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Page 3d(1) - William NIBBS, Swing Rioter


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William NIBBS  1809 - 1884

Swing rioter

(Contributed by
Anne GODDARD, via Lee CHAMBERS, with minor editorial amendments
Also see CREDITS at end)

William NIBBS was born in Little Marlow, Buckinghamshire to Job and Mary NIBBS.   He was baptised a Protestant on 9 July 1809.   William had a brother John and a sister, whose name is unknown at this stage.   William and his siblings received some form of schooling as William could read and write, which would indicate the family was not of the poorest standing.

Father Job worked as a woodman and brother John as a paper maker.   William was a labourer.


A look into the 1830 riots as a whole, gives a good insight into what life would have resembled for a labourer such as William and his family in a small farming village in England during the early 1800's.

1830 saw a three tiered pyramid permanently in place within the social and economic life of a typical village of the southern English counties.   At the top sat the land owners who directly and indirectly shaped the way of life for those beneath them.   Second were the tenant farmers and on the bottom rung came the labourers.   The tenant farmers had their rents pegged at an annual amount rather than a percentage of the harvest profits.   A good harvest resulted in the land owner raising the tenant's tithe the following annum, but neglecting to compensate on subsequent poor harvests.   The tenant farmers made ends meet by reducing costs of labour either by cutting pay rates or introducing labour saving devices such as threshing machines or chaff cutters, the labourers being the ultimate losers in the hierarchy.

Labourers rarely had steady employment, relying on ploughing and crop gathering seasons, being paid on a daily or weekly basis by the farmers.   In between the seasons they were left to fend for themselves, many forced to rely on Parish Relief during the long periods of unemployment.

Crop prices had been steadily falling in the years up to 1830 thus putting enormous pressure on the farmers and more so, the labourers.   Many farmers turned to agricultural machinery to cut operating costs.   Three bad harvests in a row by 1830 and the winter of 1830 being abnormally severe, heightened the labourers' anger and frustration.   Doomed to poverty, starvation being imminent for many labourers and their families, it is accepted that this triggered the 1830's riots.

They occurred over many southern counties and widely varied in the course of action taken.   The most common form of protest or outrage was, a large number, sometimes hundreds, of labourers would gather together in a village and head off to a pre-targeted farm.   Usually an appointed spokesman for the group would demand some amount of monetary compensation.   Refusal to pay led to threats of violence and invariably the money was paid.   If the farm possessed a threshing machine, chaff cutter, or other labour saving device, it was unduly destroyed.

The least common, but best known, form of outrage was the "Swing Letter" a message threatening severe violence unless money was paid or wages were raised or machines dismantled.   The letters were signed "Captain Swing" (an analogy derived from the Irish protests led by Captain Rock), hence the name the "Swing Rioters".  He was a mythical figure and it is said that the name also related to the 'swing' (a moving part) of the flail used to thresh harvested grain.

In general the riots were non-violent though clearly threatening, however low level violence did occur when the farmers or their men tried to prevent machinery or property from being destroyed.

Prior to his conviction for Machine Breaking, William had been prosecuted for stealing turnip greens spending one month in prison.   This throws a very dim light on his living standards at the time, having to resort to turnip greens for sustenance.   Convict records also state that William's Grandmother (maternal?) was alive at the time of his transportation.

In 1830 William was 21 years old and being a farm labourer by trade his own anger and frustrations drew him to become involved in a riot in the village of Loudwater in the Parish of Chepping Wycombe.

The charge against him documented as follows:

Reports of the Trial proceedings show the riot did get a little out of hand with many threats of violence being flung around, along with rocks and other missiles.   Special constables had also arrived at the scene resulting in many physical altercations as they tried to make arrests.

William receives special mention for his part in the riot.   James GEORGE, a special constable, who was at Mr DAVIS' on the day of the riot, described the proceedings of the mob and identified William KNIBBS as having been at the front of them when there was a cry of "break the machinery".   He continued,

Mr George MORTON said

One of the party who had an axe in his hand at the time, threatened to split the head open of one of the special constables.  Another threatened a constable that he, having a long memory would blow the constable's brains out the next time he sighted him.

More background

The first of the rioters arrested received lenient sentences.   Some were released due to the ordinary evidence posed against them, many received one to two months imprisonment or a very young offender may have received just a warning, but as the riots escalated the British Authorities took a harsher stance.

