Regency History

Never Mind Your Daily Bread

Though I love the Regency era, it was not all loveliness and good manners. There was plenty of greed and oppression and general evil happening then as in any era, and it sometimes boggles the mind.

The Napoleonic Wars, which began in 1807 and ended in 1815 at Waterloo, was an expensive enterprise paid for primarily by raised taxes and tariffs on various imports. British blockades of French trade ships ensured that profits stayed in England and that British markets did not support Bonaparte’s bid for world domination. This also meant that the British people were able to purchase only what was readily available within their country, and at the prices required. These trade restrictions greatly enriched already wealthy landowners, whose farms supplied “corn” (all types of grain) to the entire country.

A political cartoon of the time

After the war, the landowners did not wish to part with their plump wartime profits, so Parliament, which was made up of nobility and landed gentry–or all the wealthy landowners–imposed the Corn Laws, which prohibited the import of foreign grains unless the price of British grain rose to a specified point. While this strategy satisfied the wealthy landowners, the middle and working classes were terribly oppressed by it, because their “daily bread” had become so expensive that they often despaired of being able to afford it.

Unsurprisingly, the Corn Laws greatly depressed the economy, because the majority of the population stopped buying manufactured goods so they could afford to feed themselves. Factories were forced to turn off workers because demand was so low, which swelled the ranks of those “breadwinners” unable to provide for their families. Their sufferings went unheeded by the government, however, because they did not have a voice in government. Even the merchant class, whose factories and trade were struggling under the current laws, had no recourse, because only those who owned land were allowed a vote in Parliament.

Corn riots

General unrest quickly gave way to riots and other violence, but though legislation to revise or repeal the Corn Laws was more than once brought before Parliament, it continually failed to pass. At last, the Reform Act of 1832 extended voting rights to the merchant class, which brought hope to the suffering poor.

Change was not imminent, however. A few alterations to the Corn Laws lowered the price required before grain could be imported, but these were so slight that they were essentially ineffective. The Anti-Corn Law League was organized in 1836, made up primarily of members of the merchant class, but it would not be until 1846, a full decade later, that the Corn Laws were finally repealed.

That such a small portion of the population could ignore such widespread suffering, all for the sake of their own greed, is really sickening to me. I take some comfort in the fact that there must have been some landowners with consciences, however, because bills to repeal or reform the Corn Laws were introduced, though they were largely unsuccessful.