Saturday, 3 October 2015

The Anti-Corn Law League

A meeting of the Anti-Corn Law League
in London, 1846
This movement achieved a more important place in national life than any previous radical body. Unlike the Chartists, it represented the interests of an urban middle class. Unlike them, too it was well funded and had precise and limited objectives. 

The Corn Laws were a generic term for a whole system of legislative protection of agriculture. In 1815 there was a prohibition on the import of foreign agricultural products until the price at home reached a high figure (80s a quarter in the case of wheat). In 1828 this absolute prohibition was replaced by a sliding scale of import duties. This legislation was not solely dictated by class interests – there was also the desire to be independent in time of war.

However there was a strong body of opinion opposed to legislative protection for agriculture. In 1830, Ebenezer Elliott, the Sheffield ‘Bard of Free Trade’ published his Corn Law Rhymes

At first this opposition was local and sporadic, but the situation changed in the depression of the late ‘30s when food prices rose. Elliott declared: 
It was born ‘of empty pockets in a respectable neighbourhood’. 
Manufacturing free traders could argue that the Corn Laws had damaging effects throughout the economy: British workmen would agitate for higher wages, which would be spent on food rather than on manufactured goods. The only beneficiaries would be the aristocracy.  

In 1836 an Anti-Corn Law Association was set up in London, but it lacked unity of purpose and effective leadership.  However, after the 1837 election the Corn Laws moved to the top of the agenda, not because of the politicians but because, with the onset of an acute manufacturing depression, the cause attracted support in the country.  The topic was brought annually before the Commons by Charles Villiers, Radical MP for Wolverhampton. But the Whig government refused to support him. Melbourne was against any more radical change and declared ‘before God’ that to leave the whole agricultural interest without protection was 
‘the wildest and maddest scheme that has ever entered into the mind of man to conceive’. 

The Beginnings of the League

The heart of resistance to the Corn Laws was not London but Manchester.  On September 10 1838 a small gathering of Manchester Radicals met in a room above the stables of the York Hotel to hear Dr John Bowring, an ardent free-trader, who had recently returned from a commercial mission to Germany. 

In October, the list of the provisional committee was published. It included the Rochdale manufacturer, John Bright.  Its President was George Wilson, who became MP for Wolverhampton in the late 1830s. Richard Cobden, the man who was to head the League, was abroad at the time, but he joined as soon as he returned.

The Manchester Association soon won the support of local businessmen, and the Chamber of Commerce. It corresponded with similar associations up and down the country. In January 1839 a meeting of all the associations was held at the Manchester Corn Exchange, with 14 MPs present. During its first year the League drew nine tenths of its funds from the Manchester district. Cobden said:
‘The League is Manchester’.
The Tory press treated the League as an agent of urban sedition.

The League provided the rallying point for Radicals, replacing the campaign for the ballot. The Tories were committed to agricultural protection. Behind the League’s arguments lay a great deal of class hostility. The Corn Laws were the visible legislative symbol of the predominance of the landed interest. The fundamental target of the League was political: the control of the aristocracy.