From November 1830 to early January 1831 some 2000 rioters were arrested.   In December and the following January punishments handed down had changed dramatically, to that of transportation for life, fourteen or seven years, or the ultimate penalty, the death sentence.   Appalling as it may seem, one theory posed by historians is the Government may have seen it as an opportunity to get skilled persons over to the newly established colony, Australia, as their emigration incentive schemes were failing.   By late January 1831 the riots had subsided and so did the deliberations handed down to the accused.   Most of the rioters sentenced to death, upon petitioning by their families and village folk, had their sentence reprieved to transportation.

It was evident that the Machine Breakers were devastated by the severe penalties they received.   It was relatively a non-violent form of protest and they may have anticipated only a token punishment for their involvement.   This is demonstrated by an excerpt from a letter by a Wiltshire rioter, Peter Withers, to his wife on the eve of his departure to Australia aboard the "Proteus":

After all the evidence had been given, William and eighteen other fellow rioters were placed in the dock to receive sentence.   Mr Justice PARK, overseer of the trial addressed them;

Minor participants in the riot received sentences from 18 months imprisonment to transportation of 7 years depending on the evidence against them and their character references.   Two main offenders in the riot received the death sentence with no reprieve.

Fortunately for William (and his descendants!!!) the final punishment handed down to him was transportation to Australia for 7 Years.

His Voyage

Most of the Swing prisoners' sentenced to transportation first port of call were one of the Prison Hulks on permanent moorings at the port of departure.   Here they were held for days to months awaiting allocation to a ship.   William was received from Aylesbury prison aboard the Hulk "York" at the port of Portsmouth on the 9th March 1831.

The Swing Rioters or Machine Breakers came out to Australia aboard three vessels; 136 rioters on the "Eleanor" to New South Wales, 224 on the "Eliza" and 98 aboard the "Proteus", both to Van Diemen's Land (VDL - Old name for Tasmania by TASMAN after Anthony Van DIEMEN 1593 - 1645 Governor of Java).   William KNIBBS arrived in Hobart Town, VDL in 1831 on the third and smallest contingent, the "Proteus".

Information of interest

The Machine Breakers were viewed differently from that of common criminals, in that the authorities and the public thought they were generally decent men, skilled and hard working, whose crime was to only try to get better working conditions.   During the voyage they were not required to wear the normal convict garb, and were not under lock and key at all times, being given free access of the ship frequently.   Ominously, however, the "Eliza's" list of stores unloaded in Hobart Town included 224 sets of leg irons which were recorded as having been used during the voyage.

Arrivals in VDL

By 1831 the Assignment System for handling the arrival of convicts was in place.   This system involved the convicts, upon their arrival, being assigned to land owners, farmers and businessmen, who undertook to clothe and feed their assignee to a regulated standard.   It was felt that under this system the convicts could immediately start making a contribution to the essentially rural colony.   The Government's Public Works Department always took first pick of any new convicts, and the VDL Company received second choice.   The remainder were then allocated out to the public.

The Machine Breakers were highly sought after due to their agricultural skills and experience, as compared to the common unskilled convict from the city slums.   They were so good a catch in fact, that it is documented the VDL Co had already earmarked which Machine Breakers they required before they had even arrived in VDL.

The Governor of VDL at this time was Governor George ARTHUR, a staunch supporter of convict transportation.   In England there was mounting concern and criticism of transportation system as an unjust and overly cruel form of punishment.   Governor ARTHUR took a keen interest in the Machine Breakers, unfairly using them as examples to vindicate his views.   The Machine Breakers were not your average convicts, they were protestors not criminals and were less likely to re-offend.   Skilled and experience convicts would offer a far greater contribution to society than the common criminal, and were therefore more likely to do well in the future.   His use of these convicts to promote the success of the transportation system was misleading giving false results as to the effects of transportation.

What did William look like?

Upon each convict's arrival in Australia their description was recorded, being the only form of identification the authorities had.   Photographs did not come in to the system until the 1860's.   A conduct record was kept for each convict documenting any misdemeanors, assignments and relevant details during their term of imprisonment.

Convict William NIBBS' details

Description - Age - 22 years
Trade - Labourer
Native place : Little Marlow
Height - 5' 6 1/2"
Complexion - swarthy
Hair - light brown
Whiskers - none
Forehead - projecting high
Eyebrows - light brown
Eyes - dark blue
Nose - short
Scars - mole on right cheek bone
WW and JM - inside right arm
WL - inside left arm

Compare these details with a photograph of William taken many years later.

Unfortunately William resented being held prisoner as all his escape attempts would indicate.   Harsh penalties were imposed on him; chains, solitary confinement and the lash.   The use of the brutal cat'o'nine tails or some other whip was practiced in the early days of the convict system, and rarely used after the 1850's.   William was the only convict member of my family to have received this form of disciplinary action.   The final two punishments had the desired effect on William, ie.   a clean slate for the final fourteen months of his sentence.

