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Commemoration service remembers the 'Kintbury martyr' William Winterbourne, executed during the Swing Riots of the 1830s



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A Kintbury man who was executed during the ‘Swing Riots' of the 1830s was remembered in a ceremony at his graveside.

William Winterbourne was hanged for his part in the agricultural uprising and every year – at the exact time of his death – locals gather at his graveside.

One of those present for the ceremony this year was William Kerley, a stage and film director who lives in Kintbury and hopes to one day to make the movie of Mr Winterbourne’s story. Here he explains more about the story.

A Kintbury man who was executed during the ‘Swing Riots' of the 1830s was remembered in a ceremony at his graveside.
A Kintbury man who was executed during the ‘Swing Riots' of the 1830s was remembered in a ceremony at his graveside.

Many people have heard of the Tolpuddle ‘Martyrs’ - Dorset farm workers who were sentenced to transportation; exile in Australia. But Kintbury has an actual martyr of its own, William Winterbourne, executed for his part in the so-called ‘Swing Riots’ – the agricultural uprising of the terrible winter of 1830.

Each year in Kintbury churchyard, on January 11, just before noon - the exact time of his hanging - there is a gathering at Winterbourne’s graveside 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.

William Winterbourne's grave in Kintbury
William Winterbourne's grave in Kintbury

In 1830, three poor harvests in a row and two harsh winters in between had strung up many farm workers to a pitch of angry defiance. Their families were starving - local farmers had replaced manual labour with threshing machines.

Hundreds of desperate men rampaged from farm to farm, smashing the hated machinery, demanding money and food – they even destroyed an iron foundry in Hungerford High Street. A deputation stormed into a council meeting at Hungerford Town Hall, demanding relief.

The mob, several hundred strong, were ready to march on Newbury – but swerved off the Enborne Road to Lord Craven’s estate at Hamstead Marshall to break his machines.

Before the rioters could reach Newbury, an armed force of lancers and yeomanry was speedily summoned and the uprising was cruelly crushed.

To avoid further scandal William Winterbourne was buried under his mother's maiden name of Smith
To avoid further scandal William Winterbourne was buried under his mother's maiden name of Smith

Some escaped, but handsome rewards were paid to anyone who would inform on the rioters. Bounty-hunters roamed the county, rounding up the ring-leaders and dragging them to Newbury Gaol.

The arrested men said a tragic farewell to their loved ones in Newbury Market Square, and were carted off to trial in Reading.

Across the nation during the ‘Swing Riots’, 19 men were executed and over 600 were sentenced to varying forms of imprisonment.

Around 500 were sentenced to transportation for either life, 14 years or seven years. Many would never see their families again.

Cast as a gang leader, on 11th January 1831, the illiterate William Winterbourne was publicly hanged on a scaffold built against the walls of Reading Gaol. Spectators clambered the ruins of Reading Abbey to see the grisly spectacle and, at the moment of the drop, a terrible groan went through the crowd.

Kintbury’s vicar, Reverend Fulwar Craven Fowle (a childhood friend of Jane Austen), felt so guilty he couldn’t save Winterbourne’s life, that he had the body brought back and buried in the hallowed ground in Kintbury Churchyard.

A Kintbury man who was executed during the ‘Swing Riots' of the 1830s was remembered in a ceremony at his graveside.
A Kintbury man who was executed during the ‘Swing Riots' of the 1830s was remembered in a ceremony at his graveside.

At the time, there was a communal grave for executed men, within the prison walls. To avoid further scandal, William was buried under his mother’s maiden name of Smith.

This annual commemoration recalls a terrible time in West Berkshire’s story. At Winterbourne’s graveside this year, newspaper and eye-witness accounts from the time were read, tributes spoken and a moving ballad was sung.



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