Petitions and the Corn Laws
26 July 2019
This month, Dr Katie Carpenter looks at petitions and the Corn Laws.
The Corn Laws were a deeply divisive issue in the first half of the nineteenth century. Against the backdrop of a strained post-war economy, Tory Prime Minister Lord Liverpool passed the Corn Laws in 1815. These laws placed tariffs on cereal grain imported from other countries such as wheat and maize to favour domestic agriculture. The price of grain had to reach 80 shillings a quarter, or near famine inducing levels, before foreign imports would be allowed.
Objections to the Corn Laws from all levels of society were evident from the moment they were enacted. On 20th March 1815, at the third reading of the Bill in the House of Lords, a formal protest was entered by eleven peers, including two members of the Royal Family: the Duke of Sussex and the Duke of Gloucester. Despite intense and mounting opposition for decades, the Corn Laws were not repealed until 1846.
Petitions presented to the House of Commons give some insight into the rationale for the Corn Laws, and why there was opposition to them. According to the reports of the select committee on public petitions, between 27th January and 28th August 1842, 467 petitions were presented to the Commons for the repeal on the Corn Laws, with an impressive 1,414,303 signatures. Whilst 1953 petitions were presented in favour of the Corn Laws, these had only 145,855 signatures.
To take one example, on 8th March 1846, a petition from the Shetland Islands, signed by 8064 fishermen and other inhabitants, was presented to the Commons by MP John Bright, radical reformer and founder of the Anti-Corn Law League. This petition highlights the difficulties posed by the sanctions placed by the Corn Laws. According to the petitioners, they could get double the amount of corn for the same price if they were allowed to trade with Spain and Germany for fish. Instead, they were forced to sell their fish to other countries and use the money to buy more expensive corn from British Landowners. These landowners, they note, ‘buy very little of your Petitioners' fish'. The petitioners prayed ‘that they may be immediately and totally relieved from a law so unjust and cruel'.
In this instance, it is clear that in the petitioners' view, the Corn Laws were having a detrimental effect on Shetland's fishing industry. Indeed, they note that Norway's fishing industry was at a distinct advantage owing to the few taxes implemented there. The unjust nature of the law is highlighted: more money for the landowning class at the cost of the working class.
But opposition to the Corn Laws was not universal. A petition presented on 23rd January 1846, signed by J. H. Furse on behalf of the North Devon Agricultural Protection Society, shows the other side of the coin. These petitioners approached ‘you honourable House at this eventful crisis with feelings of the deepest alarm, firmly assured, as we are, that the laws which at present protect the British agriculturist from competition with the continental corn grower could not be repealed without imminent danger to the best interest of the country'.
The Society disputed the suggestion that the repeal of the Corn Laws would lower the price of bread. According to them, ‘a permanent reduction in the price of bread would lead to a reduction in the rate of wages'. They begged the house not to give in to the Anti-Corn Law League, which they described as ‘self-elected and unconstitutional'. The petition ended by imploring the Commons to ‘continue to the British corn-grower the small amount of protection now enjoyed by him'.
Ultimately, the Corn Laws were repealed by Conservative Prime Minister Robert Peel in 1846, against popular pressure compounded by the activities of the Anti-Corn Law League and the Irish Famine. There was no dramatic fall in wheat prices, as some feared there would be, nor was the market suddenly flooded with European wheat. However, the Repeal of the Laws did have the important consequence of causing a major rift within the Conservatives and ultimately ending Peel's tenure as Prime Minister. The repeal of the Corn Laws ushered in a new era of Free Trade that would characterise British economic policy for the rest of the nineteenth century.
Dr Katie Carpenter is a research fellow in the Parliamentary Archives.
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