Record of William NIBBS' Conduct

Date Assigned to: Charge - punishment
28 Nov 1832 J Hone Esq Absent without leave and going to Bodeans Public House on Sunday - admonished.
23 Sep 1834 J Hone Esq Gross immoral conduct in the service of his master - Westbury Road Party 12 months recommended.
12 Nov 1834 Road Party Absconding - 6 months hard labour in addition to his former sentence in chains recommended.
20 Dec 1834 Road Party Absconding - 50 lashes.
16 Jan 1835 Road Party Idleness - to sleep in the cell 7 days and to work 4 Saturday afternoons.

Received Free Pardon (No. 159) 5th April 1836.

(ACJ Note: Between 1835 and 1837, free pardons were granted to many of the transported Swing Rioters.  More tolerant views in England prevailed, linked in part to the enactment of The Reform Act of 1832.  In this connection, see also Rev William KNIBB's remarks re slavery.)

A New Life.

Nothing is known of William from his release in 1836 until his marriage in 1845.   I can only make the assumption he remained in the Westbury district being there at the end of his sentence and then in 1845.

On 22nd September 1845 William married a Mary Ann Timoney at the Westbury Church of England.

NB.  The Hobart Gazette on the 1st September 1845 records an approval of a marriage application for William and Mary Ann.   That day the Convict Department issued nine approvals of marriage, one being:   "William KNIBBS, free, and Mary Ann TUMENY, East London, in private service, both parties residing at Westbury"   In 1845 William was of free status and therefore no convict details would be required to be noted, and therefore tells us nothing.

Mary Ann Timoney was the last Tasmanian ancestor of whose past had eluded me.   Her surname really being "Tumney" not Timoney threw a spanner in the works as did William altering his name.   I must say though I do not wonder why.   The Government paper of the time, the "Hobart Town Gazette", report absolutely every movement of each and every convict.   Any subsequent misdemeanors, Ticket of Leave Approvals, Marriage Application Approvals, pardons, etc, etc, etc were all made public knowledge.   A new colony of small population, name change and a move to a new town would be the only way to escape.

Pioneers of the North Coast.

William worked as an agricultural labourer in Westbury after his marriage to Mary Ann.   By 1856 the NIBBS family, now blessed with five children, had relocated to the newly established district of Port Sorell in Northern Tasmania.   I have conflicting information as to when the relocation actually took place, as the following points illustrate:

a) Mary Ann was the informant for birth records of their three children born in 1849, 1850 and 1852 and stated her residence as Westbury, indicating she was still living at Westbury until at least 1852.

b) The Devonport Historical Society informed me that William was the overseer of a large primitive property at Torquay (now East Devonport) owned by a Rev. John BISHTON in the mid 1840's and the 1850's.

c) Local history book "With The Pioneers" by Charles RAMSEY states that a Frank NIBBS was the overseer of Rev. John BISHTON's property at Pardoe (which would be classed as part of Torquay) during the 1840's and 1850's.   The Corrigenda at the front of this book corrects the above christian name to William.

I now know the reason Mary Ann remained in Westbury whilst William established himself at Pardoe.   She did not receive her Certificate of Freedom until 29th January 1850, and therefore was forced to remain there until that time.   Mary Ann and her young family were to join William, between 1850 and 1856.   Interestingly, William's boss at Pardoe, the Rev.   John BISHTON, was also the Minister who married William and Mary Ann in Westbury in 1845.

Their sixth child born in 1856 was registered in the Port Sorell District, William being the informant and stating his occupation now as farming and residing at Folly Farm (where???).   Records of 1857 and onwards show William as a farmer living at Pardoe.

William must have seen the potential of Port Sorell, Torquay and the North Coast in general.   By the 1860's the primarily agricultural district had become highly prosperous, attracting a good percentage of the immigration quota of Tasmania.   Many businesses were being established e.g. sawmills, ship building, ship trading and hotels.   Torquay (or Devonport) is currently the third biggest city of Tasmania, but Port Sorell's popularity would decline by 1900 and is now just a small seaside town whose main source of local employment relies on the holiday crowd.

Historian Charles RAMSEY, in his book "With The Pioneers", retells an account of four bush rangers who made an uninvited stop at Pardoe in 1848.   It gives a wonderful glimpse into William as an individual:

In January 1848, four bush rangers named John RILEY, Micheal ROGERS, Peter REYNOLDS and Patrick LYNCH, who were supposed to have absconded from the Fingal Depot, made their appearance in the neighbourhood of Port Sorell, their intention no doubt being to seize some vessel and effect their escape from the colony.

