An Address to the people of Suffolk on incendiary fires

Found in the Haining collection - a mid 19th century pamphlet An Address to the people of Suffolk on incendiary fires. No publisher, author, date or place of publication is given. WorldCat notes that there is a copy in the Goldsmiths'-Kress Library of Economic Literature, (no. 34328) and says the author was probably  Lord Thurlow - a Suffolk peer (Edward Hovell-Thurlow) and estimates a publication date of 1845. Evidently Suffolk was plagued by arson at this time. An impassioned plea, unashamedly patrician in tone, to stop this outbreak. It appears to be addressed mainly to farm workers and may have been spoken to a gathering and/or published in local newspapers. The account of the violent and seditious behaviour of people at the fires is fascinating and alarming...






  For several months there has been a fire in this neighbourhood nearly every night. The quantity of property already destroyed is enormous; and if this destruction goes on, the county will be ruined. That these fires are not accidental, every body knows; and if any thing were wanted to prove it, the behaviour of the people at the fires puts it beyond a doubt.

  It has often been mentioned as a characteristic of the English people, that when a fire happens, there is more difficulty in preventing them from crowding in too great numbers to help to put it out, than in getting a sufficient number. That is no longer true of the people of Suffolk. They have shown a spirit unknown even in times of open insurrection: the people then go boldly and do their work, such as it is; I say boldly, because every man runs his chance of being shot on the spot, or caught and sent to Botany Bay to work in chains (which does always happen to no small number of those who engage in such insurrections). But here some cowardly rascal sets fire to a stack or farm-house, and sneaks off with small chance of being found out, while others, not less cowardly, assemble and stand by while their neighbor's property is burning, sending up a fresh shout as every stack sends up a fresh flame and every roof falls in, putting forth no hand to save it, and, with unheard of malignity, obstructing those who do, and even proposing to throw them on to the fire. If any county is henceforward infamous in the eyes of all the rest, it will be this.

  But it is useless to talk to you of the cowardice, cruelty, and infamy of these proceedings. You know all that just as well as I do, and care nothing about it. But I am going to tell you what I am sure most of you do not know, for if you did, you would never go on in this way–unless you have by this time acquired such an appetite for fire as the French in the Revolution acquired for blood, though no man knew whether his own would not be the next blood shed.

  In every stack you burn you are burning your own food.

  You think the stacks are the farmers,' and that in burning them you are only injuring the farmers, who you suppose have injured you. That you do injure them is certain enough, but it is equally certain that you injure yourselves too. Do the farmers eat all their own corn? Where does the bread come from that you eat yourselves? Is not the bread which you and your families are to eat for the next half-year, at this moment lying in some farmer's stack or granary? And if you burn it, where are you to get any more? You can't buy it, because you have no money; and you can't get any money, because the farmers will have none to pay you with when you have destroyed all their property: nay, you can't even steal it, because there will be none left to steal. Or if some of them have any money of their own, do you think they will spend it in employing you to raise more corn, which you intend to burn as soon as it is got in?

  No: you have destined the county of Suffolk to become a wilderness–for a country might as well be a wilderness as have all its produce destroyed. And though rich men may live in such a place, poor men cannot. Rich men can employ their money in some other way than farming; but agricultural labourers, where there are no farmers, must starve. You will have to go into the workhouse, or go begging about the world with your wives and children for employment or charity. And who do you think will give you either? "Where do you come from?" they will ask. "Suffolk." That will be answer enough: nobody will employ those who have once burnt their employers out; nor will any body relieve those who have ruined themselves as well as others by their own wickedness and folly.

  You may say that it will never come to this: that incendiary fires have been common before now, and that no county was ever ruined by them. I know it will never come to this; because I know that, if you do not stop of yourselves, there are no measures too strong for the Government and Parliament to take against you, even to putting the county under martial law, and shooting every one of you who is seen out after dusk. I know, too, that there were "Swing" fires*, fourteen or fifteen years ago. But did you ever hear of anybody being the better for those fires? Some rich men were ruined, and many poor ones hanged, transported, and imprisoned. But, of those who escaped, not one agricultural labourer was the better, and many much worse, for these fires; for, (as I have told you before, and cannot tell you too often) in every stack of corn that was burnt, there was burnt the food of many a poor man. And, though no county has ever yet been reduced to the state I have described, I have a right to describe that as the state to which you are reducing it, since every fire brings it nearer to that state. If the county would be ruined by all the property in it being destroyed. At any rate, whether you bring the county to a state of desolation or not, you are certainly doing your best to bring it to a state of Famine–that most dreadful of all calamities that can befall a country– a state, remember, in which the sufferings of the rich are as nothing, compared with those of the poor. Thousands of poor men would die in a famine, before one rich man would be hungry. No one can tell whether the present long drought may not end in a famine; and you are doing all you can to help it.

