For many centuries, until the 1800s, in times of high food prices and thus widespread hunger, popular discontent could often erupt into direct action, usually manifesting as a price setting riot: seizing food and selling it at a lower price than what it was currently selling for, a price seen as fair or affordable.
Food riots could involve the whole community, though they were often led by women. This was the strongest example of what some historians call the ‘moral economy’ – a set of economic and social practices based in a popular view of how certain basic needs ought to be fairly and cheaply available, and a preparedness to impose those values on merchants, farmers, millers… By force if necessary. Bakers and millers would be the target of rioters, often accused along with farmers and landowners of hoarding grain to jack up prices; but other foodstuffs could also be the focus of disturbance.
The idea of a moral economy was one that crossed class boundaries, a reflection of the paternalist society, where all knew their place, but all classes had responsibilities and there were certain given rights to survival. This kind of moral economy was bound up with pre-capitalist society – to some extent superseded by the growth of capitalism, of social relations based solely on profit and wage labour…
The early 1770s were a time of food scarcity and poor harvests – across the country many of the poorer folk were going hungry.
According to the Annual Register, 1772, on 6th April that year, “a wagon coming to Leadenhall-market, from Hertfordshire, loaden with beef, pork, &c. was seized by the populace, and the meat sold for three-pence per pound.”
There was a second seizure of a wagon, “loaded with several packs of veal, containing five carcasses each, which was coming from Sudbury in Suffolk” bound for Leadenhall Market, on April 10th, though it isn’t clear where it was stopped. Again the meat was sold off at a price “the populace” though fair (in this case “2d. per pound under the market price”)…
The Register records that food rioting had also occurred the week before in Colchester: “Friday last, the poorer people, driven to the greatest necessity, assembled in a body at Colchester, and seized some carcass-carriages, a wagon of meat, and the like quantity of barley meal, on their way through that town for London. The meat they sold for three-pence halfpenny a pound, the wheat at 4s. a bushel, and the barley meal, greatly under the market price, and then gave the money arising from the sale to the persons who had care of the wagons…”
Calves bound for London were also stopped in Colchester that week, and on the 12th, “a mob assembled in Chelmsford, armed with bludgeons, and next day went in a body to visit mills in that neighbourhood, from whence they took great quantities of wheat, and wheat-flour. At Witham and Sudbury…. They stopt the cars laden with meat for the London markets…”
While I haven’t found a record of any punishment of London food rioters at this time, the Suffolk disturbances (where “the whole country seem in motion’) certainly put the wind up the authorities: a posse of mainly farmers and their servants, led by gentlemen, gathered, and arrested at least 16 rioters.
On the 22nd, the Lord Mayor of London was “roughly used by the populace, for not lowering the price of bread. The front glass of his coach was broken, and it was with difficulty that his person of his lordship was preserved from violence.”
On April 27th, the journeymen tailors petitioned the magistrates “praying an augmentation of their wages, on account of the dearness of provisions… which… [was] granted…” While the court hearing applauded the tailors for “seeking redress in a legal manner, without having recourse to violent methods”, this is somewhat naïve – the threat of the previous fortnight’s uproar certainly contributed to the winning of the extra wages. Not resorting to violence still carries the unspoken threat of potential violence. Especially when others are rioting…
The authorities both prepared to repress such riots, and made provision to secure more food: on the 7th April, “Mr Sheriff Bull, accompanied only by the city remembrance, went to the House of Commons, and presented a petition from the City of London, for opening the ports for the importation of corn, on account of the high cost of provisions.”
Large quantities of mackerel and herring were also ordered to be obtained for the poor of the City.
Parliament also brought in laws to punish those who profited from hoarding food-stuffs so as to profit when prices were high… However food riots continued across England into 1773.
Worth a read on moral economy:
EP. Thompson, The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century (Past & Present No. 50 (Feb., 1971), pp. 76-136) It’s online here
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.