Some Personalities

associated with the Selborne & Headley Workhouse Riots in 1830

RiotersClergySolicitor, William CowburnContacts & LinksRiot Home Page


A total of 345 men were arrested for disturbances in Hampshire alone, and tried before a Special Commission at Winchester over the period 20th to 30th December 1830, with a break of two days for Christmas.

Of these defendants, 22 had been committed for troubles in and around Selborne and Headley:—

Aaron Harding Thomas Harding John Heath Thomas Heighes William Heighes Robert Holdaway Henry James John Kingshott John Newland (the 'Trumpeter') James Painter Matthew Triggs

Robert Bennett William Bicknell Henry Bone William Bright John Cobb Thomas Hoare William Hoare Thomas Marshall Thomas Robinson Benjamin Smith John Trimming

Vicar Cobbold, at least, was convinced that Aaron should not be reprieved from his sentence after the riot and, hearing rumours that a petition had been got up on behalf of him and John Heath, wrote to Lord Melbourne on 28th January 1831 stating that they were "the most desperate and daring characters of his entire parish and the terror of the neighbourhood, and should they be let loose on society again there is no saying what may happen." (See section on John Heath for full text of the letter)

Aaron was indeed a colourful character, as his subsequent life in Australia proved.

Born near East Worldham around 1789 (we have not found a record of his baptism), son of William and Mary Harding, he married Sarah Stacey at East Worldham on 7 August 1810.
They had nine children (ages in 1830): William (20), Mary Ann (18), George (16), Henry (14), Daniel (11), James (9), Elizabeth (6), Maria (4) and Thomas (2)-all baptised at Selborne.
His wife had died in June 1829 aged 44, and was buried at Selborne.

After transportation, Aaron was assigned to John Atkinson near Berrima in a district then called Sutton Forest, about 80 miles south-west of Sydney. We know a little about Atkinson: he called his property Mereworth, and established an Inn called the Kentish Arms there. But he eventually ran into financial trouble, and sold Mereworth and left the district in the 1840s. The Kentish Arms, later renamed the Three Legs o' Man, was demolished in the early 1900s.

Aaron was kept in the hulk Phoenix in Sydney Harbour for 11 months from 29 January 1836 as witness for the Crown, though we have yet to discover the reason why. We also note that in March 1835 there was a letter addressed to an Aron Harding lying unclaimed at the GPO in Sydney, according to the NSW Government Gazette of the time (see also John Heath).

Aaron 'married' Alice (Ellis) Sargent at Sutton Forest between 3rd July 1843 and the end of 1844. She already had 9 children of her own. In fact the marriage probably never happened, as there is no evidence of Alice's divorce from her husband Thomas Sargent or of her marriage to Aaron, but she and Aaron had a child, also Aaron, born 26th September 1845 at Sutton Forest. Alice also had the custody of the four younger children from her first marriage, Henry (5), Jane (4), Mary (3) and James (21 months), and with the five children, she and Aaron decided to pioneer across to South Australia. It is not known what route was taken, some say they followed the river (possibly Murrumbidgee) until they met up with the Murray/Darling, then followed the Murray through to Adelaide. Others say they blazed their own trail with a mob of cattle, which took from 6 months to two years. The latter is most likely as Aaron Harding called himself an overlander at the time. A rifle said to be one used on the trip over from NSW is now in the possession of a great grandson of Henry Sargent.