  No doubt, you think I am saying all this to frighten you, in order to save my own property. If I were, I should be doing quite right. At any rate, I should have a better right to frighten you out of mischief, by telling you the truth, than you could have to frighten me by burning all my neighbours' farms. But I am doing no such thing. I have not a shilling's-worth of property that your fires can reach; and I have no more interest in the matter than every Englishman has in doing his best to stop such disgraceful and ruinous proceedings.

  There may be other crimes as wicked, but there is none half so silly, so insane, as this. By every other crime a man does expect to get something for himself; bu this he cannot get, and cannot expect to get, anything. Even for the miserable purpose of revenge, it is the most absurd thing he can do; for he is destroying his own living at the same time that he is destroying his own living at the same time that he destroy's his enemy's. And since there are many more labourers than farmers, you must injure many more of yourselves than of the farmers. If a farm maintains one farmer and a dozen labourers, and you destroy all the produce of the farm, you clearly starve a dozen labourers for one farmer. You might just as well catch a farmer, and send him out to sea, with a dozen of you, and then sink the boat, in order to revenge yourselves upon him.

  This may look ridiculous, and you may not choose to believe it, because you can see in a moment that you ruin a man if you burn all his property, whereas you don't see quite so easily how the loss of his property is to affect you. If you do not see it, I can only ask you to read again what I have said about your bread coming out of the farmers' stacks, and you will see that what you think a joke is perfectly true. And, if you should still fail to see it, I will try once more to convince you. Suppose somebody was to propose to you to carry of from a man's granary as much corn as would make you bread for a year. You would probably think this no bad thing, if it could be done safely. But, suppose he should come again, after you had got it all in, and propose that you should make a great fire and burn it? Would you not kick him out of the house for a madman? Yet this is just the same think as burning it while it is still in the granary. The corn in the farmer's granary will be your's in time, just as much as if you had it in your own: and yet you are doing all you can to destroy it, and flatter yourselves you are only injuring him. It would, of course, be more wicked for all the labourers to murder all the farmers, and take all their property; but (excepting for the certainty of punishment) it would not be half so foolish as this plan of destroying all that you, as well as they, have to live upon.

  You may say it is nonsense to talk of the corn being your's in time, when you are now, as you say, starving for want of it. Many of you are very badly off I know, and can get very little bread or anything else. But still all that you do get or can get, whether much or little, is in these same stacks which you are burning; and I need not tell you that the more you burn the less there will be left. And if you were really staring, what good can you possibly expect the fires would do you? They may warm your heads, but they will not fill your bellies. Do you expect to make farmers give you more wages by leaving them less to pay them with? If you were badly off when you began burning, you are (whether you see it or not) much worse off now than you would have been if you had not begun. You have already destroyed as much as would have supported hundreds of you till the next harest; and the longer you go on the more miserable you will make yourselves.

  It is just possible you may be told that if you burn the corn here more of it will come from other places. But who is to bring it? If the farmers are ruined they cannot buy it; and you know very well you cannot, unless the farmers employ you, which you are doing all you can to prevent them being able to do. It is no use trying to frighten them into giving you more wages, while you are destroying their only means of employing you at all; for if they have no corn to sell, they will have no money to pay wages with. You might as well seize half-a-crown from a man who has no more, and throw it into a river in order to make him give you sixpence.

  What more can I say? If you are not convinced of the folly of the course you are pursuing–of its impossibility to do you any good–of its certainty to do you a great deal of harm, nothing but experience will convince you; and by that you will certainly be convinced when it is too late.

  To say anything of the wickedness of this conduct might seem unnecessary. But in times of discontent many are led to join in acts of this kind, who do not see the wickedness of them, because they do not see their real nature and consequences. When you see the consequences to be such as I have mentioned, you can no longer doubt of the wickedness. Injuring other without the possibility of benefiting yourself, is wickedness natural to none but the devil.

  One word more to those who think that, so long as they kindle no fires themselves, and do not actually hinder others from putting them out, they are doing no harm. At any rate they are doing something very foolish, in not helping to put out the fire which is consuming their own bread. But this is not all. How much better is he that stands by the water and refuses to put out his hand to save a drowning man, than he who pushes him into the water? Will he feel less remorse all the rest of his life than the actual murderer? Will he be dealt with differently in the day of judgement? Of those who try to prevent others from extinguishing the fire, the guilt is still plainer. They are like him who should chop off the fingers of a drowning man catching at the edge of a boat, or who should intercept a pardon sent to an innocent man already standing on the scaffold. If these are murders (as without doubt they are are), then is he who hinders the extinction of a fire, and even he who stands by and will not help, an Incendiary, if not by our laws, at least by that law by which he will at last be judged.

* This refers to the Swing Riots of the early 1830s. Farmers and landowners whose buildings and machinery were attacked often got threatening letters beforehand signed 'Captain Swing.'

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *