Press release: Science Week is a riot at Uni Museum

Protest_poster_smallVolunteers at the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) will present a Reading Science Week event with a difference on Saturday 22nd March.

Reading Science Week is part of National Science and Engineering Week (NSEW), a ten-day national programme of science, technology, engineering and maths events and activities across the UK aimed at people of all ages. The ‘Performing Protest’ event at MERL, which is owned and managed by the University of Reading, will tackle the issue of protest against technological change in agriculture in the 1830s. The performance will tell the true story of William Winterbourne, accused of leading the rioters in what became known as the Swing Riots.

The team of volunteer tour guides at the Museum have written a piece of immersive theatre with the help of Volunteer Co-ordinator Rob Davies, who has a background in amateur dramatics. They will perform the dramatic, hard-hitting production against the backdrop of the Museum which houses many of the tools made redundant by technological change, as well as the machinery which replaced them.

The volunteers will play characters who bore witness during this tumultuous period, telling the audience stories of life and work in the countryside at the time. The audience will meet William Winterbourne (accused of being the illusive ‘Captain Swing’) played by volunteer Clive Pugh and will take part in a court case where they will be invited to decide whether to support him or the landowners who were trying to protect their new machinery.


Rob Davies said ‘The ‘Swing Riots’ was a national crisis which engulfed the English countryside and resulted in the imprisonment, transportation and in some cases the execution of those involved. The introduction and rise of the threshing machine took the only winter work available away from the farm labourers, without this work many labourers and families faced starvation. This sparked riots and the threshing machines were attacked. We will explore the causes, events and aftermath of the Swing Riots both locally and nationally.

“The event was the idea of some of our volunteers who have a keen interest in the history of agricultural labourers. The team have devised characters for family tours in the past, but this time they wanted to tackle an historical event that saw great change in the countryside. They have spent hours researching, planning, rehearsing and even making costumes and a promotional ‘trailer‘! We’re looking forward to a very exciting event.’

Volunteer Keith Jerrome has been the driving force behind the event and has a keen interest in the Swing Riots, especially the local story.   He says, “Many have heard of ‘The Tolpuddle Martyrs’, the Six Men of Dorset transported to Australia for forming a trades union in 1834. Four years earlier hundreds of agricultural labourers were gaoled, many transported and some executed after what has become known as “The Swing Riots”. Setting fire to ricks and smashing the threshing machines they saw as the cause of starvation and degradation swept across Southern England. This has been “hidden history” and we seek to give back a voice to the people of ‘Captain Swing’.”

The event will take place at 11.30-12.30 and again at 2.30-3.30pm on Saturday 22nd March. There will also be an exhibition presenting objects and documents relating to the riots, such as flails and court deportations.  Booking is essential and tickets, which cost £4 or £2 concessions, can be bought from the Museum. For further details and to book tickets, visit the MERL website

MERL is also hosting Reading Science Week’s ‘Stargazing’ events this weekend, for more details see Reading Science Week programme


The press are welcome to attend. Rob Davies is available for interview and high resolution images are available on request. Please contact Alison Hilton, MERL Marketing Officer on 0118 378 8660.

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