The Corn Law crisis: the bitter political war that threatened thousands with starvation

In the 1840s, Britain was pitched into a huge political battle over the price of bread. The Corn Law crisis triggered a bitter civil war in the Tory party – and, writes Stephen Bates, threatened thousands with starvation

Harvest time in Surrey in the mid-19th century. Powerful Tory landowners had agitated for the introduction of the Corn Laws to protect the income from their farms. (Photo by Christie's Images via Bridgman)

For 30 years in the first half of the 19th century, Britain was obsessed with the price of bread. Waves of unrest swept the country as bad harvests, food shortages and dire living conditions

stalked the poorest in society. Calls for parliamentary reform grew ever more insistent as citizens demanded that politi- cians be more responsive to their hardships. The first modern pressure groups – among them the Chartists – hounded the govern- ment regularly.

At the heart of this political and social turbulence was a growing row over the cost of food – an imbroglio we now know as the Corn Law crisis. On one side of the argument stood those who argued for strict tariffs on the import of foreign cereals into Britain; on the other were those who contended that such restrictions were bad for the economy and bad for those at the bottom of the nation’s social ladder.

When the two sides clashed in the 1840s, what followed was a parliamentary battle every bit as divisive as the struggle over Brexit, and a Tory civil war so bitter that it kept the party out of majority power for nearly 30 years. In 1845, the Tory home secretary James Graham wrote: “We have lost the slight hold which we ever possessed over the hearts and feelings of our followers.” He was thinking of the Tory backbenchers, but his words could have been echoed 175 years later in our own time.

A slump in prices

There had been import restrictions on cereals for centuries, intended to stabilise prices and prevent commodity speculation. But it wasn’t until the end of the Napoleonic Wars that the government introduced restrictions intended to exclude foreign cereals altogether – by passing the 1815 Corn Law. With prices slumping following war with France, farmers and landowners were anxious to protect their harvests, even if it made the most staple food dearer for workers and their families. While there was a case for making British agriculture self-sufficient, and improving yields through more efficient farming, the landowning lobby was by far the most important in parliament and it demanded protection.

The 1815 Corn Law prohibited grain imports until domestic prices reached 80 shillings a quarter (a quarter being 480lbs or about a fifth of a tonne) – which they never did in the 30 years of its operation. When harvests were poor, as they were for several years in the aftermath of the war, bread prices rose. A four-pound loaf, which could feed a family for a couple of days, surged to more than a shilling in 1817. This came at a time when cotton spinners had seen their earnings halved to about 12 shillings a week and farm labourers earned only seven shillings. The consequences for the poor could be catastrophic. It is hardly surprising that there was a direct correlation between price rises and a surge of political agitation during the four years following the end of the war.

The Corn Law crisis sparked a Tory civil war so bitter that it kept the party out of majority power for 30 years

Meanwhile, as the industrial revolution made Britain the most dynamic economy in the world, calls for the removal of tariffs to benefit trade were growing louder. Free trade was becoming the period’s dominant eco- nomic theory: its proponents argued it would boost economic output, stimulate employ- ment for a growing population and lead to happier workers. Increased international trade would, it was confidently predicted, improve international peace and harmony.

Agriculture would have to become more efficient to meet demand, and if food was cheaper, wages could be lowered. By the time Sir Robert Peel was returned to power as prime minister in 1841 with a sizeable Tory majority over the Whigs, he accepted this argument. The first party leader to come from a manufacturing rather than a landed background, Peel was the dominant figure in his party and in the Commons.

“An iceberg with a slight thaw”: the divisive life of Robert Peel

Sir Robert Peel’s family made a fortune from calico cloth printing in Lancashire, though Peel (1788–1850) never worked for the company. Profits of £70,000 a year enabled his father – also Sir Robert – to buy a 4,000-acre estate near Tamworth, Stafford- shire in the 1790s and to send his son to Harrow and Oxford, where he was the first student at the university ever to be awarded a double first, in mathematics and classics.

