Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Ireland 1798: 'the Year of the French'

This post owes a great deal to R.R.Foster's classic Modern Ireland, 1600-1972 (Penguin, 1988)

The Protestant Ascendancy

In 1800 the population of Ireland comprised:
Roman Catholic Irish: 3,150,000
Protestant Anglo-Irish 450,000
Presbyterians 900,000

The 18th century was the period of the Protestant Ascendancy, buttressed by harsh penal laws modelled on those in England.
1695: Acts restricting the rights of Catholics to education, to bear arms or to own a horse worth more than £5; priests were forbidden to exercise their functions and Catholics were preventing from inheriting of buying land or sending their children abroad unless they abjured their religion.
1697: Catholic clergy banished by act of Parliament.
1704: a further penal law restricted land-owning rights for Catholics and imposed `tests' for public office.
1720: the Declaratory Act defined the right of the British Parliament to legislate for Ireland.
1727: Irish Catholics were deprived of the right to vote.
The mouthpiece of the Protestant ascendancy was the Irish Parliament in Dublin. The English government was represented by the Lord Lieutenant, who was approved by the government of the day. The parliament was dominated by the Anglo-Irish, an exclusive group that monopolized political power and saw themselves as both English and Irish. Deprived of a political role, the Catholic gentry tended to go into trade. The alternative to trade - land-owning was made very difficult for them - they were confined to 31 year leases. The result was that in 1700 Catholics owned 14% of the land, in 1776 5%. (On the other hand, lease-holding was the norm in Ireland, even for Protestants and the 31 year lease gave a reasonable security of tenure.)

The largest grievance was the poverty of the rural labourers (except in Ulster where there was a flourishing linen industry). It was less easy to resolve the economic problems than to revoke the penal laws. Ulster Presbyterians and other Protestants had fewer grievances but until 1780 they were excluded from corporations, and though not legally barred from Parliament, only a handful of Dissenters was ever returned.

In the later 18th century the harshness of the penal laws was toned down. Freedom of worship was allowed in by the back door. Catholic chapels were built and the land tenure laws were liberalised.
1772: Catholics were allowed to lease bogland.
1778: Catholics gained increased rights of land tenure, and were allowed to hold land on nearly the same terms as Protestants. They were allowed to purchase land on leases of 999 years or 5 lives and had full testamentary rights.
The Volunteer Movement
At the same time there were moves for greater political independence for Ireland. In the Irish Parliament, Henry Grattan and Henry Flood challenged the rights of Dublin against London. This was continued with far greater intensity by the Ulster Presbyterians. During the American War many of them enthusiastically took up the cause of the colonists (many of whom were 'Scotch-Irish'). Restrictions on Irish trade were a particular grievance and this enabled many to identify with the colonists. A Dublin newspaper argued:
By the same authority which the British Parliament assumes to tax America, it may also with equal justice presume to tax Ireland without the consent or concurrence of the Irish Parliament.
In 1778 with French entry into the war, the Volunteer Movement began in Ulster and spread over the whole country. It was not a militia under government control but a national volunteer army, and exclusively Protestant, affirming its rights of citizenship. In 1779 the Volunteers paraded in Dublin with a decorated brass cannon with the placard: ‘Free trade - or else’. In response the British Parliament passed acts removing the restrictions on Irish trade. In 1780 Presbyterians were freed from the sacramental test for local appointments.
In February 1782, the Dungannon convention of Volunteers addressed by Grattan and Flood called for independence for the Irish Parliament. A new ‘constitution’ was granted by the reluctant Rockingham government.
1. Catholics were allowed to own land outside parliamentary boroughs. The Declaratory Act was repealed so that the British Parliament could no longer veto acts of the Irish Parliament.
2. Catholics were given education rights - allowed to become schoolmasters. Laws banning Irish Catholic bishops and clergy were repealed.
3. Catholics were allowed to own a horse worth more than £5.
The period of ‘Grattan's Parliament’ was the greatest period of independence Ireland ever knew under British rule. It was a fitting end to the 18th century and coincided with an upsurge in national pride - the Bank of Ireland, the building of Dublin. But it was still very partial. The Volunteer movement was militantly Protestant. Catholics were still not allowed to vote or to stand for Parliament and the liberalizing measures only served to emphasize their disabilities.

The United Irishmen
The French Revolution had a profound effect in Ireland. In the 1790s the Volunteer movement revived in Ireland. Unlike the gentlemanly movement of the late 1770s support for the movement now concentrated among shopkeepers and skilled urban workers - exactly the same classes as the corresponding societies in England and Scotland. In 1790-1, the Catholic Committee, a movement of members of the Irish Catholic middle class, began to campaign for the abolition of the penal laws.

