Jenny Uglow re­veals how years of food short­ages and for­eign wars sparked civil un­rest at the turn of the 19th cen­tury

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In the 1790s, wars against the French took Bri­tish sol­diers and sailors to bat­tles across the world, from In­dia to Flan­ders and South Africa to the West Indies. But to peo­ple at home it some­times seemed as though there were two enemies – the French and the weather.

The har­vest of 1794 was de­stroyed by a fierce drought, and the fol­low­ing win­ter was the most se­vere for decades: frost and snow gave way to rapid thaws that made mead­ows like lakes, only to harden into ice again. As food prices rose, the poor be­gan to suf­fer.

In the West Coun­try, peo­ple com­plained that the de­mands for the fleet in the ports were suck­ing in all the food stocks – cat­tle, sheep, corn and pota­toes – and push­ing up prices. The tin min­ers of Corn­wall and the weavers of Devon took to the streets and lanes. There were fu­ri­ous gath­er­ings in Pen­zance, Ply­mouth and in Truro where the mili­tia dis­persed the crowds at bay­o­net point. Near Chudleigh in Devon, labour­ers wear­ing skirts to look like housewives marched through vil­lages cry­ing, ‘We can­not starve,’ and wrecked a mill that sup­plied the fleet. The ring­leader, a black­smith, Thomas Cam­pion, was tried at the Au­gust as­sizes and hanged at the same mill.

Trou­ble flick­ered from Northum­ber­land to Land’s End. The first de­mand was to keep the price of food in the mar­kets down to pre-war lev­els, to main­tain ‘the moral econ­omy’, and to per­suade – or force – the farm­ers, millers and mar­ket traders to ac­cept this. Some­times the au­thor­i­ties them­selves tried to im­pose fair deal­ing. In Seven Di­als, where a crowd tore down the stall of a baker ac­cused of sell­ing light­weight loaves, one mag­is­trate from Lon­don in­ter­vened, seized the stock, weighed it, agreed with the crowd and handed out the bread for free. In other places, the jus­tices su­per­vised the mar­kets and de­creed that only lo­cal peo­ple could buy in the first hour, thus stop­ping the deal­ers and mid­dle­men from scoop­ing ev­ery­thing up.

Th­ese ef­forts, how­ever, could not stop the move from the old cus­tom­ary val­ues to new free-mar­ket prices, based on de­mand. As prices rose, peo­ple seized bread from the bak­ers and meat from the butch­ers’ stalls and forced them to sell at the old prices. Of­ten the mag­is­trates called in the mili­tia to keep the peace, but in many places the sol­diers, an­gry about their own mea­gre ra­tions, joined the protest­ing crowds. In April 1795, 400 men of the Ox­ford­shire Mili­tia ram­paged through Ne­whaven for two days, drink­ing, seiz­ing and sell­ing meat, and at­tack­ing farms and mills.

A group of 13 of the lead­ers were court-mar­tialled and flogged, and two were ex­e­cuted, kneel­ing on their coffins to be shot by 10 of their com­rades.

Poor re­lief ar­range­ments

Some re­lief came from anx­ious em­ploy­ers and from parish sub­scrip­tions, and the pa­pers were full of sug­gested al­ter­na­tives to wheaten bread – brown bread, rye bread and potato flour. Many coun­ties adopted the new Poor Law ar­range­ments in­tro­duced in May 1795 in Speen­ham­land, Berk­shire, grant­ing poor re­lief fixed in re­la­tion to the price of bread to des­ig­nated ‘pau­pers’ and their fam­i­lies. In re­sponse, the ratepay­ers who had to bear this cost turned to other meth­ods of deal­ing with the des­ti­tute, es­pe­cially the build­ing of work­houses, paid for by parish funds rather than poor rates. Th­ese hated in­sti­tu­tions of­ten be­came the breed­ing ground for dis­ease, bring­ing yet more mis­ery. Mean­while, va­grants and beg­gars roamed the roads and lanes, re­jected by parishes they lived in, ei­ther be­cause they were not reg­is­tered there and were sent to their ‘ home’ parish, or be­cause they still car­ried the tools of old trades.

The cri­sis of 1794-95 prompted Fred­er­ick Eden to write his pi­o­neer­ing sur­vey, The State of the Poor, which col­lected de­tails of the work, wages, diet and dress of pau­pers and labour­ers in all parts of the coun­try – an in­valu­able por­trait of the work­ing life of the times and an in­dict­ment of the cur­rent poor laws.

