Corn Laws were tariffs and other trade restrictions on imported
food and grain ("corn") enforced in
Great Britain between 1815 and
1846. They were designed to keep grain prices high to favour domestic
producers, and represented British mercantilism, since they were the
only mercantilist laws of the country. The
Corn Laws imposed steep
import duties, making it too expensive to import grain from abroad,
even when food supplies were short.
Corn Laws enhanced the profits and political power associated with
land ownership. The laws raised food prices and the costs of living
for the British public, and hampered the growth of other British
economic sectors, such as manufacturing, by reducing the disposable
income of the British public.
The laws became the focus of opposition from urban groups who had far
less political power than rural Britain. The laws were supported by
Conservative landowners and opposed by Whig industrialists and
workers. The first two years of the Irish famine of 1845–1852 forced
a resolution because of the urgent need for new food supplies. Prime
Minister Sir Robert Peel, a Conservative, achieved repeal with the
support of the Whigs in Parliament, overcoming the opposition of most
of his own party.
Economic historians see the repeal of the
Corn Laws as a decisive
shift toward free trade in Britain.
3 Continued opposition to repeal
6 Effects of repeal
7 See also
10 Further reading
10.1 Primary and contemporary sources
11 External links
In 1689, traders were provided bounties for exporting rye, malt and
wheat (all classified as corn at the time), and the same commodities
were taxed when imported into England.
In 1813, a House of Commons Committee recommended excluding
foreign-grown corn until the price of domestically grown corn
increased to 80 shillings (£4—equivalent to £240 in 2016) per
quarter (1 quarter = 8 bushels equivalent to around 480 pounds weight
of wheat).[a] The political economist
Thomas Malthus believed this
to be a fair price, and that it would be dangerous for Britain to rely
on imported corn because lower prices would reduce labourers' wages,
and manufacturers would lose out due to the decrease of purchasing
power of landlords and farmers.
With the advent of peace when the
Napoleonic War ended in 1815, corn
prices decreased, and the Tory government of Lord Liverpool passed the
1815 Corn Law to keep bread prices high. This resulted in serious
rioting in London.
In 1816 the
Year Without a Summer
Year Without a Summer (caused by the 10 April 1815
eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, added to the effects of four
preceding big eruptions), caused famine by disastrously reducing crop
yields. Reduced standard of living and food shortages due to poor
harvests led to riots. But the ceiling price of 80 shillings a
quarter for domestic grain was so high that, between 1815 and 1848, it
was never reached. David Ricardo, however, espoused free trade so that
Britain could use its capital and population to its comparative
Further information: Anti-Corn Law League
A meeting of the
Anti-Corn Law League
Anti-Corn Law League in
Exeter Hall in 1846
In 1820, the Merchants' Petition, written by Thomas Tooke, was
presented to the House of Commons. The petition demanded free trade
and an end to protective tariffs. The Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool,
who (falsely) claimed to be in favour of free trade, blocked the
petition. He argued, speciously, that complicated restrictions made it
difficult to repeal protectionist laws. He added, though, that he
believed Britain's economic dominance grew in spite of, not because
of, the protectionist system. In 1821 the President of the Board
of Trade, William Huskisson, composed a Commons Committee report which
recommended a return to the "practically free" trade of the pre-1815
The Importation Act 1822 decreed that corn could be imported when the
price of domestically harvested corn rose to 80/- (£4) per quarter
but that the import of corn would again be prohibited when the price
fell to 70/- per quarter. After this Act was passed, the corn price
never rose to 80/- until 1828. In 1827 the landlords rejected
Huskisson's proposals for a sliding scale, and during the next year
Huskisson and the new Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, devised
a new sliding scale for the Importation of Corn Act 1828 whereby, when
domestic corn was 52/- (£2/12/0d or £2.60p) per quarter or less, the
duty would be 34/8, (£1/14/8d or £1.73p) and when the price
increased to 73/- (£3/13/0d or £3.65p), the duty decreased to 1/-
Robert Peel became Conservative Prime Minister in 1841 and his
government succeeded in repealing the tariffs.
The Whig governments, in power for most of the years between 1830 and
1841, decided not to repeal the Corn Laws. However the Liberal Whig MP
Charles Pelham Villiers
Charles Pelham Villiers proposed motions for repeal in the House of
Commons every year from 1837 to 1845. In 1842 the majority against
repeal was 303; by 1845 this had fallen to 132. Although he had spoken
against repeal until 1845,
Robert Peel voted in favour in 1846. In
1853, when Villiers was made a Privy Counsellor,
The Times stated that
"it was Mr Charles Villiers who practically originated the Free Trade
In 1838, Villiers spoke at a meeting of 5,000 "working class men" in
Manchester. In 1840, under Villiers' direction, the Committee on
Import Duties published a
Blue book examining the effects of the Corn
Laws. Tens of thousands of copies were printed in pamphlet form by the
Anti-Corn Law League, founded in 1838. The report was quoted in the
major newspapers, reprinted in America, and published in an abridged
form by The Spectator.
