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 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.
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’.
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.
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’.