However, we know that the family was settled in Gawler by June 1848, as the baptism of Aaron and Alice's second child was recorded there. William Harding was born on the 2nd April 1848, but no birth certificate can be found. He was baptised at St. George's Church, Gawler, on 4th June 1848, by Rev WH Coombs, their address being Floraville, S.A. Due to their broad English accents, the baptism of William was registered as William 'Arden'.
While they were living at Gawler, Aaron Harding senior was found dead on 6th November 1851. An inquest resulted with the finding of "accidental death". Henry Sargent, who would have been only 11 years old at the time, was called as a witness, calling himself Henry Harden. Aaron's name was registered as Harden for the inquest. A search for the death certificate of Aaron Harding (Harden) has so far failed.
An item in the Adelaide Times of Saturday 8th November 1851 entitled 'Dangerous Practice' says: "On Thursday last, Dr Duncan held an inquest on the body of Aaron Harden at the Phoenix Hotel near the Yatala Smelting Works. From the evidence, it appeared that the unfortunate deceased was driving a bullock dray from the Port and had adopted thwe too-usual method of riding on the pole, from which he fell, and before Dr Davey (who was almost immediately on the spot) reached him, he was dead. Verdict — Accidental death."

On 12th June 1852, Alice (Ellis) then married Richard Rees, bullock driver of Peachy Belt, Gawler Plains. At this time she was calling herself Alice Arden, widow. She died on 21st October, 1863, at Butchers Gap, her death being registered by her son, Henry.

There is an unsubstantiated family story that Richard Rees destroyed his wife's will when she died, and kicked Aaron junior and William Harding out with only the clothes they stood up in. Whatever the truth, they survived, and went on to ensure that Aaron Harding of Hampshire contributed 18 grand-children and 35 great grand-children to the population of his new homeland. The majority of Aaron's Australian descendents now live in or around the suburbs of Adelaide, and the rest are scattered across Australia.

Aaron Harding Sources: Marjorie Burwood, Jill Chambers, Lynn Croucher, Hilda Symonds, Geof Watts, Lin Cervi and others

Hilda May SYMONDS passed away peacefully 1 April 2011, aged 96 years, in Queensland. She was the granddaughter of Aaron.

In July 2023 the BBC TV programme "Who Do You Think You Are?" featured Lesley Manville who is descended from Aaron Harding through his son James.


Rev Robert Dickinson (1769-1847), rector of Headley in 1830

Age 61: born 12th August 1769 at Lyth, Westmoreland; Queen's College, Oxford: matriculated 1786 (aged 16), BA 1791, MA 1795, Fellow and tutor; Rector of Headley 1818-47; died 1st November 1847 at Cheshunt, Herts.

According to Headley 1066-1966 by Canon Tudor Jones, Mr Dickinson was 'a great deal non-resident, and suffered from ill-health, though he was described as "a jolly big old farmer".'

Rev William Rust Cobbold (1773-1841), vicar of Selborne in 1830

Age 57: born at Wilby, Suffolk, son of Thomas, clergyman; matriculated at Trinity College, Oxford in 1792 (aged 19); Magdalen College, Oxford - BA 1794, MA 1797, BD 1805; Fellow and tutor; Vicar of Selborne 1813-41; died 19 Aug 1841 at Ludgate Hill, London; buried at Kensal Green.

Mr GV Cox, chorister of Magdalen College in 1793, speaks of Cobbold as the College Schoolmaster in the following terms:-
"Having during one or two of his last years been a pupil of Mr Cobbold, I am entitled to speak of the impressions left upon me by his teaching: they are these - that from a bilious constitution, betrayed by his yellow-tinted complexion, he was ill-qualified to bear kindly and patiently with little ignorant boys. 'Alphezibeus, Sir,' he would say; 'don't you know s from z? Listen, Sir, Al-phe-si-be-us;' every syllable, especially the third, being impressed by a sharp cut with a cane, or a sharper twitch of an ear. Indeed this latter punishment, his favourite one, extended several times to the partial tearing the ear from the head of a dull boy!"

The conflicts between Cobbold and his parishioners for several years before the riot of 1830 are well documented, a particularly interesting account coming from his own pen in a document entitled Abuse of the Poor Laws in the Parish of Selborne, Hants. This document, which came to light in 1946, has been summarised by Mr L Sunderland, himself a vicar of Selborne, in his booklet Trouble at Selborne, published in 1967.