In the 1841 election Sir
Robert Peel became Prime Minister and Richard
Cobden, a major proponent of free trade, was elected for the first
time. Peel had studied the works of Adam Smith,
David Hume and David
Ricardo, and proclaimed in 1839: "I have read all that has been
written by the gravest authorities on political economy on the subject
of rent, wages, taxes, tithes." Nevertheless, he voted against
repeal each year from 1837 to 1845. In 1842, in response to the Blue
book published by Villiers' 1840 Committee on Import Duties, Peel
offered a concession by modifying the sliding scale. He reduced the
maximum duty to 20/- if the price were to fall to 51/- or less. In
1842, Peel's fellow-Conservative Monckton Milnes said, at the time
of this concession, that Villiers was "the solitary Robinson Crusoe
sitting on the rock of Corn Law repeal."
According to historian Asa Briggs, the
Anti-Corn Law League
Anti-Corn Law League was a
large, nationwide middle-class moral crusade with a Utopian vision;
its leading advocate
Richard Cobden promised that repeal would settle
four great problems simultaneously:
First, it would guarantee the prosperity of the manufacturer by
affording him outlets for his products. Second, it would relieve the
Condition of England question by cheapening the price of food and
ensuring more regular employment. Third, it would make English
agriculture more efficient by stimulating demand for its products in
urban and industrial areas. Fourth, it would introduce through
mutually advantageous international trade a new era of international
fellowship and peace. The only barrier to these four beneficent
solutions was the ignorant self-interest of the landlords, the
"bread-taxing oligarchy, unprincipled, unfeeling, rapacious and
The landlords claimed that manufacturers like Cobden wanted cheap food
so that they could reduce wages and thus maximise their profits, an
opinion shared by socialist Chartists. Karl Marx said: "The
campaign for the abolition of the
Corn Laws had begun and the workers'
help was needed. The advocates of repeal therefore promised, not only
a Big Loaf (which was to be doubled in size) but also the passing of
the Ten Hours Bill" (to reduce working hours).
Anti-Corn Law League
Anti-Corn Law League was agitating peacefully for repeal. They
funded writers like
William Cooke Taylor to travel the manufacturing
regions of northern England to research their cause. Taylor
published a number of books as an Anti-Corn Law propagandist, most
notably, The Natural History of Society (1841), Notes of a tour in the
manufacturing districts of Lancashire (1842), and Factories and the
Factory System (1844). Cobden and the rest of the Anti-Corn Law League
believed that cheap food meant greater real wages and Cobden praised a
speech by a working man who said:
When provisions are high, the people have so much to pay for them that
they have little or nothing left to buy clothes with; and when they
have little to buy clothes with, there are few clothes sold; and when
there are few clothes sold, there are too many to sell, they are very
cheap; and when they are very cheap, there cannot be much paid for
making them: and that, consequently, the manufacturing working man's
wages are reduced, the mills are shut up, business is ruined, and
general distress is spread through the country. But when, as now, the
working man has the said 25s left in his pocket, he buys more clothing
with it (ay, and other articles of comfort too), and that increases
the demand for them, and the greater the demand...makes them rise in
price, and the rising price enables the working man to get higher
wages and the masters better profits. This, therefore, is the way I
prove that high provisions make lower wages, and cheap provisions make
The Economist was founded in September 1843 by politician
James Wilson with help from the Anti-Corn Law League; his son-in-law
Walter Bagehot later became its editor.
Continued opposition to repeal
In February 1844, the Duke of Richmond initiated the Central
Agricultural Protection Society (CAPS, commonly known as the
"Anti-League") to campaign in favour of the Corn Laws.
In 1844, the agitation subsided as there were fruitful harvests. The
situation changed in late 1845 with poor harvests and the Great Famine
in Ireland; Britain experienced scarcity and Ireland starvation.
Peel argued in Cabinet that tariffs on grain should be rescinded by
Order in Council until Parliament assembled to repeal the Corn Laws.
His colleagues resisted this. Soon afterwards the Whig leader Lord
John Russell declared in favour of repeal.
