It was my fortune, or perhaps misfortune, to commence married life at a time of all others the least encouraging to persons in the humble walks of life, dependent upon their own exertions. It would be difficult to convince the present generation of the hardships endured in the past—from about the years 1810 to 1832, and indeed, with the interval of a few good harvest years, to 1846. When the temporary peace was made in 1813, and after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, the final one, in 1815, instead of “peace and plenty,” as everybody expected, it turned out to be peace and poverty. The long Peninsular war, and the war with America, had exhausted the resources of the nation; and what was worse than all, just at the time when we might have been benefitted by the free intercourse of nations, extension of trade, and a supply of cheap food for the people, the ruling party resolved upon the mad policy of protection, which goaded on a starving people almost to rebellion. At one time, oatmeal was £6 a load, and I well remember flour selling at 2lbs. for a shilling. The average prices of wheat were—
In 1810 106s. … per quarter.
In 1811 94s. … per quarter
In 1812 125s. … per quarter
In 1813 108s. … per quarter
When peace was made prices came down rapidly, and the landed interest being in the ascendant in Parliament, the Corn Laws were passed to keep up prices by preventing foreign importations. The indecent haste with which the bill was passed was calculated to arouse the opposition of the people as much as the measure itself. If we want a proof of the wantonness of class legislation, of the regardlessness of the rights of the people, and of the sacrifice, even of common decency at the shrine of selfishness, we find it in the history of the passing of the Corn Bill. Bills embracing matters of little moment will frequently be months under discussion; but this which seriously affected the interests of every tradesman, and every working-man, and every eater of food in the kingdom, was passed with an almost unexampled precipitancy, as the following statement will show:—
HOUSE OF COMMONS.
March 1 … Corn Bill read first time.
March 3 … Ditto second time.
March 6 … Committee on the Bill. ,
March 10 … Read third time and passed!
(Riots in London, and the House of Commons surrounded with soldiers).
HOUSE OF LORDS.
March 13 … Bill read first time.
March 15 … Ditto second time.
March 20 … Ditto third time and passed!!
March 23 … The Bill received the Royal assent!!!
Thus it was ten days only in the Commons; eight days in the Lords; and, three days after, this monstrous enactment became law by a dash of the Royal pen!
The harvest of 1816 was said to be “one of the worst ever known in England, both for quantity and quality.” No loaves could be baked, all the wheat being unsound, and flour could only be used by being made into cakes. It Was by military force that the people were kept down, mobbing and rioting taking place all over the country. The Luddites, in 1811 and 1812, committed sad depredations in breaking machinery. They mistook the cause of their sufferings; being led to believe that the depression in trade and the reduction in wages were caused by the introduction of machinery. There were alarming riots in Westminster when the Corn Bill passed; at Dartmouth, seven were killed and thirty-five wounded. We, in Preston, had great radical meetings in Taylor’s Gardens (where William Street, Oak Street, &c, now stand). In Peter’s Field, Manchester, on the very spot where the Free Trade Hall now stands, the “Peterloo” tragedy was enacted. The meeting consisted of people from all the adjacent towns, estimated at from 60,000 to 100,000. This assembly of unarmed people was suddenly assailed, by order of the magistrates, with the Manchester and Cheshire Cavalry, assisted by a regiment of Hussars, who rode in among the people with drawn sabres. Eleven were killed and six hundred wounded; Mr Hunt, the chairman, was taken prisoner, and committed to take his trial at the York assizes, where he was sentenced to two and a half years’ imprisonment in Ilchester gaol.
It would be difficult to convey to the present generation an adequate idea of the sufferings of the people, or of the distracted state and revolutionary feeling of the country at this period. Public subscriptions and charities, distributions of bread and soup, and various modes of relief, from time to time, were devised by the benevolent. In all those for Preston I took a part, and in a future chapter I think it may be desirable to enter into the details of our operations. At one of the distributions in 1811, although it seems never to have occurred to the committees to advise the people to abstain from brewing and using intoxicating liquors, by which so great a waste of good food is induced, they issued the following advice:—”That it be strongly recommended to all housekeepers to be economical in the use of bread and potatoes, to abstain altogether from pastry, and not to use any bread until after the expiration of twenty-four hours from the time of its being baked; and that it be also strongly recommended to all persons who keep horses to be economical in the feeding of them, by diminishing the quantity as much as possible.” Even in the days of my poverty I contrived to spare something for those poorer than myself, and that which seems natural to me has been greatly matured by my constant connection, in one shape or another, with those who are the poorest and the greatest sufferers among the people.
