Swing Rioters Beneath the Southern Cross

About Swing-rioters under the Southern Cross

Geoffrey Bruce Sharman D Sc., oldest son of the late C A and J H Sharman, Dunorlan, Tasmania lived from January 1925 to August 2015.  He was formerly Chair of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University and in 2006 he gave a public talk to a meeting of the Hobart Branch of the Society about Swing-rioters.

One hundred and seventy five years before then, in the winter of 1830-31, thousands of men and women in southeast England took part in what are now called the Swing Riots – the greatest machine-breaking episode in English history.

The riots were a protest against the living conditions of the agricultural labourers.  They were accompanied by demands for money, acts of arson and especially the breaking of threshing machines and other implements that reduced the reliance on manual rural labour.

The movement was essentially non-violent and most of those involved had pristine previous behaviour records or had been earlier convicted only of minor crimes such as poaching or stealing firewood or food.

The rioters were initially convicted by the rural magistrates in the normal County Sessions. However, when it was found that there was a great deal of sympathy for the Swing movement and that the riots had contagious aspects, Special Commissions to try the rioters were constituted in the worst affected counties, Hampshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Buckinghamshire and Dorset.

The background to, and the history of, the riots back in England and details of many of the rioters are well documented, in particular, by historian Jill Chambers.  However, there is a surprising lack of detail available about how they fared once they left the hulks in England.

Geoffrey Sharman’s 2006 talk focused on some of the Swing-rioters who, after transportation, made new lives in Van Diemens Land (now Tasmania).  One of those was Isaac Richardson who was the Great Great grandfather of Branch member Beverley Richardson.  She then liaised with Geoffrey Sharman and contributed to his on-going work.

By the time of his death, he had undertaken even more detailed research about the fate of the Swing-rioters.  He left behind manuscripts, tables and the outline of a book which was never completed. In 2022 Kevin Green gave Beverley Richardson Geoffrey Sharman’s uncompleted work and she raised the possibility of the Hobart Branch completing and publishing his work.  She knew it was important because the Swing-rioters held a unique place in our convict history.  They were no ordinary felons.  They were in fact welcomed and wanted for their agricultural skills and they were treated more humanely than other convicts. With nearly 500 transported and most to Van Diemens Land they are the ancestors of many Tasmanian families.

I saw the potential of this project and the possibility of publishing it in a new and exciting format and took on the role of managing it from conception through to the finished product.

Geoffrey’s sons granted TFHS Inc. Hobart Branch permission to publish their father's work and this started in earnest earlier this year.  There were only paper copies of his work and the expert assistance of Acrodata, Document Management Tasmania, in imaging and converting the complex tables to digital text is gratefully acknowledged, as is the work of Branch volunteers, and Colleen Read in particular, in proof-reading and correction. There have been a few minor changes to his work, mainly editorial or where he had left gaps that today could be filled. The wise input of Bev Richardson and the Society's Publications Committee was invaluable in managing these complexities.

It was decided to publish it as a website rather than a book for several reasons, including the greater on-going availability of an important resource and the unique opportunity for descendants to add, over time, stories about their own swing-rioter ancestor. Some fourteen swing-rioters married in Van Diemens Land and then moved interstate to live.  Over one hundred settled here in Tasmania. The Branch fervently hopes that many families will rise to the challenge and continue to enrich this valuable work.

Andrew Cocker
Publisher  2023

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