Volunteers’ Voice #12: A tale of rural protest in Berkshire

Written by Kaye Gough, Volunteer.

Well, we did it!  After months of discussions and script conferences; research teams trawling through local archives; rehearsals, sourcing costumes and music, the MERL Players presented two performances of our tableau Performing Protest: Riots against technological change in the 19th Century to full houses at the Museum on Saturday 22nd March.

The team perform the play in the Museum

The team perform the play in the Museum

I have been researching the Swing riots since 2010 after talking to a Museum visitor who asked to see a threshing machine.  She explained that her ancestor had been transported to Tasmania in 1831 after being brought before the Salisbury Magistrates and charged with destroying a threshing machine.  My curiosity was aroused; history has always been a passion of mine and volunteering at MERL has given me the opportunity to pursue this hobby.  I discovered that the Swing Riots, an important agricultural protest movement, appears as a minor footnote in our history and yet had a major effect on rural communities throughout the south of England, including Berkshire.


The ‘MERL Players Company’ formed after the CREW Presentation Skills course in 2012 developed various events designed for children from Family Tours to a Victorian Christmas. We created different characters to illustrate aspects of rural life and focused on local history relating to Huntley & Palmers and Victorian Christmas traditions. At the beginning of 2013 the Swing Riots was discussed as a potential subject to include in a planned outreach programme to present to senior school and community groups. We were fortunate to have experts on the subject in Rob Davies, our Volunteer Supervisor and Keith Jerrome, a fellow volunteer guide to lead us on our Swing Riots journey.


Everyone jumped into action to relate the story of William Winterbourne (alias Smith), who was hung at Reading Gaol, and the protest activities within the communities of Kintbury and Hungerford.  Keith and his team carried out important background research at Berkshire Records Office; we read books on the subject; Anne discovered a folk song on the Swing riots (Owlesbury Lads). Ilka Weiss, a stage designer with international theatrical experience gave us valuable advice during rehearsals which helped us finesse our performance. Costumes were kept simple, with everyone wearing black with hats, shawls and caps for identifying characters. Jan Butler, another MERL Volunteer, did an outstanding job creating and knitting superb wigs for the judge and two barristers – all from an old Arran sweater! Clive became a powerful Winterbourn, Keith relished his role as the Reverend Fowle and Jeremy a commanding Judge.  Sadly, we had cast members fall ill at the last moment – but in true theatrical tradition ‘the show must go on’ and ‘understudies’ stepped in.

It has been great fun and now the show goes on tour at the end of the month! We are delighted to have been invited to present our performance to The Hungerford Historical Association on the evening of 28th May in Hungerford Town Hall – who knows, the next stop may be the West End!! Seriously, we welcome invitations to showcase this important story in classrooms, village halls or care homes!!   Bring it on!!!


Volunteers’ Voice #10: Performing Protest: Riots against technological change in the 19th Century

written by Rob Davies, Volunteer Co-ordinator

On Saturday 22nd of this month a team of my volunteers are delivering Performing Protest: riots against technological change in the 19th Century. It is a performance-based event about the Swing Riots in Berkshire, which occurred in 1830-31. The event is part of Reading Science Week, in turn part of National Science and Engineering Week (NSEW), a ten-day national programme of science, technology, engineering and maths events and activities across the UK, aimed at people of all ages from March 14th to 23rd.

The Swing Riots was a national crisis which engulfed the English countryside and resulted in the imprisonment, transportation and in some cases the execution of those involved. The introduction and rise of the threshing machine took vital winter work away from farm labourers, without which many families faced starvation. This sparked riots, and attacks were led against the threshing machines.  In this event, we will explore the causes, events and aftermath of the Swing Riots both locally and nationally.

Volunteers at MERL have been practising hard for the event

Volunteers at MERL have been practising hard for the event

The event has been put together by my family tour guide team who were responsible for our Victorian Christmas event. After the success of the Christmas event and the family tours, we sat down and considered “what shall we do next?” A member of the team, Keith, has a strong interest in working class history and suggested we look into the Swing Riots. “Many have heard of ‘The Tolpuddle Martys’, the Six Men of Dorset transported to Australia for forming a trades union in 1834. Four years earlier hundreds of agricultural labourers were gaoled, many transported and some executed after what has become known as The Swing Riots.”

As a team we sat down and planned the event, thinking about our audience, our aims and the methods to achieve them, it was clear from the beginning that this event was going to be very different from our previous work, so we decided upon these key themes to base our performance upon:

  • To educate our audience about the causes, effects and aftermath of the Swing Riots
  • To use the local story of the Swing Riots in Berkshire as a vehicle to tell the national story
  • Use the museum as a stage for the performance
  • Appeal to new audiences
The Family Tour Guide Team, who previously brought you such hits as 'the MERL tour', and the 'Victorian Christmas tour'

The Family Tour Guide Team, who previously brought you such hits as ‘the MERL tour’, and the ‘Victorian Christmas tour’

With these in mind we have developed a script keeping as close to historical accuracy as possible.  A team of volunteers visited the Berkshire Record Office for research and volunteers have been using the local library and the MERL library.  Several of the team have read the book From Berkshire to Botany Bay by Norman Fox.  What we have been unable to put into the script we will put on the presentation boards that will be on display during the event, along with a leaflet to complement the performance.

In case you missed it, a promotional trailer and poster have been produced by the volunteers with my assistance and the support of MERL’s Marketing Officer.  Protest_poster_small

Rehearsals are now in full swing (excuse the pun)! We’re meeting twice a week and I am really pleased with how much progress we have made. The entire team have really immersed themselves in this very exciting and often overlooked period of our history, and I think we have all developed strong opinions on the matter (with historical arguments to support them!).

Working with volunteers to devise and create an event of this type on a big scale has been both rewarding and at times stressful. I’ve had to harness their enthusiasm and push it in the right direction.  I quickly realised that I needed a clear plan and structure in my mind in order channel their  knowledge and creativity. Of course, there have been days where I’ve had to re-think the structure and sometimes throw it out of the window!

The value of working with volunteers is huge, as their ideas and enthusiasm underpins the event, creating a real buzz and enjoyment to it. They have taken on the roles of researchers, script writers, costume-makers and actors. I really appreciate the time and effort they have put in to every aspect. When the opportunity arose to enter the event into the NSEW competition I leapt at it and hope that we might be lucky enough to win something for this Science Week event with a difference. It would be an amazing reward for their dedication! In the meantime, we hope that visitors will buy tickets and enjoy the event.

For further details and tickets, visit Performing Protest on the MERL website. Book now to avoid disappointment and join us for an entertaining and thought-provoking event.

Read more about the event in our recent press release