Britain’s Corn Laws: that bit of history you slept through turns out to be fascinating

Britain’s Corn Laws are a bit of long-repealed legislation whose history is wrapped around the Napoleonic Wars, the Industrial Revolution, Ireland’s potato famine, and the struggle for workers’ rights and universal suffrage. So if (as I assume) you slept through them in some half-forgotten history class, it’s time to catch up.

They not only matter, they’re interesting.

Irrelevant photo: an azalea blossom

 

The Napoleonic Wars and the politics of wheat

Let’s start with the Napoleonic Wars. That’s 1803 to 1815, and I had to look them up too. I don’t actually know anything. I just ask Lord Google questions and arrange the information he gives me, usually in odd patterns and after filtering the sites he suggests, because he does try to slip me some losers. 

I also have a growing stash of books on British history. Some are more useful than others.

Where were we?

The Napoleonic Wars. Before going nose to nose with revolutionary France, Britain was in the habit of importing a lot of its wheat, which was its most important grain. It was also in the habit of using the word corn for any old kind of grain. It still is. What Britain calls corn, the US calls grain. And what the US calls corn, Britain calls maize.

How we understand each other at all is beyond me.

There’d been corn laws since as early as the twelfth century, but they didn’t become a political focus until the nineteenth, and that was because during the Napoleonic Wars Britain couldn’t import wheat from Europe, so British farmers patriotically planted more wheat and filled the gap as best they could. Then came the end of the war and British farming patriotically demanded that its price had to be protected from interloping foreign corn that spoke funny languages and, worse yet, cost less. 

Now that’s what I call patriotism.

In 1812, corn cost 126s. 6d. a quarter. Three years later, it cost 65s. 7d. Forget the complicated math it takes to understand that: What you need to know is that the price dropped. Drastically. 

Okay, okay, we’ll break the numbers down. Don’t blame me if we can’t get them back together: 

A quarter, an s. and a d. are long-dead measurements that everyone took seriously and knew how to work with at the time. An s. is a shilling and a d. is a penny, because shilling starts with S and penny doesn’t start with d.

You can see how much sense this is going to make, right?

There were 12 pence in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound, although for reasons I can’t begin to understand no one seems to have shifted from shillings to pounds here when they got to 21, they just kept adding up the shillings. It’s a mystery that only people who’ve lived with the system can explain–maybe–and if we stick around a while it’s possible that one of them will. Friends, I invite you to the comments box.

A quarter is eight bushels. Its full name is quarter-hundredweight and it’s a quarter of a hundredweight. Hang onto that, because it’s the only bit that’ll make sense. A hundredweight doesn’t weigh a hundred of anything: It’s 112 pounds, or 8 stone. In the US, a hundredweight used to mean 100 pounds, but then people stopped using the term. It was too confusing, having a hundredweight weigh a hundred of something.

Try not to think about it too long or your brain will turn to jelly. Which in the US is something you spread on toast but in Britain is a fruit-flavored dessert made with gelatine–that stuff Americans call by the brand name jello, minus the capital letter. We stole the word from the manufacturers.

And how much wheat is 8 bushels? Enough to cover your living room floor nicely, thanks. 

I know. Sometimes it seems like we’ll never get to the point, but here we are.

When wheat prices dropped, British landowners patriotically pushed Parliament to protect their prices (the alliteration’s accidental but fun), and I doubt it took much pushing because the country’s political structure was weighted heavily in favor of landowners. And that last sentence is why the Corn Laws are more than just some ancient bit of legislative history but an entry point to a long battle over the right to vote.

 

Money and power

At the opening of the nineteenth century, women couldn’t vote, the poor couldn’t vote, and most of the not-so-poor couldn’t vote. The richest industrialists could vote but that wasn’t enough to give them the political power that would’ve made such a fetching match for their money, and they weren’t happy about that. Because what good is one measly vote when you need Parliament to pass the laws that protect your interests and your business? For that, you want some serious clout. 

Parliament made no pretense of representing the country as a whole. The lords of many a constituency were able to appoint its Member of Parliament, who the few people allowed to vote would duly elect. In other constituencies, candidates openly bought votes. Big industrial cities often didn’t have their own Members of Parliament, although what were called rotten boroughs, with next to no population, did. To (atypically) get to the point, the House of Commons was safely under the control of landowners, as was the House of Lords.  