On 18 October 1791 the Belfast Society of United Irishmen was founded. Among the founders was Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-98), a young Protestant lawyer from Dublin. He had already published An Argument on Behalf of the Catholics (August 1791) even though he did not at that stage know any. For Tone radical political reform and nationalist identity went hand in hand, with no place for sectarian divisions. The first resolutions of the United Irishmen asserted
That the weight of English influence in the Government in this country is so great, as to require a cordial union, among ALL THE PEOPLE OF IRELAND. ... No reform is practicable, efficacious, or just, which does not include Irishmen or every religious persuasion.
In his posthumously published autobiography Tone described his aim as
To subvert the tyranny of our execrable Government, to break the connexion with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country - these were my objects. To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions and to substitute the common name of Irishmen in the place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter - these were my means.
(However, recent studies have shown that Tone was not an ‘active separatist’ until 1795.)

The United Irishmen sought to forge a new political alliance between the middle-class politically aware Presbyterians of Belfast and Dublin and the rural Catholic majority. In fact the two groups were largely incompatible. Lawyers and skilled workers looked to an enlightened non-sectarian republic; rural Catholics wanted revenge on the Protestant ascendancy. The future lay with the rural Catholics rather than the Presbyterian radicals.

Pitt and Ireland
The outbreak of war with France caused republicans like Tone, Napper Tandy and Thomas Addis Emmet to pin their hopes on a French invasion to coincide with a home-grown rebellion. This made the United Irishmen a potentially subversive body. One of their leaders, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, first cousin of Charles James Fox, had corresponded with Paine in 1792. But when the French sent an agent to Ireland in May 1793, he was not impressed by the preparedness of the Irish.

Both the French and the British knew that the weakest link in Britain's defences was going to be Ireland. In 1784 the duke of Rutland, Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, had told him,
‘Ireland is too great to be unconnected with us, and to near to be dependent on a foreign state, and too little to be independent.’
In order to conciliate the Catholic majority he introduced a Catholic Relief Bill in 1793 which gave Catholics the vote on the same terms as Protestants, permitted them to bear arms and allowed them to occupy most civil and military posts. There was now only one major disability facing Catholics: exclusion from membership of Parliament. In practice, the small number of Catholics who became army officers or lawyers did not succeed in tilting the balance of power. However one promising young Catholic lawyer was called to the Irish bar in 1798: Daniel O'Connell.

The extension of the franchise was mocked by Tone as merely buttressing
‘a disgrace to our constitution and our country, the wretched tribe of forty-shilling freeholders, whom we see driven to their octennial market by their landlords’.
Pitt's repression of dissent also applied to Ireland. Between 1793 and 1796 a Militia Act was passed, a new Protestant Yeomanry formed and an Insurrection Act, making oath-taking a capital offence and increasing the power of magistrates to search for arms, became law. Finally Habeas Corpus was suspended. Pitt had thus reluctantly acquiesced in strengthening the grip of the Protestant ascendancy.

In 1795 following his coalition with the Portland Whigs in the previous summer, Pitt sent the Portland-ite Earl Fitzwilliam to Ireland as Chief Secretary. Fitzwilliam rapidly went native. Without any authority from Westminster he promised full Catholic emancipation. As a result he was recalled and replaced with the more amenable Lord Camden. Fox declared that this placed the Irish ‘in a state of degradation beyond any former period’. Fitzwilliam's dismissal ended all hopes of legitimate reform in Ireland. Tone left for America and then headed for France to seek French aid, arriving there in February 1796. He took the nom de guerre of citoyen Smith in a vain attempt to elude Pitt's spies, and entered into negotiations with Lazare Carnot, one of the Directors who governed France at this time. In a memorandum produced for French agents he described Ireland as
‘a conquered and oppressed and insulted country’
‘the name of England and her power is universally odious.'
Even while Fitzwilliam was trying to implement his reforms, sectarian passions were rife in parts of Ireland as Catholic ‘Defenders’ clashed frequently with Protestant ‘Peep O’ Day Boys’ who sought to terrorise Catholics and frighten them off their land. Both sides employed secret oaths, maimed cattle, terrorised juries and murdered those who infringed their codes. After some particularly vicious fighting in 1795, which reached its climax in September in the Battle of the Diamond (a piece of ground near Armagh now marked by a memorial monument) the Peep O’ Day Boys formed an Orange Society. The initial oath reflected a highly conditional loyalism: ‘To support the King and his heirs as long as he or they support the Protestant Ascendancy’.

