Fighting for a living wage: John Hardy and the battle of Pyt House.

On 25th November 1830, at the height of the Captain Swing uprising, labourer John Hardy was killed in action against yeomanry near his home at Tisbury in Wiltshire.

Four hundred quarrymen and agricultural labourers had confronted the landowner and local M.P. John Benett at Pyt House to demand two shillings per day, the quarrymen were at that time on three and a half pence. Instead Benett read a royal proclamation against riot, then offered five hundred pounds to any worker who would inform on ten others.

The workers were unmoved and destroyed Benett’s threshing machines. They were engaged in woodland by a troop of yeoman cavalry that had pursued them from nearby Hindon. A pitched battle ensued as the workers fought back with hatchets, pickaxes, hammers, sticks and stones, knocking Benett unconscious. All day, running battles were fought across the Vale of Wylye and barricades erected on the Warminster road.

Hardy was shot dead and twenty-nine others captured. At Benett’s insistence the cavalry denied the injured prisoners water on the journey to Fisherton Gaol.

A witness wrote: “the blood did trickle out of the wagons the whole way to Salisbury …”

Background, and here we go again under capitalism:

At the turn of the 19th century the industrial revolution was spreading into agriculture and threshing machines abolished a quarter of the work in a few decades. Land enclosures proletarianised the peasantry and stole the commons, resources that had supported them since prehistory.

The ruling class wanted to have their cake and eat it, to create a ‘free market’ for agricultural labour whilst retaining the rigid social hierarchies inherited from feudalism and preventing economic migration. The Speenhamland system of poor relief, adopted in the 1790s, subsidised poverty wages from the parish rates according to family size and the price of bread.

Relief was tied to the parish of birth and set by the local magistrates. Paupers were obliged to take such work as was offered, and vagrancy laws stopped them crossing parish lines to look for better pay or the dwindling common land where they might live for free – “every man must have a master”. Landowners were thus guaranteed a captive pool of cheap labour to use as they saw fit, and to this indignity was added the further degradation of dependence on charity in return for servile conduct.

Steady employment gave way to hire by the day, or the hour, wages fell, and the bread ration was cut. There are tales of paupers being auctioned and harnessed to carts with bells around their necks. Tithes, rents and taxes rose, the bosses amassed great fortunes and ratepayers complained about the cost of poor relief. These included small farmers who didn’t like it either, when one laid off their hands, others would do likewise: “if I must pay his men, he shall pay mine”.

Captain Swing didn’t start as an insurrection against the status quo but was the response of necessity after a series of bad harvests threatened the rural proletariat with starvation. Just as modern unrest is often not specifically anti-capitalist but motivated by a sense of unfairness and injustice, they aspired to no more than providing for their families as in former times. “We don’t want any mischief, but we want that poor children when they go to bed should have a belly full of tatoes” Labourers initially trusted their masters would do right by them if reminded of their obligations: “ye have not done as ye ought”.

Sound familiar?

Their masters needed a shove however, and the practice of collective direct action leads to an appreciation of the strength of the Working Class and its fundamental antagonism to property and privilege. The logic of Swing was simple and infallible: they had been raised to understand they must work to live, they must earn wages or starve as undeserving paupers, therefore they would break the machines that took their work and demand a wage for doing so. The going rate was about forty shillings per machine. The gentry and clergy that lived so well at their expense could provide them with food and beer as they worked – or else.

Meanwhile in the cities radicals agitated for political reform and the Duke of Wellington’s tory government dug its heels in. Dissenters and ranters went around the country preaching everything from the second coming to full communism. There were revolutions on the continent and Kent villages flew tricolours or pirate flags as symbols of rebellion. A demonstration was called for the 9th November at the Guildhall to disrupt the inauguration of the Lord Mayor, to be attended by Wellington and the King. The authorities decided to cancel the day before.

Moving Westward from Kent Swing became a mass movement. The workers were joined by poachers and smugglers, formed alliances across parish and county borders abetted by agitators on horseback. Swing entered Wiltshire and Dorset from Hampshire, then on to Gloucestershire, and touched the industrial midlands where King Ludd reigned twenty years earlier; it reached Cornwall, Norfolk, Hereford and Carlisle. Jails were opened and prisoners released. Magistrates informed the Home Office that two-thirds of the rural population were involved in machine-breaking.

By the end of the year it had brought down Wellington’s government. It also achieved a general increase in wages and lowering of tithes and rents. Many farmers sympathised and voluntarily acceded to the workers’ demands if their neighbours would follow suit, refusing to be sworn in as yeomen or constables, and were invited to join in and take back their taxes. The mechanisation of agriculture was delayed, but that was never the root cause of the misery. The problem wasn’t the machine, but its use to produce wealth for the owner rather than food for the worker.

Swing challenged the hierarchy in two important ways: it assumed a parallel moral authority independent of church* and state, but above all it was mobile; the Working Class were not supposed to move around without permission or invitation.