Even after the riots, Mr Cobbold seems to have shown no sense of amelioration towards his flock. In a letter from him appended to the Second Annual Report of the Poor Law Commissioners in 1836, he writes:—
"It is to the operation of this Act entirely (Poor law Amendment Act 1834) by withholding from the labourer the means of frequenting the public houses and beer shops, that I attribute the present peace and quiet of the streets as compared with what it used to be. I consider the Poor Law Amendment Act one of the greatest blessings which could have been conferred on a parish like Selborne and I do not despair now of seeing the rude people of this place become perfectly civilized and of a very different character to what they have hitherto been."

Cobbold's death in a road traffic accident was reported in the Gentleman's Magazine of November 1841 as follows:—
"Died at the Belle Sauvage, Ludgate Hill, aged 68, the Rev. William Rust Cobbold, Rector (sic) of Selborne, Hants.
The death of this gentleman was occasioned by his being knocked down, six days before, by the Oxford Mail cart at the end of Ludgate Hill. Being a very corpulent man, it was two days before it was discovered that his ribs were broken. A Coroner's jury returned a verdict of accidental death, accompanied by a censure on the Surgeon, who had not paid the case sufficient attention."

Magdalen College recorded the same event in Latin:—
A.D. 1841. Aug. "Circiter hoc tempus casus funestus e vivis aufert Gulielmum Rust Cobbold, S.T.B. nostri Collegii olim Socium, et Vicarium de Selborne in comitatu Hanton.
Quum enim ad Londinium se contulisset, negotii obeundi causa, et per vias omni rhedarum genere refertas gradu titubanti, quippe qui annis provectus et corpore infirmus, festinaret, a curru temere acto eversus fuit, et in talem modum sauciatus, ut post paucos dies animam apud diversorium, ubi commoratus est, expiravit." V.P. Reg.

William Cowburn

William Cowburn Esq, age 48 in 1830, was a London lawyer resident in Selborne at the time of the riot who, while deploring the outbreak, strove energetically to obtain a reprieve from the gallows for Robert Holdaway. The son of James Cowburn, a Lancashire man who became bankrupt, he married Catherine Smith of Camer in 1816.

The Cowburns rented a property with a lawn in the centre of Selborne from Miss Mary White (this may have been Wakes, which we know she inherited) and left the village in 1832, moving to Sydenham, Kent. William Cowburn died in 1854.

Early in 1830, before the riot occurred, he had published an 'address' to the 'Cottagers of Selborne' recommending ways in which they might use a bit of 'self-help' to improve their lot:—

