine—some he described as quite drunk. There were many men and women, he said, drinking out of tins and other vessels about the yard.

At the end, it was reported that there was not one room left entire, except that in which the sick children were. And although not one person had been injured during either of the two days rioting, when Holdaway was asked by a Headley farmer what he thought of the work, he was aware of his likely fate and replied: "It is too bad—it will hang me."

He moved the Selborne mob on, out of Headley, and along the road home. On the way, they came to the village of Kingsley, and here found a threshing machine which Mr Bennett, a Headley farmer, had taken there for safety. They broke it. It was the only occurrence of machine breaking undertaken by this mob during the two days.

By now, on a cold November day, it must have been starting to get dark. Many of the men would not have eaten all day. We are told that here at Kingsley, Holdaway "called out 10 persons as the representatives of the 10 parishes from which the labourers had formed their assembly" and divided the money they had collected over the past two days. It amounted to £23.

Then they all went home. And next day, the magistrates and militia started to ride round and arrest the ring-leaders.

At a Special Commission, set up in Winchester over the Christmas period, 345 men from all over Hampshire were tried – 22 of them from Selborne and Headley.

Of the Selborne and Headley men, 5 were acquitted, 8 received prison terms of from 6 months to 2 years with hard labour, and 9 were sentenced to transportation.

Robert Holdaway was initially sentenced to death, as being the chief ring-leader. A wave of outrage from the village and elsewhere saved him from this, particularly the efforts of William Cowburn in London, and he was reprieved. Two others from the Hampshire trials were not so lucky and were hanged—one being a lad from Micheldever only 19 years old. The reprieved prisoners were forced to stand in the yard of Winchester Gaol on that Saturday morning and watch the executions.

Those to be transported sailed from Portsmouth in February 1831, and arrived in Australia during May and June. The nine local men sentenced to transportation were:

We don't think any of these local men who were transported ever came back, although we know that some others from Hampshire eventually did.

But what would they return to? As soon as the troubles were over, the tithes went back up and the wages back down to where they were before. Nothing changed. The transported men were probably better off where they were — but for their wives and families left in England, it must have been a bitter life indeed.


Vicar Cobbold continued as vicar of Selborne until 1841, when was run over by the Oxford Mail Coach at the bottom of Ludgate Hill on a visit to London, and died of his injuries 6 days later. We are told that after the riots, he bought himself a mastiff "with a neck as thick as a lion's" to protect himself from his parishioners. The collar of this dog has been preserved, and can be seen today displayed in Selborne parish church.

Selborne workhouse was sold in 1836. Now known as Fishers Building, it is split between a number of private occupants.

Headley workhouse was sold in 1870 to a builder. Now called Headley Grange, it is also a private house, and in the 1960s and 70s was used by pop groups such as Led Zeppelin as a recording studio — their famous 'Stairway to Heaven' was among the tracks recorded there.

But that's not the end of the story of the rioters.

On St George's Day, 1994, descendants of four of them, along with representatives from Selborne and Headley, assembled at Headley Grange, Headley Workhouse as was, to plant a cutting from the old Selborne Yew in memory of the unjust transportations.

And in October 1996, at a meeting of the Selborne Association, John Owen Smith brought along three descendants of men convicted for the Selborne Workhouse Riot of 1830, to speak about how the families had fared after their breadwinners had been imprisoned or transported.

These and other descendants are tracing the history of their ancestors, trying to find out what happened to them and their families.

For instance, we now know that Robert Holdaway's wife remarried in England while he was still alive in Australia. We also know that Robert died in Camperdown, a suburb of Sydney, working as a labourer.

Also, we have received the story of Aaron Harding from his granddaughter, still living in Queensland, telling of his long trek with a new wife on foot from New South Wales to South Australia, and of the two sons born to him there, the younger of them being her father.

So the story continues today ... and the cause of the Selborne and Headley men is not forgotten.


— This site maintained by John Owen Smith