During the Napoleonic War, Britain was shut off from grain supplies from the continent. The government encouraged more wheat to be grown at home, but the price of grain inevitably rose.
Then the war ended. Cheaper grain imports were once again available, but the landed upper class wasn’t having that. They had been turning over a tidy profit from the higher prices – and they had the government on their side. Or, to put it another way, they were the government.
So, from 1815, tariffs began to be raised against the importation of grain – the so-called ‘corn laws’ – despite the fact that much of the population was suffering from high unemployment and poor harvests.
But Britain was undergoing a profound change. A new class of citizenry had begun to emerge: the industrial middle class, with their heartlands in the north. They argued that higher food prices were a social and economic backwards step, and began to agitate for a more free-market economy.
On 18 September 1838, a group of disgruntled activists assembled in Manchester and established the Anti-Corn Law Association. The city was an apt choice, as it was a major importer of raw materials, and an important manufacturing centre.
But it was also hallowed ground. In 1819, the Peterloo Massacre had taken place in the surrounding fields – an angry demonstration partly whipped up by the passing of the corn laws. It came to a bloody end when the army’s cavalry charged into the crowds.
One of the leading activists of the pressure group (renamed the Anti-Corn Law League), was industrialist Richard Cobden. He took the fight to the government, getting himself elected as MP for Stockport in 1841.
Following a persistent and well-funded campaign involving petitions, strikes and, from 1839, its own circular, the League eventually achieved its aim. The failure of the potato crop in 1845 (which led to the Great Famine in Ireland) convinced Sir Robert Peel’s government to repeal the corn laws.
Also on this day
The first Ugandan refugees fleeing persecution in Idi Amin’s Uganda arrived in Britain seeking new homes, on this day in 1972. Read more here.