Farm Labourers Discontent - Incendiarism in the 1800's

The poor living standards of farm labourers and the use of new machinery led to several periods of unrest amongst the farm labourers.

During the 1800's one of the common forms of this unrest was Incendiarism  usually setting light to farm buildings.

In the whole of Essex there were literally hundreds of buildings, haystacks etc set alight often owned by the more unpopular framers.

In Eastern Essex there were 16  incidents - Bradwell Juxta Mare(1), Tillingham (3), Southminster (2), Burnham (6) , Althorne(1), Latchingdon (1) Mundon (1) and Purleigh (1) all of which were identified during research by Stephen Hussey and Laura Swish for their interesting book called Horrid Lights.

There was general support for the people responsible with few people willing to give names to the authorities especially as punishments by Judges and Magistrates, who were sympathetic to the land owners, were often severe such as Hanging or transportation.

Few people ventured outside at night and it was comparatively easy for men used to moving around the marshland countryside to walk to the target building ,set light to it and then melt away unseen.

By the time that the alarm was raised and enough people assembled to fight the fire the blaze has usually achieved it's aim.

An example of a fire was reported on the 3rd September 1857 in the Derby Mercury.

Sunday night about 12 O’clock a rick of hay containing about 40 loads the property of Rev Henry Bate Dudley on Tillingham Marshes was discovered to be on fire.

On being opened it raged with incredible fury in spite of every exertion the same was entirely consumed.

Another whole rick near to the former was fortunately prevented from destruction by the indefatigable efforts of the inhabitants of Bradwell and Tillingham many of who notwithstanding the torrents of rain which fell that evening continued by the flames all night.

The fire was not quite extinguished by Tuesday noon.


By the end of the century labourers were still hard done by but had developed other methods of protest such as participation in the new Union movement and the use of fire setting as a protest gradually ceased.