"Ill fares the land, to fated ills a prey,
"Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.
"Princes or lords may flourish or may fade,
"A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
"But a bold peasantry, their country's pride,
"When once destroyed, can never be supplied."
Goldsmith's Deserted Village.
THE above prophetic and immortal lines ought to be written in letters of gold, and prefixed over the door of the house of Commons, constantly to remind that very important branch of the constitution, how much it is their duty to attend to the interest of the lower orders of society for, from want of paying due attention to those most useful classes of men, the small farmer and peasant, great part of the distressing evils we now experience has originated.
It is almost the unanimous opinion of the nation, that the monopoly of farms is the first great leading cause of the immoderate advance in the price of all the articles of life; for, by throwing the bulk of the land into comparatively few hands, opportunity is given to speculation: an evil, especially on objects of the first necessity, exceeds all calculation. By permitting farmers to hold large tracts, it is impossible the land can be so well attended to; and for want of abundance of manure on the tillage land, a very great quantity has been taken from under the plough, and thrown into pasture, consequently this had been the means of a vast decrease in the growth of all kinds of grain. The reduction in the number of farms in England would hardly be credited, was it not, unfortunately, too well proved—not one county in the kingdom has more than half the number of farms it formerly had; most counties are reduced one third; and one county in particular has not the fourth part of the number it had a few years ago.
It is this cursed monopoly, more than war itself, which impoverishes the mass of the people, and which will, we greatly fear, in a very few years more, reduce them to the dependence of the Russian peasantry—slaves to their lords.
In the year 1766, a short time previous to the dreadful commotions in London, denominated Wilkes's Riots, and which we shall particularly name, the country people rose in a tumultuous manner, in various parts of England. The cause of the dreadful outrages, was the high price of corn, and the following extract from the King's speech to both houses of parliament thereon, will show some reason for discontent.
"My Lords and Gentlemen,
"The high price of wheat, and the defective produce of that grain last harvest, together with the extraordinary demands for the same from foreign parts, have principally determined me to call you thus early together, that I might have the sense of parliament, as soon as conveniently might. be, on a matter so important, and particularly affecting the poorer part of my subjects.
"The urgency of the necessity called upon me, in the meantime, to exert my royal authority for the preservation of the public safety, against a public calamity which could admit of no delay.
"I have therefore, by and with the advice of my Privy Council, laid an embargo on wheat and wheat flour going out of the kingdom, until the advice of my Parliament could be taken thereon.
"If further provision of law be requisite or expedient, with regard to the dearness of corn, so necessary for the sustenance of the poorer sorts, they cannot escape the wisdom of parliament, to which I recommend the due consideration thereof.
"At the same time, I must with concern take notice, that notwithstanding my cares for the people, a spirit of the most daring insurrection has, in divers parts, broke forth in violence, of the most criminal nature.
"Necessary orders have been given for bringing such dangerous offenders to condign punishment and speedy justice; nor shall vigilance and vigour on my part be wanting to restore obedience and reverence to the law and the government."
A special commission was issued for the trial of the offenders, in the different counties, where these riots had mostly prevailed, which, it was observed, would cost the country ten thousand pounds! Before we proceed to the particular offences then committed, let us take a view of the price of bread, that threw the country into commotions, compared with the present price, which the people pay without a murmur; and thus we may judge of the calamitous state of the British empire
On the 28th of October, 1766, when the insurrections on account of its enormous price was at their height, the assize for the peck loaf of 17lb. 2oz. was two shillings and eight-pence for wheaten, and two shillings for household bread; which is eight-pence the quartern loaf. In the present year, 1810, the quartern loaf of wheaten bread is one shilling and five-pence, more than double at the time of the general outcry; and eight or nine years ago, when the people endured with patience their distress, it was at the enormous price of three shillings.
"Bread for my children, give me bread: she cries,
"E'en now, by hunger struck, my husband dies;
"His wife must follow fast; yet save, O save,
"These little ones, for whom that bread I crave;
"And this poor babe now starving on my breast.
"Her pray'r is scorn'd, her sorrows made a jest,
"The jest of that proud plunderer who braves
"The poor man's curse, nor heeds when famine crave."
PRATT's Cottage Pictures.
In viewing the bad consequences resulting from this national clamour for bread, our feelings are roused at the reflection of thousands and tens of thousands in this great empire, still wanting the common necessaries of life, while a few hundred privileged men of fortune, and dignified clergy, are rolling in luxury. But, saith the law, bread must not be obtained by force of arms; and the mischiefs which we shall adduce, shows the wisdom of the law; yet ought the poor to have food to support nature, as well as the lord, whose luxuries, having never indulged, they covet not.
The principal flagitious acts, committed in this scarcity of corn, we have carefully selected from the different periodical publications of the day; and which, for the convenience of our readers, and consonant with our plan, we have arranged in chronological (sic) order.