The Bantry Bay expedition

On 16 December 1796 a French expedition of a 43 ship fleet and 15,000 men under General Lazare Hoche sailed from Brest for Ireland, accompanied by Wolfe Tone in the uniform of a chef de brigade. By December 22 they were in sight of Bantry Bay, Co. Cork. There were only 11,000 troops in the area and the effect of a successful landing is incalculable. But storms prevented a landing and the expedition was abandoned. Perhaps it was one of the great near misses of British history. Tone:
‘England has not had such an escape since the Spanish Armada’.
However, for the next two years Ireland was a vital part of French strategy. In response the number of British troops in Ireland increased to 65,000, but they had to be scattered over the whole country.

In Ulster General Lake ruled with extreme ruthlessness, carrying out martial law, free quarterings, house burnings and floggings on the flimsiest of suspicions. The fear that the United Irishmen would be completely suppressed forced them into desperate action. They would have to rebel, with or without French aid and in preparation they were forging pikes and concealing guns and ammunition.

Links between Irish exiles in Paris and Britain with subversive forces in Ireland were maintained by a Catholic priest, James Coigly, who was arrested with two members of the London Corresponding Ssociety as he prepared to cross from Margate to France in 1798. Coigly was carrying an Address from the `Secret Committee of England' ensuring support for a French invasion to maintain `the sacred flame of liberty'. He was tried in May and executed on 12 June 1798. Following Coigly’s arrest, virtually all the leading members of the United Irishmen in Britain and the LCS were arrested and, following a new suspension of Habeas Corpus, were kept in prison until 1801.

The rising of 1798 has been described by the historian Roy Foster as
‘probably the most concentrated episode of violence in Irish history’.
It had been prepared for over a year, with United Irishmen forging pikes and concealing guns and ammunition. It was fixed for 23 May with Lord Edward Fitzgerald commander in chief. However on 19 May he was betrayed by a government spy, arrested and fatally wounded as he was captured. He died on 4 June. The Catholic Church promptly dissociated itself from the rebellion.

Meanwhile Dublin and the adjacent counties rose on 24-25 May. On 30 May the rebels captured Wexford town. The rebellion spread from Wexford and Wicklow in the east to Sligo and Mayo on the west. Ulster and the south west were barely affected, apart from some action in Antrim and Down (6-13 June) from those who still adhered to the cause of radical Presbyterianism. Local pressures and local antipathies seem to have been more important than ideology. The Dublin outbreak was controlled in a week but Wexford, an area of poor Catholic/Protestant relations, with a higher than average proportion of Protestant settlers saw ferocious fighting.

The insurgents took Enniscorthy and attempted to spread out the rebellion into Wicklow, but failed. The campaign was marked by horrific atrocities on both sides. Protestants only saved their lives by converting to Catholicism. The United Irishmen set up a camp on Vinegar Hill (see picture) outside the town and on an old windmill there set up a green flag. A hundred Protestant prisoners were massacred in a barn at Scullabogue. The main part of the rebellion ended with the rout of the insurgents on Vinegar Hill and the capture of Wexford on 21 June. One of those rounded up and executed was Father John Murphy, who was hanged, his body burned in a tar barrel and his head set on a pike.

By this stage the rebellion was interpreted on all sides as a straightforward Catholic-Protestant conflict. The icons of the rebels were the apparently incompatible rosary and cap of liberty.

On 21 August General Jean Humbert landed at Killala Bay in County Mayo with a force of 900 men. He defeated a numerically superior English force under General Lake at Castlebar (‘the races of Castlebar’) on 23 August and set up a provisional government in Connaught. He recruited and armed many thousands of Irish peasants and reached the centre of Ireland, halfway on the road to Dublin when he was surrounded at Ballinamuck by two numerically superior armies of English and loyal Irish under the newly appointed commander-in-chief, Cornwallis, and forced to surrender on 8 September.

On 6 September another French fleet of one flagship, eight frigates and 3000 men sailed from Brest, with Tone on board. Unaware that the English knew of their movements the fleet headed for Lough Swilly in Co Donegal, where they found eight British frigates waiting for them. In the ensuing chase most of the French ships escaped. Tone was urged to escape with them, but he remained on board the flagship Hoche. At the end of a five hour battle on 12 October his ship was almost a total wreck. The commander surrounded and went to dine with the English at Letterkenny. It met with an impressive local force but it was forced to surrender to the British, and Tone was captured. He claimed that he was a French officer and at his court martial he appeared in French uniform. In spite of this, on 10 November he was sentenced to be hanged – an indignity he had not anticipated. On 12 November he cut his throat with a penknife and died seven days later on the 19th.

