Britain in 1815 was a country exhausted. Under the Duke of Wellington’s command, Napoleon had been defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. The country was victorious. But it had come at a huge cost.
The country had been haemorrhaging money to pay for the war, and the series of naval blockades had prevented the import of certain key food imports. It had meant very lean times; Britain was far from being self-sufficient when it came to key cereal crops, and a poor domestic harvest in 1812 forced up prices, hitting the working poor hard. Indeed, the poverty had started to creep up to the middle classes. The next year saw a bumper crop, and prices dropped, but they were not decreased exactly in line, so the starving poor didn’t feel as great a benefit as they should in the good growing years.
The war may have brought the country to its knees, but it did bring the country landowners a monopoly; that significant drop in cheap imports, meant that the British, in the main, had to buy British. This came in contrast to the Britain before the wars: the idea and implementation of free (or nearly free) trade was driving down the prices of staples and luxuries alike, and the working classes were finding that they had a little surplus money to buy more of life’s luxuries. It also kept wages low, meaning that the new industrialists, who employed citizens in the factories could make a tidy profit. Low food prices, in short, were powering the people of the industrial revolution, and the tax from the profits were paying for the country’s empire building. There was, then, a tension between the landed gentry and landlords in the countryside and the industrialists in their towns and cities.
When the Napoleonic Wars came to an end, the landowners did not want a return to a world where competitive foreign imports drove down prices, forcing them to sell their grain for less than they were prepared to sell it, and so a plan was hatched to protect them and their grain prices. This plan was not done in secret, but in plain sight in the House of Commons. The landowners were powerful, indeed many of the country’s MPs were landowners. At this point in history, one could only vote if one owned a certain amount of land. Industrialists, though vocal, did not – in the main – own large amounts of land, and therefore there was a political bias toward the rich men of the countryside, and away from the rich men of the towns and cities.
At first glance their arguments seemed not just solid, but patriotic too: after all this war, and the lack of domestically-grown foods that came with it, Britain should never find itself in this situation again. We need to favour our own farmers and develop our agriculture so that we can be self-sufficient. Not only that, Britain had led the world in the agricultural revolution the century before, and without that, the industrial revolution would never have got off the ground. As 20th century historian C.R. Fay put it: ‘Producers’ strength pulled one way and consumers’ necessity the other. For wheat was a necessity of the poor, and agriculture was the symbol of productive strength at home.’ Britain’s agriculture had to keep going.1 Lord Liverpool leader of the Tory Party and Prime Minister argued that millions of British citizens ‘could not depend upon foreign nations for the necessities of life’.2
This all sounds fine in theory doesn’t it? But the reality would be very different when Liverpool passed the Corn Law Act on 23 March 1815. You see, the Act allowed the free trade of grains imported into the country, but only after domestic prices reached a threshold amount. And it was high: 80 shillings per quarter3[*] in the case of wheat, these prices were ‘were near famine inducing levels’.4 The only way prices would go above the threshold would be when there were extreme droughts or crop failures from cold or wet weather. So despite there being cheap and plentiful cereals available from outside the country, because of their monopoly, British landowners could sell their grain at any price up to that threshold.
When the Act was announced there were riots in the streets, but despite the vocal lobbying from industrialists, they arguments fell largely upon deaf ears. Before the Act was announced Anti Corn Law Leagues were set up too, but their efforts came to nought.
As the poor became more destitute, the Acts were reissued with lower thresholds, but they were still too high. The Duke of Wellington during his tenure as Prime Minister introduced a sliding scale, allowing some foreign grain into the country, but not it was not freely-traded. Over the following decades (they wouldn’t be repealed until 1842), the working classes were ground down by degrees: never before or since was the country so close to revolution. In the 1840s, wages reached their lowest levels in a century, and staple foods were expensive and hard to come by.5 It didn’t just affect the urban poor either. A Shetland fisherman, who before the laws were passed happily traded his fish for grain from Spain and Germany. This cashless exchange of goods suited all parties, but after the pass he had to sell his fish within Britain for cash, and being able to buy British grain only, found he could afford to buy just have the amount he used to before the acts were passed.4
The country was stuck under the thumb of greedy landowners and the House of Commons, but they would be repealed, and in part two, we’ll look at the key players on both sides of the battle.
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- Fay, C. R. The Corn Laws and Social England. (Cambridge University Press, 1932).
- Thompson, T. P. Catechism on the Corn Laws: With a List of Fallacies and the Answers. (Westminster Review, 1834).
- An Act to amend the Laws now in force for regulating the Importation of Corn. (1815).
- Carpenter, K. Petitions and the Corn Laws. UK Parliament: Petitions Committees https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/326/petitions-committee/news/99040/petitions-and-the-corn-laws/ (2019).
- Drummond, J. C. & Wilbraham, A. The Englishman’s Food: Five Centuries of English Diet. (Pimlico, 1939).
[*] A quarter was a unit of measure used typically for dry goods rather than liquids and it was equal to 8 bushels, a bushel being 8 gallons. In metric units, a quarter is the equivalent of 291 litres.