As today’s post opens, the Napoleonic Wars are being fought over in Europe somewhere. Think blood, mud, Russian winter, and the Duke of Rubber Boots.* But all that is off stage. We’re in Britain, where the Corn Laws are about to be passed, and they won’t make sense until we talk about the price of corn. And about farmers and landowners and political power. And hunger. In fact, nothing makes any sense until we talk about everything.
Sorry, that’s just how it works.
I’m more American than British, as you’ll know by now if you’ve been around here for long, but this is English history, so when I type “corn” I don’t mean the stuff I’d normally call corn, which in British is maize. I’m going all pseudo-British on you and using it to mean any old grain. So corn is the country’s most important food just now. And by now, of course, I mean during the Offstage Wars involving Mr. Rubber Boots, Napoleon, and Russia’s most efficient officer, General Winter. Corn’s so important that for a long time Britain’s been eating more of it than it grows, relying on imports to make up the difference.
But the Offstage Wars have interrupted those imports, so farmers have stepped in and patriotically grown more of the stuff than they used to. And government has stepped in and encouraged them. And throughout the wars, the price has stayed high, since no one’s been around to undercut it. If you’re a farmer, it’s a nice arrangement.
Sooner or later, though, every war ends, and whoops, the Offstage Wars did, just this minute, throwing everything out of whack. Back in 1812. corn cost 126s. 6d. a quarter. Now, in 1815, it costs 65s. 7d. We won’t bother with the complicated math it takes to understand that: What you need to know is that the price has dropped. Drastically.
Oh, hell, you want to get below the surface of the numbers, don’t you? Fine, we’ll break them 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 but us knows how to work with, since we’re dropping in from another era. An s. is a shilling and a d. is a penny, because shilling starts with S and penny doesn’t start with d. The d. wandered in from Latin, because the Romans had a coin called a denarius. It hasn’t been used since the third century BCE.
You can see how much sense this is going to make, right?
You need 12 pence to make a shilling and 20 shillings to make a pound, although for reasons I can’t begin to understand when they calculate the price of corn no one wants to shift from shillings to pounds, they just keep stacking up the shillings until they tip over. Only people who’ve lived with the system can explain it, but it seems so natural to them that they won’t understand why we want an explanation so don’t ask.
That’s the money side of things, but we’re not done. A quarter is eight bushels. Its full name is quarter-hundredweight, which is sensible enough since it is a quarter of a hundredweight. Hang onto that, because it’s the only bit of sanity we’ll have until we escape this paragraph and possibly for some time afterward. A hundredweight doesn’t weigh a hundred of anything–or if it does, it’s only by accident: It’s 112 pounds, or 8 stone.
Just to complicate the situation, in the US a hundredweight weighs a hundred pounds, but its use is limited to livestock, some kinds of grain, paper, concrete additives, and a few other things with obvious similarities. They’d use it more widely but it’s too confusing having a hundredweight weigh a hundred pounds.
How much grain is in 8 bushels? Enough to cover my living room floor nicely, thanks.
Grain prices, farmers, and a few other things
I know. Sometimes it seems like we’ll never get to the point, but here we are. It’s 1815, the Napoleonic Wars are over, and imported grain has made its way back into the country, knocking the price down. The farmers who stepped in and patriotically grew more grain are patriotically stepping up and complaining about the loss of what was effectively a monopoly.
Who are we talking about when we talk about farmers? Most importantly, large landowners, and it’s the aristocracy who own most of the land. The only respectable way to be rich is to make your money from land. Below them, though, and still in the category are the farmers who rent from them or who own smaller amounts of land. But it’s the large landowners who matter, because they have the political clout, so when they tell the government to get off its hind end and protect them from these unpatriotic imports, the government duly gets off its hind end and passes the Corn Laws, which tax imported grain so that it’s no longer cheaper than patriotic British grain.
Hold onto that thought while we look at the kind of country the government’s governing.
The end of the war brings several changes in addition to the danger of grain prices falling. For one, former soldiers have come home and a lot of them can’t find work. In England’s textile towns, wages fall but the taxes that were introduced to support the war don’t, they walk into the peacetime years like zombies.
The country enters a postwar depression.
Britain’s also turning from a rural country into an industrial one. Huge numbers of people who can’t make a living in the countryside pour into the cities, desperate for work. The cities aren’t prepared to house them, though, and people are packed in on top of each other. Sanitation verges on nonexistent. That’s not, strictly speaking, relevant, but helps us understand what life was like, so let’s leave it in. 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 even if you prepare to. Or even, as they say in Texas, if you’re fixin’ to get ready to prepare to.
