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Britain’s Corn Laws are a bit of long-repealed legislation whose history is wrapped around the Napoleonic Wars, the Industrial Revolution, Ireland’s potato famine, and the struggle for workers’ rights and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. 

The Peterloo Massacre, or how the British got the vote

It’s 1819 and we’re in the north of England. At last count–that was in 1780–only 3% of the population of England and Wales was allowed to vote. But that’s guesswork. A later count, in 1831, will estimate it at 1.35%. Voter registration won’t start until 1832, which may be why the numbers are a little hazy.

Can we say that not many people have the right to vote and leave it at that?

With such a thin slice of the population having any semblance of political power, and with wealth highly concentrated, this is a time when you can talk about a ruling class and not have to explain who you mean or argue about whether you’re seeing the world through Marxist-inflected spectacles. So let’s be bold and say that some elements of the ruling class see the value of expanding the vote in order to release a bit of the political pressure that’s been building in the country. Or to put that another way, they think it might help avoid a revolution. 

Irrelevant photo: I have to toss in a photo of holly sometime before Christmas. It grows here. I can’t quite get over that. Whatever you celebrate at this time of year, have a good one.

But reform itself sometimes leads to revolution, and since we’re in the present tense here we–and more to the point, they–have no way of knowing what will happen next. Will reform avoid a revolution or set one off? 

Tough choice. The French Revolution is still too recent, and it was too bloody and too scary, for the ruling class as a whole to take risks. So reform–at least the kind that came from the top down–gets put on hold, leaving it in the hands of scary, bottom-up radicals. 

 

So who can’t vote? 

That’s an easier question than who can. The list includes:

  • The working class
  • The poor in general, in case category one left any of them out
  • Women
  • Catholics
  • All or most or–well, at least much of the middle class

I chased Lord Google all over the internet trying to find some solid explanation of who can vote, and the answer was always murky. I finally found a House of Commons Library paper called “The History of Parliamentary Franchise,” which doesn’t answer the question but does at least explain why Lord G. is so evasive. 

Sorry–using the present tense for the nineteenth century gets awkward when I drag the twenty-first century Lord Google into it, but a commitment’s a commitment. We’ll stay with it if for no better reason than that it’ll give you a chance to watch me tie myself in knots. 

First, who can vote depends on whether you’re talking about England, Wales, Ireland, or Scotland, because they all have their own rules. After that, it depends on where in those four nations you live. In England, at least, the boroughs–in other words, the towns–set their own rules. Or at least the ones that have the right to send an MP to Parliament do. They don’t all have that right. In the counties, the rules seem to be consistent, but I wouldn’t want to put money on that.

What’s important is that no matter where you live, the right to vote depends on wealth, property, and influence. And some MPs aren’t even elected, so even if you have the right to vote it doesn’t necessarily get you much. 

According to the House of Commons Library, “Uncontested elections were common and in some seats an election had not taken place for many years. Parliamentary seats were often considered as property and remained in the control of a family from one generation to the next. This persisted until the beginning of the twentieth century.” 

(Votes won’t be cast by secret ballot until 1872. That’s not strictly relevant, but it’s interesting.) 

If you’re getting a picture of an undemocratic country, let me add another detail to the picture: Voting is only for the House of Commons. The upper house, the Lords, is hereditary.

 

Why does anybody care about the vote?

Nineteenth-century Britain is a country with multiple problems, and the people who suffer most from them don’t have a lot of ways to change their situation. Or if they’re risk-averse, any ways.

Britain’s busy turning itself from a rural country into an industrial one. Huge numbers of people who can’t make a living in the countryside are desperate enough to pour into the cities, hoping to make a living, but the cities aren’t prepared to house them. People are packed in on top of each other and sanitation verges on nonexistent. Wages, hours, and working conditions in the factories (and elsewhere) are terrible, and strikes are illegal: The Combination Acts mean you’re risking three months in prison if you and your co-workers walk off the job in any organized way, or prepare to, although you’re still welcome to quit your job individually and go starve somewhere.

No, I’m not being dramatic. People live close enough to the margin that we’re often talking about eating or not eating. Or ending up in the workhouse, which sets you only a small step above starvation.

The acts won’t be repealed until 1824 and 1825. Union organizing and what the National Archives call labor unrest–a term that takes in everything from riots to organizing a union –won’t break into the open until the 1830s. And here we are, stuck in 1819. 

You notice how subtly I reminded you of the date?

A few years ago, in 1815, the Napoleonic Wars ended. This means a lot of former soldiers are now out of work. 

Thanks, guys, you’ve been positively heroic. Hope you find jobs somewhere.

Wages fell in England’s textile towns, and the taxes that were introduced to support the war didn’t, they walked into the peacetime years like zombies. The country entered a postwar depression. 

