William Harrison and the Corn Laws of Britain

William Harrison was well aware of the challenges the Fenland farmers faced on a day to day basis. In my lasts blog we saw his response to the changes that were brought about by the end of the Napoleonic wars. We have now moved on some 25 years and the Fenland farmers are facing a different challenge. The Corn Laws had been introduced in 1815 to protect Britain’s cereal farmers against competition from less expensive foreign imports. But by 1839 Britain had become a much more industrialised nation the economic issue now was food prices. The price of grain was central to the price of the most important staple food – bread. The working man spent much of his wages on bread. The political issue was a dispute between landowners (a long-established class, who were heavily represented in Parliament) and the new class of manufacturers and industrialists (who were not). The landowners wanted to maximise their profits from agriculture by keeping the selling price of grain high while the industrialists wanted to maximise their profits from manufacture by reducing the wages they paid to their factory workers. The conundrum was that men could not work in the factories if a factory wage was not enough to feed them and their families; hence, in practice, high grain prices kept factory wages high also. The conundrum now facing the country was that the Corn Laws enhanced the profits and political power associated with land ownership. The abolition of the Corn Laws would be beneficial in the expansion of free trade. There had been ‘landowning’ Whig governments in power for most of the years since 1830 and they had consistently decided not to repeal the Corn Laws. However the Liberal Whig MP Charles Pelham Villiers had begun to propose motions for repeal of the laws in the House of Commons in 1837. He had always failed to get the necessary support but it was a indication of things to come. In 1838 he had spoken to a meeting of some 5,000 “working class men” in Manchester. At the time, he proclaimed that the presence of so many of them demonstrated that he had their support.
William wrote the following at home in Prickwillow near Ely on February 23rd 1839. It was published on page 4 of the Cambridge Chronicle on 9th March, 1839.


Awake: arise: avert your doom,
Ye followers of the plough,
Nor to the tyrants of the loom,
Like cowering recreants bow:

No slight occasion bids you take
An interest in the strife,
Your very being is at stake,
The game is death or life,

On the blest soil which gave you birth
Assert your right – to live,
Nor life, and all that life is worth,
To distant nations give.

Will you depend on other hands
To bid you live or die,
And beg the bread of foreign lands
Your own can well supply.

Who in your need will give you none,
Exulting in your fall,
Instead of bread – perhaps a stone –
Perhaps – a cannon ball.

But who demands this sacrifice,
What demon thus is led
By malice, sophistry, and lies,
To rob us of our bread?

What villain heart and ruthless hand,
Intent on mischief vast,
Would bring this ruin o’er the land,
And breathe this Kamseen blast?

Our brethren: our familiar friends:
Like ministers of wrath,
Are seeking those destructive ends
O: tell it not in Gath:

‘Tis nature’s simple boon we ask,
The privilege to live –
They set us an Egyptian task,
Nor straw nor stubble give.

“The labourer’s worthy of his hire”;
But can the farmers pay,
When free trade, like a whirlwind dire,
Has swept the means away?

And brought us down to rye and rusks,
Like prodigals debased,
To seek subsistence in the husks
The swine will scarcely taste.

While those rich scenes of waving corn,
Now cheering heart and eye,
Stretch’d out in barrenness forlorn
And dreary ruin lie.

The crowded barn, the cultured field,
The ploughman and his team,
And the abundance which they yield –
All vanish’d like a dream:

The labour of a thousand years
Wreck’d in a single storm,
While over all gaunt Famine rears
Her grim and ghastly form.

And all for what? – to gratify
The Lords of cotton-twist:
Who only “lower wages” cry,
While shouting “cheaper grist”

This their deluded dupes shall find
Should they their end attain,
And cast their British friends behind
For foes beyond the main.

But be their cruel aims withstood,
Come to what point it will,
E’en should our latest drop of blood
Bedew the fields we till.

For better now to breast the wave,
And “founder in the shock”,
Than lose the wretched life we save
By “piece meal on the rock”.

In 1840 the Committee on Import Duties, directed by Villiers, published a blue book examining the effects of the Corn Laws. Tens of thousands of copies were printed in pamphlet form by the Anti-Corn Law League; the report was quoted in the major newspapers, reprinted in America and published in an abridged form by The Spectator newspaper. On 15th May 1846 Parliament agreed on the repeal of the Corn Laws. In February 1849 the repeal process was complete.



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