Aged 21, Peel became MP for Cashel, an Irish rotten borough. He was regarded as brilliant, but cold and arrogant: “an iceberg with a slight thaw”. By 24, he was chief secretary for Ireland, recognised as a rising Tory star. In 1822 he became home secre- tary, reforming the criminal justice system and introducing a professional police service in London – the Peelers, or Bobbies.

Traditionalists grew suspicious when Peel changed his mind on Catholic emanci- pation, which he had previously opposed, in 1829 and remembered it 16 years later when he changed his mind on the Corn Laws.

Peel was prime minister twice: in 1834–35 and 1841–46. He helped to re- shape the Conservative party, issuing the first party manifesto to the electors of his then constituency of Tamworth. In it, he promised the maintenance of order and good government and a review of civil and ecclesiastical institutions to correct abuses and redress grievances.

His second administration reintroduced income tax and moved towards free trade, removing tariffs on many imported goods. In 1845, the Irish famine gave him the excuse to tackle the Corn Laws, earning the undying hatred of protectionist Tory land- owners and splitting the party.

Peel died in 1850 after being thrown from his horse and crushed when the animal trampled on him on Constitution Hill  near Buckingham Palace.

Immensely wealthy from his family’s calico printing business, Peel was not only intellectually distinguished but had been in government service on and off as a minister for 30 years. His had been a professional political career, not an exercise in dilettan- tism. He was stiff and formal – famously described by Daniel O’Connell as having a smile like the silver plate on a coffin lid – and he regarded his backbench colleagues with disdain. They did not understand the eco- nomic arguments, not studying them dili- gently as he did. “How can those who spend their time in hunting and shooting and eating and drinking know what are the motives of those… who have access to the best information and have no other object under Heaven but to… answer the general interests of all classes?” he wrote to his wife, Julia, in 1845. In his view, as in the hunting field, “heads see, but tails follow”. This was a metaphor, he reasoned, such backbenchers ought to understand.

In return, many Tories viewed Peel with suspicion. He had ratted once, changing his mind from being a firm opponent of Catholic emancipation – ‘Orange Peel’ – to accepting its necessity in the late 1820s to avoid poten- tial rebellion in Ireland. This was regarded as a U-turn on a central tenet of Toryism that saw him drummed out as the MP for Oxford University by its High Tory voters. A door at his old college, Christ Church, still has the slogan ‘No Peel’ hammered into it in nails.

If he could abandon such a fundamental belief, what else might he surrender? Their suspicion was enhanced when Peel proposed a £30,000 government grant to rebuild the Catholic seminary at Maynooth in 1845. He saw it as a way of appeasing Irish Catholics; Tory backbenchers believed it was endors- ing heresy. James Graham wrote that Peel and supporters such as himself were “scouted as traitors”.

Bonfire of the duties

In the first Tory budget in 1842, Peel em- barked on a wholesale revision of the complex import tariff system, reducing duties on
750 items out of 1,200, while reintroducing income tax to offset the shortfall. Three years later, he cut tariffs on a further 430 imports, including cotton, glass, timber and sugar. Everyone knew that the outstanding remain- ing tariff was corn.

The government was coming under increasing pressure from the working-class Chartist movement, demanding political reforms, but more importantly from the Anti-Corn Law League, founded among northern manufacturers with the single, focussed aim of repeal. The league was well-funded and increasingly sophisticated in its campaigning. It employed professional staff in Manchester, staged well-attended meetings and sent out thou- sands of letters a day. It also published newspapers and articles – the Economist magazine was founded in 1843 to promote the cause – and already had two MPs, Richard Cobden and John Bright, harrying the government. Intellectually convinced, Peel was finding it increasingly difficult to counter their arguments.

In the summer of 1845, a natural disaster gave Peel the excuse to do what he had already privately decided. The potato crop was rotting in a wet summer. This affected the harvest across Britain, but the conse- quences were especially dire in Ireland, where potatoes were the staple diet. Peel, who had been a minister in Dublin many years earlier, knew how devastating a famine would be.

He took urgent, though largely ineffectual, action: the government surreptitiously bought up maize in the United States. Nicknamed ‘Peel’s brimstone’ by the Irish, it rotted crossing the Atlantic, could not be unloaded where the need was greatest, and the recipients were unused to cooking it.