In the twentieth century Tone's grave at Bodenstown, Co Kildare became 'a permanent fixture in the republican calendar. Here IRA followers become "re-dedicated" to their republican faith and to the "armed struggle to break the English connection and set up a secular Republic... the dream of our founding father, Wolfe Tone". While constitutional nationalist go to Bodenstown to re-state their commitment to Irish unification, preferring to single out "the common name of Irishman" theme in Tone's wriitng in the hope of some day reconciling the Ulster Protestants to their ultimate aim of a united Ireland.' (Marianne Elliott, Wolfe Tone: Prophet of Irish Independence, Yale, 1989, p. 416.)

In the aftermath of 1798 the revelations of the extent of the French connection in Ireland stunned contemporaries. The deaths of Fitzgerald and Tone established a potent Irish martyrology. Look at W.B. Yeat's poem, September 1913:
What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone;
For men were born to pray and save;
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,
It's with O'Leary in the grave.

Yet they were of a different kind,
The names that stilled your childish play,
They have gone about the world like wind,
But little time had they to pray
For whom the hangman's rope was spun,
And what, God help us, could they save?
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,
It's with O'Leary in the grave.

Was it for this the wild geese spread
The grey wing upon every tide;
For this that all that blood was shed,
For this Edward Fitzgerald died,
And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,
All that delirium of the brave?
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,
It's with O'Leary in the grave.

Yet could we turn the years again,
And call those exiles as they were
In all their loneliness and pain,
You'd cry `Some woman's yellow hair
Has maddened every mother's son'
They weighed so lightly what they gave.
But let them be, they're dead and gone,
They're with O'Leary in the grave.
For the first time the idea of an independent Irish republic had been planted.

The legal mopping-up operation continued until 1801. Courts martial tended to punish the leaders harshly but to give amnesties to the followers. Many were transported to Australia, exiled to the United States or made to serve in regiments in the unhealthy West Indies rather than executed. But the statistics of execution will never show the numbers killed. Roy Foster estimates the death-toll on both sides from various causes as 30,000 - a figure comparable to the deaths in the Reign of Terror.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

War and taxation

Over the eighteenth century the fiscal system became more dependent on excise duties, tariffs and stamp duties.

The most important direct tax was the land tax. In theory this was a national rate of 1s, 2s, 3s or 4s in the £ on the income not only of land but also of personal property and office; in principle it should rise in line with rents, profits, and salaries. But in reality the tax was confined to land and its yield did not reflect the actual income from rents.

The land tax was supplemented by a range of ‘assessed taxes’: these aimed to tap the income of the rich by taxing signs of conspicuous wealth and display such as windows, male servants, horses and carriages.

However land and assessed taxes declined from 40.1% in 1696-1700 to 17.4% in 1791-5. The result was an increasing reliance in indirect taxes in the form of excise duties on a limited range of goods; and duties on exports and imports. The share of customs duties was also falling, in part because of the inefficiency of the customs service. Many officials held their posts through political patronage and they were jobs for life. There was also a desire to protect strategic goods and encourage colonial trade.

The greatest increase in revenue over the 18th century came from excise duties – these were collected by ‘efficient bureaucrats’ rather than by lay commissioners; they were paid salaries rather than fees, were promoted on merit and given retirement pensions, and controlled and monitored by supervisors based at Somerset House. The share of central government revenue from the excise increased from 28.9% in 1696-1700 to 51.55 in 1791-5.

As a general rule government worked though the justices of the peace. Collection of the land tax, assessed taxes and later the income tax was delegated to commissioners drawn from the ranks of the local taxpayers, which contributed to a high level of consent. Local structures of power were reinforced rather than subverted. The government’s revenue was closely monitored by the Treasury Commissioners who produced accounts for parliamentary scrutiny. Burke argued that, compared with France, this created a ‘patriotic alliance’. However the system of bargaining had its weaknesses that could be exploited by powerful vested interests.

The outbreak of war placed strains on the fiscal constitution and exposed the inadequacy of existing taxes. From 1792-8 the national debt increased by about 80%.

At the end of 1797 Pitt introduced the so-called ‘Triple Assessment’, a form of graduated income tax based on the payment of the assessed taxes of the previous year. Individuals with the largest taxable establishments of carriages and male servants paid five times the previous amount, while smaller establishments paid less than a quarter more. For the first time this required the state to know more of an individual’s financial circumstances, and was a major change in the principles of taxation. The Triple Assessment was met with mockery and outrage. ‘The budget was passed in January 1798 but it raised the question of how much longer Pitt could go on increasing the assessed taxes.

