What were the Corn Laws?

The most infamous Corn Laws were the protectionist measures brought in by the British government in 1815, which restricted the amount of foreign grain that could be imported into the country.


Duty-free grain from overseas was only permitted if the price at home had reached 80 shillings per quarter for wheat (a quarter being roughly one-fifth of a tonne) – a price that was never achieved in the 30 years that the laws applied – 50 shillings for rye and 40 shillings for barley. Later, harsh import duties were also implemented that made buying from abroad unaffordable.

Why were they implemented?

In 1815, with the Napoleonic Wars coming to an end, food prices were expected to fall as trade with Europe started up again and corn could be imported once more. However, importing grain from abroad was not in the interests of British landowners – which included many members of parliament – so the Tory government passed the Corn Laws.

Economists at the time believed that relying on cheaper foreign corn would lower labourers’ wages. Some also argued that introducing such measures put Britain closer to being self-sufficient, but the financial interests of British landowners was the main motivating factor in the decision.

Had there been any Corn Laws before?

There had been previous Corn Laws in the 17th century, which had ensured a steady supply of grain while keeping prices at a reasonable level for both the farmers and consumers. When the prices rose, imports were encouraged by reducing duty, and when it fell a higher duty was imposed to keep domestic prices steady. However, in 1815, the taxes imposed seemed to aid only a minority of people and were intended to keep price artificially high, as they had been during the Napoleonic Wars.

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What impact did the Corn Laws have?

The laws were seen as benefiting the landowners and farmers while keeping prices high for everyone else. The lower classes saw living expenses increase and had far less disposable income. In the years that followed the Napoleonic Wars, Britain suffered a number of poor harvests and the price of bread rose considerably. Many labourers had also seen their wages cut, making life for the working classes in Britain very difficult.

What was the reaction to the laws in Britain?

The general public were outraged, and riots broke out – most notably in 1816, when failing harvests saw prices soar even higher. Known as The Year Without a Summer, 1816 was badly affected by a volcanic eruption the previous year, in modern-day Indonesia, which caused disruption to the world’s weather system. The resulting cold weather caused crops to fail, which in turn caused famines across the world.

Armed guards were tasked with defending MPs when the Corn Laws bill was passed, as public opinion was low and tensions high. The working classes saw the act as a prime example of politicians showing little thought for them, though some farmers welcomed the laws as they protected them and their families from potential destitution caused by competition from abroad.

Anti-Corn Law League membership cards
The Anti-Corn Law League produced these membership cards showing families starving due to the Corn Laws. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Did anyone else oppose the Corn Laws?

During the Industrial Revolution, Britain’s economy had become one of the most dynamic in the world, and there had been several calls to remove tariffs. Proponents of free trade believed this would increase employment, help international relations and boost Britain’s economy.

Factory owners and employers were concerned, too – they feared that they would need to raise workers’ wages, as people were having to spend more on basic necessities such as bread. And, with a large proportion of the country still without the vote, repealing the Corn Laws became popular among groups seeking wider enfranchisement, such as the Chartists. Many members of the Whig party also opposed the Corn Laws, but they were not repealed even after the Whigs came to power in the 1830s.

In 1838, the Anti-Corn Law League was established in Manchester by manufacturer Richard Cobden and orator John Bright. Cobden worked hard to influence Conservative Prime Minister Robert Peel that the Corn Laws should be repealed and became an MP himself in 1841.

The League was one of the largest movements at the time and benefited from a lot of funding and well thought out campaigning. The Economist was founded in 1843 with the purpose of promoting and gathering support for the repeal of the Corn Laws. Such sophisticated attempts were difficult for the government to ignore for too long.

What did Robert Peel think of the Corn Laws?

Robert Peel, a Tory, had previously been Prime Minister between 1834-35 and was re-elected in 1841. He had made an enemy of traditionalists within the party when he reversed his stance and supported Catholic emancipation.

Peel wanted to abolish the Corn Laws as part of a wider reform of trade in Britain. He began reducing import duties on a host of items including cotton and sugar – soon only corn remained.

A meeting of the Anti-Corn Law League
A meeting of the Anti-Corn Law League in Drury Lane Theatre, London, c1830s. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

How was the Irish famine connected to the laws’ repeal?

Between 1845 and 1849, Ireland suffered from a devastating famine, caused by the failure of its potato crops. Ireland lost an eighth of its population (more than one million people died) and Scotland also suffered badly.

Potatoes were a staple food in Ireland, especially for the poor in rural areas. A lot of other produce in Ireland was priced too high for the majority of the population, forcing them to rely on the potato – which was now in short supply, too. The fact that many larger farms exported grain and other high quality foods to Britain strained relations between the Irish people and the British government.

The British government’s response to the famine was woefully inadequate. Initially, the burden of helping Irish farmers – who relied on the potato for both food and income – was placed on landlords but, often unable to financially support their struggling tenants, many landlords evicted them instead. British assistance mainly took the form of loans, the funding of soup kitchens, and the provision of employment on road building and other public works. Over the course of the famine, millions of Irish emigrated to other parts of Britain, the US and Canada. In the seven years between 1844 and 1851, Ireland’s population dropped from nearly 8.4m to 6.6m.

How were the Corn Laws repealed?

The Irish famine presented Peel with a situation that his government could not ignore forever. In December 1845, the leader of the opposition, Lord John Russell, announced that he agreed with a repeal of the Corn Laws. Peel resigned his position due to the division in his cabinet, but as Russell was unable to form a government of his own, Peel returned with the backing of Queen Victoria.

Peel attempted to demonstrate the economic benefits of repealing the Corn Laws to MPs – while battling against an opponent within his own party, Benjamin Disraeli. Attacks against Peel within parliament at times became personal. At one point, Lord George Bentinck accused Peel of being the cause of death of his relative, former Prime Minister George Canning, many years previously by refusing to serve on his cabinet. Peel had to be calmed down and nearly challenged Bentinck to a duel.

Many Conservatives saw the famine in Ireland as a poor excuse for repeal, with a passionate and angry Peel exclaiming: “Are you to hesitate in averting famine because it possibly may not come? Good God … how much diarrhoea and bloody flux and dysentery [must] a people bear before it becomes necessary for you to provide them with food?”

Two-thirds of Tories opposed the repeal – though it was eventually passed, thanks to Whig support.

What happened to Robert Peel?

A few hours after the repeal was agreed by the House of Lords, the Whigs and Tory rebels voted down the Irish Coercion Bill, which would have granted new powers to strengthen security in Ireland. It was a bill MPs were all expected to support, but many did not, with the intention of bringing down Peel who was forced to resign. He died four years later.

What were the legacies of the Corn Laws?

The chaos caused in parliament over the Corn Laws split the Conservative party and kept them out of power for much of the next 30 years. Many of those Tories who had supported Peel joined an independent bloc, and many of these would later join what became the Liberal Party.

The chaos caused in parliament over the Corn Laws split the Tory party and kept them out of power

Rebellions broke out in Ireland due to the British government’s inadequate response to the famine and these would influence the later nationalist movements that created the Irish Republican Brotherhood, pivotal to the 1916 Easter Rising.

More broadly, the repeal of the Corn Laws is seen by some historians and economists as a move towards free trade in Britain – removing restrictions from import and exports.


This article was first published in the March 2021 edition of BBC History Revealed