As I was searching through the Criminal Registers (an almost compulsive habit), I came across a member of my family who had been tried by Special Commission. When I read that his crime was ‘destroying a threshing machine’, I realised that I’d stumbled upon a Luddite. In the 1830s, when farm labourers took part in the Swing Riots, my ancestor was right there in the midst of the action. An extraordinary book tucked away in the Society of Genealogists’ library, revealed a detailed account of his actions, and subsequent punishment.

On 24 November 1830, Robert Willoughby, a 28-year-old carpenter from Wiltshire, joined a mob of some 50 workers to attack a number of farms in the local area of Highworth. Beginning with the workhouse (a symbol of repression), they broke windows and stole the parish wagon before moving on to Maggot’s Mill, where they destroyed a threshing machine. By midnight, they had arrived at the farm of William Smith, where Robert was seen standing near to a machine with a stick in his hand. This simple fact was enough to get him into serious trouble.

The authorities (made up of local landowners, of course) came down hard on the rioters and the Special Commission was set up to deal with them. Perhaps because he had two previous convictions (poaching and larceny), Robert was sentenced to seven years’ transportation and was immediately removed from his home to a prison hulk, HMS York, in Portsmouth, leaving his wife and five children behind.


On 2 February 1831, Robert Willoughby set sail on the convict ship, Eliza along with 223 other prisoners, for Van Diemen’s Land, where he would remain until he received a pardon five years later. Little is known about his time spent there, but he was reprimanded twice: once for being in a public house, and the second time for being drunk.

By the early 1840s, Robert was settled back with his family in Wiltshire, working as a carpenter. After his forced spell abroad, he managed to remain out of trouble for the rest of his life.

If you are looking for ancestors who might have been involved in the Swing Riots, a good place to start is