In 1799, 1800 and 1801 widespread rioting broke out throughout England. Most of these were food riots, provoked by scarcity and soaring prices during Napoleon’s continental blockade of Britain. The cost of a loaf of bread was at an all time high of 1 shilling 9 d. High grain prices meant hikes in the cost of bread – and many of the poor and labouring classes lived off a diet in which bread played a major part. Bread price rises were always likely to cause riots – and prices did depend on the quality of harvest. A bad harvest harbinged social disorder.
Britain had been at war with Revolutionary France since 1793. In order to keep the army and navy fed, much of the wheat that was produced was bought by the government. In addition the war led to difficulties importing grain into Britain, (due to blockades and disrupted harvests on the continent) which also raised the price.
A series of poor harvests in the mid 1790’s and severe weather also devastating affect; much of this was caused by unpredictable weather. Crops were either left rotting in the fields by freezing wet Winters, or scorched by unbearably hot summers.
Enclosure also had a huge impact: for many who in the past might have had some measure of self-sufficiency, owning a couple of animals they could graze on common land, for instance – these options had been restricted as access to common land had been drastically cut back in the mid-late 18th century. Many of the rural or semi-rural poor now bought much more of their food.
Bread had increasingly become the major part of the diet of the majority of British population, especially among the poor and working classes.
And the price of food was crucial in people’s daily life: anywhere between 40 and 80 percent of income was spent on bread.
Beyond this – high grain prices led to a negative impact on the economy generally. As spending on bread came first, expenditure on most other products rose and fell depending on what spare cash people had after feeding themselves. High grain prices, high bread prices, led to drastic reductions in consumer spending in other areas, which had a knock on effect on the wider economy.
So in the late 1790s-early 1800s, there was a general economic crisis. Gold was scarce—so scarce, from the normal price of £3 17s. 6d. per oz., it had risen to £4 5s., “at which price it was a temptation, almost overpowering, to melt guineas”. The cost of living increased: food was scarce and expensive ”and, as very few people starve in silence, riots were the natural consequence.”
Control over bread prices was in fact a regular fact of life. The weight of a penny loaf had also been set to reflect the local cost of wheat (this was a concession to popular feeling after a previous wave of food riots in 1757).
More widely, the ‘Bread Assize’ was supposed to regulate the cost of a loaf of bread in different areas, to prevent the cost soaring too high for the poor to afford. The Assize was administered locally, as prices and wages varied across the country; particular attention was always paid to London, not only as the largest market for bread, but because of the greater potential for disorder in the capital if bread became scarce or unaffordable. The Assize was very much about preventing social unrest. But administering it was complex, especially as it regulated only the price of bread, not grain. Any suggestion of assizing flour prices as well came to nothing. In effect, authorities subsidised bakers to keep bread prices low; but the system was criticised for being confusing and arbitrary, and for encouraging profiteering and hoarding by grain merchants, millers and bakers. Nationally, government policy was generally to allow market forces to regulate the markets, and by 1800, the Assize system was being abandoned in many areas, including London, though other local authorities continued to attempt to keep bread prices down for several decades into the 19th century.
The government attempted to address the problems caused by grain dealers allegedly profiting from high grain prices – mainly they were pushed into action by popular clamour. Laws were passed or existing rules revived, against “Forestalling and Regrating”, (ie, buying up and hoarding produce in order to sell it later when prices were higher), granting subsidies to merchants who imported oats and rye, and also allowing beer to be made from sugar to free up grain for bread making.
Legal action was in fact taken against those accused of profiteering:
“This day one Mr. Rusby was tried, in the Court of King’s Bench, on an indictment against him, as an eminent corn-factor, for having purchased, by sample, on the 8th of November last, in the Corn Market, Mark Lane, ninety quarters of oats at 41s. per quarter, and sold thirty of them again in the same market, on the same day, at 44s. The most material testimony on the part of the Crown was given by Thomas Smith, a partner of the defendant’s. After the evidence had been gone through, Lord Kenyon made an address to the jury, who, almost instantly, found the defendant guilty. Lord Kenyon— ‘You have conferred, by your verdict, almost the greatest benefit on your country that was ever conferred by any jury.’ Another indictment against the defendant, for engrossing, stands over.