At Aylesbury the people rose, and seized a quantity of bread and butter in the market. The magistrate caused the ringleaders to be seized. They were tried, convicted and imprisoned.
Austle, St. The tinners rose, and compelled the butchers to lower their prices.
Bath. The mob rose, and did much mischief in the different markets before they dispersed.
Barnstaple, (Devonshire.) The poor joined in a body, and compelled the farmers to sell wheat at five shillings per bushel.
Bewdley. The mob lowered the price of wheat, meat, and butter.
Beckingham, near Bath. A miller and his son procured firearms, and fired upon the people, killing a man and a boy, and desperately wounded others, which so exasperated the rest, that they set fire to the mills, and burnt them to the ground.
Berwick-upon-Tweed. The people were in commotion on account of the vast quantities of corn bought for exportation.
Bradley, near Trowbridge. A mill was destroyed by the populace, who divided the corn found therein among themselves.
Birmingham. A vast mob rose on the fair-day, and sold the bread and cheese at their own prices. An affray happened between them and the peace officers, and some of the ring-leaders were sent to gaol. The bakers, in order to appease the people, agreed to make a quantity of household bread at one penny per pound.
Bradford, in Wiltshire. The provision warehouses and shops were plundered; one man concerned in this riot was hanged.
Bromsgrove, in Worcestershire. They obliged the farmers to sell their wheat at five shillings per bushel, and the butchers their meat at twopence-halfpenny per pound.
Colton, Great, in Warwickshire. They rose, traversed the country, and did considerable damage, till, being met by the military, they were attacked and dispersed, and eight of them were killed.
Coventry. The mass of the people rose, and were joined by the colliers from the neighbouring coal-pits. They began their outrages by plundering the warehouses of cheese, and selling the same to the poor at low prices: They then took whatever provisions they met with by main force.
Crediton, in Devonshire. The poor being in great distress, and on the point of rising, means were taken to supply their wants.
Dennington. The mob rose, and first plundered awarehouse of cheese, which was defended by eighteen men in arms; they were afterwards pursued by the owner, and a large party of his friends, but to no purpose; the mob defended themselves by throwing stones, and drove back their pursuers
Derby. They rose in great numbers, attacked a party of light-horse, severely pelted them with stones, and wounded the commanding officer. Then they plundered a warehouse of cheese; in doing which thirty-four of them were apprehended, pinioned, and carried to gaol. The remainder, soon afterwards assembled, and attacked an armed boat, on the river Derwent, which they plundered of cheese to the value of three hundred pounds, and distributed it among the poor. They paid no regard to the magistrates, and were restrained alone by the military, from doing greater mischief.
Evisham, in Worcestershire. A mob suddenly rose and seized a quantity of butter, which they sold at sixpence a pound. They intended to pull down the corn mills, but were persuaded to desist.
Exeter. The people broke open a cheese warehouse, and sold it at a low price. They were intimidated from proceeding to further extremities by the military.
Gloucester. In order to appease the clamours of the poor, the most considerable farmers from the hills, agreed to supply the market with wheat at five shillings a bushel, and actually sold large quantities at that price.
Hampton, in Gloucestershire. They rose in considerable numbers, but were timely opposed by the military; yet not before they had pulled down some houses containing provisions, and some lives lost.
Henley-upon Thames. The people rose, and in a tumultuous manner called for bread at a reasonable price; but upon the magistrates reading the riot act, they dispersed.
Honiton, in Devonshire. They rose and seized sacks of wheat, lodged by the farmers in public-houses, brought them into the market, and sold it at five shillings and six pence per bushel. They returned the sacks to the owners.
Kidderminster. The populace obliged the farmers to lower the price of wheat to five shillings per bushel.
Leicester. The people seized three waggon loads of cheese, and divided it among themselves.
Ludlow, in Shropshire. The colliers from the Cleehill, near this town, assembled in a body, and pulled down the still-house in that town. They went in a very orderly manner, and returned without doing any further mischief. The magistrates promised that the still should not be worked; but nothing could divert them from their determined purpose.
Maidenhead, in Berkshire. A number of bargemen entered this town, on account of the high price of provisions, and, committed several outrages, in seizing provisions, &c. but were opposed by the civil power, and the ring-leaders seized and sent to Reading gaol—three of them were hanged.
Malmsbury. The people rose in great numbers, seized on all the corn they could find, and sold it at five shillings per bushel, but were honest enough to give the farmers the money.
Marlow, Great, in Buckinghamshire. A mob of bargemen rose, and extorted money from the gentlemen and farmers in that neighbourhood, with which they purchased spirituous liquors, and intoxicated themselves, and in that state were very mischievous.
Nottingham. A mob entered this town on the fair-day, seized upon all the cheese the factors had purchased, and distributed the same among the poor; leaving the farmers' cheese unmolested. Here the military were called into the aid of the magistrates, and a skirmish took place, in which a farmer was killed.
