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!!!


Press release: Science Week is a riot at Uni Museum

Protest_poster_smallVolunteers at the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) will present a Reading Science Week event with a difference on Saturday 22nd March.

Reading Science Week is 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. The ‘Performing Protest’ event at MERL, which is owned and managed by the University of Reading, will tackle the issue of protest against technological change in agriculture in the 1830s. The performance will tell the true story of William Winterbourne, accused of leading the rioters in what became known as the Swing Riots.

The team of volunteer tour guides at the Museum have written a piece of immersive theatre with the help of Volunteer Co-ordinator Rob Davies, who has a background in amateur dramatics. They will perform the dramatic, hard-hitting production against the backdrop of the Museum which houses many of the tools made redundant by technological change, as well as the machinery which replaced them.

The volunteers will play characters who bore witness during this tumultuous period, telling the audience stories of life and work in the countryside at the time. The audience will meet William Winterbourne (accused of being the illusive ‘Captain Swing’) played by volunteer Clive Pugh and will take part in a court case where they will be invited to decide whether to support him or the landowners who were trying to protect their new machinery.


Rob Davies said ‘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 the only winter work available away from the farm labourers, without this work many labourers and families faced starvation. This sparked riots and the threshing machines were attacked. We will explore the causes, events and aftermath of the Swing Riots both locally and nationally.

“The event was the idea of some of our volunteers who have a keen interest in the history of agricultural labourers. The team have devised characters for family tours in the past, but this time they wanted to tackle an historical event that saw great change in the countryside. They have spent hours researching, planning, rehearsing and even making costumes and a promotional ‘trailer‘! We’re looking forward to a very exciting event.’

Volunteer Keith Jerrome has been the driving force behind the event and has a keen interest in the Swing Riots, especially the local story.   He says, “Many have heard of ‘The Tolpuddle Martyrs’, 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”. Setting fire to ricks and smashing the threshing machines they saw as the cause of starvation and degradation swept across Southern England. This has been “hidden history” and we seek to give back a voice to the people of ‘Captain Swing’.”

The event will take place at 11.30-12.30 and again at 2.30-3.30pm on Saturday 22nd March. There will also be an exhibition presenting objects and documents relating to the riots, such as flails and court deportations.  Booking is essential and tickets, which cost £4 or £2 concessions, can be bought from the Museum. For further details and to book tickets, visit the MERL website

MERL is also hosting Reading Science Week’s ‘Stargazing’ events this weekend, for more details see Reading Science Week programme


The press are welcome to attend. Rob Davies is available for interview and high resolution images are available on request. Please contact Alison Hilton, MERL Marketing Officer on 0118 378 8660.