“Several other indictments for the same alleged crimes were tried during this year, which we fear tended to aggravate the evils of scarcity they were meant to obviate, and no doubt
contributed to excite popular tumults, by rendering a very useful body of men odious in the eyes of the mob.”
(Annual Register, July 4, 1800)
However, calls for the government to set grain prices, or to allow local authorities to set them in the interests of peace, were resisted. The government of the era was overseeing the rapid replacement of any vestiges of paternalism in the interests of social cohesion, in favour of a strict laissez faire approach to prices and wages. The Duke of Portland, Home Secretary at the time, over-ruled local authorities who were willing to settle prices locally to appease anger.
Crowds sometimes took the punishment of forestallers into their own hands. (A case at Bishop’s Clyst, Devon, August, 1800 is featured in ‘Hints to Forestallers, or A Sure Way to Reduce the Price of Grain!’ an illustration by Isaac Cruikshank).
Crowd action to enforce what they saw as ‘fair’ prices for bread and other food stuffs reflected what EP Thompson identified as a ‘moral economy’ – the idea that a consensus existed on the cost of staple foodstuffs, broadly encompassing different social classes, on the basis that the essentials of life should be available and affordable. Moral economy was often enforced unofficially by collective action – eg crowds taking over markets or shops, and making the merchants reduce prices to a level felt to be reasonable. Prior to the industrial revolution, Thompson identifies the moral economy with a widespread system of social paternalism, which meant that authorities sometimes colluded with or turned a blind eye to such collective action, or even enforced price levels themselves, in the interests of keeping social peace. The rise of laissez faire capitalism in the last decades of the 18th century reflected a determination in parts of the ruling elites to do away with paternalism, and to allow the power of ‘market forces’ to determine prices and wages, in the interests, of course, of the wealthy. But the memory of the attacks on the wealthy in the Gordon Riots of 1780, and the fear of something like the French Revolution happening in Britain, can also be seen in the strong line increasingly taken with crowds in the 1790s.
In August and September several riots protesting the scarcity of corn, and the high price of provisions, took place in Birmingham, Oxford, Nottingham, Coventry, Norwich, Stamford, Portsmouth, Sheffield, Worcester, and a number of other areas. The form these generally took was that markets were invaded, and a crowd would force the farmers and merchants to sell their provisions at a low price, or at least one considered fair.
There were the usual suggestions of some mysterious organisation being behind the riots. Several riots and consumer’s “strikes” were advertised in advance by handbills, on a scale which argues organisation by committees with access to the printing-press. Radicals had been circulating inflammatory handbills calling for demonstrations; the City was awash with revolutionary graffiti.
In September 1800, the riots spread to several parts of London. 2000 demonstrators forced the closure of the Corn Exchange for 6 days, and targetted corn dealers seen as responsible for high corn prices.
For six days there were tumults, starting at the Corn Exchange, in Mark Lane, (off modern Fenchurch Street) but spreading to other areas.
Overnight on 13th-14th September, two large written placards were pasted on the Monument, the text of which read:
“Bread will be sixpence the Quartern if the People will
assemble at the Corn Market on Monday.
How long will ye quietly and cowardly suffer yourselves to
be imposed upon, and half starved by a set of mercenary slaves and Government hirelings? Can you still suffer them to proceed in their extensive monopolies, while your children are
crying for bread?
No! let them exist not a day longer. We are
the sovereignty; rise then from your lethargy.
Be at the Corn Market on Monday.”
