The 19th Century Corn Laws

In 1813, a committee was set up in the House of Commons, and they passed “The Corn Laws” in 1815, to keep bread prices high by blocking all types of grain from abroad, protecting English farmers from cheap imports.

It’s all about sliding amounts of money in one’s pocket, and how it relates down the chain from production to supplier to the shop, and eventual sales.  If prices are high in the shops for food, it costs more to buy it, then they have little money for clothing, thus clothing sales are reduced, so stock is sold cheaply, the working man’s wages go down.  Factories close, mills close, then there is no work.  On the other hand, if food prices are kept low within the shop, there’s more money for clothes, higher demands, higher wages, and more work.

How did we get into this mess?  It all started during the Napoleonic Wars, when the British set up a blockade, in an attempt to isolate the Napoleonic Empire, thus creating hardship for the French.  During which time Britain was protected from imports, and farming became very lucrative.

With the end of the war, and blockades removed, the Government had to protect their own, from cheap imports.  The Importation Act of 1822, stated grain could be imported, only when domestically harvested corn rose to 80 shillings per quarter.

Those who gained from the Corn Laws were landowners, who owned profitable farmland, who wanted to see the Corn Laws remain in place.  Parliament showed no interest in changing the law at present, but that was likely to change.

The first change took place in 1828, when the Duke of Wellington, now appointed Prime Minister devised a sliding scale rate of duty for imported grain.  When domestic grain was 52 shillings per quarter or less, the duty equalled 34 shillings and 8 pence, and when the price increased to 73 shillings, the duty decreased to one shilling.

The Anti Corn Law Association, wanted to see changes in the law, and in 1836 constantly pressed for changes.  Then in 1840 an ally, the MP Charles Pelham Villiers published a blue book on the effects of the Corn Laws.  This was enough to force a change, and Robert Peel reduced import duty to 20 shillings if and when domestic prices fell to 51 shillings or less in 1842.

In the years up to 1844, harvests were good, but all that changed in the latter part of 1845, with a poor harvest, and the Great Famine of Ireland.

Parliament was recalled on the 27th January 1846, and Robert Peel announced that the Corn Laws would be abolished on the 1st February 1849, following three years of gradual reductions, leaving only one shilling duty per quarter.

Benjamin Disraeli and Lord George Bentinck opposed such a move, claiming it would weaken landowner’s powers, both socially and politically.

On the 25th June 1846, Robert Peel was defeated in the Commons by 292 to 219 on his “Irish Coercion Bill” and on the 29th June forcefully resigned his post as Prime Minister.

Additional Note:  The Corn Laws relate to all types of grain.

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