In 1815, to protect the price of wheat, Parliament passed the Corn Law, slapping a hefty import duty on foreign wheat unless the price of domestically grown wheat rose to 80s. per quarter. The duty was steep enough that wheat wasn’t worth importing. This protected not just the farmers producing the wheat but also the landlords who owned the land the farmers farmed. If the price of wheat dropped, farm rents would have to drop. And since landowners held the power–

You can see where I’m going with this, right?

Rioting broke out in London while the bill was being debated and soldiers surrounded Parliament to protect it. What with the war and several years of bad harvests, people had lived with high grain prices long enough. This was a time, remember, when you didn’t take it for granted that you could keep yourself and your family fed. Some huge percentage of the population lived on the edge. 

The bill passed anyway–who thought it wouldn’t?–and that focused a lot of people’s attention on getting the vote. In other words, it fed the demand for political reform.

The 1816 harvest was bad, pushing prices up, and that was followed by food riots and strikes for higher pay. 

Which brings us to our next point: If the Corn Laws were a disaster for people who were just scraping by, but they also pissed off industrialists–those rich people whose political power wasn’t a good match for their money. When the price of grain went up, their workers pushed for higher wages so they could afford to eat. People can be so picky about that. For industrialists, that meant either industrial unrest or less profit. 

They didn’t like either choice.

 

Who gets the profit?

From the 1820s through the 1840s, Conservative and Liberal governments tinkered with the Corn Laws but didn’t repeal them, and landowners argued that manufacturers opposed them only so they could drive down workers’ wages and increase their own profits. This was despicable, since the landowners preferred to have the profits in their own pockets. In an improbable convergence of opinion, the Chartist Movement, which was socialist, agreed, as did Karl Marx. 

From what I can see, there was some truth in the argument. A certain amount of profit was kicking around the country and the question was whose pocket was it going to end up in?

Of course, it could go into workers’ pockets through a combination of lower bread prices and stable or higher wages, but, yeah, that wasn’t going to happen.  

Marx seems (waffle word there; I’m working from second-hand sources instead of reading all 74 volumes of Capital plus his 6,739 assorted pamphlets, letters, and whatever’s left) to have gone a step further and seen the battle as one where the industrialists needed the workers’ help against the landowners, but as far as I can tell many of the struggles against the Corn Laws and for the vote came from the ground up, not the top down. Abolition of the Corn Laws was one of the demands at St. Peters Field, site of the Peterloo massacre, where people also demanded universal suffrage.

By which they meant, of course, universal suffrage for men. But that’s a different tale. You can find it here

The Anti-Corn Law League was founded in 1838 and advocated peacefully for repeal, and in 1844 the Duke of Richmond countered by founding the Central Agricultural Protection Society (called CAPS) to campaign in favor, which makes it sound like he felt that the pressure against the laws was serious. 

Then 1845 combined a bad harvest in Britain with the potato blight in Ireland, which was very much under British control. If Britain was facing scarcity–and it was–Ireland was facing starvation.

The combination convinced the prime minister, Robert Peel, that the Corn Laws had to end, and for a while it looked like Parliament would rescind them, but after some political jockeying, complete with prime ministers resigning, the laws were still in place. CAPS campaigned fiercely against abolishing them, in some places (according to the New World Encyclopedia) it practically supplanted the Conservative party.

One of the arguments offered in the parliamentary debate was that repeal would weaken landowners socially and politically, destroying the “territorial constitution” of Britain by empowering commercial interests.

In 1846, the Corn Laws were finally repealed, but the potato famine had moved well beyond the reach of half measures. It’s a separate story, and a bitter one. Estimates put the number of Irish people who died of hunger and disease at a million, all in the name of letting the problem work itself out through natural means. 

 

The effects of repeal

Repeal did keep the price of corn down in Britain. Between 1850 and 1870, it averaged 52 s. Britain became increasingly dependent on imported corn and British agriculture went into a depression notable enough to have its own name, complete with capital letters: the Great Depression of British Agriculture. Agricultural laborers left the land and migrated to the cities, feeding the Industrial Revolution.

You can chalk all that up to the repeal of the Corn Laws if you like, or you can chalk it up to railroads and steamships making North American grain easier to import. Britain and Belgium were the only corn-growing countries in Europe not put to a tariff on the stuff.