Small printed handbills with similar messages were distributed around poor neighbourhoods, “and the chance of a cheap loaf, or the love of mischief,” led to a two thousand-strong crowd gathering in Mark Lane the next morning. They began by hissing the grain dealers and corn-factors going into the market, but this progressed to jostling the dealers and pelting them with mud. For some reason Quakers came in for particularly rough treatment. They also began breaking the Exchange windows. The Lord Mayor of London went to Mark Lane about 11 a.m., to plead with the crowd that their actions would make no difference to bread prices; however, they only hissed and yelled at him, “Cheap bread! Birmingham and Nottingham for ever! Three loaves for eighteen pence,” the Mayor ordered the Riot Act to be read, and the constables charged the mob, who dispersed. [The reference to Birmingham and Nottingham was a reminder of the bread riots that had recently taken place there.]
The Lord Mayor returned to the Mansion House. But as soon as he had gone, the riots began again and the Mayor had to return.
When the evening fell, the riots broke out again in force. A mob assembled, which routed the constables, and broke the windows of several bakers’ shops. When they gathered procured a
quantity of wood the civic authorities intervened to prevent them starting a fire (always feared in the City). The Lord Mayor enlisted a number of companies of the Volunteers, the militia set up among the middle classes to resist an anticipated French invasion (though they mainly saw action repressing meetings of radicals and reformers) – in this case from the Tower Ward and East India House Volunteers. They were joined by part of the London Militia.
These troops blocked both ends of Mark Lane, at Fenchurch Street, and Billiter Lane, and then charged the crowd and dispersed it – some down Lombard Street, some down Fish Street Hill, and over London Bridge, into the Borough. Then peace was once more restored, and the volunteers went unto their own homes.
That was not the end of the trouble that night – the crowd that had been pushed into the borough took the chance to visit the house of Mr. Rusby (6, Temple Place, Blackfriars Road)
described above as being prosecuted for ‘forestalling and regrating’. They raided his house and ransacked it, though he had escaped by the back way into a neighbour’s house. The crowd dispersed before a party of mounted troops and Militia arrived.
On the next day the riotous population were “in a ferment, but were kept in check by the militia and volunteers.”
Whether through fear of the rioters or not, the price of wheat did fall on Monday 15th, by ten and fifteen shillings a quarter. London’s Court of Aldermen issued a statement claiming that if the mob hadn’t rioted, it would have fallen still lower, as merchants were afraid to bring their corn to market (the old line that ‘market forces will sort it all out…):
“A Court of Lord Mayor and Aldermen held at the Guildhall
of the City of London, on Tuesday, the 16th of September, 1800.
“Resolved unanimously—That it is the opinion of this Court,
from the best information it has been able to procure, that, had
not the access to the Corn Market been, yesterday, impeded,
and the transactions therein interrupted, a fall in the price of
Wheat and Flour, much more considerable than that which
actually took place, would have ensued; aid this Court is
further of opinion, that no means can so effectually lead to
reduce the present excessive prices of the principal articles of
food, as the holding out full security and indemnification to
such lawful Dealers as shall bring their Corn or other
commodities to market. And this Court does therefore express
a determination to suppress, at once, and by force, if it shall
unhappily be necessary, every attempt to impede, by acts of
violence, the regular business of the markets of the Metropolis.”
A butcher was tried and convicted at the Clerkenwell Sessions, on September 16th, for “forestalling the market of Smithfield on the 6th of March last, by purchasing of Mr.
Eldsworth, a salesman, two cows and an ox, on their way to the market.” His brother was also convicted.
Rioting resumed around the Mark Lane Corn Market, however, on both the 15th and 16th, in response to which, the Lord Mayor issued another Proclamation;
“Mansion House, Sept. 17, 1800.
“Whereas the peace of this City has been, within these few
days, very much disturbed by numerous and tumultuous
assemblies of riotous and disorderly people, the magistrates,
determined to preserve the King’s peace, and the persons and
property of their fellow-citizens, by every means which the
law has intrusted to their hands, particularly request the
peaceable and well-disposed inhabitants of this City, upon the
appearance of the military, to keep themselves away from the
windows; to keep all the individuals of their families, and
servants, within doors; and, where such opportunities can be
taken, to remain in the back rooms of their houses.
“By order of his Lordship.
“W. J. Newman, Clerk.”