In the spring the Speaker Henry Addington’s suggestion of a voluntary contribution caught on. Pitt gave £2,000 (which he did not have!), the king £20,000. The provincial newspapers reported the names of subscribers, which included the very poor. The success of the Voluntary Contribution helped convince Pitt that the nation was ready for more sacrifices.

In that spring Pitt was preoccupied with forming a new coalition against France. A new wave of arrests spelled the end of the London Corresponding Society. In April Habeas Corpus was again suspended. At the end of the month he took the huge gamble of sending a fleet through the Straits of Gibraltar in order to disrupt the French Mediterranean fleet. Though this decision was to be vindicated, it left Ireland dangerously exposed. On 19 May the Irish revolutionary, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, was arrested. At the end of May Pitt was engaged in a heated parliamentary exchange with the radical Whig, George Tierney. The following day he accepted his challenge to a duel, which took place on Putney Heath on 27 May 1798. This led to a critical Commons motion from Wilberforce, which was only withdrawn under pressure.

At the end of May the United Irishmen rose in revolt. (See later post.)

The Battle of the Nile

The war situation continued to be grim. The victory in October 1797 over the Dutch fleet at Camperdown was gained by a navy that had been in mutiny four months before. It was a powerful moral booster and eased the strategic problem of patrolling the North Sea. But in the same month Austria signed the Treaty of Campo Formio with General Bonaparte (leaving Britain with no allies), in the new year French armies ‘liberated’ Switzerland and Rome and a French force under Bonaparte’s command was assembling in the Channel ports.

In February 1798 Bonaparte abandoned the invasion of Britain as impracticable and forced on the Directory a scheme to invade Egypt, perhaps to disrupt Britain’s communications with India. Over 30,000 troops were prepared, carried by 300 transports, escorted by seven frigates and thirteen ships of the line, including the 120 gun L’Orient, the largest warship in the world.

On 20 May the French sailed from Toulon, giving Nelson the slip, leaving the British bewildered about their plans. On 9 June the French arrived at Malta, which they seized from the Knights of St John. In a piece of inspired guess-work Nelson realized that Bonaparte’s ultimate destination was Egypt. On 28 June the British reached Alexandria, but because there was no sign of the French, they sailed to Sicily. On 1 July the French fleet anchored off Alexandria. On 21 July they defeated the Mamluks at the Battle of the Pyramids near Cairo. On 24 July Nelson, convinced that the French must be in the eastern Mediterranean, sailed back to Egypt. On 1 August the French fleet was decisively defeated by Nelson at Aboukir Bay, twenty miles north of Alexandria; the most dramatic event was the blowing up of L’Orient (graphically portrayed by the painter Philip de Loutherbourg). The French army were now marooned in the eastern Mediterranean. Three months later the news reached Britain; it was the greatest morale-booster of the war so far and made Nelson a popular hero. In the autumn Pitt was engaged in putting together the Second Coalition with Russia and Turkey now firmly in the anti-French camp. However his attempt was hindered by Nelson’s disastrous intervention in Neapolitan politics.

Income tax

In his budget speech of 3 December 1798 Pitt outlined his proposal to phase out the land tax and replace the assessed taxes with a new tax which no longer fell upon expenditure but upon incomes and in theory at least allowed the yield to rise in line with the income of the country. The idea was not new in principle: the oldest surviving annual levy, the Land Tax, included an element of income through rents. Pitt himself had considered the possibility of a comprehensive tax on either property or income in 1797. He followed familiar lines of consultation, with a handful of colleagues and officials and with figures outside the government.

He gained approval from the principal moneyed men in the city. His hopes of Parliamentary success rested on the impression that the necessity of such a measure appeared ‘to be so strongly felt ... both among the landed and the Commercial Interest’.
He proposed:
• A general tax of 2/- in the £ on all incomes of £200 or more.
• Incomes under £60 pa were exempt.
• Those between £60 and £200 were to pay on a graduated scale.
• Individuals were to draw up their own assessments and swear an oath as to their accuracy. If they did not do this, Crown commissioners, sworn to confidentiality, would assess them.

