Trouble in Essex... Have you heard of Captain Swing?

The statue of
Byrhtnoth unveiled at Maldon in 2006 to mark the battle with the Vikings.

The statue of Byrhtnoth unveiled at Maldon in 2006 to mark the battle with the Vikings. Picture: James Fletcher

I knew all about the Vikings and Boudicca. I knew about the Siege of Colchester and Mods and Rockers. But I’d never heard of Captain Swing.

The Old Siege House in Colchester - a lasting reminder of the civil war events of 1648 that so badly

The Old Siege House in Colchester - a lasting reminder of the civil war events of 1648 that so badly affected the townspeople. Picture: SUE ANDERSON - Credit: Su Anderson

He’s at the heart of troubled times in Essex in the 1830s. Troubled times for the nation. We’d enjoyed the triumphs of the Napoleonic wars and now it was all going pear-shaped. Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, might have shown signs of greatness on the battlefield but domestically it wasn’t going swimmingly on his watch as Prime Minister.

Many soldiers and sailors had come home to find limited or no work, there were food shortages because of awful harvests, and mechanisation such as threshing machines was reducing job opportunities further. Resentment was bound to boil over, and in 1830 it did ? across southeast England and East Anglia.

The story’s told in a book from Andrew Summers and John Debenham. “Things came to a head in Essex on 7th December when a mob of 150 ran riot in Great Clacton and caused a great deal of property damage,” they explain. “Two days later a similar-sized group assembled in the dead of night in Little Clacton with the express purpose of destroying a threshing machine kept in a locked barn there. Demonstrations and acts of vandalism also happened simultaneously throughout the Tendring Hundred.

“At Kirby the crowd had been estimated at 300. In Great Holland 100 men had gathered; 140 at Little Clacton; 150 in the village of Tendring and 200 at Ramsey. The protests were characterised by there being no attacks on persons, only on the hated machines.”

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The anonymous leader was Captain Swing – “who supposedly took his name from the ‘swing’ or moving part of the flail used to thresh the grain. The protests became known as the Swing Riots.” The authorities cracked down. Hard. Fifty men from Clacton were charged. Across the nation, about 2,000 men and women were convicted and more than 500 transported to what we now call Tasmania – and given terms of five to 14 years.

“One local man, Benjamin Hackshall, escaped arrest by hiding up a neighbour’s chimney. He then fled to London, where he was apprehended by a ‘Bow Street Runner’.” (Police, basically.)

Boudicca: Forever a symbol of East Anglian refusal to bow to oppression. Picture: ARCHANT ARCHIVE

Boudicca: Forever a symbol of East Anglian refusal to bow to oppression. Picture: ARCHANT ARCHIVE - Credit: Archant

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“Luckily he escaped transportation. After serving a relatively short spell in Chelmsford jail, he returned to his family in Little Clacton. Hackshall then became a minor celebrity by composing a popular ballad which gave a romantic account of the riots. Five years later, 200 of those transported received free pardons.”

This is but one intriguing episode covered in Andrew and John’s book Battlefield Essex, which explores 1,000 years-plus of local conflict of many kinds. It’s not an academic study; more a look at some memorable events that are part of Essex’s historical DNA. There’s a nod to Boadicea (or Boudicca), along with the observation we have scant reliable details about her. It looks at The Battle of Maldon in 991 – just one of many fights against the Vikings but “special because it is so well documented in the contemporary poem The Battle of Maldon”.

It’s not all “deep history”. The book looks at the skirmishes surrounding the North Sea pirate radio stations, for instance. There are plenty of interesting facts: About how, early in the Second World War, pleasure steamers took child evacuees from Essex to Felixstowe and Lowestoft, for example. And how, in 1940, an enemy plane crashed in Victoria Road, Clacton-on-Sea. Mr and Mrs Frederick Gill became the first civilian war deaths in England.

There’s much, too, on the “Battle of Brightlingsea”. This was in 1995, when the export of live sheep and calves from the port was the focus of protests by animal rights campaigners. It saw police in full riot gear deployed on the streets. “During the ten months of protests one man died, 598 people were arrested and 1,200 complaints were made against the police. Thousands of pounds worth of damage was inflicted on the port area and policing costs were estimated in millions of pounds,” Andrew and John say.

“Whilst the physical damage could be repaired quickly, it would take much longer for the psychological scars to heal. Such was the emotional intensity of the protest that many protesters suffered broken marriages, lost their jobs or even had their businesses ruined.”

Battlefield Essex is from Essex Hundred Publications at £8.99.

The cover of Battlefield Essex

The cover of Battlefield Essex - Credit: Archant

Yobs at seaside?

Easter 1964 saw thousands of teenagers on scooters and motorbikes converging on Clacton and newspaper headlines talking of yobs running amok. “An old lady was reportedly thrown into a hedge and guests were abused in their hotels,” says Battlefield Essex.

“A town centre coach operator reported boys and girls smashing open parked vehicles, sleeping

in them overnight and then leaving them in a filthy mess with seats ripped up and fittings damaged… Takings in bars, cafes and restaurants over the weekend had tumbled.” In the aftermath, one councillor said she’d deport the offenders to Alaska for six months if she could.

Another suggested forming a vigilante group to deter trouble later in the summer.

“Much to the relief of Clacton’s residents, the Whitsun weekend of 1964 passed off relatively peacefully. Instead the Mods and Rockers descended upon Margate, Brighton or Southend, where they attacked each other, in the process causing mayhem and inflicting damage on the resorts.”

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