I have been induced to draw up the following statement of facts, that the Cottagers of Selborne may see the many advantages to be derived from industry.
In Yorkshire, a poor man of the name of Thomas Rook, rented a small portion of land, and the only persons he had to assist him were his wife and a girl of twelve years of age; the only time he could work himself were the leisure hours after his daily labor was over. His family lived well, never applied to the parish for relief, and he has been enabled to lay by a sufficient sum to place out his two sons, and to furnish them with clothes and other necessaries.
In 1802, another poor man of the same neighbourhood rented one acre and a quarter of land; before he entered upon the occupation he had the greatest difficulty in maintaining his wife and three children, for he had no land, and was therefore obliged to buy every article of food. In 1809 his family had increased to seven children, yet, though from frequent ill health he had not been able to earn the high wages obtained by many of his fellow-laborers, he supported his family without any parochial relief.
These two instances furnish sufficient proof of the vast benefit that must arise to laborers from being enabled to cultivate a portion of land for themselves. Much time which otherwise would necessarily be spent in idleness, after the daily work is over, may, by this means, be advantageously and pleasantly employed; and not only that, but it furnishes full employment to the wives of the cottagers, and gives the children early habits of industry.
It may be asked, how the Cottager can make the cultivation of land furnish him with means of subsistence, when he hears that the farmer is much troubled to make it answer. But this difficulty can be easily and satisfactorily answered. The farmer incurs great expense by the men he employs, but the poor man only employs his idle time; he works himself, and enjoys the produce of his own labors, always feeling that independence will be the reward of his labors; and who that is born in a free country would not glory in such an idea; would not, while he is exerting his strength, delight in the thought that he will no longer be obliged to apply to the parish to assist him in supporting himself and his family?
The answer of a poor man in a parish in Berkshire, who enjoyed the benefit of renting a small piece of land, is well worth remembering; he was asked, he was even solicited, by the parish officers, to accept of some assistance for the support of his nine children. His reply was, on no account; I keep my family, thank God, very well, and would, on no consideration, be beholden to the parish.
I have one more instance to bring forward, which even exceeds those which have gone before. A laborer at Hasketon, in Suffolk, rented a piece of ground, and died, leaving a widow with fourteen children, the eldest a girl under fourteen. The parish is within the district of the incorporated houses of industry, the directors of which immediately agreed to relieve the poor widow by taking her seven youngest children into the house. This was proposed to her, but, with great agitation of mind, she refused to part with any of her children. She said she would rather die in working to maintain them, or go herself with all of them into the house and work for them there, than part with them, or suffer any partiality to be shewn to any of them. She then declared that if the farmer would continue her as his tenant, she would undertake to maintain and bring up all her family without parochial assistance. She persisted in her resolution, and being a strong woman of about forty-five years of age, her landlord told her she should continue and hold it the first year rent free. This she accepted with much thankfulness, and again assured him she would manage for her family without any other assistance.
She has kept her word, placing out twelve of her children in service, and regularly paying her rent, after the first year. She came at length to her landlord, and informed him that as she had now only her two youngest children left with her, who could, indeed, almost maintain themselves; she had taken to the employment of nurse, which was a less laborious situation; she therefore gave up the land, expressing great gratitude for the enjoyment of it, as it had afforded her the means of supporting her family, under a calamity, which must otherwise have driven both her and her children into a workhouse.
Who, that reads the above, would not earnestly desire to possess the means of rendering himself and family independent of parochial relief? It has been found to answer in various parts of the kingdom, and why should it not meet with success at Selborne, where the peasants possess health, strength, and means sufficient for the undertaking? It is to be hoped that they also possess a spirit of independence equal to what is found in other places, which will induce them to labor for themselves, rather than be dependent on parish assistance.
Your well wisher,
LONDON, February, 1830.

Following the riot, he was asked by a local MP to write an account of the conduct of the mob at Selborne. This was sent, with other documents, as an affidavit in favour of Holdaway to Lord Melbourne and Baron Vaughan:—