Newbury, in Berkshire. A great mass of people assembled on the market-day, ripped open the sacks of wheat exposed for sale, and scattered the corn on the ground, seized the butter, meat, cheese, and bacon, in the shops, and threw it into the streets. They so intimidated the bakers, that they sold their bread at two-pence the peck loaf. From Newbury the mob proceeded to Skaw-Mill, where they threw the flour into the river, broke the windows of the house, and did other considerable damage there, to the amount of near a thousand pounds. A poor man named Parker, one of the mob, was killed, leaving a wife and five small children; and another man had his arm broke.
Ottery St. Mary, in Devonshire. The flour mills were destroyed by the mob.
Pagenwell, near Stroud, in Gloucestershire. The mob committed outrages, in order to lower the price of bread. Mr. Chandler, a shopkeeper, shot one of them dead, who was breaking into his house in the night; whereupon they set fire to his house, and burnt it to the ground. Mr. Chandler surrendered himself, was tried, and honourably acquitted, of killing the rioter—three hanged.
Paulton, in Devonshire. The colliers joined the poor, and did great mischief.
Redruth, in Cornwall. The tinners rose, and intimidated the butchers to reduce the price of their meat, and the farmers their wheat.
Salisbury, in Wiltshire. The risings of the people here were very numerous, and great mischief was apprehended; but the prudent measures taken by the magistrates, and the farmers lowering the price of wheat, danger was happily averted. Some of the ring leaders were, however, apprehended and committed to prison—one hanged.
Setbury. The warehouses containing cheese and bacon, were forcibly entered. The former the mob sold at three-pence, and the latter at four-pence per pound.
Sidbury in Devonshire. The mills of this place were destroyed by the mob.
Stourbridge, in Worcestershire. The people rose in great numbers, and compelled farmers, butchers, and dealers, to lower the price of meat, wheat, butter, &c.
Tipton, in Devonshire. A number of poor people assembled, pulled down the flour mills, and did much other damage.
Thame. The bulk of the people assembled together, and insisted on the prices of the articles of life being lowered.
Wallingford. The people rose in one body, and regulated the prices of bread, cheese, butter, and bacon.
Welton, in Devonshire. The poor were joined by the colliers, in order to lower the price of provisions.
Wincanton, in Devonshire. The poor rose and did considerable damage, seizing the wheat and meat.
Wolverhampton, in Staffordshire. The people rose and compelled the farmers to sell wheat at five shillings per bushel, and butchers their meat at twopence-halfpenny per pound.
In various other parts of the kingdom did the poor thus riotously cry for bread; and seized provisions wherever they could be found. We have merely given the sketches of the most desperate cases. Parliament at length sought to remedy the evil, and granted some temporary relief to the distress of the people.
The Special Commission issued by government, for the purpose of bringing the riotous poor to punishment, for offending the laws, in their cry for bread, were opened by the judges of the different superior courts of record, in the early part of the month of December, when numbers of misguided, half-starved wretches were condemned to death, and some of them actually executed.
At Reading several were tried, and sentenced to death, three of whom were hanged, viz. Daniel Ecland, William Simpson, and John Skelton.
At Salisbury four received sentence of death, one of whom was executed.
At Gloucester nine were condemned, and three executed; and at several other towns where the Special Commission was opened, numbers were condemned, some executed, and others pardoned, whose names do not appear; nor, indeed, can they be of any import to the reader; their offences being against the same statute, and attended with nearly the same circumstances.
During these very serious commotions of the people, numbers of threatening letters were received by wealthy farmers and contractors, who had long played into each other's hands, and by that means the grain was exported. Several advertisements appeared in the London Gazette, offering rewards for the discovery and conviction of the writers. To give them all, would far exceed the limits of our plan; we shall therefore deem it sufficient to extract the following, which was described to have been received by Mr. Rabley, of Birmingham:
"This is to acquaint the public, that there is a very large body of us at Kidderminster and Stourbridge, and by G—d will go through the work now, or die. We have sworn one another in, and if any poor man will come to Stourbridge, and be sworn in, we will maintain him and his family too. We have a large body, already upwards of two thousand, sworn and already armed. There shall be no hanging in the case now, we will have all the gaols and prisons down before us, as we have sworn, and be damned if we won't. Mr. Rabley, we desire you to put in the Birmingham Gazette, or you have a friend about your house if you do not gazette it, upon our word we will have it down.
"So no more, your's,
"Already armed at Stourbridge,
Having now, by unwearied pains, presented the reader with the dreadful effects produced by the high price of provisions, which the rich never feel: we have only to add, that in the present year, 1813, the articles of life are double, and in many things treble, the price of the year 1766, with taxes, increased more than four-fold; yet the people now show no other resentment than a little grumbling, while they empty their pockets to tax-gatherers!