The Morning Chronicle had already described it as
‘a daring innovation in English finance’.
In the Commons there was bitter opposition: George Tierney:
‘This puts a tenth of the property of England in a state of requisition ... a measure which the French have followed, in their career of revolutionary rapine, and which the Chancellor of the Exchequer has, with all his eloquence, justly branded with the hardest epithets.’
In the ensuing parliamentary debates, income tax was called a confiscation of property, and it was alleged that it would impair investment in both trade and industry. It would permit spies to become acquainted with men’s private concerns; it would encourage the indolent at the expense of the hardworking. Fox believed that it would fall heaviest on those with incomes of between £200 and £600 pa.
‘If people will not resist this inquisition, they will resist nothing’.
But the bill became law within five weeks. In the last resort it commanded patriotic war-time assent.

How was it collected?
11 May: Bonner and Middleton’s Bristol Journal:
We hear the Commissioners of the Division of Wrington have directed short printed Forms of estimating Incomes to be distributed throughout the Division, which are drawn in so perspicacious a manner as to render further directions unnecessary and ignorance no plea for an improper statement.
This might be an over-optimistic statement. The investigative powers held at the discretion of Commissioners and Surveyors aroused a sense of outrage. It was repealed at the first opportunity after the war ended, and in a quite unprecedented step Parliament ordered that the Commissioners’ records be destroyed.

The final net collection from 5 April 1799 to 5 January 1800 reached the surprisingly low sum of £1,671,000 out of an aggregate of £6, 446,000 from ‘Land and Assessed Taxes’. The trouble lay with evasion. In April 1800 Pitt tried to remedy this: the taxpayer would now be required to itemise his income ‘divided and distinguished’ in amended schedules and likewise his claims for deductions, specifying the names and addresses of creditors and others concerned. He would not be allowed to aggregate the items: that would fall to the Commissioners in making their assessment of the net payment. The degree of secrecy allowed to commercial returns would be abolished. This aroused such hostility that it did not reach the statute book. A milder one was introduced instead.

Overall, the tax was collected with reasonable efficiency and it indicates the overall wealth of the nation.

Website on Napoleon

This BBC website gives a brief but useful account of Napoleon's career.

Here is a dramatic (and dubiously accurate) portrayal of Napoleon's confrontation with the Council of Five Hundred in the Brumaire coup of 1799.

Here are the main features of the Constitution of the Year VIII which established the Consulate.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Moral Economy

This is a follow-on from the class discussion on moral economy in the context of the food riots of 1795.

The concept was set out by E. P. Thompson in an article, ‘The moral economy of the English Crowd (Past and Present,1971), and reprinted in Customs in Common (1991). He argued that, far from being merely responses to hunger or outbreaks of disorder, eighteenth-century food riots were a complex, rational form of direct action, the actions of the crowd being informed by the belief that they were defending traditional rights and customs. Riots arose out of the popular mentalit√©. In an increasingly capitalist society, the rioters were looking back to an older paternalism which existed in a body of statute law, common law, and customary usage (set out, for example, in Charles I's Book of Orders of 1630). The paternalist model insisted
Foodstuffs should be marketed at or near their place of origin.
Marketing should be, as far as possible, direct from the farmer to the consumer.
Markets should be controlled. Dealers were hedged round with many restrictions. They must not buy standing crops, nor might they purchase to sell again (within three months) in the same market at a profit.
The needs of the poor should always take precedence over those of dealers and middleman. Millers and bakers were servants of the community, working not for a profit but for a fair allowance.
This community consensus can be said to constitute the moral economy of the poor. Its guarantors were the ‘crowd’; the moral economy was not the value system of the few but of an entire plebeian society. Thompson argued that the crowd’s actions were orderly and restrained. He considered it significant that women frequently initiated riots, as they were most exposed to price fluctuations.

The market economy did not begin in the eighteenth century. Farmers, farm labourers, craftsmen, and artisans had always operated in a ‘market’, but it was a market subject to internal regulation. Significant changes took place in later eighteenth-century England, the result of rapid population growth, improved communications, industrialization, and war. The transport revolution opened up new regions to a trade in foodstuffs, above all grains. The development of ever-increasing volumes of grain shipments depended on a growing body of dealers and merchants (middleman) who had always been targets of popular hostility.
In addition, Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations, 1776) set out an increasingly influential free market ideology: prices should not be fixed by local regulations but should find their own level in the open market. Corn must be left to flow freely from areas of surplus to areas of scarcity; hence, the middleman played a necessary, productive and laudable role, and prejudices against forestallers were on a par with witchcraft beliefs.

