Uprisings And Reprisals

Food riots

Clean this up

By working twelve hours a day, six days a
week, a weaver or a cobbler or a miner hoped to earn enough to
provide the family with an adequate supply of bread.The cost of the
family's bread consumed close to half of its income; when that cost
went above half its income, the squeeze became acute. Hungry and
desperate, theywould pickup a cudgel, a large wooden spoon, a horn
or some other artifact they found lying around, start hooting and
hollering, and along with neighbours also hooting and hollering,
parade through the cobblestone streets of the town inwhathistorians
call a "food riot."
These kinds of spontaneous outbursts were surprisingly common,
and were particularly prevalent and vigorous inthe years 1709, 1740,
1756-57, 1766-67, 1773, 1782, 1795, and 1800-1801. Historians
have long attributed them to simple hunger, which undoubtedly was
the driving factor. But E. P.Thompson, inhis masterful, detailed study
of the phenomenon, noticed something more.
Let's look at what happened, for instance, when a group of food
rioters stopped awagon full ofwheat being driven through the town
of Handborough, Oxfordshire, in 1795. Acouple of women in the
crowd eagerly climbed aboard the wagon and boldly pitched a few
sacks ofgrain onto the road. Now, 1795 was avery bad year for grain
prices. And despite the abundant fields of wheat in Oxfordshire, the
price of grain was high, making things extraordinarily tough for
people whose diet relied heavily on the bread they baked from this
local grain. So the people inthis crowd were hungry and angry, and
they outnumbered the one farmer driving the wagon. The towns
people of Handborough could easily have made offwith a few sacks
of grain or maybe the whole cartload, giving them enough to bake
dozens of loaves of bread and feel a whole lot better. But that wasn't
what happened. The townspeople had no intention of stealing. What
they wanted—and were prepared to insist on with force, if neces
sary—was to buythe grain, but to buy it at afairprice.
And sothe riot proceeded with a strange sort ofchaotic decorum.
"Some of the persons assembled said they would give Forty Shillings
a Sack for the Flour [considerably below the going rate], and they
would have it at that, and would notgive more, and if thatwould not
do, they would have it by force," according to one contemporary
account of the events. The farmer, apparently seeing the appropriate
ness of the price adjustment, accepted the lower price, and the grain
changed hands at the newgoing rate. In a similar incident that year, a
baker by the name ofThomas Smith was carrying a load of bread on
hishorse into the village ofHadstock, in Essex, whenhe was stopped
by a crowd of more than several dozen women and children. One of
the women, identified only as a labourer's wife, grabbed Smith's
horse and asked if there had been a reduction in the price of bread.
When he answered no, she angrily replied that he'd better cut his
price or he wouldn't be allowed to sell any of his bread in town.At
this point, several others in the crowd offered him nine pence for a
quarter loaf. But Smith insisted the price was nineteen pence—a
pricethe crowd considered nothing shortofhighway robbery. Several
women grabbed a few loaves from the bread baskets slung over his
horse. After reconsidering his situation, Smith agreed to the lower
What isstriking about these incidents, and all the others like them,
is not the boisterousness of the crowd, but almost the opposite.
Despite their hunger and neediness, these people seemed very
restrained and circumspect in their demands. While they were
prepared to use force and threats of force, they were not really
thieves. They were basically law-abiding.What angered themwas that
they felt others were taking unfair advantage of them. Indeed, they
had a strong sense of what they felt was right and fair, of what was
morally justifiable. They were convinced, for instance, that the high
price of bread was a result of avaricious human behaviour, which
violatedtheir moral standards. Their responsewas to try to set things
right, to pay whatwas really due.
This sense ofmorality and fair play is evident in muchofwhat has
often simply been dubbed "food rioting." At times, it seems almost
absurd to call these peoplerioters, somannerly, responsible and fair-
minded do their actions appear. In an incident in Portsea, in
Hampshire, also in the bad year of 1795, a "mob" approached the
town bakers and butchers and demanded to be charged what they
considered fair prices for bread andmeat.According to a contempo
rary accountof the event,"[Tjhose that complied with thosedemands
were paidwith exactness." However, the bakersand butchers who did
not agree to cut their prices soon found their shops plundered
"without receiving any more money than the mob chose to leave" (my italics).
The ideaofangry rioters calming themselves aftera frenzy ofplun
deringsotheycancarefully countout and leave the exactamountthat
they consider fair is curious and almost touching. And this sort of
insistence on a fair set of rules wasn't restricted to setting a fair price.
Equally odious to the"mob" was any kind ofcheating, whereby unfair
advantage was taken bythose who control access to the food supply.
Millers and bakers were constantly accused of adding cheap ingredi
ents to the bread—including everything from "Acorns, Beans, Bones,
Whiting, Chopt Straw and even dried Horse Dung" to "sacks of old
ground bones"—in order to squeeze anextrabit ofprofitout of their
sales. Similarly, millers and bakers were often accused ofusing faulty
measures or weights, or of presenting a loaf of bread as weighing
more than it really did. In one bizarre case, a London magistrate
happened upon a crowd angrily taking apart the shop of a baker who
was accused of selling underweight bread. But once again the action
of the crowd—not to mention that of the magistrate—might seem
unusual to us. With the arrival of the magistrate, the mob promptly
stopped itshooliganism and focused its energies ondrawing his atten
tion to the underweight bread, eagerly presenting the scrawny loaves
for his inspection.The magistrate carefully weighed and examined the
offending loaves and, concluding thecrowd had apoint, proceeded to
distribute the loaves to the rioters.
The magistrate's action makes more sense oncewe learn that the
price ofbreadwas carefully regulated bylaw. Bread—and ale,for that
matter—were considered far too important to be left to the vagaries
ofthemarketplace. Hence thepeople were demanding thatthelaw—
which they considered fair—be enforced. And themagistrate, despite
the strong-arm methods employed bythe crowd, found merit in their
position. Indeed, much of the rioting consisted of hungry people
insisting on nothing more than the enforcement of laws designed to
protect them from the full force of the marketplace.
This insistence on protection from the caprices of the market is
also evident in the enormoushostility towards exports of local food
supplies in times of shortage. In such times, dealers tended to buy up
local supply and ship it to London, where they could get higher
prices. When this happened in Cornwall in 1773, there was a large-
scale riot bymore than seven hundred local tinners. The crowd was
soangry that after they offered thejustprice and were turned down,
they didn't bother with any further politeness. They simply broke
downthe cellar doors andtook the corn, skipping the usual courtesy
payment. Even more contemptible than dealers who exported grain
to London werethose who exportedit rightout of the country, most
commonly to France. In one case in 1740, a merchant in North
Yorkshire, who was caught exporting grain during a shortage, was
dunked in the river by an angry crowd. To avoid such misfortunes,
merchants triedmoving grain headed for exportduring the night. In
the shortages of 1795 and 1800, crowds set up night roadblocks,
forced the wagons to stop and unload their grain in the dark, and
refused to let it leave the local parish when people therewerehungry.
- McQuaig, All You Can Eat


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