And if that isn’t enough trouble, the Corn Laws were passed in 1815. During the Napoleonic Wars, the country couldn’t import wheat from Europe and British farmers grew more of it. Then the wars ended and since landowners dominated Parliament they passed laws to protect their wheat market. The Corn Laws banned imports unless the price of domestic wheat went from high to astronomical.

Then the 1816 harvest was bad, leading to a winter of food shortages and riots. 

 

Blanketeers

Several strands of discontent wove themselves together: low pay, the Corn Laws, a political political system that shut out the voices of anyone other than landowners. The north–the center of the industrial revolution–became a center of radicalism among working people.

In 1817, a hunger march was organized, to go from Manchester to London. That’s 209 miles if you take the M40, which hadn’t been built yet. Each marcher carried a petition to the Prince Regent and a blanket to sleep in at night (and to mark them all as textile workers). They were called Blanketeers, and 5,000 of them gathered to start the march on St. Peter’s Field, near Manchester, with a larger crowd to see them off. One estimate puts the crowd at 25,000. The gathering was broken up by the King’s Dragoon Guard, which arrested 27 people, including the leaders, and injured several. One–a bystander–was killed. Several hundred people set off anyway, but the group thinned out, with some dropping out and many getting arrested or being turned back under vagrancy laws. 

Legend has one lone marcher reaching London and handing in his petition, but since he’s named both as Abel Couldwell and as Jonathan Cowgill, he may be mythical. Or I may be doing him a disservice.

Also in 1817, two hundred Derbyshire labourers marched to Nottingham in order, their leader said, to take part in a general insurrection. Three of the leaders were executed for treason. This did not calm the nerves of people in power.

The Manchester and Salford Yeomanry was formed. Its purpose was to put down any insurrection that wandered into view.

 

Are we done with the background yet?

Yup.  Finally. It’s August 16, 1819, and the Manchester Patriotic Union Society has called a massive meeting calling for political reform, once again at St. Peter’s Field.

About 60,000 people turn up. A few years earlier, in 1802, Manchester’s population was 95,000, but people have come from other towns and cities. This is a big deal and a lot of preparation’s gone into it. Their banners call for an end to the Corn Laws, for universal suffrage, and for political reform.

What kind of political reform? 

Several kinds. Not only can’t most of the individuals here vote, the north as a whole is under-represented in the Commons. And in spite of its size, Manchester doesn’t have its own Member of Parliament. So this is about both class and region.

At this point, no one’s calling for women to have the vote. When they say “universal suffrage,” they’re talking about men.

Yeah, I know. History’s a real kick in the head, but we don’t get to rewrite it.

The organization involved is impressive. As Samuel Bamford, a handloom weaver who walks from Middleton, later wrote about the journey, every hundred men have a leader, who wears a sprig of laurel in his hat so you can spot him, and a bugler relays the orders given by the man at the head of the column. Everyone’s warned not to carry sticks or weapons. Only the very old and infirm are allowed walking sticks.

Together with marchers who join them from Rochdale, there are about 6,000 of them.

“At our head were a hundred or two of women, mostly young wives, and mine own was amongst them. A hundred of our handsomest girls, sweethearts to the lads who were with us, danced to the music. Thus accompanied by our friends and our dearest we went slowly towards Manchester.”

And in case you think the emphasis on looks only applies to women, Bamford will also write, “First were selected twelve of the most decent-looking youths, who were placed at the front, each with a branch of laurel held in his hand, as a token of peace; then the colours: a blue one of silk, with inscriptions in golden letters, ‘Unity and Strength’, ‘Liberty and Fraternity’; a green one of silk, with golden letters, ‘Parliaments Annual’, ‘Suffrage Universal.’” 

That “Liberty and Fraternity” is an echo of the French Revolution and may not have helped calm ruling class nerves either, in spite of the emphasis on peaceful, laurel-branched, weaponless demonstrating.

One eyewitness will later describe the gathering at St. Peter’s Field as “large bodies of men and women with bands playing and flags and banners. . . There were crowds of people in all directions, full of humour, laughing and shouting and making fun. It seemed to be a gala day with the country people, who were mostly dressed in their best and brought with them their wives.”

The local magistrates, though, are less poetic than Bamford and less happy with the gathering than the second witness. They’ve pulled together four squadrons of cavalry (that’s 600 men), several hundred infantrymen, the Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry (another 400), a detachment of the Royal Horse Artillery (no numbers given), two six-pounder guns, all Manchester’s special constables (again, 400), and 120 men from the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry–a kind of amateur cavalry. In other words, a shitload of soldiers and cops and would-be soldiers are on standby.

And their weaponry.

The main speakers arrive and the magistrates decide that Manchester’s “in great danger,” so they order Manchester’s deputy constable to arrest the speakers.

“Can’t do it without the military,” the deputy constable says (although he doesn’t use those words).