Angry crowds were by now targeting not only markets and known merchants, but also houses where they suspected food was being hoarded. As usual at such times, rumour and Chinese whispers abounded.
On the morning of the 18th of September, crowds gathered in Chiswell Street, opposite the house of a Mr. Jones, whose windows they had demolished the previous night, and proceeded to attack a house opposite, at the corner of Grub Street. This was the house of a Mr. Pizey, a
shoemaker, a friend of the said Jones, on whose behalf Pizey was storing some barrels of salt pork. Rumours had spread that this was being hoarded for profiteering purposes, and “the mob began to mutter that “it would be a d-d good thing to throw some stuff in and blow up the place.”
Pizey sent messengers to the Mansion House, and the Worship Street office, and a force of constables was sent to Chiswell Street. The crowds dispersed.
On the 18th of September King George III issued a proclamation “strictly commanding and requiring all the Lieutenants of our Counties, and all our Justices of the Peace, Sheriff, and
Under-Sheriffs, and all civil officers whatsoever, that they do take the most effectual means for suppressing all riots and tumults, and to that end do effectually put in execution an Act of Parliament made in the first year of the reign of our late royal ancestor, of glorious memory, King George the First, entitled ‘An Act for preventing tumults and riotous
assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the rioters”” [Meaning the 1715 Riot Act, which allowed soldiers to be ordered to shoot down crowds if they did not disperse when ordered to do so by a magistrate.]
That night, however, rioting began again. Ignoring the threat of the Rot Act, crowds gathered in Bishopsgate Street, then marched up Sun Street, through Finsbury Square, where they scattered a force of constables sent to halt them, and continuing down Barbican into Smithfield, Saffron Hill, Holborn, and Snow Hill. At Snow Hill they broke two cheesemongers’ windows; they then swept through Fleet Market, breaking and tossing about everything moveable, and smashed the windows of another cheesemonger. From Fleet Street they turned up Ludgate Hill, smashing all the lamps on the way, and marched back into the City via Cheapside (where they apparently targeted the Mansion House, the Lord Mayor’s official residence), Newgate Street, St. Martin’s-le-Grand, and Barbican to Old Street. Here they dispersed for the night. “From Ludgate Hill to Barbican, only one lamp was left burning, and of that the glass was broken.”
Soldiers apparently marched in the mob’s wake all night trying to catch up with them but never managed to quite make it…
It’s worth mentioning that towns close to the city were also affected. On the 18th, apparently, an ‘Incitement to riot’ occurred in Kingston-Upon-Thames: Radicals allegedly distributed cards calling for cheap bread in Kingston pubs.
Riots continued on the night of the 19th of September; though not on the same scale as the previous days.
The 20th saw the final day of the tumults, this time centred in Westminster rather than the City. A crowd met in Clare Market, off the Strand, and marched for a while, but after some skirmishes with ‘the St. Clement Danes Association’ (another volunteer militia?), they dispersed at the approach of the Horse Guards. Another group met in Monmouth Street, St. Giles’s, but the Westminster Volunteers, and cavalry, dispersed them. Shops closed very early. This seems to have been the end of these food riots in central areas of London.
The 20th also saw a Food Riot in Woolwich Kent, to the southeast of London.
It is worth noting that the price of a quartern loaf was lowered under the London Bread Assize in the week following the riots.
Riots continued outside the capital. In some places the riots were put down by force, in others the price of bread was lowered. What was worrying to the authorities, however, was that the crowd in many areas was no longer divided between “Jacobin” and “Church and King” factions – radicals and supporters of the status quo – who had been notable opposed to each other a few years earlier:
“What scarred the Gentlemen the most was to see the Union of parties their being no painites nor no such song as God save the King to be heard.”
Politics aside, hunger had the potential to unite the lower orders – always terrifying to those in power.
The dying down on the riots in September was not quite the end of crowds gathering in London on the issue in 1800.
In November handbills were circulated calling upon “Tradesmen, Artizans, Journeymen, Labourers, &c., to meet on Kennington Common” on Sunday, the 9th of November, with an aim to “petition His Majesty on a redress of grievances.”