* It’s instructive that a common form of passive protest at the time was for villagers to walk out of a sermon and smoke their pipes in the churchyard.

Repression followed, and not just against the convicted insurgents. The new poor law of 1834 abolished outdoor relief altogether and made it conditional on forced labour in the workhouse. Paupers, the elderly and infirm were made prisoners of Class War, subject to summary punishment. Wives and husbands were separated and the children of widows apt to be sold to factory owners or shipped to the colonies as indentured labourers. A new centralised law enforcement regime – the filth – was imported from Napoleonic France via occupied Ireland. In February 1832 the Metropolitan Police, formed in 1829 as a pilot project, inserted its first of many undercover cops, Sergeant Popay, into the National Political Union for a year as an agent provocateur. Within a couple of years the Met was being used as a mobile riot squad against the Chartists.

Such events are commonly portrayed as the birth pains of modernism but two hundred years later fuck all has changed. We’re still dependent on wages, still subject to displacement by machines. Technology is still reducing the value of human activity and creating poverty when it should be enhancing our abilities and freeing us for more beneficial occupations. We’re still governed by received values that many passively endorse but few understand where they came from or who they serve.

Capitalism cannot solve these problems, but we can. We ought to celebrate our martyrs:

John Hardy we’re proud of you!

– Mal Content.

Sources and further reading:

http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/ENG-WILTSHIRE/2004-11/1099392025

‘Captain Swing’ – Hobsbawm and Rude

‘Tolpuddle And Swing, The Flea And The Elephant’ – Dr. Roger Ball.

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Radical workers’ bloc at Tolpuddle 2017.

Not a lot to report this year, except a fine weekend catching up with friends – and a big shout out to Les once again for the Wob kitchen.

On Saturday there was a short discussion to mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution, which Leninist-apologists continue to identify with the Bolshevik power-grab and its agonising consequences, rather than the bold experiments in workers’ self-management that flourished briefly between February and October 1917. These were part of a revolutionary current that developed spontaneously on every continent in the early years of the last century. It had no need of party games or secretive professional revolutionaries. Your first idea is usually the best one but people have an unfortunate tendency to identify with leaders, especially ones that seem to have come out of nowhere (but have actually been peddling the same ideas for years). Just as they grasp the need to take control of an intolerable situation, they hand it all over to someone else, who fucks it all up on their behalf.

That grim “oh Jeremy Corbyn” chant, just irritating at first, became quite uncomfortable as the weekend wore on. The dead flat intonation and utter mindlessness of it evokes zombie apocalypse more than Captain Swing, and the Maoist ‘revolutionary praxis’ group, with their ghastly pantheon of genocidal demagogues, served to remind us what happens when personality cults get out of hand.

On Sunday The Messiah beamed down and performed a Miracle. Just after 4 p.m. we were able to walk right up to the bar and get served straightaway. Cheers Jeremy!

RADICAL WORKERS’ BLOC AT TOLPUDDLE 2017

This year’s Martyrs Festival and rally is Friday 14th to Sunday 16th July 2017, our well oiled machine will spring into action on Friday lunchtime, if you haven’t done this with us before it’s a lot of fun. If you have, you know what to expect … View map

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Photo by Wheelz.

For a world without leaders, elections, jobs, money, nukes or fascists: Report from Radical Workers’ Bloc at Tolpuddle 2016.

SOS NHS public meeting in Bridport Wednesday 8th February 2017.

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Wednesday 8th February, 7pm for 7.30pm Bridport Town Hall.

FREE open public meeting about what is happening to the NHS in West Dorset

Speakers include:
WENDY SAVAGE  President of the national organization Keep Our NHS Public
JON ORRELL  GP and ex-member of the Clinical Commissioning Group
CLAUDIA SORIN  local NHS campaigner
NAOMI PATTERSON  founder member of the campaign to save the Kingfisher Ward
and Special Care Baby Unit at Dorchester Hospital

There will be Q & A when local residents will have the chance to share their experience and concerns. There will be copies of the Questionnaire issued by the Clinical Commissioning Group, to be completed within their ‘consultation’ period by the end of February.

March to save Kingfisher and SCBU at Dorset County Hospital! Saturday 17 September in Dorchester

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Note date has changed to avoid clashing with the county show.

“Again we need to show the CCG that they can’t play with our children’s lives we need Kingfisher and SCBU, not forgetting maternity. Please join us at 1pm at top o town car park with a view to be setting off at 1.30pm. Speakers TBC.  After the March the Dorchester Round tables have their cider festival with live bands and plenty of entertainment for your children, we will finish the March at the borough gardens in time for the festival to start.”

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The entire N.H.S. is under siege from this parasitic regime, we need every bastard we can get out for this, come on!

For a world without leaders, elections, jobs, money, nukes or fascists: Radical Workers’ Bloc at Tolpuddle 2016.

naughty boyIt was a lovely sunny weekend, with a superb music line-up. We made some new comrades and enjoyed catching up with the Bognor contingent, Bristol Afed, Swindon A’s, North London, South Wales, West Midlands IWW and many musician friends. Big shout out to the Wob Kitchen for all the tasty vegan meals.