Though not a professed political agitator, I took a share in every movement which had for its object the freedom of trade and the untaxing of the people’s food. It was impossible for me to remain a mere spectator, when I saw my fellow-creatures suffering so severely from a removable cause, and on every occasion I endeavoured to expose the cruel tendency of the Corn Laws; the wickedness of excluding foreign food when the people were starving, for the selfish purpose of keeping up the value of land. Ten years before the Anti-Corn League was fairly at work, in my Moral Reformer, I wrote strong articles upon this subject. The following, which appeared in the March number, 1831, will show my sympathy for the poor weavers, and my denunciation of the wicked Corn Laws, under which they were suffering:—
“Weavers’ Wages, and Corn Laws.—To me it is quite clear, after the opening of the budget, that, in the present circumstances of the country, to expect an efficient relief for the poor and labouring classes from a reduction of taxes merely, would be the greatest delusion. What relief is there offered to the poor weaver? About a penny a week in candles! Is this likely to concilate the country? To live like human beings, the weaver’s wages must be doubled; but as that is not practicable, the price of his bread ought to be balanced with his wages. The curse of the country is the Corn Law, and till that is repealed, persons may drag their weary limbs about, may beset the dispensary for physic, crowd the workhouse to excess, may sink beneath their sufferings, and die from hunger; but there will be no relief. I could fill a volume with detailing the most miserable and wretched cases which have come before me during the past month. Oh! how hard, that honest and industrious men should hunger, while God gives bread enough and to spare! The following is a correct statement of the respective earnings of nine weavers, upon an average of the last six weeks, after deducting for candles, winding, sowin, &c. These persons devote the whole of their time to weaving, and some of them work from five in the morning to nine or ten at night. This statement is taken from the books of a respectable manufacturer, and to which reference at any time may be made. The first on the list gets the most money of any weaver he has, and the list itself may be considered as a fair specimen of all his weavers. So many exaggerated statements are abroad that I thought this might be useful:—
|W. M — 8s. 7d.||R. H. — 7s. 3d.||J. B. — 6s. 9d.|
|W. N. — 6s.8½d.||R. M. — 6s. 0½d.||J. H. — 5s.0d.|
|R. G — 4s. 10d.||J. P. — 4s. 6d.||T. G.– 4s. 2d.|
Making an average of 5s. 11¾d. [30p in new money] each per week. Such is the miserable pittance of the weaver, and with provisions at the present exorbitant price, if any man in the country can behold this state of things without raising his determined voice against it, he must be destitute of the common feelings of humanity.”
This extract will show how well I was prepared to join the Anti-Corn Law League, and to engage in the work of giving to the nation free access to the markets of the world for the sale of its manufactures and for the purchase of its food. I never engaged in a work with more earnestness, or with a deeper conviction of its justice; and a strong belief that suffering humanity would be greatly benefited, stimulated me to make extraordinary exertions. And though, at that time, an increasing business and the cares of a large family pressed hard upon my time and energies, I still found opportunities to write, to lecture, and to agitate for the repeal of the Corn Laws. Though I never assumed the character of a political agitator, yet, I feel it no slight honour to have stood with “Cobden and Bright,” on a platform in the open-air, denouncing monopoly, and pleading for the people’s rights. And, comparing the last twenty with the previous thirty years, I don’t hesitate to say that the free trade policy advocated so long by Colonel Thompson, Villiers, Cobden, and Bright, and at last taken up by Sir Robert Peel, has saved this country from revolution; and, in fact, has been the forerunner of that contentment, tranquillity, and progress which have marked this latter period. It would be difficult for me to narrate all that I did in this good cause, but I will name some of my labours. Perhaps the greatest service I rendered was in the publication of The Struggle. For four years and a half I brought out this little work every Saturday morning, price one halfpenny, commencing with 1842, and closing in June, 1846, the very week that Her Majesty signed the Repeal Bill. Every issue had engravings, after the fashion of Punch, but rudely executed. These, with the pithy articles, illustrating the principles of commercial freedom, and especially proving that free trade was for the interest of the farmer and farm labourer, were perused with intense interest, and were circulated extensively in the rural districts. A friend of the name of Christy, spent much of his time in travelling among the agriculturists distributing my Struggle. The engravings, of which there were altogether 378, attracted their attention, the arguments convincing them that