On 4 December 1845 an announcement appeared in
The Times that the
government had decided to recall Parliament in January 1846 to repeal
the Corn Laws. Lord Stanley resigned from the Cabinet in protest. The
next day Peel resigned as Prime Minister because he did not believe he
could implement his policy and so the Queen sent for Russell to form a
government. Russell offered Cobden the post of Vice-President of the
Board of Trade but he refused, preferring to remain an advocate of
free trade outside the government. By 20 December Russell was
unable to form a ministry and so Peel remained Prime Minister.
After Parliament was recalled the CAPS started a campaign of
resistance. In the rural counties the CAPS was practically supplanting
the local Conservative associations and in many areas the independent
free holding farmers were resisting the most fiercely.
Wikisource has original text related to this article:
Repeal of the
Corn Laws (Duke of Wellington)
In 1845 and 1846, the first two years of Great Famine in Ireland,
there was a disastrous fall in food supplies. Prime Minister Peel
called for repeal despite the opposition of most of his Conservative
Anti-Corn Law League
Anti-Corn Law League played a minor role in the passage of
legislation—it had paved the way through its agitation but was now
on the sidelines. On 27 January 1846, Peel gave his government's
plan. He said that the
Corn Laws would be abolished on 1 February 1849
after three years of gradual reductions of the tariff, leaving only a
1 shilling duty per quarter. Benjamin Disraeli and Lord George
Bentinck emerged as the most forceful opponents of repeal in
Parliamentary debates, arguing that repeal would weaken landowners
socially and politically and therefore destroy the "territorial
constitution" of Britain by empowering commercial interests.
On the third reading of Peel's Bill of Repeal (Importation Act 1846)
on 15 May, MPs voted 327 votes to 229 (a majority of 98) to repeal the
Corn Laws. On 25 June the Duke of Wellington persuaded the House of
Lords to pass it. On that same night Peel's
Irish Coercion Bill was
defeated in the Commons by 292 to 219 by "a combination of Whigs,
Radicals, and Tory protectionists." The latter defeat forced Peel
to resign as Prime Minister. In his resignation speech he attributed
the success of repeal to Cobden:
In reference to our proposing these measures, I have no wish to rob
any person of the credit which is justly due to him for them. But I
may say that neither the gentlemen sitting on the benches opposite,
nor myself, nor the gentlemen sitting round me—I say that neither of
us are the parties who are strictly entitled to the merit. There has
been a combination of parties, and that combination of parties
together with the influence of the Government, has led to the ultimate
success of the measures. But, Sir, there is a name which ought to be
associated with the success of these measures: it is not the name of
the noble Lord, the member for London, neither is it my name. Sir, the
name which ought to be, and which will be associated with the success
of these measures is the name of a man who, acting, I believe, from
pure and disinterested motives, has advocated their cause with
untiring energy, and by appeals to reason, expressed by an eloquence,
the more to be admired because it was unaffected and unadorned—the
name which ought to be and will be associated with the success of
these measures is the name of Richard Cobden. Without scruple, Sir, I
attribute the success of these measures to him.
As a result, the Conservative Party divided and the Whigs formed a
government with Russell as PM. Those Conservatives who were loyal to
Peel were known as the Peelites and included the Earl of Aberdeen and
William Ewart Gladstone. In 1859 the Peelites merged with the Whigs
and the Radicals to form the Liberal Party. Disraeli became overall
Conservative leader in 1868, although, when Prime Minister, he did not
attempt to reintroduce protectionism.
Scholars have advanced several explanations to resolve the puzzle of
why Peel made the seemingly irrational decision to sacrifice his
government to repeal the Corn Laws, a policy which he had long
opposed. Lusztig (1995) argues that his actions were sensible when
considered in the context of his concern for preserving aristocratic
government and a limited franchise in the face of threats from popular
unrest. Peel was concerned primarily with preserving the institutions
of government, and he considered reform as an occasional necessary
evil to preclude the possibility of much more radical or tumultuous
actions. He acted to check the expansion of democracy by ameliorating
conditions which could provoke democratic agitation. He also took care
to ensure that the concessions would represent no threat to the
Dartmouth College economic historian Douglas Irwin, Peel
was influenced by economic ideas in his shift from protectionism to
free trade in agriculture: "Economic ideas, and not the pressure of
interests, were central to Peel's conversion to favor repeal of the
Effects of repeal
The price of wheat during the two decades after 1850 averaged 52
shillings a quarter.
Llewellyn Woodward argued that the high duty
of corn mattered little because when British agriculture suffered from
bad harvests, this was also true for foreign harvests and so the price
of imported corn without the duty would not have been lower.
