The Brutal Corn Laws and Why Did They Matter? 

Coming into effect in 1815, the Corn Laws became a defining part of the economic, agricultural and trade landscape of the early nineteenth century.

The regulations impacted the economic power of the majority of the population of Britain while offering economic advantages to wealthy landowners.

While the regulations were called the Corn Laws, they were not specific to only corn.

Corn Laws Starvation

Napoleonic War veteran Henry Maidment. Henry was an agricultural labourer who lived in the North Dorset village of Pimperne. In 1866, Henry was one of the few surviving British Army veterans who had fought Napoleon Bonaparte’s French Army in the Spanish Peninsular War. Unknown Peninsular War veteran: At 83, he could not work and had hit hard times. He was surviving on a parish handout of just two shillings and sixpence (12.5p) per week and a single loaf of bread. The octogenarian pauper had, in fact, a distinguished military record but had left the army without a military pension

Rather, the word corn was used to refer to a variety of cereal grains, including wheat, barley, oats, and of course corn. For many people in Britain, these cereal grains made up a large portion of their diet and were a staple food commodity for avoiding starvation.

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As food prices rose as a result of higher import costs of these core grains, the everyday public of Britain began to feel the weight of economic food instability. 

These laws were intended to, and arguably did, benefit British landowners by reducing the competition they faced from cheap imported grains. In their essence, they were designed to maintain high prices for cereal grains and to keep these prices high even at the cost of food instability and shortages. 

The process by which the Corn Laws operated was fairly straightforward. In the beginning the import of cheap grain was simply blocked and all importation had to be above a certain price to be allowed to enter the country. 

agricultural labourer with a scythe cutting corn
The end of the Napoleonic War in Europe changed the political and trade landscape

As the laws further developed, elevated import duties and taxes were imposed which made it virtually impossible to import from abroad. 

These regulations had wide ranging effects that included everything from reducing industry growth in other areas to sparking riots, to increasing the economic power of landowners while decreasing the spending power of the already economically disadvantaged. 

Powerful Landowners

The motivation behind the Corn Laws was to increase and protect the economic standing of British producers. By making it economically non-viable to import cheap grain from Europe, the economic and political power of UK landowners grew.

corn laws

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While the Corn Laws  were enacted in 1815, restricting and regulating the grain trade was not a new concept in Britain. As early as the eras of the Tudors and Stuarts, regulations regarding the corn trade and the importation and exportation of grain had been in place. 

The end of the Napoleonic War in Europe changed the political and trade landscape across the region. This was, in part, to improve the economic advantage of Britain’s wealthy landowning elite and to create an economic disadvantage for France by limiting profitable trade with Britain.

Corn prices from Europe dropped, prompting traders to import grain from abroad. This resulted in the government introducing the 1815 Corn Laws, fearing that these lower prices from the continent would threaten the economic stability of wealthy landowners, and as an extension of this, reduce the wages of rural labourers. 

Year Without Summer

These laws were met unfavourably by most of the UK population, particularly the poor urban population that received little benefit from these regulations and faced an increasing cost of living. In London, the enactment of these laws even sparked rioting. 

As in 1816 the UK entered what would become known as the Year Without Summer, the instability that the Corn Laws brought about was further exacerbated.

Poor weather resulted in poor crop yields, and with import prices still high, many people across Britain faced food scarcity alongside a rising cost of living.

Rioters’ leaders would whip up their followers to protect their livelihoods

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The economic strategy imposed to create the Corn Laws became so unrealistic that the ceiling price for grain between 1815 and 1848 was so unreasonably high that even with food prices increasing it was never reached. 

The Impact on Other Industries 

The impact that the Corn Laws had on historic Britain was not limited to just the food industry. As the cost of food rose across the UK as a result of these new regulations, people began to spend less money on other products and services.

Simply affording food took so much of the earnings of the everyday person that they could no longer afford to spend money on luxury items or even other necessary products. 

As a result of this reduced disposable income within the general population, other industries began to suffer. This negatively impacted economic growth in Britain during the period the Corn Laws were in place.

The Wealthy Elite and Farming Communities 

The Corn Laws weren’t bad news for everyone in British society. For wealthy landowners these regulations offered distinct economic advantages. Without the increased competition of low priced grain from Europe, British landowners were able to charge higher prices, maximising their profits. 

As Britain’s wealthy landowning classes had almost exclusive influence in parliament, there was an obvious economic incentive for those with parliamentary power to keep these regulations in place.

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Winterbourne Clenston manor

This was particularly the case in a time when the landowning elite held an exclusive right to vote, despite being a minority within the general population of Britain. 

