Memorial service remembers ‘Martyr of Kintbury’ William Winterbourne, executed during the Swing Riots of the 1930s
A Kintbury man who was executed during the ‘swing riots’ of the 1830s has been commemorated in a ceremony at his grave.
William Winterbourne was hanged for his role in the Farm Uprising and every year – at the exact time of his death – locals gather at his grave.
One of those present at the ceremony this year was William Kerley, a theater and film director who lives in Kintbury and hopes to one day make the story of Mr Winterbourne on film. Here he explains more about the story.
Many people have heard of the Tolpuddle ‘martyrs’ – Dorset farm laborers who were sentenced to deportation; exile in Australia. But Kintbury has its own martyr, William Winterbourne, executed for his role in the so-called ‘Swing Riots’ – the terrible winter farming uprising of 1830.
Every year in Kintbury Cemetery on January 11, just before midday – the exact time of his hanging – there is a gathering at Winterbourne’s grave of villagers, clergy, local historians and a deputation from the TUC in Reading.
This year, one of William Winterbourne’s descendants laid flowers on his grave.
By 1830, three consecutive crop failures and two harsh winters in between had pushed many farm workers to a level of furious defiance. Their families were starving – local farmers had replaced manual labor with threshers.
Hundreds of desperate men rampaged from farm to farm, smashing hated machinery, demanding money and food – they even destroyed an iron foundry in Hungerford High Street. A deputation burst into a council meeting at Hungerford Town Hall, demanding relief.
The crowd, several hundred strong, were ready to march on Newbury – but swerved Enborne Road to Lord Craven’s estate in Hamstead Marshall to smash their machinery.
Before the rioters could reach Newbury, an armed force of lancers and yeomanry was quickly summoned and the uprising was cruelly crushed.
Some escaped, but handsome rewards were paid to anyone who spoke out against the rioters. Bounty hunters scoured the county, rounding up ringleaders and dragging them to Newbury Gaol.
The arrested men said tragic goodbyes to their loved ones in Newbury Market Square and were brought to trial in Reading.
Across the country, during the “swing riots”, 19 men were executed and more than 600 were sentenced to various forms of imprisonment.
About 500 were sentenced to deportation for life, 14 years or seven years. Many would never see their families again.
Cast as gang leader, on January 11, 1831, the illiterate William Winterbourne was publicly hanged on a scaffold built against the walls of Reading Gaol. Onlookers scaled the ruins of Reading Abbey to see the macabre spectacle, and as it fell, a terrible groan went through the crowd.
The vicar of Kintbury, the Reverend Fulwar Craven Fowle (a childhood friend of Jane Austen), felt so guilty that he could not save Winterbourne’s life, that he had the body brought back and bury him in the hallowed ground of Kintbury Cemetery.
At the time, there was a mass grave for executed men, inside the prison walls. To avoid further scandal, William was buried under his mother’s maiden name, Smith.
This annual commemoration recalls a terrible time in West Berkshire‘s history. At Winterbourne’s grave this year, newspaper and eyewitness accounts of the time were read, tributes were delivered and a moving ballad was sung.