“…nothing attracts my attention more at present than the hue and cry raised everywhere against monopolisers and forestallers on account of this artificial famine.”
Thomas Spence, The Restorer of Society to its Natural State, London 1801.
Britain greeted the arrival of the nineteenth-century in a depressed and war-weary state. By the end of the first spring of the new century it was becoming clear that the country was experiencing its second failed harvest in a row, prompting a threefold rise in the price of bread and basic foodstuffs. The dramatic rise in the price of food prompted a sharp downturn in the trade cycle, as many people found they no longer had the money to buy manufactured goods. This is turn led to widespread unemployment and a wave of bankruptcies, and the onset of a credit crisis in the banking system. By any reasonable measure it was fair to say that Britain found itself trapped in a near perfect storm of economic difficulties, with parish officials suddenly founding themselves inundated with unprecedented demands to provide financial relief for the poor.
Of course, the financial pain was not distributed equally across society and there were those who were able to turn the shortages of 1799 and 1800 to their advantage. Farmers who were either lucky enough to escape the worst of the bad weather that had ruined the harvests, or who had the foresight to stockpile crops in earlier years, found that they were able to dictate terms to their customers. Other tradesmen working further down the supply chain also prospered; J.M.W. Turner’s uncle Jonathan set himself up as a baker in the town of Barnstaple in 1800 and would later boast of having done so well from the shortages that he could afford to buy a house worth £700, a flour loft and still have “some money besides to carry on the trade”. “I leave it to you to conclude”, he wrote smugly to his brother, “whether I have done well or not and if I live to be in business as long as you and brother Price I shall be cock of the walk” . The realisation that there was money to be made in the provision trade prompted a sudden inrush of speculative capital which served only to further inflate food prices, as speculators began to interpose themselves as middlemen between producers and suppliers.
Popular resentment to the speculators grew as reports of forestalling, the practice of warehousing grain to exacerbate shortages and further increase the market price, became commonplace. Indeed the belief that bankers and speculators were the root cause of high prices became so widespread that even Tory MPs and local officials began to denounce the financial community and demand that something be done to reign in such activities. The Reverend Heber, an Anglican Minister and staunch Tory in every other respect, typified such views in a letter to his niece in which he raged at “cruel speculators… forestallers and monopolizers of every denomination”, whose greed was driving the people into the arms of “the pestilent movers of Sedition & Outrage” .
Although some local magistrates sought to intervene in the market and use medieval statutes to impose temporary price caps on the price of bread and flour, their actions proved to be too little, too late. Sporadic outbursts of violence began in the North and gradually moved southwards towards London during the spring. Armed militiamen were called out onto the streets of Sunderland in February 1800 after magistrates were forced to flee from a mob that had gathered to pelt grain merchants with muck, stones and rubbish . In other places the loyalty of the armed forces proved to be far from reliable. Farmers living near Brixham in Devon watched in horror as the troops had been sent to defend them sided with the crowd and demanded the immediate restoration of pre-war food prices . Meanwhile Thomas Cockerell, leader of a volunteer company in the Yorkshire town of Pontefract, confessed that he “trembled at the idea of marching out against the starved poor” and thanked God that the protesters that he had been ordered to march against had run away before his men arrived .
The views of Cockerell and many of his fellow soldiers were summed up in an anecdote which the radical bookseller Thomas Spence published in his pamphlet The Restorer of Society to its Natural State in September 1800. Spence had been gathering nuts in a wood outside Hexham, near his native Newcastle upon Tyne, when he was accosted by a local forester.
… the forester popped through the bushes upon me, and asking what I did there, I answered gathering nuts: gathering nuts! said he, and dare you say so? Yes, said I, why not?… I tell you, said he, this wood is no common. It belongs to the Duke of Portland… But in the name of seriousness, continued I, must not one’s privileges be very great in a country where we dare not pluck a hazel nut? Is this an Englishman’s birthright? Is it for this we are called upon to serve in the militia, to defend this wood, and this country against the enemy?