This meeting was prevented by a show of military strength. The Privy Council, sent orders to police offices and the different volunteer corps, to hold themselves in readiness in case of
emergency, and the Bow Street patrol were sent, early in the morning, to take up a position at the Horns Tavern, Kennington, to wait until the mob began to assemble. Small crowds attempted to gather, but were continually chased away by the Bow Street patrol, aided by the Surrey Yeomanry, the Southwark Volunteers, and the whole police force from seven offices, together with the river police.
The scarcity of corn still continued down to the end of the year. It had been a bad harvest generally throughout the Continent, and little imported corn arrived in England.
Government attempts to mitigate the shortages continued, though they were all a bit farcical: a proclamation on December 3rd exhorted all persons who had the means of procuring other food than corn, to use the strictest economy in the use of every kind of grain, abstaining from pastry, reducing the consumption of bread in their respective families at least one-third, and upon no account to allow it “to exceed one quartern loaf for each person in each week;” and also all persons keeping horses, especially those for pleasure, to restrict their consumption of grain, as far as circumstances would admit.
The government also introduced the ‘Making of Bread, etc. Act 1800, also known as the Brown Bread Act or the Poison Act, to prohibit making bread with any other kind of flour than wholemeal flour. Although aimed at increasing the amount of flour that could be made from a given weight of grain, this Act was very unpopular. It was claimed by many at the time that the coarser wholemeal mixtures of flour often made people ill; many said to be pretty nasty. Mixed bread was likely to be subject to adulteration than white bread – to increase profits, millers were known to dilute flour with all sorts of other substances including alum and chalk.
The Brown Bread Act immediately result in more trouble – at Horsham in Sussex, “a number of women… proceeded to Gosden windmill, where, abusing the miller for having served them with brown flour, they seized on the cloth with which he was then dressing meal according to the directions of the Bread Act, and cut it into a thousand pieces; threatening at the same time to serve all similar utensils he might in future attempt to use in the same manner. The Amazonian leader of this petticoated cavalcade afterwards regaled her associates with a guinea’s worth of liquor at the Crab Tree public-house.”
With such resistance, the Act was repealed less than two months after its passing.
It’s easy to see that the pre-incarnations of Iain Duncan Smith and Hancock were at work, too, as another measure adopted at this time was the so-called Stale Bread Act, a government instruction to bakers not to sell bread until at least 24 hours after baking, as staler bread fills you more, so people would eat less. (This was amended to 48 hours in London for a while). It was impossible to enforce although the Government tried very hard to impose it. There were fines for bakers who broke the law and rewards for members of the community who snitched on them. This was accompanied by a suggestion to promote other foods such as vegetables and herring… The Act also quickly led to complaints and the Act lasted for only one year. The decades that followed saw people driven into more desperation as food shortages and unemployment caused dreadful suffering amongst the poor of Britain.
(Interestingly, a century later in WW1, very similar issues of lack of supply due to war, high bread prices, and mass discontent – which had led to food riots then too – caused the government to repeat the Stale bread Act, in the Bread Order of 1917.
Bread prices continued to be a focus of debate and anger. Napoleon’s continental blockade increased the difficulty of importing grain. Britain’s increasing industrialisation also had a corresponding effect on demand, as well as accelerating the decrease in subsistence.
This would be aggravated from 1815 by the passing of the Corn Laws, tariffs and trade restrictions on imported grain, designed to keep grain prices high to favour domestic producers (in effect the large landowning interests who dominated Parliament). The Corn Laws blocked the import of cheap grain, initially by simply forbidding importation below a set price, and later by imposing steep import duties, making it too expensive to import grain from abroad, even when food supplies were short. The Corn Laws, too, provoked rioting from enraged plebs…
A couple of books worth reading:
The Dawn of the XIXth Century in England: A Social Sketch of the Times
By John Ashton.
Also Bread and the British Economy, 1770–1870
By Christian Petersen, Andrew Jenkins