Meanwhile, Peel seized the excuse to argue for repealing the Corn Laws, albeit cautiously and gradually. “Rotten potatoes have done it all,” growled the elderly Duke of Wellington, the Tories’ leader in the Lords. “They put Peel in his damned fright.”

Nevertheless, the old soldier believed in loyalty and would remain by the prime minister’s side. “A good government for the country is more important than the Corn Laws or any other consideration,” he said.

In December 1845, Lord John Russell, leader of the Whigs, tightened the pressure on Peel by announcing his conversion to repeal. With his cabinet divided, Peel re- signed but was back a fortnight later when Russell was unable to form a government from among his squabbling colleagues. Queen Victoria, her former dislike of Peel dissipated under the influence of Prince Albert, breathed a sigh of relief. He was, she noted in her journal, “the only person fitted to govern the country”. She, too, would back him through the crisis.

The professional bowler

Peel lost two cabinet ministers, and underes- timated Tory backbench opposition, because his opponents in the party had found an unlikely champion in Benjamin Disraeli: flamboyant, impecunious and an outsider due to his Jewish heritage. Although a Christian, Disraeli was described as “a Jew d’esprit” by a witty Tory, and by another as
“a professional bowler we take round with us” – a reference to the aristocrat-sponsored cricket teams then staffed by paid players. But Disraeli, who had been denied ministerial office by Peel, seized the chance to excoriate his party leader repeatedly during the debates over the coming months as the repeal bill wended its way through the Commons.

Tories argued that the fuss around the potato famine was an exaggeration... the Irish were lazy and improvident

The debate – held mostly late at night in the candlelit Lords chamber, because the Commons was still being rebuilt following the fire of 1834 – became rowdy, as many MPs returned from dining. Peel diligently laid out the economic case for repeal, ponder- ously reciting statistics showing its benefits, and would then have to listen to Disraeli standing behind him, wittily and remorse- lessly undermining his case. Disraeli did so in highly personal terms, cheered on by his colleagues: Peel was the thief of other men’s intellect, without an original idea of his own (that must have stung). He was like a coach-man in directing the affairs of state: “no more a great statesman than the man who gets up behind the carriage is a great whip”.

The backbench laughter grew more raucous as Disraeli’s attacks gave them confidence. Peel, used to being heard respect- fully, grew rattled and close to tears. “I have abandoned no duty and betrayed no trust,” he insisted during the second reading debate. “I have listened to the attacks on me with sorrow but not with anger… Really, these interruptions are very unpleasant.”

Tories sneered at the use of the famine as a reason for repeal: it was an exaggeration; the Irish were lazy and improvident. Peel resp- onded with real anger: “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?”

Attacks on Peel became increasingly overwrought. Lord George Bentinck, Disraeli’s ally, effectively accused Peel of killing his relative, the former prime minister George Canning, 20 years earlier by refusing to serve in his cabinet – Peel had to be talked out of challenging him to a duel for that.

On a sweltering night in June, there was a final outburst from the backbencher Eliot Yorke, the MP for Cambridgeshire, demand- ing that the bill be called the Foreign Lands Improvement Bill, because it “would displace the labour of our hardworking countrymen in order to give employment to foreign serfs”.

These interventions may have been incred- ibly painful to Peel but they never seriously threatened repeal, which passed the Com- mons with Whig support and went through the Lords swiftly under Wellington’s surveil- lance. However, two-thirds of Tories opposed the bill. In all, 86 per cent of Tory county MPs and 80 per cent of county office holders voted against.

Peel’s moment of triumph was short-lived. A few hours later, the rebels combined with the Whigs to vote down an Irish coercion bill designed to strengthen security – which all would normally have supported – purely to bring down the government. Peel resigned.

About 90 Peelites formed an independent bloc: most would eventually join what became the Liberal Party. Within four years, Peel was dead – and by then, too, Disraeli had convinced the Tories that the Corn Laws were a lost cause.

Stephen Bates is a former senior correspondent with The Guardian. His books include Two Nations: Britain in 1846 (Head of Zeus, 2015).

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