While the poorer classes across the UK faced economic hardship and food shortages, the impacts were most keenly felt in urban communities.

The Reverend Lord Sidney Godolphin Osborne wrote in The Times in 1844  …..A family of five or six persons ought to have six gallons of flour a week, even if they have got a few vegetables from their garden-ground to help out now and then; but yet, when tailings of wheat are gone, they cannot, with these wages, buy any such quantity, and at no time will they have 1s a week left for clothes, candles, tea, butter, sugar, bacon, lard and so on. They seem surprised to be asked if they get it, and will tell you at once “that they do not know the taste of it.”

Those living in rural areas had the potential to grow their own food, this could offer somewhat of a buffer to the exorbitantly high food prices that the Corn Laws ushered in.

For those residing in Britain’s towns and cities, growing their food to subsidise their survival was often not an option, as such these communities were particularly economically disadvantaged by the rising living costs of the Corn Laws. 

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The Corn Laws represented a conflicting challenge for the people of rural Britain. Like in urban communities, everyday people in rural areas were faced with exponentially rising food costs that resulted in a cost of living crisis.

However, the fact that British produced grain was almost exclusively what was being sold in Britain, those working agriculture had a period of relative job stability, even if the wages they were earning were still somewhat insufficient to cover rising living costs. 

The Anti-Corn Law League 

There was opposition to the Corn Laws from the start and by 1836, the Anti-Corn Law Association was formed, by 1838 it had become a League with national reach.

A membership card in the Anti-Corn-Law League. Note the banner over the group of praying figures that says "Give us this day our daily bread."
A membership card in the Anti-Corn-Law League. Note the banner over the group of praying figures that says “Give us this day our daily bread.”

The overall goals of the Anti-Corn Law League were rooted in the removal of any political remnant of the oppressive feudal system that gave clear and unfair benefits to wealthy landowning upper classes.

As the very establishment of the Corn Laws supported the system that the League opposed, the main priority of the League was abolishing the Corn Laws.

The group held rallies around Britain to support their agenda and campaigned for the end of the Corn Laws. They used political and social tactics and platforms, as well as grassroots strategies in an attempt to bring about the end of the regulations.

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Based in Manchester, the League garnered support from a variety of industries and industrialists, with particular support received from the textile industry. 

Although the eventual end of the Corn Laws was not solely due to the actions of the Anti-Corn Law League, the establishment of the group marked a watershed moment in British politics and social movements.

The group marked the entrance of powerful national lobbying groups into the political realm. It was one of the first of its kind in politics to have a centralised office, men elected into parliament, funding, a dedicated purpose and leaders that had national and local reach in the overall organisation. 

The Anti-Corn Law League became the blueprint for other social reform groups, such as the Lancashire Public School Association. 

The End of the Corn Laws 

The Corn Laws officially ended in 1846 under Prime Minister Peel. The end of the Corn Laws brought advantages to 90% of the British population, disadvantaging just the top 10% of the British economic ladder.

Robert Peel
Prime Minister Peel.

As import prices dropped, the price of wheat and other grains, and by flow on effect, the price of food staples such as bread, also dramatically decreased. This helped to lower the overall cost of living for the average person in Britain and increase both economic stability for people across the country. 

The repeal of the Corn Laws increased the UK’s dependence on foreign food staples to feed its population.

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In 1830, during the height of the Corn Law period, just 2% of grain in Britain was imported. By the 1880s just fifty years later, 45% of grain came from outside the UK.

Influenced as well by increased industrialisation, the number of agricultural labourers in Britain also declined over this period, coinciding with a rapid rise in the number of urban labourers. 

A Changing System of Trade 

The sudden drop in the price of grain at the repeal of the Corn Laws meant that many British farms could no longer effectively compete with foreign trade.

This led to a reduction in farming profits and, in some cases, the dismissal of farm labourers or a lowering of wages for farm workers.

In this way, it could be argued that the Corn Law repeal had negatively impacted the British agricultural industry, despite lowering the cost of living and creating greater economic stability for both the urban and rural poor.

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The implementation of the Corn Laws marked a massive change in the everyday lives of the majority of the British population.

The rapid rise in the cost of living that these regulations created negatively impacted people across both urban and rural Britain as suddenly everyday food essentials took up the majority of the income of poorer communities.

While these laws disadvantaged 90% of the population, they represented a key advantage for the wealthy landowning classes, a group that held almost exclusive power over parliament and voting rights.

While the eventual repeal of the regulations were beneficial for the people of the UK, it could be argued that this repeal, in some ways, brought about a different challenge for farming communities that could no longer successfully compete with foreign imports.

However, what the end of the Corn Laws did was to provide the foundations of the free trade systems found in Britain today. 

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