However, the threat to British agriculture came about twenty five
years after repeal due to the development of cheaper shipping (both
sail and steam), faster and thus cheaper transport by rail and
steamboat, and the modernisation of agricultural machinery. The
prairie farms of North America were thus able to export vast
quantities of cheap grain, as were peasant farms in the Russian Empire
with simpler methods but cheaper labour. Every wheat-growing country
decided to increase tariffs in reaction to this, except Britain and
In 1877 the price of British-grown wheat averaged 56 shillings and 9
pence a quarter and for the rest of the nineteenth century it never
reached within 10 shillings of that figure. In 1878 the price fell to
46 shillings and 5 pence. In 1886 the wheat price decreased to 31
shillings a quarter. By 1885 wheat-growing land declined by a million
acres (4,000 km²) (28½%) and the barley area had dwindled
greatly also. Britain's dependence on imported grain during the 1830s
was 2%; during the 1860s it was 24%; during the 1880s it was 45%, (for
wheat alone during the 1880s it was 65%.) The 1881 census showed a
decline of 92,250 in agricultural labourers in the ten years since
1871, with an increase of 53,496 urban labourers. Many of these had
previously been farm workers who migrated to the cities to find
employment, despite agricultural labourers' wages being higher
than those of Europe. Agriculture's contribution to the national
income was about 17% in 1871; by 1911 it was less than 7%.
Robert Ensor wrote that these years witnessed the ruin of British
agriculture, "which till then had almost as conspicuously led the
world, [and which] was thrown overboard in a storm like an unwanted
cargo" due to "the sudden and overwhelming invasion...by American
prairie-wheat in the late seventies." Previously, agriculture had
employed more people in Britain than any other industry and until 1880
it "retained a kind of headship," with its technology far ahead of
most European farming, its cattle breeds superior, its cropping the
most scientific and its yields the highest, with high wages leading to
higher standard of living for agricultural workers than in comparable
European countries. However, after 1877 wages declined and
"farmers themselves sank into ever increasing embarrassments;
bankruptcies and auctions followed each other; the countryside lost
its most respected figures," with those who tended the land with
greatest pride and conscience suffering most as the only chance of
survival came in lowering standards. "For twenty years," Ensor
claimed, "the only chance for any young or enterprising person on the
countryside was to get out of it." The decline of agriculture also
led to a fall in rural rents, especially in areas with arable land.
Consequently, landowners, who until 1880 had been the richest class in
the nation, were dethroned from this position. After they lost their
economic leadership, the loss of their political leadership
The Prime Minister at the time, Disraeli, had once been a staunch
upholder of the
Corn Laws and had predicted ruin for agriculture if
they were repealed. However, unlike most other European
governments, his government did not revive tariffs on imported cereals
to save their farms and farmers. Despite calls from landowners to
reintroduce the Corn Laws, Disraeli responded by saying that the issue
was settled and that protection was impracticable. Ensor claimed
that the difference between Britain and the Continent was due to the
latter having conscription; rural men were thought to be the best
suited as soldiers. But for Britain, with no conscript army, this did
not apply. He also claimed that Britain staked its future on
continuing to be "the workshop of the world," as the leading
manufacturing nation. Robert Blake claimed that Disraeli was
dissuaded from reviving protection due to the urban working class
enjoying cheap imported food at a time of industrial depression and
rising unemployment. Enfranchised by Disraeli in 1867, working men's
votes were crucial in a general election and he did not want to
Although proficient farmers on good lands did well, farmers with
mediocre skills or marginal lands were at a disadvantage. Many moved
to the cities, and unprecedented numbers emigrated. Many emigrants
were small under-capitalised grain farmers who were squeezed out by
low prices and inability to increase production or adapt to the more
complex challenge of raising livestock.
Similar patterns developed in Ireland, where cereal production was
labour-intensive. The reduction of grain prices reduced the demand for
agricultural labour in Ireland, and reduced the output of barley,
oats, and wheat. These changes occurred at the same time that
emigration was reducing the labour supply and increasing wage rates to
levels too great for arable farmers to sustain.
Britain's reliance on imported food led to the danger of it being
starved into submission during wartime. In 1914 Britain was dependent
on imports for four-fifths of her wheat and 40% of her meat.
During the First World War, the Germans in their U-boat campaign
attempted to take advantage of this by sinking ships importing food
into Britain, but they were eventually defeated. During the Second
World War in the Battle of the Atlantic, Germany tried again to starve
Britain into surrender, but, as in the previous war, was
Canada Corn Act 1843
^ Price comparisons between this period and modern times are mainly
based on the work of economists
Henry Phelps Brown and Sheila
^ According to David Cody, they "were designed to protect English
landholders by encouraging the export and limiting the import of corn
when prices fell below a fixed point. They were eventually abolished
in the face of militant agitation by the Anti-Corn Law League, formed
Manchester in 1839, which maintained that the laws, which amounted
to a subsidy, increased industrial costs. After a lengthy campaign,
opponents of the law finally got their way in 1846—a significant
triumph which was indicative of the new political power of the English
^ Williamson, Jeffrey G (1990-04-01). "The impact of the Corn Laws
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^ de Morgan, Augustus (1830). The Elements of Arithmetic (1 ed.).