Soon the prices of wheat and flour were so high that bak­ers stopped work­ing: sup­plies of bread ran out in Birm­ing­ham, New­cas­tle, Hull and Sh­effield. Peo­ple at­tacked gra­naries and set up bar­ri­cades to pre­vent grain mov­ing by road, river and canal. In Ox­ford, crowds tried to stop the corn go­ing by canal to Birm­ing­ham; in Bath and Tewkes­bury they held up the flour barges; in York­shire they al­most closed the rivers Aire and Calder.

Mag­is­trates called in the mili­tia to keep the peace but sol­diers of­ten joined the protests

There were ru­mours of farm­ers stock­pil­ing grain and tales of smug­gled ex­ports, par­tic­u­larly when sup­plies were sent to sus­tain rebel forces in Brit­tany as part of the war ef­fort. In Sh­effield in June, troops fired on a crowd, killing two and wound­ing many more; in Manch­ester in July the cav­alry dis­persed crowds for three days run­ning; in Rochdale in Au­gust, the in­fantry killed two old men.

In late sum­mer, to mass re­lief, the weather was fine, the har­vest was gath­ered in and prices fell. But this was only a pause, and soon the short­ages started again.

In many peo­ple’s minds, the bread short­ages were linked to the war, to Wil­liam Pitt’s gov­ern­ment, and to of­fi­cial cor­rup­tion. On 26 Oc­to­ber 1795, the rad­i­cal John Thel­wall ad­dressed great crowds in the fields around Copen­hagen House in Is­ling­ton, and sent a ‘re­mon­strance’ to the king. “The shop­keeper, the me­chanic, and the poor plough­man, all suf­fer to­gether,” he said. They must unite to fight their cause. At the end of that week, the king was mobbed as he drove through St James’s Park by crowds shout­ing “No Pitt, No War, Bread, Bread!” and a pebble was hurled through his coach win­dow. Many thought it was a bul­let and within a fort­night Pitt in­tro­duced two ‘Gag­ging Acts’, the Trea­son­able Prac­tices Bill, un­der which it be­came a trea­son­able of­fence to in­cite ha­tred of the king, or even to imag­ine his death, and the Sedi­tious Meet­ings Bill, which re­stricted un­li­censed meet­ings to 50 peo­ple, stop­ping public gath­er­ings.

Broad­sides and satires abounded, and anx­ious evan­gel­i­cals like Hannah More pub­lished tracts warn­ing the poor against an­ar­chy and riot. But at the same time, con­cerned about po­ten­tial trou­ble, the Gov­ern­ment aban­doned lais­sez-faire prin­ci­ples and in­ter­vened, em­ploy­ing the grain trader Claude Scott to buy up stocks. The strat­egy worked, de­spite the re­sent­ment of grain mer­chants, and from March 1796 prices were grad­u­ally driven down.

From hope to de­spair

For two years there was rel­a­tive calm then the bit­ter win­ters and ru­ined har­vests came again. In 1799, snow­drifts still lay on the fields in mid-May. There was no hay for the horses, live­stock suf­fered and the price of meat rose. In the Lan­cashire tex­tile towns many small masters faced bank­ruptcy and laid off men, and cot­ton weavers be­gan to pe­ti­tion for reg­u­la­tion of their wages. In York­shire, skilled fin­ish­ing work­ers fear­ing the loss of their jobs, protested about new ma­chines and em­ploy­ers’ aban­don­ment of old ap­pren­tice­ship rules, and set up a union, the In­sti­tu­tion.

In re­sponse, Pitt’s gov­ern­ment passed the Com­bi­na­tion Acts of 1799 and 1800 which de­creed that any­one try­ing to strike or merely meet­ing to dis­cuss wages and con­di­tions could be pros­e­cuted.

Fac­ing such in­tran­si­gence, peo­ple be­gan to de­spair. The bad weather con­tin­ued with frosts in June and floods in July. Un­cut hay rot­ted and un­ripe wheat black­ened. Storms and hail killed hens and geese and pigs. Work­men sold fur­ni­ture and pawned clothes to feed their fam­i­lies. Across the coun­try, mag­is­trates and Poor Law Guardians or­dered al­ter­na­tives to bread for the ‘out-poor’, such as her­rings, pota­toes, rice and meal.