Tolpuddle festival is the Ascot of the left; the various historical re-enactment societies and activist groups rub shoulders in a more or less cordial way and Che Guevara shirts are worn without irony. The Radical Workers’ Bloc idea began in 2011, as a new generation discovered rioting, exasperated with the blatant futility of representative politics. Ever since, in the jolly festival atmosphere, we’ve had frank tactical discussions between Marxists and anarchists, antifascists, environmentalists, trade unionists and hunt sabs. There has been a tacit acceptance of the need for militant antifascism and mass direct action generally.

This was a weird one, the main topic of conversation being the tedious soap opera playing out in the Labour Party. The Westminster freak show is beyond parody, so we understand that the concept of any politician not being a crook or a sociopath is such a fucking novelty it could easily be mistaken for “a new kind of politics”. A good few of our comrades think so: “it isn’t really about Jeremy …” – well you could have fooled us. Each campaign group, union and Marxist party in turn pledged allegiance to the Leader. Even the bands made a point of endorsing Him from the stage. The SWP stall featured a large banner that commanded: “Join the Socialist Workers Party Today!” above a poster of J.C. proclaiming: “We’re the Labour Party and we’re here to stay!” Very confusing.

A more worthwhile discussion is the TUC’s failure to agree a coherent policy on the environment. Unite’s website insists Hinkley nuclear power station must go ahead without delay, plus the third runway at Heathrow– which 13 comrades narrowly avoided prison over recently. We understand there’s still a row going on in the GMB over fracking. If the workers’ organisations are not prepared to take responsibility for the fate of this lump of rock we’re all stood on, then who is? The bourgeoisie don’t give a shit.

Since the weekend three quarters of her majesty’s loyal opposition have voted for a new Trident doomsday machine, they must be stuck on the stench of burning flesh. The Corbyn movement now numbers at least half a million, maybe a million, fair play. So apart from keeping Corbyn what are their demands? They are split on the EU but then so were we. We’d guess they fancy a bit of social Keynesianism in place of the military variety, nationalisation and a progressive tax regime, but how and where are their different agendas going to be reconciled? If half a million people committed to direct action on one single issue – preventing deportation for example – there would be no more deportations. If they announced they would not permit anyone to be evicted from their homes, there would be no evictions. If that doesn’t grab anyone they could shut down fracking, blockade the factories that arm Israel and Saudi Arabia, or stop Trident dead in its tracks.

The only people feeling more left out were the Maoists, whose literature still fumes about the ‘counter-revolutionary renegade’ Leon Trotsky, apologises for the death toll of the Great Leap Forward and offers a defence of the Taliban against western imperialism – bless! I suppose if you actually want a boot on your neck, the left or the right one will do. The retrospective justification of mass murder, though unpleasant, is of little consequence when the perpetrators are a spent force. For sheer convoluted self-justifying, revisionist bullshit they’ve got nothing on Unite’s Executive Council statement on Trident which pre-emptively lays the blame for Armageddon at the door of anyone but the only people with the power to stop it.

Still our seditious anarchist literature flew off the stall, so someone must be reading it, follow leaders all you want, we’ll still be here when you get back. As for paying to vote for one, if anyone’s actually got 25 quid they don’t need it would be better spent supporting political prisoners such as Michelle Smith, a respected community activist, antifascist, and Unite the Union official from Merseyside. This comrade, who has our unreserved admiration, received a one-year sentence last Tuesday for helping the people of Dover defend themselves from neo-Nazis. It is entirely thanks to people like Michelle that the fascist threat is well contained. She is the single mother of two children, we send our solidarity and best wishes for an early release.MerseyAFN

A paypal account is being set up, in the meantime if you would like to donate, or write to Michelle, please send a message to Merseyside Anti-Fascist Network’s facebook page. There will be a fundraising event, Alerta! in Liverpool on sat 20th August 2016. Tickets are £5.

RADICAL WORKERS’ BLOC AT TOLPUDDLE 2016.

Radical Workers’ Bloc at Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival and rally:  Friday 15th to Sunday 17th July 2016. View map

captswing2We’re back again for the sixth year running, with the stall, Freedom Books, the Big Tent and our Wob Kitchen on the campsite catering for our comrades from Friday to Sunday (F.C.F.S). Camp with us, eat with us and march with us on Sunday.  We will have a few of our new ‘Friends of Captain Swing’ T shirts made by the Sabcat anarchist workers’ co-op. If you fancy one for a tenner, let us know through the contact form and don’t forget to include your e-mail address and size. We may ask for a small deposit depending on how much we have to front up – we’re rubbish capitalists!

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We’ve also got a limited number of these left in black or red, also by Sabcat, larger sizes only, but they do work best as a billboard!

Freedom Press

revenge of the working class!

Open Letter to BBC South Today from Palestine Solidarity Campaign