What must I say to the French, if they come? If they jeeringly ask me what I am fighting for? Must I tell them for my country? For my dear country in which I dare not pluck a nut? Would not they laugh at me? Yes. And you do think I would bear it? No: certainly I would not. I would throw down my musket saying let such as the Duke of Portland, who claim the country, fight for it, for I am but a stranger and sojourner, and have neither part nor lot amongst them .
Nowhere was this sense of aggrieved patriotism more evident than in the city of Birmingham. Birmingham had been a bastion of working class conservatism during the early 1790s, with its citizens turning out in their thousands to forcibly eject radical elements from the city during the Church and King Riots in July 1791. Support for the King and his government ran so high that James Bisset, a local writer, recalled that one could barely take a walk through the city without being confronted by loyalist slogans such as “Church and King, “Damn the Jacobins” or “War and Pitt”, which were chalked all over its walls .
However the government’s indifference to the high prices and unemployment which characterised the years that followed would do much to reform political loyalties within the city. Enthusiasm for war and the loyalist cause withered and was replaced by a sullen and uncompromising brand of radicalism which was equal to that in any of the major manufacturing towns of the North. Violence eventually erupted in February 1800, with a crowd of women running amok in the city’s market square in protest at further rises in the price of potatoes. This was followed by a more general outbreak of civil unrest in which mobs roamed the streets, smashing bakers shop windows, attacking mills and burning hayricks. Although magistrates eventually restored order by flooding the town with troops, they were essentially forced to concede to the rioters demands by imposing price controls on bread, flour, potatoes and other staple foodstuffs. James Bisset, who returned to his hometown in 1805 was shocked to find that the walls which had once been plastered with loyalist oaths were now covered with phrases like “No damned rogues in grain”, “No war”, “Damn Pitt”, “No K..g, Lords or Commons”, and “Large loaves, peace, no taxes, no tithes, free constitution” .
It is therefore not surprising that it is to Birmingham, rather than the printshops of London, that we must look for one of the most striking satirical comments on the economic crisis of 1800. It was in this year that the medal-maker John Gregory Hancock issued The Uncharitable Monopolizer (above), a token which shows a man attempting to swallow the world whole. He wears a band marked Possession, while inside his head we see a demon representing greed which is selfishly hugging a bushel of wheat. The remainder of the design is filled with the slogans – Will Not Starve the Poor; Take Not What Was Made for All; More Warehouse Room Wheat is but 22 Shillings a Bushel; and 1800 in Distress. The obverse carries The Charitable Hand (right), a contrasting design depicting money being dispensed into an emaciated hand, the outstretched hands of children and a begging bowl. The eye of providence beams down on the scene and is accompanied by the voice of the almighty saying “Well Done”. The words Come All Ye Distressed run around the bottom of the token.
The meaning of the design is somewhat ambiguous and it can be interpreted either as a radical political satire, or an affirmation of support for the Birmingham magistrates attempts to lawfully curb speculation in the food markets. The apparent popularity of the token suggests it probably served either purpose equally well, although the fact that Hancock minted more expensive versions in silver and pewter suggests he intended to sell it to wealthier customers and was not a committed radical.
1. J. Hamilton, Turner: A Life, (1997), p.146.
2. Reginald Heber to Elizabeth Heber, 12th July 1800, Bod. MSS Eng. Lett. d.201.
3. J. Uglow, In These Times, Living in Britain through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793 – 1815, (2014) pp. 247 – 248.
4. R. Wells, ‘The Revolt of the South-west 1800-01: A Study in English Popular Protest’, Social History 2, No. 6, (October 1977), pp. 713 – 742.
5. A. Gee, The British Volunteer Movement 1793 – 1815, (2003), p. 260.
6. T. Spence, The Restorer of Society to its Natural State, (1800), http://www.ditext.com/spence/restorer.html [accessed 5 May 2015]
7. ‘Political and Administrative History: Political History to 1832’, in A History of the County of Warwick: Vol. 7, ed. W. B. Stephens (London, 1964), pp. 270-297 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/warks/vol7/pp270-297 [accessed 5 May 2015].