1. Thompson was a sophisticated Marxist, but he was still a Marxist committed to a model of class struggle. Yet his ‘gentry/plebeian’ model ignored the ‘middling sort’. Recent research suggests that many of the middling sort shared the rioters’ hostility to ‘jobbers’ and ‘forestallers’.
2. There were too few riots in the eighteenth century to have sustained a tradition of food rioting. Why were some communities more willing to protest than others? ? Were there specific local factors rather than a generalized ideology of ‘moral economy’?
3. The transition from an economy primarily based upon local, partly regulated, exchange to a national, consumer-driven, unregulated market was neither fast nor uniform.
4. Is the concept, as subsequently interpreted, too wide and too vague? Does it apply to both agrarian and industrial workers? Can it be extended to other countries and regions such as India? (Thompson was doubtful.)

The debate continues

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Wartime hardship

The summer of 1794 was one of prolonged drought and intense heat and the result was a disappointing though not a disastrous harvest. This was followed by a severe winter, creating a grain shortage in early 1795. The spring saw rapid price rises. Shortages intensified in the summer, with garrison and naval towns suffering particularly. The mayor of Plymouth complained about the costs of feeding the army and navy and prisoners of war.

Bread riots
Bread riots were one response to the grain shortages. For example in May the colliers of Kingswood near Bristol rioted and the riots had to be suppressed by the Worcestershire militia regiment that was quartered in the city. Sometimes the rioters set fire to mills, sometimes they attacked those whom they believed to be hoarders or selling short measure; at other times they tried to prevent grain from leaving an area. At other times they commandeered goods and sold them at what they regarded as a fair price. Women were prominent in these riots, partly because they had to bear the burden of trying to feed their families and partly because they were often judged to be less liable to the legal penalties. Soldiers were also involved, as troops quartered at home were expected to provide for themselves out of their weekly pay. Men from the newly raised 122nd Foot fixed prices at bayonet point in the market at Wells. Men of the 114th Foot threatened to destroy bakers’ ovens at Wantage and sell bread and meal at their own price.

These incidents all indicate the concept famously defined by E. P. Thompson of ‘moral economy’ - a set of customs and traditions geared round the concept of a fair price. Either through expediency or because they shared this conviction, paternalist magistrates tried to enforce ‘just’ prices. At the end of 1795 the government released wheat on the London corn market at or just below the market price, a little at a time in order to keep prices steady. For the first time the collection and publication of accurate statistical information became a government responsibility.

In an attempt to deal with the food shortage, the newspapers recommended recipes such as rice or potato bread. The rich were urged to stew their meat rather than roast it. The royal family tried to give a lead by reducing its consumption of white bread and eating more brown bread. The poor were urged to cook rice puddings - but the problem was that they did not have the ovens to cook them. They were also encouraged to eat potatoes rather than bread, but proved resistant. The same recommendations were found in Hannah More’s Cheap Repository Tracts. (Click on the pictures to enlarge.)

The imposition of excise duty on hair powder (with a £20 fine for those caught breaking the law) was designed to lessen the use of flour. Legislation forbade the use of wheat in distilling and in making starch.

It is not clear that anyone starved to death during the shortage - but it must have had a devastating effect on health.

Poor relief
One solution to rural poverty was found by the magistrates of Speenhamland in Berkshire in May 1795. This provided variable amounts of relief according to the size of a labourers’ family and the prevailing price of bread. It was bitterly attacked by political economists as encouraging large families and encouraging farmers to pay the lowest possible wage. It was also criticised for failing to discriminate between the idle and the industrious worker. However the system was quite widely adopted in the southern counties and probably served to cushion the poor from the major price rises.

Private charity played a large role. The Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor (founded in 1796) and similar societies distributed relief. Friendly societies might have encouraged the poor to a greater degree of self-reliance.

The year 1795-6 saw poor rates rise to an estimated total of £5 million to which was added, on one calculation, £6 million in private charity.

In 1796 Pitt attempted to revise the poor law and to introduce family allowances and old age pensions paid for out of the rates as a weapon against ‘Jacobinism’. His bill failed for lack of parliamentary support, with his critics complaining of its complexity.

The crisis of 1795 was eventually ended in the spring of 1796 by a combination of imports and government sales of corn, together with enhanced consumption of non-wheaten grains and an increased acreage of wheat sown in the autumn of 1795. However following the cold spring and wet summer of 1799 the harvest was again poor. A prolonged drought in 1800 led to another harvest crisis, only brought to an end by the abundant harvest of 1801.

The ever-increasing cost of the war had a drastic effect upon finance.
The budget of 1795: a new loan of £18m and a series of new levies on wines and spirits, tea, life insurance, insurance of ships’ cargoes, hair powder (annual fee of 1 guinea for a licence to wear hair powder). Fox warned that the tax on tea would hit the poor.

