By Haydn Brown.
It was on 4 December 1830, some say it was a Saturday morning, when the Town Clerk of Norwich City Council issued a Proclamation from the Guildhall on behalf of the City’s Mayor and Magistrates. It announced that the lawbreaking ‘Swing’ Rioters would be suitably punished; a message that the authorities considered the public should be clearly told about:
“A paramount duty which they owe to their Sovereign and their Country at this moment of general disturbance, to declare that, whilst in common with the rest of their Fellow Citizens, they are on the one hand ready to do all which sympathy and benevolence can suggest for the relief of distressed operatives in this populous place, so on the other hand it is their full determination to act with the promptitude, decision, and vigour, which circumstances imperatively demand in prohibiting tumultuous assemblies, and suppressing riotous proceedings, in opposing every kind of open outrage, and actively endeavouring to detect secret attacks on either person or property……..”
The authorities were also anxious that their ‘Fellow Citizens’ should know and understand that:
“……. Persons who are guilty of these lawless proceedings, are liable on conviction to suffer Death, and that the loss incurred by individuals by the destruction of their property must be paid for by the Public, and will consequently tend to increase the County Rate”
The lawless proceedings that the authorities referred to broke out on the morning of 27 November 1830 at Lyng Mill, a few miles north of Norwich. Unrest amongst workers had been festering for some time and came to head when a group of some 200 rioters gathered there. Because the mill owners had received notice of pending trouble, but not its size, only a certain Richard Tolladay had been taken on at the mill to provide extra security. It was somewhat inevitable that being alone Tolladay would fail to protect the paper-making machinery from being destroyed once the mob had decided to break into the Lyng Mill.
No sooner had they completed their task, they proceeded towards their second objective, the paper-mill at Taverham, which they reached in the afternoon. Their intention this time was to destroy the highly productive ‘Fourdrinier’ paper-making machine. In the 1820s the principal paper maker at Taverham mill, John Burgess, was making a considerable amount of money from this revolutionary and highly productive machine. He was one of the few men in the country who knew how to use it to supply not only the local Norwich printers but also customers as far afield as Cambridge University Press. The paper mill was certainly doing well and so was Burgess who went on to buy property and cottages in Norwich and Costessey. He not only bought the White Hart in 1819, but by 1830 he had rebuilt it.
The ‘machine-breakers’ visit to Taverham was, again, not entirely unexpected. Some precautions had been taken by extra manpower being employed to guard the premises and machinery against attack. Doors were, of course, locked but this was totally ineffective against some 200 rioters who were mostly armed with hatchets and pick-axes. None of the workers at the Mill was hurt or even threatened, but the ‘Fourdrinier’ was put out of production when its breast-board was broken with an axe. Such a piece of the equipment supported the canvas apron along which the pulp was carried on to the wire belt at the beginning of the paper-making process.
It should be said that these rioters had been inspired by the ‘Swing’ riots that had started in Kent but very soon spread through several counties, particularly in southern England. Farm life was far from easy in the 19th Century, but it really began to deteriorate from the end of the Napoleonic War in 1815. From then, machinery was gradually introduced into farming and factories, and this meant that less workers were needed and this, in turn, led to unemployment and increased poverty. At that time, Labourers did not have the vote or any way of protesting lawfully. Frustrations grew. The final straw came with the introduction of the threshing machine (used to separate grain from stalks and husks) which labourers knew would deprive them of their winter work. In August 1830 farm workers set fire to a threshing machine, in Kent, in a desperate bid to highlight their plight and need for fairer wages. This was the first reported incident of the Swing Riots – the aim was to destroy machines.
The name “Swing Riots” had been derived from ‘Captain Swing’, the fictitious name often signed on threatening letters which were sent to farmers, magistrates, parsons and others. ‘Swing’ was regarded as the mythical figurehead of the movement; apparently, the word was a reference to the swinging stick of the flail used in hand threshing. The Swing letters were first mentioned by The Times newspaper on 21 October 1830. In Norfolk, many agricultural and factory labourers caught the mood that had spread from the south and formed themselves into their form of ‘machine-breakers’, the sort who assembled at Lyng and Taverham. They too were involved in the destruction of threshing machines, and in this they had targeted Taverham’s Squire Micklethwait and farmer Joby at Weston Longville.
