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The Age of George III

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Causes of the Discontent and Distress, 1812-22

During the period 1812-22, it could be said that England suffered more, economically, socially and politically, than during the French Wars. Consequently there were a number of manifestations of discontent and distress, in the shape of riots and disaffection, which epitomised the 'Condition of England Question'. In 1819, Shelley wrote verses describing the country in a very unflattering light. In the same year, he also wrote the Masque of Anarchy.

POLITICAL

Parliament did not represent the nation. Seat redistribution had not occurred; bribery and corruption were rife; the Eighteenth Century constitution remained intact, despite changes in population shift and redistribution of wealth.

FINANCIAL

In 1815, the national debt stood at £834 million. Interest on this was a heavy burden to taxpayers. In 1816, Income Tax was repealed, keeping Pitt's promise. This was unfair because the burden shifted to indirect taxation which fell proportionately more heavily on the poor. These taxes were used to pay off the interest on the national debt, effectively going into pockets of the rich who had loaned money to government, and who were not hit now by income tax either. Concurrently, Britain was still off the Gold Standard and a dangerous amount of paper credit existed, causing inflation. The gold standard was restored by parliament, after hearing the findings of the Bullion Committee, on 1 May 1821.

INDUSTRIAL AND AGRICULTURAL PROBLEMS

Bad harvests between 1816 and 1819 affected agriculture and industry, prices, wages and markets. The price of manufactured goods began to fall with the ending of the wars because there was no need for war manufactures. The government cancelled its contracts, leaving industry to find its own salvation. In 1814, prices were twice their 1793 level but after 1814 prices fell constantly. By 1816 prices were about 1 1/3 times their 1793 level.

Industry was affected by falling prices and expansion was checked because of the slump in domestic and foreign sales. Paper currency and inflation discouraged borrowing of capital for further expansion. Agriculture also was affected by a collapse in prices once foreign grain could enter Britain. In 1812, wheat cost 126s. 6d. per quarter but this price had fallen to 65s. 6d. in 1815. Marginal land that had been profitable during the war years became unprofitable. During the French Wars, much land had been enclosed at great cost and the number of enclosures had increased dramatically, reflecting the profits that were to be made from farming.

Decade

Enclosures

1780-90 287
1790-1800 506
1800-1810 906

As grain prices fell landowners reduced workers' wages, at a time when unemployment was high and when bread prices increased. Wages also began to fall, but not as fast as prices: some evidence indicates that real wages improved. Falling wages reflected the agricultural and industrial slump, and were exacerbated by:

Both domestic and foreign markets shrank because of a lack of money, which caused more unemployment.

COMMERCIAL

During the wars, Britain's export and re-export trade increased: Britain carried the world's trade and also captured French colonies which further increased Britain's trade potential. After 1815 this virtual monopoly ended, and trade declined between 1815 and 1820 because continental markets were impoverished by wars and also manufacturers abroad were re-establishing themselves. The British government's economic policies, for example the Corn Laws, encouraged an adverse balance of trade.

GOVERNMENT ATTITUDE

Liverpool's government - and parliament generally - was reactionary, with a heavy agrarian bias. There was a fear of the democratic ideas of the French Revolution spreading. Government justified its policy by the victory at Waterloo. There was a lasting fear of popular movements, which reflected the fear of revolution. There was a determination to protect and defend the landed interest - the basis of the government's political power. There was little appreciation of the needs of industry among MPs, all of whom were landowners. There was a general dislike of an organised police-force, but the consequent heavy reliance on the military meant that in any confrontation, violence a strong possibility. The country had a very severe penal code, with capital punishment prescribed for over two hundred crimes and transportation or imprisonment for minor crimes. The government kept the Combination Acts on Statute Books until 1824, which suppressed all reform movements. Thus government was by the landed few for the landed few. This may be proved by two major pieces of legislation:

1. The Corn Laws 1815-46

Wheat prices fell to 65/6d per quarter at the end of the French Wars, due to an influx of foreign grain. This worried farmers who had enclosed marginal lands between 1793 and 1815. This was the period of greatest enclosure when over 2,000 Acts passed. Farmers had invested a great deal of money into the land. The Corn Laws said that no foreign wheat could be imported until British wheat reached 80/- per quarter.

The legislation did not really benefit farmers because the high war time prices never returned and what little profit benefit the Corn Laws did give was rarely passed down to labourers in increased wages. Their wages were held down by Speenhamland system. The Corn Laws did keep the price of food high. Wheat did not fall below 70/- a quarter until 1820. Because bread prices were so high, people had little left to spend on industrial goods, so there was an adverse effect on the home market for manufacturers - causing unemployment in towns. The Corn Laws also created an adverse balance of trade.

Because Britain was unwilling to import Europe's grain, European countries were unable to buy British manufactures. Hence trade suffered badly at a time when Britain was already in a period of natural depression. The Corn Laws were a retrogressive economic doctrine: Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations had been written 39 years earlier, Pitt had tried out the idea with some success, but still the government reverted to protectionist ideas. This was the high point of mercantilism.

2. The Game Laws of 1816 limited the hunting of game to landowners: pheasant, partridge, hares and rabbits. The penalty for poaching - or even being found in possession of a net at night - was transportation for 7 years. The enclosure movement had enabled landowners to extend their parks and warrens, but had deprived villagers of common land from which to net/trap extra meat, to supplement poor diet they could afford on low wages. Landowners began to protect estates with spring-guns and mantraps - which also injured gamekeepers. Casualties among game-keepers increased from attacks by poachers too. If a poacher was about to be caught by a gamekeeper and only the two of them were around, it was probably in the poacher's best interests to kill the gamekeeper to avoid transportation.

However, this must be seen in perspective. Undoubtedly, there were reasons for the discontent and its various manifestations but the maintenance of law and order was very primitive:

At the head of the system [of government], if system it may just be called, was the Home Office... It was both understaffed and undistinguished. In the year 1812, when it was taken over by Lord Sidmouth, The Times described it as 'the sink of all the imbecility attached to every ministry for the last thirty years'... The Home Office had correspondents but no servants or agents in the provinces. The peace-keeping machinery of the country in 1812 was almost precisely what it had been in 1588. There was a small, quasi-official police-force in London. Outside London, all that existed was amateur, voluntary and unpaid... Without the willing and able activity of the Lord Lieutenant, the Justice of the Peace, and the self-organised and self-ordered citizens of the towns, the Home Office - and the Government as a whole - would have been either paralysed or compelled to resort to military rule... The remarkable fact is not that England of the Regency experienced considerable disorder, but that she did not experience a great deal more of it. [R.J. White, Waterloo to Peterloo (Penguin, 1968), pp.115-117]


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Last modified 26 October, 2013

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