Page:VCH Surrey 1.djvu/508

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A HISTORY OF SURREY taken towards forming the militia till the next session of Parliament. 1 By that time the character of the war and the character of the nation had been transformed by the appearance of a man, William Pitt. Two regiments of militia were embodied in Surrey without complaint and performed their service of marching up and down the southern counties. Some twenty years later the one regiment which had been retained in Surrey was on active service in the Gordon Riots in London. In the subsequent French wars there were ultimately five regiments of militia in Surrey with headquarters at Kingston, Guildford, Croydon, Putney and Clapham, besides volunteers. The period of the great French war passed with no notable politi- cal event in the county. One at least notorious if not eminent political person emerged from it. William Cobbett was a native of west Surrey, and it is not impossible that his frequent presence in the neighbourhood of his old home had something to do with the spread of the Radicalism of that age in the southern counties. These counties, including Surrey, were at all events one scene of its violent manifestation, and once more, in the nineteenth century, Surrey saw the beginning of something approaching popular insurrection. It belongs to social history rather than to political to tell of the agricultural distress which accompanied the French Revolutionary War, and which became still more acute after the peace of 1815, and which was intensified by an unwise administra- tion of absurd Poor Laws. The people of Surrey, in common with those of all agricultural districts, were poor, miserable and degraded. Riots and outrages, such as we associate with the worst districts of Ireland in bad times, were common within thirty miles of London. Matters reached a crisis in the autumn of 1830. The Revolution of July had been successful in France. Revolution had broken out in Belgium. George IV. was just dead and the ministry of the Duke of Wellington was tottering. The summer had been wet and the harvest in the south disastrous. Wages were falling, the 5*. a week sometimes paid was being replaced by 4*. 6d. or even, it was said, by 3^. wages which were of course supplemented by out-door relief. There was a spirit of political unrest and of savage discontent at social evils directed against all employers ; against old yeo- men farmers because they were ruined men and could not pay good wages, against gentlemen farmers because they bought out the old men and were strangers and innovators, above all against those who used threshing machines, whence the flail, the old mainstay of the poor in winter, was displaced. Letters signed ' Swing,' or ' Captain Swing,' threatened employers, overseers and tithe owners with condign vengeance unless they made reductions of rent and tithes and increase of wages and allowances. Nor were the threats empty. Ricks and farm build- ings blazed, machines were smashed, and riotous crowds extorted their terms from isolated farmers under threats of violence. Parliament had met on November 2, and about simultaneously the south-eastern counties 1 Walpole, Memoirs of the Reign of George II. III. p. 40-2. 428