Many factors favoured the League

The prevailing trend of economic thought was against protection. Those who supported it were against the trend of the times.
  • The depression of the late ‘30s and early ‘40s increased the desirability of free trade. Much of the finance of the League was provided by the factory owners.
  • The Dissenters supported the League, seeing the Church of England as wanting to keep the price of bread high. Cobden in 1842:
    ‘The Church clergy are almost to a man guilty of causing the great distress by upholding the Corn Law – they having themselves an interest through tithes in the high price of bread.’
    There was strong Nonconformist element in Manchester. The Wesleyans stood aloof from the League but other denominations were enthusiastic.
  • The areas of greatest population growth were the areas of strongest support for the League. The population of Manchester rose from 40,000 in the 1780s, to 70,000 in 1801 and 142,000 in 1831.
  • Humanitarians were attracted by the plea for cheap bread. The leaders of the League were all sincere Christians. Protectionists were forced into being the party of high prices at a time of great economic distress.
  • Free trade was a cause of international idealism. Cobden:
    ‘a means, and, I believe the only human means of effecting universal and permanent peace. … Free trade, by perfecting the intercourse and securing the dependence of countries one upon another must inevitably snatch the power from the governments to plunge the people into wars.’
    He played on the belief that aristocracies are naturally bellicose.
    ‘The sooner the power in this country is transferred from the landed oligarchy, which has so misused it, and is placed absolutely – mind, I say absolutely – in the hands of the intelligent middle and industrious classes, the better for the conditions and destinies of this country.'
  • There were practical advantages – the new penny post introduced in 1840 was employed to collect funds and distribute tons of tracts. Transport was quicker and cheaper than ever before.
But there were also factors against it.
  • The fundamental argument was flawed. Britain was a net importer of grain, mostly from northern Germany and Poland. From the 1830s there was a general European harvest failure. There was no cheap corn ‘out there’ that was only being kept from the people by an unjust law. When the Corn Laws were abolished wheat prices were not markedly affected.
  • Repeal did not seem to be practical politics. The landed interest was dominant in parliament, and the electorate remained obstinately deferential. In the Manchester by-election of 1840 the seat was filled by Milner Gilson, a Suffolk landowner. Cobden was despairing:
    ‘What wonder we are scorned by the landed aristocracy when we take such pains to show our contempt for ourselves? We save our enemies the trouble of tramping on us by very industriously kicking our own backsides.’
    In 1843 Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote to an Edinburgh Leaguer:
    ‘People who know anything of the way in which this country is really governed know that there is in fact a certain small class of men who have a veto on all public measures which they agree to oppose. … The Corn Laws will not be repealed until a ministry takes the matter up.’
    He was right.

The organization of the League

The formal control rested in a council of the large subscribers. Each subscription of £50 carried one vote. The League organised lecture tours. It had a paper, 'The Anti-Corn Law Circular' – everyone who contributed a £ to the League received it free. Other copies were given away. The paper made a loss, but this was thought worth the price.

Women were involved in the movement. Cobden:
‘We have obtained the co-operation of the ladies; we have resorted to tea parties’.
At Anti-Corn Law League bazaars customers could buy free trade handkerchiefs, breadplates, teapots and pin cushions.

In January 1840 a temporary wooden building was opened in Manchester (built by 100 men in 11 days). 200 delegates were represented, and 77 towns. 

Richard Cobden

He was the acknowledged leader. Born in 1804 at Midhurst, the son of a small farmer, be became a clerk in a London warehouse. In 1828 he set up in business on borrowed capital. He became one of Manchester’s first aldermen. Though a manufacturer, he did not like cotton mills and wanted
‘to mitigate as far as possible the evils that are perhaps not inseparably connected with this novel social element.’
He used language that he privately admitted was harsh.
‘Do not judge me by what I way at these tumultuous public meetings. I constantly regret the necessity of violating good taste and kind feeling in my public harangues.’
He was single-minded in his attack on aristocracy and deference. When he entered parliament, he was a fierce speaker.

The election of 1841

In 1841 a Conservative, Whig protectionist and anti-slavery vote in the Commons defeated a proposal to reduce the preference on colonial over foreign sugar. This led Melbourne to dissolve Parliament and to go to the country on a variety of free trade issues. Russell persuaded Melbourne to pledge to replace the existing sliding scale of duties with a much lower fixed tariff, and a small number of Whig aristocrats supported this position. But this late conversion failed to convince the electorate, and Peel’s Conservatives swept back to power with an overall majority of 367/291 and a lead in England of almost 100, winning more than 85% of the county seats. The League captured Walsall and both the Manchester seats, and Cobden was returned for Stockport. But some prize northern seats went to the Tories, including Bradford, Leeds, and Warrington. The borough patrons were still influential! In the new Parliament an alliance was formed between Leaguers and Irish against the Chartists. The Chartists were very hostile to the League, seeing cheap food as a manufacturers’ excuse for keeping wages low. When Feargus O’Connor came to Manchester, there was a physical fight between him and Irish/Free Traders.

