Corn laws had existed in Britain in one form or another since the Middle Ages. They were intended to raise the price of imported grain through tariffs and other measures so that locally produced grain could be sold at higher prices.
John Bright, left, and Richard Cobden
“Corn” in English usage means any sort of grain. Although Australians talk of corn, we are referring to what could properly be called “maize”.
The Corn Laws, properly speaking, were imposed in 1815 following the end of the Napoleonic Wars. At the end of the French wars, the price of grain fell drastically. The Corn Laws were intended to increase the returns to the landed interests, which dominated Parliament. This was a mercantilist policy intended to transfer wealth from the urban areas to the landed interests in the countryside. Following the imposition of the Corn Laws, there was rioting in London by urban working men.
The proximate cause for the abolition of the Corns Laws was the Great Irish Famine (1845–1852). The potato crop, on which most Irish cottiers were entirely dependent for food, failed due to potato blight, which destroyed both the leaves and tubers of the potato plant. The potato harvest failed for two successive years.
The Corn Laws made it impossible for grain to be imported in the quantities required to feed the impoverished people of Ireland. One million people starved to death and another million emigrated, mainly to America (See Passage to America: Terry Coleman, London, 1972).
The landlords, who were mostly Anglo-Irish, responded to the Famine in a variety of ways. One method was to “shovel out” their tenants by shipping entire villages to British North America, which they favoured over the United States because of Canada’s links to the British Crown. These landlords were often commended for these acts of altruism. Ireland was still politically part of the British nation and Canada did not become a Dominion until 1867.
The abolition of the Corns Laws was the most profound dislocation of the political economy of England in the 19th century. In The English and their History, Robert Tombs offers insights into this monumental reversal of an age-old policy.
From 1815 to 1846, when the Corn Laws were abolished, food and grain imports were restricted, mainly by tariffs. This meant that there was a net transfer of resources from the industrial working classes to the landed interests, who were mainly, though not exclusively, landed gentry and aristocrats. Those who suffered most from this transfer of wealth were the urban poor. With the abolition of the Corn Laws, food became cheaper. Thus, ever after, the poor of England associated free trade with cheap food.
An insight into life in England’s countryside around this time can be gained from The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), Thomas Hardy’s epic novel. The local corn merchant was a man of standing in the community. The life of the village revolved around the annual cycle of the grain crop. The Mayor of Casterbridge is set in the 1840s, when for many people, travel was by “shanks’ pony” and life went on as it had for 1,000 years in these isolated villages.
The Mayor of Casterbridge explores the role of grain in rural England. Hardy set his novel in the fictional county of Wessex, although this was clearly a replication of Dorset, on England’s southwest coast, where Hardy was born. The Mayor, Michael Henchard, is a tragic figure who cannot escape his weaknesses.
The repeal of the Corn Laws was due to a concerted political campaign led by Richard Cobden (1804–1865) and John Bright (1811–1889). Cobden founded the Anti-Corn Law League in Manchester in 1830. Cobden believed that the Corn Laws were economically disastrous and morally wrong. He was an Anglican.
Cobden’s most effective ally was John Bright, who was a Quaker. Bright was described as one of the most brilliant orators of his generation. He was described as “orator, agitator, statesman”. Cobden and Bright argued for the abolition of slavery, the separation of church and state, free trade and freedom of the press. They were the two most outstanding advocates of freedom of conscience of their age.
Why Conservative Party founder and Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel supported the abolition of the Corn Laws is something of a mystery. The Conservative Party represented landed interests. Peel resigned as Prime Minister in 1846 following the abolition of the Corn Laws. He remained influential on the backbench, however, where he remained for the rest of his career.
Peel made himself unpopular over his sympathetic Irish policy, which included a grant to Maynooth Seminary, where Catholic priests were trained. Without Peel’s support, the Corn Laws may not have been repealed. As it was, he sacrificed his career in pursuit of his principles.
The impact of the abolition of the Corn Laws on English agricultural producers was not immediate. Grain was still in short supply in the “Hungry Forties”, and people were still dying in Ireland.
As the 19th century progressed, grain imports expanded as grain-rich producers, including Australia, shipped their surplus grain to England. The invention of refrigerated shipping meant that meat producers such as Australia, New Zealand and Argentina could also export meat in bulk and enrich the English diet.
The abolition of the Corn Laws meant that England was headed down the road of free trade. Britain was shifting to an industrial economy from one based on agriculture. As for the working man, food became cheap and freely available, as Cobden and Blight intended.