The Swing Riots were disturbances which took place in 1830 and 1831, mostly in the southern counties of England. Agricultural labourers, who were already suffering due to low wages and a lack of work after several years of bad harvests, rose up when their employers introduced threshing machines into their workplaces. The riots got their name from the threatening letters which were sent to farmers and other employers, which were signed “Captain Swing.”
The riots spread into Gloucestershire in November 1830, with the Tetbury area seeing the worst of the disturbances. Amongst the many people arrested afterwards was one woman, Elizabeth Parker. She has sometimes been cited as one of only two females who were transported for taking part in the Swing Riots. In fact, she was sentenced to be transported for this crime, but never sailed, as she was pardoned a few months after being convicted. However, less than a year after being released from Gloucester Gaol, she was back, awaiting trial for another offence. The circumstances in both of the cases she was tried for reveal an intriguing relationship with one Daniel Cole, parish clerk and assistant poor law officer in Tetbury.
Elizabeth Parker was committed to Gloucester Gaol on 4 December 1830. In the Gaol Registers, she was described as being 23 and a “labourer”. She was in fact a prostitute, and she was unusual for the time in that she could read and write. She was charged on the oaths of Daniel Cole and others with having been among a mob which destroyed a threshing machine belonging to Jacob Hayward, at his farm in Beverstone, on 26 November.
At the County Quarter Sessions, which began in Gloucester on 3 January 1831, Elizabeth took the stand at the court room behind Shire Hall, along with 23 men. Witnesses who had been sworn in as special constables on the day of the riots gave their evidence, and described coming across a mob of over 100 people on Beverstone Road, many of whom were armed with sticks, pick-axes and sledge-hammers. They were being addressed by four magistrates, who tried to persuade them to go home, but they announced that they would go to Beverstone to break the machine there. The constables followed them to Mr Hayward’s yard, where they witnessed some of the mob attacking his threshing machine.
John Tidcomb, a farmer of Tetbury, identified Elizabeth Parker as being part of the mob, and stated that he heard her say, “Be d—-d if we don’t go to Beverstone, and break the machine!” Daniel Cole stated that he had seen the mob in Mr Hayward’s yard, attacking the machine. He said Elizabeth Parker was not actually hitting the machine when he saw her, but she was holding a sledge-hammer. Isaac Hayward, the nephew of the prosecutor, Jacob Hayward, stated that he had seen Elizabeth Parker and some of the men in the act of breaking the machine. When it came to the defence of the accused, all of the men produced character witnesses, but Elizabeth Parker had no-one to speak for her. The jury deliberated for 5 minutes, then found all the defendants guilty.
When all the rioters were gathered together for sentencing at the end of the trials, the Chairman of the Quarter Sessions said that a distinction had been made between the leaders of the mobs and the rest. Elizabeth Parker was singled out as a leader: “A woman, the only female prisoner, who had, by violent language and by every means in her power, been active in stimulating her companions to acts of outrage, and had even personally assisted with a large sledge hammer.” Along with the other “leaders”, she was sentenced to be transported, in her case for seven years.
Elizabeth Parker was granted royal clemency in July 1831 and was released from prison. She returned to Tetbury and presumably continued in her usual occupation, but on 27 March 1832, she was committed to Gloucester Gaol again. This time, she was charged with stealing 2 five pound notes, 5 sovereigns and 5 half sovereigns, from the person of Daniel Cole.
Elizabeth was tried at the Lent Assizes which began on 28 March, 1832. The details of her trial were reported in the Morning Post. Daniel Cole was in the “Boat Inn” (meaning the Boot Inn, I think) in Tetbury, when Elizabeth Parker came in. Cole “accompanied her down the yard”, where he stayed with her for about half an hour. The next morning, he realised that all his money was gone. One of his five pound notes was identified by him in a shop, where Parker had bought some items.
Under cross-examination, Cole said he was the assistant overseer of the poor and collector of public taxes of the parish of Tetbury. He was married with one child. He went in to the inn at about 9 pm, and stayed about 2 hours, drinking in the parlour, with the landlord, Elizabeth Parker, and two others. He was not drunk, but he was “rather fresh.” He gave the prisoner no money. He saw Elizabeth Parker next morning at the Prince and Princess public house. He didn’t drink with her or give her any money. He did give her a shilling after she was committed. He never said that he would not have prosecuted her “if it was not for her own tongue”. (Presumably meaning he couldn’t trust her to keep her mouth shut.)
Henry Aldguard, a constable, stated that he apprehended Elizabeth Parker at her mother’s house, on 24 March, and sent for Mr Cole. Cole came and said Parker had got his money, and he was going to take her before a magistrate. The prisoner then said to Cole, “Come with me into a private room only for two minutes.” They went into another room, and before long Cole called the constable. When he went in, he saw Parker with her arms around Cole’s waist. When Cole insisted that he would take her before a magistrate, she cried, “Oh, don’t take me, and I’ll send for my mother, and she will sell everything she has to give you back your money.” She was subsequently taken before a magistrate and committed to Horsley gaol, before being transferred to Gloucester for her trial.
In her defence, Elizabeth Parker said that Cole had given her the money, and on the next day told her he did not care about the money, but was “apprehensive that he would lose his character as parish clerk.”
Parker was found guilty, and in addressing her, the judge said, “he was sorry to perceive that she had made such a bad return for the royal clemency which she had so recently experienced.” He sentenced her to be transported for life. The judge showed his disapproval of Daniel Cole’s conduct by not allowing his expenses as prosecutor to be waived.
Although Daniel Cole had not been the only witness to give evidence against Elizabeth Parker at her first trial, it might be expected that he would have kept out of her way after she was pardoned and returned to Tetbury. Perhaps the parish officer was one of Elizabeth’s regular customers. Certainly he seems to have found her hard to resist when he was inebriated (despite her being missing two front teeth). Did she know this, and get him to “accompany her down the yard” with a view to stealing from him to get her revenge? It seems more likely that she knew that Daniel Cole had a great deal of money on him that night, and took her chances when she found him the worse for drink, hoping that if she was found out, he would not prosecute her, because of the damage it would do to his reputation. Perhaps she also thought that she could use her feminine wiles to persuade Cole not to prosecute her. If so, she was wrong, and was sent to start a new life, in Tasmania.
Sources: Gloucestershire Archives, Gaol Calendars (Q/Gc 5/4); Gloucester Journal, 8 Jan and 15 Jan, 1831 at Gloucestershire Archives; Morning Post, 6 April 1832, from the British Newspaper Archive website.