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