In the latter end of November 1830 the Laborers and poor of Selborne in Hampshire required an increase in wages, and that the Governor of the workhouse should be discharged. The wages were deemed to be too small, and the Governor oppressive. The maximum of wages there has been 9/- a week for able laborers, less for young men, boys, and women, and some men not being strong only 1/- a day, or 6/- a week. The parish allowance to parish laborers working on the roads was 10d a day. This must be admitted to be on too low a scale. The wages demanded was 2/- a day, which cannot be deemed too much.
The Farmers deliberated, but came to no decision. The Laborers then invited the surrounding parishes to join them, and formed a mob of from 300 to 500 which increased to 800 or 900. They then required the Farmers to attend the vicar (the Rev Wm Cobbold) and demanded of the latter that he should reduce his Tithes, and of all of them that wages should be increased, and the Governor of the workhouse discharged. Some reluctancy was shown, and they proceeded to the workhouse, destroyed the furniture, and broke the windows.
They then returned to the vicar and allowed him just half an hour and, that expired, 5 minutes to decide, when a rush was about to take place upon him and his house, and to save his life and property he came out and signed the paper prepared for him agreeing to accept £300 a year in lieu of taking in kind of from 600 to 900 a year. The remainder of this night was past in eating, drinking and rioting, and the following morning their banner was again displayed, their force called together by the sound of horns, and compelling all laborers every where to join, they accumulated it is said 1,100 and proceeded to Headley, a neighbouring parish, and did as at Selborne.
Money was asked for and given at Selborne, and was spent in eating and drinking. The poor of Selborne, if not oppressed, have at least not been sufficiently attended to, the laborers not sufficiently rewarded, and in many instances throughout the county similar causes have produced similar effects. The following instance may tend to illustrate that, where the poor are attended to, they can feel gratitude and abstain from doing mischief.
A family [Cowburn was referring to himself here] have resided at Selborne about half of each year for the last 8 or 9 years. They have been uniformly, but only ordinarily attentive to the poor, and have not been overnice in selecting the worthy only, but by employing and relieving occasionally some of an opposite character, as it was said have tried to reclaim them. Early this year an address was circulated by this family among the laborers to encourage industry; and land was granted to any poor man who desired it of an acre or two to each, to enable them to grow their own potatoes, and wheat for bread.
When the mob assembled, though collected from almost all the surrounding parishes, it seems to have been a well understood rule among them that they were not to injure any thing belonging to this family nor at all to annoy them, and this was carried so far that although the Man Servant, when numbers were collected about the gate, asked them what they wanted, or what they would have, the immediate answer was "nothing here, this gentleman and lady bear too good characters and are too good to the poor, and we will not hurt a stick or stone about them", nor did they.
On another occasion when they came and forced away the Outdoor Servant, they told a woman servant not to let her mistress be alarmed for they would not injure any thing, but the labouring man they must have to join them. And they were overheard to say in different parts of the mob that nothing must be injured about this family. In the evening, some stragglers came down and asked for something to eat and drink, and when they returned and told the main body it was the cause of a quarrel, and some say of a fight, at all events great displeasure was expressed that this family had been disturbed at all.
The lady was at this time alone with a numerous family, so that the power of causing terror, doing mischief, and exciting any thing was very great. It is also the more remarkable because this is almost the only assailable family at this beautiful sequestered spot, for which even Cobbett says "God has done everything".
A few nights afterwards a house was set on fire, and the gentleman of this family (for he was soon there) can bear ample testimony to the readiness with which his orders and advice were attended, which it is believed by the nearest Magistrate and other Gentlemen, prevented the fire spreading and saved great part of this village.
For some years the Farmers have been distressed and the poor laws have borne heavily upon them, and to relieve themselves they have naturally kept wages as low, and the relief to the poor as low too, as they possibly could so that the laborers and poor have suffered beyond human bearing and now comes the reaction. This should be remedied, but
how? Let statesmen judge.

And finally, we have an account of the riot and trials from James Bridger, one of the more significant farmers of Selborne parish, written soon after the events at the request of William Cowburn:—