“Right,” the magistrates say, “no problem,” although I’m still making up the dialog.

They order in some of the military, and the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry are closest and get the order first. Sixty of them ride into the crowd, which links arms to protect the speaker. Later on, eyewitnesses will claim the yeomen were drunk and the officer in charge will swear they moved erratically because the horses were spooked by the crush of people.

Either way, sabers are drawn. The Yeomanry knock down a woman and kill a two-year-old child. The speaker and a few leaders are arrested, along with some nearby newspaper reporters. 

Always go for the reporters.

Someone in authority decides that the Yeomanry need defending and sends in some of the professional soldiers.

Within minutes, the field is clear and 18 people are dead. Somewhere between 400 and 700 men and women are wounded.

One of the organizers (who’s also a publisher), Richard Carlile, avoids being arrested, is hidden by local radicals, and skedaddles on the first coach back to London, where he gets the story into print as fast as he can. By our standards, that’s none too fast but it’s fast enough to piss off the authorities, who raid his print shop and confiscate every bit of paper they can get their hands on.

The Manchester Observer also reports on what happened and is the first to call it the Peterloo Massacre, echoing the Battle of Waterloo. 

Carlile and the Observer’s editor, James Wroe, are arrested and sent to prison, Carlile for blasphemy and seditious libel and Wroe for producing a seditious publication. 

I have no idea where blasphemy comes into it.

 

The massacre’s legacy

The Peterloo Massacre is over, and thank all the gods I don’t believe in we can shift to the past tense to talk about its impact.

The government got busy and passed six acts–known, creatively, as the Six Acts–that were designed to keep anything like Peterloo from happening again. Not the massacre part, mind you. The radicalism. The mass meeting. That pesky damn press, or as Lord Castlereagh described it, “The treasonable, blasphemous, and seditious branch of the press.” 

Which branch was that? The branch that sold papers to “the lower orders.” 

It wasn’t just the ruling class you could talk about without argument back then. The class structure was clear, identifiable, and right in your face. To challenge it was to join the ranks of the treasonable and blasphemous et ceteras. 

It was “utterly impossible for the mind of man long to withstand the torrent of criminal and seductive reasoning which was now incessantly poured out to the lower orders.” Castlereagh said. 

Newspapers were already taxed, and that mattered because the higher the price, the less likely working people were to buy them. But the more radical papers had avoided the tax by, at least officially, publishing opinion instead of news. 

A tax was now slapped on them regardless of what they published. Game over.

The penalties for publishing blasphemous and seditious material and generally making the authorities mad went up. They now included transportation, which is another name for exile. 

Four other acts were aimed at suppressing mass meetings and protesters who used weapons. That makes five acts, so we’re missing one. Let’s say it outlawed pineapple on pizza, and like so many laws that overreach, it didn’t work. We’re still plagued by the stuff.

Of the six acts, Parliament’s website considers five to have been mostly ineffective. The one that had an impact was the newspaper tax, which stayed in place until 1836, when it was reduced from 4p to 1p, before being abolished in 1861. 

Even so, for a while there every significant leader in the parliamentary reform period was jailed and reformist meetings were effectively banned, which doesn’t make the acts sound insignificant to me. 

But that doesn’t mean the game went to the anti-reform forces. Either in spite of the repression or because of it (these things are as likely to backfire as the reforms that are meant to avoid revolution), the massacre fueled the anger that led to the Reform Act of 1832, which didn’t address the deeper issues but smoothed out a few of the worst political inequities and expanded the franchise by an inch or two. 

The deeper issues were left to the people who organized the trade unions, the Labour Party, and the movement for universal suffrage. 

Women’s involvement in the Peterloo gathering was significant. They helped organize it, they marched, and they were targeted by the soldiers. Women’s political groups were starting to form. You can legitimately draw a line from Peterloo to the later struggle for women’s rights in the workplace, within marriage, and in the voting booth.

 

And finally

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote The Masque of Anarchy about Peterloo. The last stanza is:

   Rise like Lions after slumber

   In unvanquishable number,

   Shake your chains to earth like dew

   Which in sleep had fallen on you–

   Ye are many–they are few.

No publisher was brave enough to touch it and it didn’t come out until a decade after his death.

*

For a glimpse of today’s Tandle Hill, where marchers from Oldham and Saddleworth gathered to walk to St. Peter’s Field, see the Bloggler.

Many thanks to the assortment of people who’ve been pushing me in the direction of writing about this for some time now. The next chapter in the history of British voting rights is the Chartists, and I’ll get to that before too long. Really I will.

If you want to follow the story more or less from beginning to end–and with apologies for referring you to myself (especially when we already know I’m long winded), you can find more posts on the history of voting rights by following the links: The roots of the English parliament, The rotten borough and the history of British voting rights, Suffragists, Sufragettes, and votes for women.