Try­ing to re­duce de­pen­dence on milled wheat, Pitt passed the ‘Brown Bread Act’, pop­u­larly known as the ‘Poi­son Act’, ban­ning millers from sell­ing any­thing ex­cept whole­wheat flour. In Mid­dle­ton, on the out­skirts of Manch­ester, Sa­muel Bamford re­mem­bered: “Our bread was gen­er­ally made from bar­ley, and tough, hard, dark-coloured stuff it was. In­stead of wheaten flour, we had a kind of mix­ture which was nick­named ‘ran-dan’ or ‘brown Ge­orge’, and sad rub­bish Ge­orge proved to be.” The boys hid oat­cakes made from adul­ter­ated meal “as a de­lec­ta­ble snack to be eaten at leisure.” But many of

the poor re­fused to ac­cept the loss of their familiar loaves, and the statute was re­pealed within two months.

But how­ever much the peo­ple wanted bread, it was al­most im­pos­si­ble to sow win­ter wheat in the wa­ter­logged ground. In his Lo­cal

Records for 1800, John Sykes of New­cas­tle noted that the fail­ure of the har­vest, to­gether with the ef­fects of war, caused great short­ages in New­cas­tle and Durham, where ‘The hall of St Ni­cholas’ work­house was fit­ted up as a soup kitchen, and a great quan­tity of soup, etc, was dis­trib­uted to the poor.’

Corn prices rose to the high­est in living mem­ory: monthly rises, recorded in The

Gen­tle­man’s Mag­a­zine, showed wheat soar­ing from an av­er­age of 50s a quar­ter in Jan­uary 1799 to more than 180s in March 1801.

Work­ers blamed bak­ers, bak­ers blamed millers, millers blamed deal­ers, mid­dle­men and farm­ers, ac­cus­ing them of mak­ing pri­vate deals or hold­ing back stocks. A medal was even struck show­ing ‘The Un­char­i­ta­ble Mo­nop­o­lizer’, a greedy man try­ing to swallow the world, with the words ‘Will Starve the Poor’ round the rim.

There was a spate of rob­beries. Sui­cides rose. Chil­dren picked potato peel­ings off the dunghills and fought off stray dogs for bones thrown out of kitchens. Labour­ers cut ba­con, the cheap­est meat, out of their di­ets. “Net­tles, par­liance, docks, green saus, wa­ter cresses etc are plucked up by the poor peo­ple as a sub­sti­tute for pota­toes,” wrote the Old­ham weaver Wil­liam Row­bot­tom, “and scores of poor wretches are wan­der­ing in a for­lorn state ea­ger­ously pick­ing up any sorts of veg­eta­bles which fall their way.” As well as the labour­ing poor, ar­ti­sans, traders, small masters, school­teach­ers and clerks be­gan to starve, too proud to ask for poor re­lief.

An­other wave of ri­ots spread south from Sh­effield to Derby, from Le­ices­ter across to Birm­ing­ham – where Pickard’s huge steam-pow­ered flour mill was at­tacked, as it had been in 1795 – to Ox­ford and then into Lon­don.

The ri­ots in­creased the pres­sure for peace, which came with the brief Peace of Amiens from 1802-3. But then the wars re­sumed, and the food short­ages even­tu­ally re­turned, too. Af­ter the harsh win­ter of 1810, bread ri­ots over­lapped with Lud­dite out­rages and the wider out­cry against the Or­ders in Coun­cil, passed in re­sponse to Napoleon’s block­ade, which cur­tailed Bri­tish trade.

In Not­ting­ham, home of ‘King Ludd’, women marched with a loaf stuck on a pole, tied with black crepe, show­ing ‘bleed­ing famine decked in Sack­e­cloth’.

There were hard times to come, and the de­spair en­gen­dered dur­ing the war would con­trib­ute to the later out­cry against the pro­tec­tion­ist Corn Laws and to the great move­ment for Par­lia­men­tary re­form. It was only by a nar­row mar­gin that the coun­try es­caped true ‘com­mo­tion or civil wars’.

Wil­liam Pitt’s car­riage is at­tacked in Oc­to­ber 1795

Poor re­lief was handed out to needy pau­pers

Po­lit­i­cal ri­ots oc­curred for the next 30 years as food short­ages took their toll

Jenny Uglow is the au­thor of In Th­ese Times: Living in Bri­tain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815,

pub­lished by Faber & Faber.

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