To: Wm Cowburn Esq
14 Tavistock Sq
Selborne, Jany 12th 1831
I hear from T. Hoare it is your wish to have an account from us respecting the proceedings at Selborne on the 22 Nov, which I now give to the best of my recollection.
We did not hear until the morning of the 21st that there would be a mob at Selborne, and then Mr Hale [a Farmer] and Mr Collyer [Church Warden] went to Mr Cobbold to request his advice. He was very short with them and told them they might do as they thought proper, for his part he could do nothing.
We had heard of Riots in many places round us, and certainly expected it here, to prevent which we called a meeting a few days before and agreed to advance the labourers wages to 2/- a day, which we thought would prevent any thing of the sort here. According to the report of the Times, Mr C accuses us of inciting the labourers to make the demand on him, which is very false as on the contrary we did every thing in our power to prevent them breaking in at his gate, of which we have plenty of witnesses, and that I told him when he asked us if we should consider his agreement binding, that I certainly should not.
The 'Times' goes on to state what they consider to be the most criminal part of the conduct of us Farmers. They say after forcing C. to sign away his property we distinguished ourselves in defending our own Property, the Workhouse, but this again is wrong. Whether by design in C. or by mistatement of the reporter I know not, but the damage was done to the workhouse before they went to C. There was an attempt made to save the workhouse, the particulars of which I believe you know.
Mr Debenham Snr, on his arrival at Selborne, asked the people what they wanted; they said an advance of wages and also to lower the Tithe. Mr D. remonstrated with them on its being an unlawful proceeding, when they immediately surrounded him and with uplifted clubs demanded what he meant, which with the treatment his son had received at the workhouse before was enough to convince us that persuasion and not force would be of any avail, and there were only about few of us unarmed against 300.
Mr C. also accuses us of giving them Beer, and ordering it to be charged to the Parish, but here again I think we have reason to complain, as he was the first to propose its being charged to the Parish Acct, and mentioned how much he thought each man should have, and Eade [Church Warden] wished half of the Beer to be had from his House.
There seems to be great odium thrown upon us for signing the paper, although C. was the first to put his name to it, and Eade drew up the agreement and handed it to most of the Farmers for them to sign, and also wrote a copy and gave it to the men and the original to me, and even after my Father had several times refused to sign, held a hat for him to lay the paper on. After C. had signed, the mob declared they would not leave till he had given them five Pounds. We then stepped forward and told them they should have no such thing, we (the Farmers) would sooner join round and give them some ourselves. C. then proposed its being charged to the Parish.
We should have contradicted the statement of C. before, but our attorney, Mr Mellersh of Godalming, wished us to be quiet for a time and not even to let any one know we had had any advice. It is our most anxious wish to have this affair sifted to the bottom, as I think C. will then be seen in his proper colours. We can make it appear we advised the men to abstain from violence, and that if we had not been there the consequences would have been a good deal worse for C. as many of the Labourers are ready to come forward and say. We did every thing in our power to keep them quiet, and when Cobb, one of the most active amongst them, got in at his gate we ordered him out.
I called upon poor Holdaway to do all he could to keep them out. It appears C. knew the intentions of the mob toward him for several hours before any of the Farmers, except those living on the spot, were there. Surely he ought to have requested our assistance, and then if we had refused he would have had a just reason to complain of us. We refused for some time to give any Beer, and only consented at last on condition they should immediately disperse and go to their work.
We had given Mr Harrison [master of the Selborne workhouse] instructions the evening before, in case the labourers should go to him before we were there, to assure them in our names their wages should be raised if they would be peaceable, which we thought would satisfy them, as we had no thoughts of their interfering with Mr C. or of seeing any more than our own parishioners there. We can prove also that on hearing of the disturbances in other places, we had mentioned to the principal Farmer of a neighbouring parish that we should wish to advance the price of labour, in order to prevent similar disturbances here.
I think we should not have had so much blame thrown upon us if Ed. Fitt had not given such miserable evidence. I asked him the other day how he came to say in court he was one of those Farmers who were inciting the mob to make the demand on C., to which he instantly replied, Well, he was in sight of them, how could he help seeing them when they stood right before his eyes.
Perhaps, Sir, you could inform us if it is possible to get a correct statement of C's evidence and if so in what way, as we should then know better how to proceed. For my own part I am determined, if any thing can be done the matter shall not rest as it is. Should you, Sir, think proper to publish any thing from this unconnected statement, all we have to request is it may be done in such a way that we may not appear to be acting contrary to the advice of Messrs Mellersh & Marsham. I should take it as a very great favor if you would return us a line or two upon this subject, and remain
Sir Your Most
Obedient Servant
James Bridger

Contacts & Links

The author is in contact with descendants of Aaron Harding, Robert Holdaway, John Kingshott, John Newland, James Painter, Matthew Triggs, and the Heighes family, and is happy to receive enquiries from others who may be interested in following up similar connections — contact me.

Other useful contacts are:—
Jill Chambers – researcher of the Swing Riots, author of several books on the subject, and editor of 'Machine Breakers' News' – website
. . . and the following people who volunteered at the First Australian Swing Rioter Descendants' Meeting in Melbourne 1997 to respresent the machine breakers' ships which transported them to Australia:—
Wendy Baker ELIZA e-mail
Chrissy Fletcher ELEANOR e-mail
Geoff Sharman PROTEUS e-mail

— This site maintained by John Owen Smith