all pretence for excluding foreign provisions for the labourer’s and farmer’s benefit was a delusion. I don’t remember the average circulation, but I know at one time it was 15,000 weekly. I was indebted to Mr. Harvey, of Liverpool, especially, for the design of many of the engravings. It is quite refreshing for me, now and then, to take down the Struggle and look at the “pictures.” To give a slight idea of the engravings, I may mention two. The advice of the protectionists to the people was, that they should emigrate, and schemes and plans of all sorts were afloat for promoting this. To expose this notion, one of the engravings represented parties pulling a cow by the tail on to a house, to eat the grass that had grown among the thatch, instead of cutting the grass and bringing it to the cow. It was well know that for some time before the repeal, Sir Robert Peel had his misgivings as to the effect of the Corn Laws, and another of the engravings, entitled “Peel’s Meditation among the Tombs,” exhibited him in a solemn mood, seated on a gravestone in the Church Yard, calculating the number of deaths by starvation which the famine laws had produced. My space will not allow of extracts from the numerous articles which made up this little missionary for free trade, but I give the following, as showing the spirit in which they were written:—
THE DINNER AGITATION!—It is pleasant to have a clean table and everything in good order; it may be flattering to be called by great names, and to be looked upon as wise; but after all, it is mortifying to be without a dinner. A table, but no dinner; plates, but nothing on them; a stomach in the best order, but nothing for it. Oh! plague on such pleasures; let me rather have a dinner; although I submit to Paddy’s style of eating it. Nothing is so difficult to dispense with as the dinner, especially when it is to answer the place of a late breakfast. So says John Bull. It’s pleasant no doubt to advance in arts and sciences; to excel in writing and printing books; to carry one reform after another. All this may show how we progress in modern “civilisation;” but still these are not bread. Catholic emancipation, repeal of the test and corporation acts, cheap knowledge and cheap postage; all these are progressive reforms; but John says they do not fill his belly, and he begins sadly to grumble, because he finds that of all his demands, the claims of the belly are the least regarded, and the last to be granted. John did at one time pride himself as he walked abroad in seeing the country studded with mansions and new churches; in beholding prisons enlarged, and new workhouses erected; but he was mortified when he looked upon his numerous family and found that they had no dinner. In plain truth, next to the air we breathe, our first want is food, and the first act of every legislature should be to secure an abundant supply to every human being. It is truly vexing to read over the titles of the bills brought before Parliament every Session for the exercise of the collective wisdom of the nation, and not to find one solitary bill for supplying all the people with food. The nation should listen to nothing else till this be done. The people should set their minds upon it, and be determined to have it. The dinner agitation should be the first, and every other question regarded as of inferior moment. What inconsistency to build new churches, and yet never attempt to provide daily bread! What is the use of enactments for draining and ventilation when people cannot get enough to eat, soap to wash with, or good houses to live in? Every kind of medicine for the sickly horse is thought of but corn, and every kind of national reform but that of giving bread to the people. Look at our miserable hunger-bitten population, and then think that though you have ‘British and foreign societies’ of every sort, and a concentration of professed religion and humanity in every shape, you have not one society for supplying the staff of life! Till bread is secured for the whole people, I would neither petition nor pray for any other measure whatsoever. In our Father’s house there is bread enough and to spare; the earth is God’s table, and it is abundantly spread; why should any perish with hunger? Let us see that everyone has a chance of plenty, and then, and not till then, if they abuse it or act unworthily, may we adopt other means for their correction. When anyone asks you to subscribe to some new public building, ask him, have the people in the neighbourhood enough to eat; when they ask for taxes to enlarge prisons, put the question—was it not the want of food that increased the number of inmates and made this necessary? When asked to subscribe to convert heathens and Jews, reply, ‘I will do so when I have succeeded in feeding the hungry of my own land.’ When you step into the cottages, keep your eye fixed on the poor man’s cupboard, and when you find the family compelled to make three meals into two, and to dilute the porridge with water instead of milk; when you find dogs and horses far better fed than human beings, I trust you will adopt my resolution—to command all the power you possess in favour of the dinner agitation.’