John Bright

In the late spring of 1841 Bright emerged as Cobden’s most able lieutenant. Both pledged themselves not to rest until the Corn Laws were repealed. Unlike Cobden he was a northerner. Born in 1811 he was the son of a Rochdale textile manufacturer, and entered his father’s business after leaving school. He was a prominent Quaker. His enemies accused him of being headstrong and impetuous and setting class against class. Friends and supporters saw him as a prophet and one of the great orators of the day. He was a strong individualist, who disbelieved in state subsides to education and state interference in the conditions of work of adults. He shared Cobden’s view of the beneficent moral results of free trade. In 1843 he was returned in a by-election as MP for Rochdale.

The advance of the League

In 1841-2, when harvest were bad and unemployment widespread the League made remarkable advances both in propaganda and organization. Cobden in 1842:
‘We have at the end of four years got a pretty strong hold on public opinion.’
In 1842, there was a possible flirtation with coercive tactics when the League’s conference considered a tax strike by free-traders and an employers’ lock-out of the mills. The Plug Plot of August 1842 was a strike by workmen against wage reductions. The League had not been involved, but League lecturers had been up and down the country and the government held the League morally responsible for much of the disturbances. At Peel’s request, the Home Office collected a dossier on the League’s activities. In December 1842, the Quarterly Review published an article denouncing the League as a subversive, immoral and unconstitutional body.

But much more characteristic was the conference of nearly 700 ministers of religion at Manchester in August 1841 that led to a diffusion of repeal ideas from scores of pulpits. It was argued at the conference that the Corn Laws were 
‘anti-scriptural and anti-religious, opposed to the laws of God’.

No public building in Manchester was big enough to hold League meetings. In January 1843 the Free Trade Hall was built in six weeks on the site of the Peterloo Massacre and capable of holding 7,000 to 8,000 people. A gigantic Anti-Corn Law Banquet was held to celebrate the event. [The present one was opened in 1856.] By this time the League had a centralized fund of £50,000. By 1844 this had doubled.

In 1843, the League moved its offices to London – a tactical decision. 136 meetings were organized there, many of them at the Drury Lane and Covent Garden Theatres. The move had great psychological importance as it helped to win over the London press, who had previously been dismissive of the ‘Cant and Cotton men’.

In 1844 the League turned its attention to the countryside. League sympathizers ere encouraged to buy property qualifying them for a county vote. Though the purchase price of property that carried a vote, at £30 to £60 a time, deterred all but the most prosperous and committed artisans, Cobden was encouraging an expansion of the numbers eligible to vote. But Bright deplored these back-door tactics, believing they were a diversion from the campaign for manhood suffrage.

Cobden’s propaganda was directed at tenant farmers and labourers. He stressed that protection was no substitute for inefficient farming. Again, he raised class interests: tenant farmers’ interests were different from those of their landlords, village labourers were among the most oppressed sections of the population. He condemned the Tory Ashley for concentrating on conditions in factories.

The Anti-League

The League’s campaigns inevitably drew organized replies from protectionists. The initiative came from a group of tenant farmers staring in Essex and Lincolnshire and spreading to most of the Midlands. In 1843 a Central Agricultural Protection Society – soon known as the Anti-League, was formed, its president the Ultra-Tory duke of Richmond and its vice-president the Tory duke of Buckingham. Its success in rallying the farmers was undoubted. It painted the League’s lecturers as clever outsiders hostile not only to landlords but to rural society in general. Anglican clergymen were prominent Anti-Leaguers and the organization developed into a country gentleman’s association, encompassing the substantial tenant farmers. Their views those of the Tory back benchers.

However it is too simple to posit a simple urban/rural, Anglican/Dissenter, radical/Tory split. The urban vote was split on the question of protection, with Tory manufacturers prepared to take the party line. The Manchester Guardian opposed the League.


The League was the most sophisticated pressure group yet seen in Britain. Yet how successful was it? The Corn Laws were repealed, not because of League pressure, but because Peel no longer believed in them. The main significance of the League was social and political. The aristocracy were criticised as never before – on economic, social, political, and moral grounds.

In the long run, the League may have harmed British agriculture.