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^ a b Woodward, p. 61.
^ Hirst, p. 15.
^ "Littleport's hunger riots: Descendants mark 200th anniversary". BBC
news. 28 May 2016. Retrieved 28 May 2016. including the Ely and
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^ Hirst, p. 16.
^ Schonhardt-Bailey, p. 9.
^ a b Schonhardt-Bailey, p. 10.
^ Semmel, p. 143.
^ Asa Briggs, The Making of Modern England 1783-1867: The Age of
Improvement (1959) p 314
^ Marx, Chapter X, 'The Working Day'
^ The Gentleman's Magazine, 1850, pp. 94–6.
^ Bright and Thorold Rogers, p. 129.
^ Hirst, p. 33.
^ a b Morley, p. 344.
^ Coleman, p. 134.
^ Mary Lawson-Tancred, "The Anti-League and the Corn Law Crisis of
1846." Historical Journal (1960) 3#2 pp: 162-183. in JSTOR
^ Hirst, p. 35.
^ Coleman, p. 135–136.
^ Schonhardt-Bailey, p. 239.
^ Morley, p. 388.
^ Lusztig, Michael (1994). "Solving Peel's puzzle: Repeal of the Corn
Laws and institutional preservation". Comparative Politics. 27 (1):
393–408. JSTOR 422226.
^ Irwin, Douglas A. (1989-03-01). "Political Economy and Peel's Repeal
of the Corn Laws". Economics & Politics. 1 (1): 41–59.
doi:10.1111/j.1468-0343.1989.tb00004.x. ISSN 1468-0343.
^ Woodward, p. 124.
^ Woodward, pp. 124-125.
^ Ensor, pp. 115–116.
^ Ensor, p. 116.
^ a b c Ensor, p. 117.
^ E. J. Feuchtwanger, Democracy and Empire: Britain 1865-1914 (London:
Edward Arnold, 1985), p. 116.
^ Ensor, p. 117, p. 115.
^ a b c Ensor, p. 118.
^ Ensor, p. 119.
^ William Flavelle Monypenny and George Earle Buckle, The Life of
Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield. Volume II. 1860–1881
(London: John Murray, 1929), p. 1242.
^ Robert Blake, Disraeli (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1966), p.
^ a b Ensor, p. 54.
^ Blake, p. 698.
^ Blake, pp. 698-699.
^ Vugt, William E. van (1988). "Running from ruin?: the emigration of
British farmers to the U.S.A. in the wake of the repeal of the Corn
Laws". Economic History Review. 41 (3): 411–428.
^ O'Rourke, Kevin (1994). "The repeal of the corn laws and Irish
emigration". Explorations in Economic History. 31 (1): 120–138.
^ Arthur Marwick, The Deluge: British Society and the First World War.
Second Edition (London: Macmillan, 1991), p. 58.
^ Correlli Barnett, Engage the Enemy More Closely: The Royal Navy and
the Second World War (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1992), p. 14.
^ Barnett, pp. 575–576.
Blake, Robert (1966). Disraeli. New York: St. Martin's Press.
ISBN 0-19-832903-2. OCLC 8047.
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Clark, G. Kitson. "(1951) The Repeal of the
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culture in the age of Victoria, webpage accessed 16 September 2007
Coleman, B. (1996) "1841–1846", in: Seldon, A. (ed.), How Tory
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Robert Peel to
1830, pp. 562–615
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English People) (1961) pp 103–38 on repeal
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1783–1846, New Oxford History of England, Oxford University Press,
Hirst, F. W. (1925) From
Adam Smith to Philip Snowden. A history of
free trade in Great Britain, London: T. Fisher Unwin.
In Our Time podcasts IOT: The
Corn Laws 24 October 13
Lawson-Tancred, Mary. (1960) "The Anti-League and the Corn Law Crisis
of 1846." Historical Journal 3#2 pp: 162-183. in JSTOR
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interests, ideas, and institutions in historical perspective, (The MIT
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political economy the empire of free trade and imperialism,
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history of England 13, 2nd Ed., Oxford: Clarendon Press,
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Taylor, W.C. (1844) Factories and the Factory System, Jeremiah How,
Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article
"The Corn Law Debate" with primary sources
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