Richard Tolladay of Lyng Mill, anxious to make amends for his failure that morning, followed the rioters at a safe distance and concealed himself amongst some trees and bushes. From the shadows he recognised who he thought was the ring leader from that morning – Robert West and duely seized him with the help of a handful of accomplices. It was a move that was impulsive and with little regard to the fact that Tolladay’s group were badly outnumbered. Before West could be spirited away, he managed to wrestle free and escape, much to the delight of the rioters, whose cry of “There goes old Bob” was clear and unmistakable. Although he might well have congratulated himself on making what had been a lucky escape, West was to be at large long enough to miss the January 1831 Quarter Sessions in Norwich where he would have been more leniently treated.
As it was at the time, when the riots were taking place, an urgent message had already been sent to Norwich requesting help from the military. In response, a detachment of the 1st Dragoon Guards was dispatched to Taverham. It was almost dark by the time they arrived, and the rioters had already moved on – with the exception of one man, named Richard Dawson. He was found and arrested on the Fakenham Road; the rest of the rioters had made their way back towards the Lyng area where, probably thinking they were safe, lit a fire; however, unbeknown to them, they were being watched!
One must mention that, apart from the County’s landed gentry and business owners, there was a great amount of sympathy for the rioters from among the poor and working-class people of Norfolk. It was only a few days before the riot at Taverham when the Justices of North Walsham put out proclamations begging employers to accede to the machine-breakers’ demands. Much to the annoyance of the Government, particularly the Home Secretary Lord Melbourne, this sympathy extended to the jurors at the subsequent trials of the rioters. The only person to be charged with offences connected with the event in Taverham was the lone Richard Dawson, the young man arrested on the Fakenham road. As it turned out, he could not be implicated in the attack on the Mills, but was charged with destroying Squire Micklethwait’s threshing machine in Taverham Hall’s bullock yard. The only witness against Dawson was one of the Squire’s employees, a Mr. D. Rose!
It followed that, at the January 1831 Assizes, the jury acquitted Dawson on the grounds that there was only one witness; this, apparently, caused the Chairman to rather forcible informed them that ‘one witness was as good as a hundred’ – and directed the jury to reconsider their verdict. Such was the sympathy towards the rioters that, despite this official direction which came to almost an order for the jurors to convict, they returned a ‘Not Guilty’ verdict to what was said to be ‘great applause from the public gallery’. From this, the Home Office concluded that local people could not be trusted to take a firm line; they also were well aware that they could do nothing about those already acquitted or those who had received light sentences. Unlike today, there was no process of appeal against a ‘not guilty’ verdict and there was no such thing as double jeopardy.
Robert West was formerly arrested on 6 June 1831 which, unfortunately for him, meant that he had missed the earlier court of January. By summer time the Norfolk Circuit Judges had also ‘got the message’ from the Home Office, which meant that the forthcoming Summer Assize would be quite a different affair. Far from being acquitted as Richard Dawson had been in January, West was, at first, condemned to death but later spared the noose when he was sentenced to be transported to New South Wale. He was never to see his wife and family again
Robert West found himself on board the Portland, along with 177 other convicts from throughout England, parts of Scotland, Jamaica and Gibraltar. Their crimes included various forms of stealing, house robbery, forgery, passing base coin, embezzlement, poaching, picking pockets etc…. There were few if any violent criminals amongst them. Most of the ‘Swing’ rioters sentenced to exile in New South Wales had been transported on the Eleanor in 1831, however at least three prisoners on the Portland had also been involved in Swing Riots……Robert West was one of them.
Prior to the 178 prisoners embarking at Spithead on 14 November 1831, they had been held in the prison hulks ‘Captivity’, ‘Leviathan’ and ‘York’ where the men had worked in the Dock-yard from seven o’clock until, twelve, in the mornings, and from a quarter past one o’clock until half past five, in the afternoons. Most of these prisoners were young men in a good state of health with the exception of a few who suffered chronic leg ulcers. The Portland’s prison guards consisted of two non-commissioned Officers, 27 Privates of the 4th and 39th regiments who were commanded by Lieutenant Archer of the 16th regiment. He travelled as a cabin passenger whilst two women and four children travelled in steerage.
