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Synopsis

The show opens on Bonfire Night 1828, a night of celebration for the entire town of Witham. the night concludes with the characters discovering fires have broken out at local farms. A few weeks later the "great and the good" of the town met to discuss a way forward and they decide to put respected magistrate, William Wright Luard, in charge of the investigation; to purchase a fire engine and to apply for constables to be sent from London to help police the matter. Eventually this leads to the arrest of James Cooke, a young farmhand. After he is interrogated Luard decides he has enough evidence to prove James is guilty, despite evidence to the contrary. James is tried in court and despite the request of the jury to be lenient, Justice Lawley sentences him to the most severe sentence available - death by hanging

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In Act 2 we learn that despite James' conviction the fires still burn perhaps proving that the wrong man was sentenced. We also start to see that Will (James' brother) and Betty (aspiring journalist & James' sweetheart) have started to grow closer. The search for the arsonist continues and the bumbling constables arrest another nine men , including James' friends Potto & Ling. The evidence proves Potto is responsible for the fires, however due to his family being fortunate, his lawyer manages to swap the jury and prove he suffers from madness., meaning the toughest sentence the Judge can give is transportation. Potto is transported and the town, on the whole, is happy with the sentence and they go to the Blue Posts Inn to celebrate. Will asks Betty not to cover this for the paper and to stay with him just this once. He proposes and they go to share the news with his family. At the Cooke house Luard and his wife apologise for the hurt they've caused the family; Dorcas(James' mother) accepts their apology. Will and Betty visit the family home and all celebrate the happy couple's engagement as well as the news that despite the Swing riots elsewhere the future looks bright for Witham.

Background - The Swing Riots

In the eighteenth century, one of the main autumn and winter jobs for farm workers was threshing. This meant separating the grain from the stalks by beating it. In the late 1820s and early 1830s, farmers began to introduce threshing machines to do this work. This put large numbers of labourers out of a job and without the money to buy food, clothes and other goods for the winter months.


Low wages and unemployment, plus poor harvests in 1829 and 1830, resulted in hunger, protests and disturbances in many country areas, especially in the east and south of England. Farmers were sent threatening letters demanding that wages increase or at least stay the same. These letters often told farmers not to use threshing machines. Farmers and landowners also had their hayricks and farm buildings set alight.

The protesters used the name "Captain Swing". This was a made-up name designed to spread fear among landowners and avoid the real protest leaders being found out.


The reaction of the government to the Swing disturbances was harsh. Following riots, 19 people were executed, 505 transported to Australia and 644 imprisoned. The story of individual incidents can often be put together from handbills and posters that offered rewards for the capture of rioters (and pardons for those who helped in their arrest). The labourers did not gain very much from their protests.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Source: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/politics/g5/

However, the Swing Riots began 18 months after the Witham Fires. There was no reference to Captain Swing in the threatening letter sent to William Hutley and there was no significant concern expressed about threshing machines threatening local jobs. So, was Justice Alexander, in sticking with his sentence of capital punishment for James Cooke, responding to the threat of rebellion more obvious in the immediate aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, or did he foresee the Swing Riots considered by some as " the largest wave of protest in the history of England"?

Why not find out if your town or village was involved in the Swing Riots!

Swing riots.jpeg
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