The Reform Acts of 1832, 1867, and 1884 gradually, under pressure and with much gnashing of teeth, expanded the vote. Repeal of the Corn Laws hadn’t destroyed Britain’s territorial constitution–whatever that is or was–but power was shifting.

The Corn Laws are often presented as a battle between free trade and restrictive tariffs, and that’s how my high school history textbook so forgettably explained them, after which it dropped the subject and my entire class sleepily murmured, “Did something just happen there??”

It wasn’t on the test, so the answer was no, nothing happened.

Free trade is, legitimately, a thread you can follow through the debates and battles over the Corn Laws, and it’ll carry you effectively enough into the next couple of centuries, but unless you’re a policy obsessive it may be the least interesting way to understand the story. I’m a fan of the way political power realigned itself to more nearly match economic power, and how people who had neither kind of power battered away at the system until they forced it to make a bit of space for them. 

37 thoughts on “Britain’s Corn Laws: that bit of history you slept through turns out to be fascinating

  1. We had a big hall in the city centre, the Free Trade Hall, for 150 years, named after the campaign for the repeal of the Corn Laws. Some very famous concerts were held there. Suffragettes interrupted political meetings there. Less interestingly, we used to have school Speech Day there. Then the council sold the building to be turned into a hotel. Never forgiven them!

    Liked by 3 people

    • I expect the battle over the Corn Laws is one of those things that everyone on every side can take very different lessons from. For some, it’s about feeding people being most important. For others, about the right to vote. And for some, it’s about free trade. For me, feeding people and the right to vote–well, I can’t think of situations where they wouldn’t apply. Free trade, though, I can. The Opium Wars were fought under the banner of free trade–those dastardly Chinese were keeping opium traders out.

      In spite of which I’m sorry to hear the building was sold. I think we’ve forgotten the value of public spaces lately.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Well, thanks for giving my old memory a nudge to the crap that got me through a history exam long ago.
    But it did something more important…it reminded me of why I decided against making a career out of it!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I have a hunch that free trade’s one of those things that can work well or can bite a country in the ass–in other words, it’s a dangerous overarching principle. The Opium Wars were fought under the banner of free trade.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. These little nuggets in history, they can pull you in. Been reading more Medieval history recently and fascinated with the 14th-century Sumptuary Law, ultimately dictating what different strata in society are allowed to wear, related to the Feudal system: ermine only by the monarch; Yeoman no fabric worth more than 40 shillings; servants no embroidery or veils worth more than 12d (pence), etc.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I enjoyed this venture into history, There was a story on NPR about a recent suspension of deportation for 100 says that resulted in people living in Sanctuary Churches being qble to rejoin their families – at least for 100 days. Some had been- literally-living in the churches (in various cities) since 2017. Of course, in the last few years there has been a great outcry against Sanctuary – a concept begun in the Middle Ages – if not before that. As Faulkner said “This past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Funny that the outcry against sanctuary should come from people who either themselves yell about religious liberty or are allied with people who would if it suited their purposes. Sanctuary is a tradition that came from the church, not the state–although it was hard to find the division between the two at the time.

      I hadn’t known about the suspension. What a relief that must be. Thanks for passing along the news.

      Like

  5. Oh my. I like to call Fridays my Light Reading Days, but clearly the Corn Law explanation took me way past the light.
    I have to say brilliant, but I also have to admit economics was the only college course in which I received a failing grade notice mid-semester so I will say a hearty thanks for the history/econ lesson tonight. You rock.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I wouldn’t say you made light of it.

      I’d heard the phrase Trevelyan’s corn in “The Fields of Athenry” and wondered what it was. Researching this was the first time I understood it.

      Like

  6. I never knew that corn was a generic name for grain there. So did the Corn Laws apply to all grain or just to wheat? (Apropos of nothing, I regularly follow three blogs that deal more or less seriously with British history. All three of them posted about the Corn Laws in the past two weeks. I enjoyed them all.)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. […] no one seems to have shifted from shillings to pounds here when they got to 21, they just kept adding up the shillings

    I’m willing to bet it was a simple case of inertia (as with all too many things). “I’m an expert shilling counter. It’s been done this way for decades — and how dare you even think of accusing me of doing it incorrectly?”

    PS to prove I pay attention to your worthy articles:

    At the opening of the nineteenth century, women couldn’t not vote […]

    I think it’s just as well I’ve learned not to trust everything I read on the innerwebz ;)

    Liked by 1 person

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