The budget of 1796: the assessed taxes were raised 10%. There was a new levy on tobacco. The tax on horses kept for pleasure was doubled to reach £1; there was a new tax of 2/- on horses kept for industry. The levy on printed calico was increased from 3 1/2 d to 6d. Discounts in the salt trade were reduced. The most significant new tax of 1796 was directed at property owners. A duty on legacies (sliding scale according to the closeness of the relationship) had to be withdrawn in May because of the hostility it provoked. Fox said it would be better to levy a tax on income.

The budget of 1797 increased the duty on spirits, but the ‘coarser’ variety was exempted from the duty on tea. A new tax on sugar was introduced ‘with regret’.

Invasion scares
The fear of invasion was real. In December 1796, Lazare Hoche’s abortive attempt to land in Ireland was beaten back by bad weather. On 14 February a Spanish fleet, ultimately destined to combine with the French for the invasion of Britain, was intercepted off Capt St Vincent by a far smaller force of British warships under Sir John Jervis, joined from the Mediterranean by Commodore Nelson, and defeated, with three of their ships sunk. (Nelson was probably the first British flag-officer to lead a boarding party in person since 1513.) This removed for a time the threat of Franco-Spanish domination of the Channel, and Jervis was rewarded with an earldom and Nelson with a knighthood.

On 23 February 1797 three frigates landed 1,500 French troops at Fishguard. But within 24 hours they had surrendered to the Pembrokeshire militia.

Currency crisis
News that French troops were ashore on the British mainland led to a run on the county banks. Combined with loans to foreign powers, this led to a shortage of gold. The Bank of England was forbidden by the government to hand out cash payments. People were therefore forced into paper currency - an important psychological change. This was of long-term benefit economically as it ensured a gentle reflation, ensuring maximum production and employment. But at the time all that was visible was an acute financial crisis and huge anxieties among wage-earners. Gloucestershire clothiers feared their cloth workers would riot if they were not paid in cash. But by 1803 a Scottish banker said it was an ‘agreeable surprise’ to see how quickly the country had accepted paper money.

In April 1797 a ‘shattering blow’ occurred when the fleet at Spithead mutinied. The mutineers took over warships, put the officers ashore and refused to weigh anchor until the French actually put to sea. The demands of the mutineers were: an increase in wages (unchanged since 1652), security against embezzlement by pursers, improved medical service, shore leave at the end of a voyage, removal of unpopular officers. After some delay the government was compelled to accept the demands, and grant a royal pardon to the mutineers, though at the same time it raised army pay to forestall an army mutiny.

In general, the Spithead mutiny was orderly; sailors ran ships without their officers in a disciplined manner and elected delegates to negotiate with the admiralty. But the second mutiny on 12 May at the Nore at the Medway estuary,(a focal point where ships coming from Chatham and the river yards, or those returning from sea, often spent a few days) on 12 May was more serious. The mutineers fired on two frigates. After they were joined by mutineers from Yarmouth, they attempted a complete blockade of the Thames. But private merchantmen put their ships at the government’s disposal and in June all the rebel ships were captured. Twenty-nine ringleaders were eventually executed.

The mutinies were extremely serious, depriving the nation of its chief military arm and leaving it largely defenceless against foreign invasion. There were fears that a Jacobin plot was behind the Nore mutiny. The Home Secretary granted permission to the magistrates to intercept the correspondence of the mutineers. However, they were unable to identify these ‘wicked and designing men’ and N.A.M. Rodger, the latest historian to study the evidence, has not found known radicals or United Irishmen among the mutineers. (For an alternative view, see Royle, Revolutionary Britannia.) Fortunately for Britain, the French were unable to make use of this chance. In October Duncan’s naval victory over the Dutch at Camperdown showed clearly how the French had missed a great opportunity. This eased the problem of controlling the North Sea and the Royal Navy began to acquire the aura of invincibility which was attached to the French armies.

But at the end of the year Pitt learned of Bonaparte’s Treaty of Campo Formio with Austria, following his brilliantly successful Italian campaign. The First Coalition was over. In the New Year a French invasion force under Bonaparte’s command was assembling in the Channel ports.

This was clearly a troubling time for Pitt. His leadership was questioned and his cabinet was divided on the question of peace. He himself wished to make peace but the advent of a more hard-line government in France made this impossible. He was also troubled in his private life by financial worries. But it was also a time of depression and disillusionment for Fox and the Opposition. There was no enthusiasm in the country for reform, and the king was more popular than ever. In despair (and much to the anger of Sheridan and his Westminster constituents) Fox seceded from parliament for the next three years. In May 1798 he was dismissed from the Privy Council for toasting ‘our sovereign, the people’.