ROBERT WEST & THE CAPTAIN SWING RIOTS

 

The Shire Hall was built in 1822 and Robert West was tried there. It continued to hold trials until 1988. I was a juror at a trial there in the 1970s.

The Shire Hall was built in 1822 and Robert West was tried there. It continued to hold trials until 1988. I was a juror at a trial there in the 1970s.

Unrest had been growing all year, and it came to head in the Autumn of 1830. The workers were having a hard time as industrialisation was taking away their traditional jobs. With no welfare state they had a real struggle to survive. The 27th of November was a Saturday and a group of about 200 men had gathered round the paper-mill at  Lyng, near Norwich in Norfolk. Something was going to happen. These troubles, which took place at around the same at many places  were called the Captain Swing riots. The rioters took their name from a mythical Captain Swing, in whose name many of the their demands were made. The riots spread all around south eastern England and were mostly directed against the threshing machines which were depriving the agricultural labourers of employment during the bleak winter months. The factories in the west of England did not take part, and in many cases were benefiting from these changes.

The rioters attacked the threshing machines belonging to Squire Michlethwait of Taverham and also that of farmer Joby at Weston Longeville, but they were also involved in the destruction of  crucial parts of the machinery at the paper-mills at Lyng and Taverham. The mill at Taverham installed  one of the first paper making machines in the country in 1809, and this machine was reducing employment and depressing wages. It wasn’t only threshing machines that aroused the ire of the rioters, although the workers at the paper mills at Lyng and Taverham did not take part in the riot.

The visit to Lyng mill by the mob of rioters, which took place on the same day, was not entirely unexpected. The proprietor William Johnson had taken some precautions, taking on extra manpower to guard the machinery against attack. This was to no avail against a large mob armed with hatchets and pick-axes. None of the workers at the mill was hurt or even threatened, but the paper machine was destroyed when the breast-board was broken with an axe. The breast-board supported the canvas apron which carried the pulp onto the wire belt at the beginning of the paper-making process.

One of the ringleaders of the rioters was one Robert West, who was 48 years old at the time of the attack. He had spent his early years as a soldier in the Napoleonic wars. After the Battle of Waterloo he married and had three children. By 1830 he was a gardener in West Norfolk. Only scant details of West are known, but they indicate that he came from the Kings Lynn area. Although he denied being a leader of the riot, he did admit that once inside the mill he had “worked like a good ‘un”; and witnesses were convinced that he was indeed one of the leader of the mob.

Their work of destruction done at Lyng, the mob moved on to Taverham, which they reached in the afternoon. Again their presence was not unexpected; word of their approach having gone ahead of them; and on arriving at the mill they found it locked. Their demand to be handed the keys being denied, they proceeded to break down the doors and again severely damaged the paper-making machine. Once again eyewitnesses identified Robert West as the ringleader. The rioters were remarkably well behaved, and although the machine was damaged no one was injured and no property was taken.

An urgent message had been sent to Norwich, from where a detachment of the 1st Dragoon Guards were dispatched on horseback to Taverham. It must have been getting dark by the time they arrived, and the rioters had already moved on. Only one young man (called Richard Dawson) was found on the Fakenham Road, and he was apprehended. The rest of the rioters had made their way back to somewhere near Lyng  where they must have lit a fire. Although they did not know it at the time, they were being observed by Richard Tolladay.

Richard Tolladay had been taken on by manager William Johnson at Lyng mill for extra security, and he must have been anxious to make amends for his failure to protect the paper-making machinery earlier that day. From the shadows he recognized the ringleader from that morning, and with a few accomplices he was able to seize Robert West. He was badly outnumbered however, and before West could be spirited away the cry of “There goes old Bob” went up from the rioters, and he was once again freed. Although he might have congratulated himself on a lucky escape, Robert West would in fact have been much more leniently treated had he been at the Quarter Sessions in January 1831, when others of the rioters were tried. At that time however he was still at large.

There was a lot of sympathy for the rioters among the people of Norfolk. Just a few days before the riot at Taverham the Justices of North Walsham put out a proclamation begging employers to accede to the machine breakers’ demands and come to a peaceable arrangement with them. Much to the annoyance of the government, particularly the Home Secretary Lord Melbourne, this sympathetic attitude extended to the jurors when the rioters were tried. The only person to be charged with offences connected with the events in Taverham was Richard Dawson, the young man caught on the Fakenham Road. He could not be implicated in the attack on the mill, but he was charged with destroying squire Micklethwait’s threshing machine in the bullock yard at the Hall.  The witness against him was an employee of the squire, named D. Rose. The jury acquitted Dawson on the grounds that there was only one witness. The Chairman of the Bench rather testily informed them that one witness was as good as a hundred, and directed the jury to reconsider their verdict. Despite this official direction, which came as near as possible to informing the jurors that they must convict Richard Dawson, once again they returned a not guilty verdict, to great applause from the public gallery!

The Home Office decided that local people could not be trusted to take a firm line, and the judges on the Norfolk Circuit got the message plainly enough. However the Government could do nothing about those already acquitted or who had received light sentences. Double jeopardy (being tried twice for the same crime) was then illegal in England, unlike today. In those times there was no possibility of appeal against a not guilty verdict.

Robert West had been rearrested on the 6th June 1831 and unfortunately he therefore missed the earlier court of January, and its mild justice. The Summer Assize was a very different affair. The powers that be made sure that the jurors selected would be less amenable. Far from being acquitted as Richard Dawson had been, Bob West was condemned to death. Although he was spared the noose, he was transported to New South Wales for life. He never saw his wife and family again.  Pardons were handed out to lifers after a few years, but before that time arrived he had died, in December 1837.

One of my wife’s friends who lives in Sparham, the next village to Lyng, was visiting relations of hers who live in Australia a few years ago. She visited the convict settlement at Tocal and was very surprised to see a reference to Lyng in Norfolk all those thousands of miles from home. It was at a farm in Tocal that Robert West was set to work, until failing health caused his removal to Port Macquarie. His name is now recorded on a memorial in the town.

By a strange coincidence one of the partners who operated Taverham mill also ended up in New South Wales. After a bad start in business, with an attack from the Swing Rioters, things went from bad to worse. In 1832 Henry Robberds and Starling Day lost the one partner, John Burgess, who was a successful an experienced paper-maker. He set on his own account in Bungay. In 1839 two employees were killed when part of the roof fell in. In 1842 both the remaining partners were made bankrupt. Henry Robberds emigrated to Australia with his family. Once in Sydney he became very involved in raising money for the construction of the new cathedral in the city. The Robberds family is still prominent in the life of the city of Sydney.

ROBERT WEST

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIA

3 responses

  1. Do you by any chance have any details of Robert West’s military service during the Napoleonic Wars. He of the Swing Riot fame.

    Regards

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  2. Pamela Summers | Reply

    Thanks for this very interesting article! I am descended from (Jonas) Henry Robberds and was aware of some events in relation to the paper mill but not these riots. The Robberds principal business was textile manufacturing and I understand that paper mills were a common sideline for textile manufacturers. There is a website all about Norfolk Mills – they would probably be very interested in your piece too. Thanks again.

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