You’re still welcome to quit your job individually and go starve somewhere if you like.
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 a very small step above starvation.
When the 1816 harvest is bad, grain prices go up and food’s in short supply, but the government doesn’t get off its hind end for this, because people who can’t afford bread don’t have political power. The Corn Laws keep the price of imports high.
Food riots break out. They’re one of the few channels discontent can pour itself into.
Petitions are legal, though, and between January and August 1842 the House of Commons is the lucky recipient of 467 of them against the Corn Laws. They carry a total of 1,414,403 signatures. The Commons also receive 1,953 petitions in favour, carrying 145,855 signatures. In case that went over your head, that’s fewer signatures for the laws than against, but they’re better signatures, with pricier accents, so they carry more weight.
The Corn Laws are a focus of demonstrations as well. Two examples:
In 1817, a hunger march left Manchester for London. The marchers were called Blanketeers, and the march was broken up along the way. Only one marcher reached London to hand in their petition, but since he’s reported to have two very different names, he may be mythical.
Repeal of the Corn Laws was also one of the demands of the rally on St. Peter’s Field, which became known as the Peterloo Massacre. https://notesfromtheuk.com/tag/voting-rights/
You don’t gather over a million signatures or pull off marches and rallies without some sort of organization, and you can usefully break the opposition into two groups: One is the middle class and led by the richer and more powerful part of it. The other is made up of industrial and agricultural workers. By way of examples, on the respectable side is the Anti-Corn Law League, which mobilizes the industrial middle class against the landowners. The less respectable opposition comes from groups like the Sheffield Mechanics’ Anti-Bread-Tax Society, which gets a mention since its name saves me a lot of explaining. Both groups are working for the same change but their interests aren’t identical.
What business people want is free trade: Get rid of those damn tariffs and business will expand endlessly in this best of all possible worlds. That will expand employment, lower the price of bread, make British agriculture more efficient, and promote international peace through trade contact. It will turn straight hair curly unless you want it to work the other way around and cure all ills of body and soul.
I didn’t make up that business about international peace, even if it sounds like I did. The business with the hair, though? That’s questionable.
For the working class, this is about bread costing less so they can eat more.
I’ll get out of the way and quote Ebeneezer Elliot, called the Corn Law Rhymer, who said, “The people will soon enough discover the frightful extent of the chasm which separates them from every man who has a decent coat on his back.”
Which should also remind us that this is a time when having a decent coat marked you as middle class.
For both groups, it’s about political power.
Support for the Corn Laws
The argument in favor of the Corn Laws is that, as one petition puts it, they “protect the British agriculturist from competition with the continental corn grower” and “could not be repealed without imminent danger to the best interest of the country.”
Besides, if the price of bread drops, wages will also go down, so what’s the point? For landowners, there’s a finite amount of profit to be made and this is about whose pocket it’ll land in, theirs or the industrialists’. The people will be hungry either way: That’s a given.
After much agitation and argument, the Corn Laws are repealed in 1846, not long after the start of the Irish potato famine. That’s enough for many sources to link the two, but as early as 1841 the prime minister, Robert Peel, had been looking at whether the price of European grain was high enough that imports wouldn’t hurt British farmers. At least one historian sees it as a case of the famine giving Peel a reason to end a policy whose value he isn’t convinced of.
The price of bread doesn’t fall dramatically, although it does fall a bit, and the potato famine goes on until 1852, largely unaffected by the repeal. Ireland loses a quarter of its population to starvation, disease, and emigration.
What does repeal change? By one estimate, landowners’ income drops by 3% and workers and industrialists gain 1% in spending power.
Where’d the other 2% go? Remember what I said about curly hair? It went into hair products.
Britain enters the era of free trade. For policy wonks, that’s the most important thing about agitation around the Corn Laws. For rebellion wonks, the importance lies in the campaign itself. Both the middle class and the working class are finding ways to organize, and to push for political power. The working class is organizing for a lot more than that, with wages and working conditions high on the list.
* If you’re not British you’ll need a translation of that Duke of Rubber Boots crack. High rubber boots are called Wellingtons. The style was introduced by Wellington, but the originals were leather riding boots. They weren’t made in rubber until 1856.
It could be on a quiz some day.