Joseph Cook, the Portland’s surgeon, kept a Journal from 21st October 1831 to 11 April 1832. In it, he stated that:
“the Portland did not depart Spithead until 27 November 1832; after when, the winds and weather were variable. Catarrh appeared as an epidemic during these days and continued to recur during the whole of the voyage, almost all on board having been affected with it more or less, but in the greater number of instances so slight as not to require confinement or medical treatment. The prisoners were also much affected with costiveness induced by sea sickness and change of diet but the general state of health on board during the voyage was good. The leg ulcers they had suffered with on arrival on the Portland speedily recovered under the surgeon’s treatment of adhesive straps and a change of air and better diet”.
During the voyage the convicts were admitted on deck daily as much as the state of weather and other circumstances permitted, one half taking their meals on deck alternatively. Attention was paid to cleanliness and the between decks kept as dry as possible. The Portland was off the coast of Brazil on 14 January 1832 and no heavy rain was reported until the Portland was off the coast of Australia when they also experienced strong westerly winds. The temperature occasionally reached 89° in the prison at nights while passing through the tropics. The Portland arrived in Port Jackson on 26 March 1832 and a Muster was held on board by the Colonial Secretary on 29 March. There had been no deaths during the voyage and the 178 male convicts were landed at Sydney on 6 April 1832. All except one, William Toll who had suffered scurvy, were fit for immediate employment.
Tocal (meaning ‘plenty’ in the local Aboriginal language) is located in the lower Hunter Valley, of New South Wales, Australia, approximately 7 miles north of Maitland and about 110 miles north of Sydney at the junction of the Paterson River and Webbers Creek. It was there that Robert West was set to work on a farm until failing health caused him to be removed to Port Macquarie. He died in 1837 and today, his name is recorded on a memorial in the town which also has a reference to Lyng in Norfolk.
By a strange coincidence one of the partners who operated Taverham mill after the riots also ended up in New South Wales. It would appear that the experience of Norfolk’s version of the Swing Riots had discouraged the then Mill’s owner, Robert Hawkes; and despite the fact that his company was compensated for the damage he still decided to sell his share of the business and retire. The new partners with whom John Burgess found himself saddled with were two young men from wealthy local families, Jonas Henry Robberds, known as Henry, and Starling Day.
Unlike Robert Hawkes, they seemed not to have many business interests, although Henry Robberds had been in partnership with his father, John Whitaker Robberds (Mayor of Norwich in 1814) and his brother, John Warden Robberds; they manufactured textiles, such as worsted, bombazines, camlets and crepes, in St Saviour’s Lane in Norwich. However, Henry Robberds and Starling Day may have tried to ‘meddle’ at the Mill, and this would not have pleased Burgess who was used to having a free hand to run the business. Whatever was ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’, Burgess left the partnership in 1832 to take the lease on the vacant paper mill in Bungay. It was certainly a come-down in professional terms, since the Bungay mill was engaged in making brown wrapping paper by hand, instead of the machine-made white printing paper in which he was so experienced. But, on the credit side, he was at last his own boss again, and he continued to make money.
But back at Taverham Mill things went from bad to worse. Firstly, Henry Robberds and Starling Day had lost John Burgess, the one partner who was an experienced paper-maker and instrumental in making a lot of money for the company. Then in 1839 two employees were killed when part of the mill collapsed and by 1842 both Henry Robberds and Starling Day were declared bankrupt.
It was Jonas Henry Robberds who emigrated from Liverpool to Australia with wife, Sarah (née Unthank) and their 11 children in 1843. No sooner had he and his family settled in Sydney when, so the story goes, he became very involved in raising money for the construction of the Sydney Dispensary and the new St James Cathedral. A scan of the present-day directories seems to show that the Robberds name is still prominent in the life of Sydney.
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