Tag Archives: The Corn Laws

The Corn Laws Part 2 – Repeal

The Corn Laws were in place between 1815 and 1842. During this time several petitions of repeal were made to Parliament; in all 1,414,303 signatures were presented within 467 petitions. There were, of course, signatures scribbled upon petitions against repeal of the Laws, but they were far fewer: just 145,855 signatures, a whole order of magnitude fewer!1 This goes to show just how powerful the country landowners were; no matter how bad things got, and no matter the number of signatures, Parliament would not budge. But there were folk chipping away at this issue, whether it be in the streets, in the townhouses, or in the corridors of power. Repeal would come, and there were several key players in the story, and in the second of my two posts on the Corn Laws, we shall meet them.

Thomas Tooke

Thomas Tooke (1774-1858)

An experienced merchant and economist, Thomas Tooke could see that the Corn Laws were having a deleterious upon the majority of the population. He argued that stopping the free grain in foreign grain was harmful to trade in broader terms, saying

There appears to be at the moment, a quantity of corn on one side of an impenetrable barrier, and a quantity of manufacturers on the other, which would naturally be interchanged, if it were not for the artificial hindrance occasioned by the present system.

The Laws were there to protect the landed gentry in the countryside at the expense of the income and quality of life of the working classes. It didn’t even help the farmers in the countryside because landowners charged them higher rents. As far as Tooke was concerned, making staple foodstuffs scarcer raised prices and adversely affected the working classes.2

Lord Liverpool, the Tory Prime Minister blocked his petition, but Tooke still presented his case to a House of Commons Select Committee in 1821. So impressive was his thinking and well laid-out his argument, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society later in the same year. So, whilst his petition wasn’t debated, he still got to say his piece, which reinforced the idea to lower tariffs and emboldened those for whom repeal of the Corn Laws was the only fair and sensible option.2

Richard Cobden and John Bright

As soon as the idea of implementing the first Corn Law was debated in Parliament, anti-Corn Law groups sprang up all around the country, but they were not a united, cohesive front. This changed however with two industrialists Richard Cobden and John Bright, who together formed what would become known as the Manchester School. Tooke had taken the argument for repeal to the Commons, but Cobden and Bright would be so effective in communicating their argument that would both become MPs.

Richard Cobden owned a calico[*] printing mill and was the son of a poor farmer from Sussex, so could appreciate the harm the Corn Laws were inflicting on industry, and both the urban and rural workforce. He created the Manchester Anti-Corn League in 1839. His writing and speeches were based on the notions that free trade benefited the majority, and that manufacturing and trade should be allowed to continue with minimal interference from Parliament. In short, the Corn Laws ‘were both economically disastrous and morally wrong.’3

In 1941, he invited John Bright to join him and help him develop the political, economic and moral argument against the Corn Laws.4 John, also an industrialist, was Lancashire born and bred, a devout Quaker and a skilled orator, who managed to make protest and debate entertaining, ‘produc[ing] an entire theatre of opposition activity.’5

John Bright (1811-1889) & Richard Cobden (1804-1865)

They made quite the team: John was the man of the people, the salt of the earth, able to communicate their ideas to the common man In the North of England. The country had – and still has – a strong north-south divide, and Cobden’s southern accent made his speeches in Parliament more palatable, allowing him to give insight into the economics of the industrial north. Together they began to turn the tide of opinion both within and without the House of Commons.


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Robert Peel

Robert Peel (1778-1850)

Sir Robert Peel became Prime minister for the second time in 1841. He had won his position – partially – on his view that the Corn Laws should stay in place. However, Cobden and Bright’s arguments persuaded him to rethink his position. Peel could see that the Laws were only benefiting landowners and that the working classes – and some of the middle classes too – were beginning to starve. It was not sustainable, and revolution was on the cards: the early 1840s had seen a series of wet summers, lowering production and raising prices greatly. Then, the Irish Potato Famine hit Britain received much of its corn from Ireland, but with a dying population, the workforce didn’t exist that could farm the grain; add to that, a great number of Irish emigrating to Britain to escape the crisis only exacerbated the problem.6 Something had to be done: the Corn Laws had to be repealed. The opposition party, the Whigs – the more liberal party of the day – were generally up for repeal, but two-thirds of the Tory party were vehemently against it. Peel had tried to pass an act to real the Corn Laws twice already, but as the Potato Famine reached its peak in 1942, he attempted to pass it one more time. This was a rare case of a Prime Minister going against their party majority, and he knew it would be career suicide should the act get through, and it did, with a majority of 98.

Peel resigned shortly afterwards, and the legislation surrounding the Laws was dismantled over the space of three years, leaving behind a country where the working and lower-middle classes were empowered and very much pro-free trade.6 The Manchester School had achieved its goal. The School is considered by many to be the first political pressure group, and a most successful one at that.

References

  1. 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).
  2. Smith, M. Thomas Tooke on the Corn Laws. Hist. Polit. Econ. 41, 343–382 (2009).
  3. Briggs, A. Richard Cobden. Britannica https://www.britannica.com/biography/Richard-Cobden (2022).
  4. John Bright. Quakers in the World https://www.quakersintheworld.org/quakers-in-action/304/John-Bright.
  5. Philp, M. John Bright and Richard Cobden: The Corn Laws. To the Barricades https://barricades.ac.uk/items/show/103.
  6. Boudreaux, Donald, J. Repealing the Corn Laws, 175 Years Later. Discourse Magazine https://www.discoursemagazine.com/culture-and-society/2021/06/18/repealing-the-corn-laws-175-years-later/ (2021).

[*] Calico is a wafty thin-weave cotton fabric.

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The Corn Laws: Part 1 – The Landowners’ Monopoly

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 Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo

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.

A Cruikshank cartoon from 1815 showing the English turning away cheap foreign corn whilst the poor starve

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

Tory Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool

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.

The passing of the Act in 1815 incited rioting in the streets

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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References

  1. Fay, C. R. The Corn Laws and Social England. (Cambridge University Press, 1932).
  2. Thompson, T. P. Catechism on the Corn Laws: With a List of Fallacies and the Answers. (Westminster Review, 1834).
  3. An Act to amend the Laws now in force for regulating the Importation of Corn. (1815).
  4. 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).
  5. 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.

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