Four police constables who were in pursuit of them incautiously entered a hut occupied by a man named STARKEY on the 20th, and were immediately fired upon by the bush rangers, who shot one of the constables dead and wounded another.   The other two constables, after a vain endeavor to discharge their pieces, which were wet, escaped in the bush, and with the wounded man reached Port Sorell.

On the 21st at about 3am these outlaws entered the "Plough Inn" at Moorlands (near Pardoe) which was owned by John MOORE, and they stated that they were constables from George Town.   Upon gaining admittance, three of them presented their guns at Mr MOORE, and ordered him in his bedroom, where they tied him up, and they also rounded up both house and farm servants, and had them tied up as well.   They ransacked the house, but only got about 3 pound in money, and after carousing a considerable time, they seized tow horses and carried off a quantity of clothing, one gun, two watches, wine, spirits, etc.

They then went to Rev John BISHTON's farm.   His men were in the fields and were chased by the bush rangers.   NIBBS, the overseer, sent a man off to MOORE's and then went towards the house with a fork in his hand.   He was met by a man who told him to lay down the fork, which he did, but went up to the man and seized his gun and tried to take it from him.   He had nearly succeeded when the bush ranger pulled out a pistol and told him to let go.   A man named HART, coming to NIBBS' assistance, was snapped at four times, so he took to his heels and escaped.   The bush rangers entered the house and had tea, and when six men came up from MOORE's, they were seized, tied up, and the outlaws swore they would go back and shoot MOORE.   After brutally abusing NIBBS and others, they returned to MOORE's but not finding him there they proceeded to SMITH's.

The bush rangers moved on along the North West Coast causing more havoc and late March made their escape to Kangaroo Island, South Australia, aboard an American Whaling ship.

The Rev. John BISHTON purchased his Pardoe property of 500 acres in 1843.   In 1850 records show that he also leased large areas of land in the vicinity of, and including "The Torquay Reserve", and in the vicinity of Latrobe Reserve.   It appears that William was involved in the management of these additional areas also.   John BISHTON died in 1856, and would probably have been about the time William took up tenant farming.   Many farmers had to lease land in the hope of one day being in a good enough financial position to purchase their own land.   William leased 100 acres at Pardoe from approximately 1862 to 1878.   The owner of this property was an H.  REED of England.   Harold THOMAS' publication on "Northdown" shows this property to be situated on the coastline, opposite Moorlands Beach.   I have not yet delved into land records to see if William was ever able to purchase his own land.

Aug 2000

And now, with many thanks indeed to John MORROW and Lynette WATSON (descendants of William's daughter Susannah who married Thomas RAY), via Anne GODDARD, we do have a picture of William to go with the description above.

William NIBBS
Note the projecting high forehead

And from Brian/Colin NIBBS in Tasmania the following from the Family Bible
'Torquay Tasmania Pardoe June the 11th 1879, I am this day 70 years old having been born June the 11th 1809 at Flackwell Heath Little Marlow Bucks England.  Mine has been a chequered life, But it has been one of much Mercy from a Mercyfull god and to him more than all his due'.

The majority of research into William NIBBS and the Machine Breakers was done by others, namely Jill CHAMBERS, British Historian, Geoff SHARMAN, Tasmanian Historian and Bruce BROWN, Australian Historian.   Fortunately, over recent years the Machine Breakers of the 1830's and their part in British and Australian History has been recognized and much research undertaken by historians as to the causes of the riots, their lives before and after, etc.   In recent years it has come into the History agenda of Britain's school curriculum.

ACJ Note:
It was my understanding that all NIBBS in Tasmania are descended from William NIBBS and Mary Ann TIMONEY.  There are indeed many of them in the current Electoral Register.
 Now David BOON has told me of at least three other NIBBS who were transported to Tasmania.  One was his ancestor James NIBBS who had the same name as another.  The search is on to find any of their descendants still bearing the NIBBS name.  Thanx also go again to Anne GODDARD who initiated this item

Geoff SHARMAN's website is well worth a visit for anyone interested in the Swing Rioters.

Buckinghamshire Machine Breakers - Jill CHAMBERS
Descendant of Swing Rioters Conference Papers 1999
Machine Breakers' News (Southern Edition No.1) Oct 1997

See also 'The Captain Swing riots' by Peter Wotton, Family Tree Magazine May/June 2000
and for general background re early Tasmania 'English Passengers' by Matthew KNEALE - a riveting story

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