And among other curiosities in The Struggle, I may add the following petition, forwarded in 1843:—
Looking back, I scarcely know how I managed to get through all I had in hand at that time; and, if Peel’s bill had not passed, I should have had to give up The Struggle, for I remember I was so near being exhausted that I could not arrange for an engraving for the last number (No. 235), but inserted that which had appeared in the preceding one; and I had to ask the aid of one of my sons to write a leading article. This work soon became scarce, and my last spare copy I forwarded, bound, to Mr. Cobden, which is now, I dare say, in the library of him whom I regard as one of the greatest statesmen that modern times have produced. Mrs. L. and myself had a stall in the great Free Trade Bazaar which was held in Covent Garden Theatre, where we remained a fortnight, in which place we never saw daylight. This was held in July, 1844, to assist in raising the £100,000 fund of that year to carry on the agitation. Those who have been pressed into the service of begging and providing materials for a bazaar stall, and have had to superintend the sale of the articles, can easily understand the anxiety and fatigue of such a position, and of the mortification often felt at seeing their goods sold below their value. I formed one of a large deputation that waited upon Sir Robert Peel at Whitehall Buildings. The worthy baronet was not then converted to the principles which, to his everlasting fame, he afterwards so lucidly explained, and so vigorously carried into effect. There were three causes that brought about the repeal of which he at last became the advocate—to the disruption of the tory party. First, the great change in public opinion as to the policy of protection; secondly, the failure of the harvest, including the loss of the potato crop in Ireland; and thirdly (and some think principally), the movement for increasing the freeholds, so as to qualify free trade voters in the counties. For this, it was proposed to raise (and had not the repeal been granted every farthing of it would have been raised) a “quarter million fund.” I have kept two of the collecting books as a memento of this effort. I assisted to purchase £17,600 worth of property for freeholds in Preston, for which Mr. Ascroft was agent, and with purchases made by others, it is probable that £20,000 worth of property was obtained in this borough for making freehold votes. The same efforts were made in Cheshire, the West Riding of Yorkshire, and in most of the counties where there was a chance of carrying a free trader. I purchased freeholds for myself and sons in North and South Lancashire, and in North Cheshire, and I have had a freehold vote for five different counties or divisions. Our great financier was “George Wilson,” and about the most liberal giver was “John Brooks.” Though no orator, he was always ready with his “thousand pounds,” and he would go round to Stalybridge, Ashton, Hyde, &c, and had only to say the word, and the “thousands” were ready. It was this money power, more than the arguments, that confounded the protectionists, and compelled them at last to relinquish the law for crippling trade and making food dear. Though there is nothing I dislike more than mixing up with electioneering contests, yet, viewing the repeal of the Corn Laws as a question of humanity, I never hesitated when an opportunity offered. I always encouraged our friends to hoist up the “big loaf,” as the best banner to fight under; there are many that will remember this, and the cry of “sour pie,” which we raised in this borough against those who opposed the reduction of the sugar duties, and by which we succeeded. At Walsall, I spent ten days, assisting at the election of Mr. John B. Smith, president of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce, and President of the Anti-Corn Law League. Mr. Rawson, Mr. Hickin, Mr. Acland, and others from Manchester were there. Believing in the power of the press, I suggested and superintended the issuing of a small paper every morning, called “The Alarm.” It was an anxious time; the contest was severe, and we were beaten by 27 votes, though in five months there was another contest, when a free trader, Mr. Scott, was carried by 23 votes. At one of the County elections, I attended, at the Court House, Lancaster, with Mr. John Brooks, and nominated Sir Thomas Potter. We had no intention of going to the poll, but embraced this opportunity for promulgating the free trade doctrines, though in a great measure prevented by the “hooting” of a great lot of roughs hired for the purpose. After this, such was the change produced in North Lancashire by the purchase of property for qualifying County voters, that though the County had been represented by tories from time immemorial, and had had no contest for a century, on this occasion, Mr. James Heywood, a liberal and a free trader, was returned without the protectionist party daring to nominate a candidate. At the nomination I addressed the electors in reply to Mr. Townley Parker, and was loudly cheered, in that same hall where, on the previous occasion at the nomination of Mr. Talbot Clifton, I could scarcely get a hearing.
I have been connected with many public institutions and philanthropic movements, local and general, but I feel convinced that I have never rendered as much service to the cause of humanity and national good, as by my labours in promoting free trade and the temperance movement. The one serves to provide liberally the necessaries and comforts of life, and the other teaches the people the rational way of enjoying them. If there be one day in the year which I should like to celebrate as a day of thanksgiving and gladness, it would be the 26th of June, the day on which Queen Victoria, in 1846, placed her Royal name to the charter of our commercial liberties. The Prayer Book speaks gratefully in favour of “cheapness and plenty,” and if ever there is another thanksgiving service added it ought to be for the repeal of the Corn Laws. I have often wondered that no monument worthy of the event has as yet been erected in any part of Lancashire.