11.5. Price Increases in 1795 and 1800, and Reactions

At the beginning of 1795, there was a considerable shortage of cereal food and increases in food prices, due to a bad harvest in 1794 and extremely cold weather in December 1794 and January 1795. There were a large number of projects in the counties to help the poor (according to Edmund Burke, there was “a care and superintendence of the poor, far greater than any I remember”). 

Arthur Young used his “network”, i.e. subscribers to the “Annals of Agriculture”, to collect information about the size of the problem, and about what was being done (79 correspondents answered, from a total of 22 counties):

  • the farmers increased the basic wages to the labourers, in general by 1 shilling per week; 
  • the farmers sold wheat to their labourers at a subsidised level, usually 5 shillings or 6 shillings a bushel (this was not given to the same persons who had received a wage increase);
  • the farm labourers were given extra work on the farm, and the poor without employment were given work to improve the roads or dig drains, paid for by the local authority out of the poor-rates;
  • the unemployed in the villages could buy wheat and other food from the shops, at a price that was subsidised by the parish, or by general collections;
  • in a few cases, the very poor received the corn gratis;
  • firewood and coals were delivered free of charge to the cottages;
  • the professional men who had organized the collections of cash, in some cases went from house to house in the poorest areas of the village or town, giving the poor families an amount of cash according to their obvious needs.

In only one report (Essex) did the correspondent inform that the poor were really suffering. 

In a number of counties, the agricultural labourers did not feel the effect of the increase in the cost of wheat, as during many years, they had been accustomed to receive a part of their earnings directly in quantities of wheat.

“The poor are everywhere relieved, in this county, by liberal subscriptions from the landholders, and farmers; and committees are appointed, in each district, to sell meal and grain at such reduced prices as are equal to their wants. But in the north part of this county, and in Scotland, the farming poor feel the ill effects of the high prices of grain less than in any other part of the island I am acquainted with; because all our shepherds and hinds, &c. are hired in kind, viz. one or two cows each, and grain of different kinds suited to their wants, with also so much wool to each of the hinds; the shepherd needs none, as he has a quantity of sheep; a house rent free, and fuel brought home.”

(Young, Annals of Agriculture, Vol. XXIV, 1795 (1), Letter XV, Northumberland, p. 107)

The better classes, who were organizing these actions of charity, were somewhat irritated by the absolute refusal of the labourers to change from wheaten bread to barley or rye, or a mixture with barley or rye.

“There has no article of food been substituted in the place of wheaten bread, that I have heard of, in this county, or do I know what could be thought of, as the poorest person will not eat good rye bread, without they be drove to it by the greatest necessity.”

(Arthur Young, Annals of Agriculture, Vol. XXIV, 1795 (1), Letter XII, Durham, p. 97)

“No article of food has been successfully used as a substitute for wheaten bread; I believe the daintiness of the poor has been the chief obstacle.”

(Vol. XXIV, 1795 (1), Letter XXVI, Suffolk, p. 137)

“Further, we find the poor are too fine mouthed to eat inferior bread, till imperious necessity compels; and, happily, to that point we are not yet exactly arrived.”

(Vol. XXIV, 1795 (1), Letter XLV, Bristol, p. 204) 

“Not any substitute for wheaten bread has been use of in this part of the country; the poor in this neighbourhood eat as good flour as the gentlemen and farmers of tradesmen in general do.”

(Vol. XXIV, 1795 (1), Letter LX, Sheffield, p. 245) 

The reasoning of the labourers was that, as a large proportion of their consumption of food was bread, it had to be of good quality, so as to give them the energy to work: “…. they alledge [sic] that as they live almost intirely on bread, they cannot perform their labour without good bread.”

(Vol. XXIV, 1795 (1), Letter LXXVIII, Dorset, p. 316) 

Arthur Young was of the same opinion: 

“… To have but one sort of meal in the kingdom is certainly the only way to render the measure effective; it is, however, a strong measure to tell the labouring poor, who, from great exertions of bodily strength, earn wages sufficient to purchase the sort of bread which enables them to go through those exertions, that in future they shall not purchase it.”

(Young, Annals of Agriculture, Vol. XXV, 1796, Political Remarks on the High Price of Corn, p. 455)

[Late 1795 and all 1796]:

“The prices of all other provisions having risen in a greater or less proportion to wheat, and there being a very general apprehension of a continuance of the scarcity, it had become manifestly impossible for the working classes to subsist on their ordinary wages. It was partly from a conviction to this effect, and partly in consequence of the tendency to disturbance and riots among the agricultural labourers, that the allowance system was at this time introduced. There was at the same time a general acquiescence on the part of the employers in the necessity of some advance of wages, which, however, when conceded, bore still a very inadequate proportion to the increased price of the necessaries of life. The distress, accordingly, of the working and poorer classes was very severe, and the privations of the classes immediately above them, and generally of all classes depending on limited money incomes, were great. The whole period, indeed, of this memorable dearth, was one of great suffering for the bulk of the community.” 

(Tooke, 1838, pp. 185-186).  

“Section 2.- Rise of Wages from 1799 to 1801.

            Such and so great being the rise of prices of provisions, and of nearly all consumable commodities, it was quite impossible that the lowest of the working classes could, upon their wages, on the rate of what they were before 1795, obtain a subsistence for themselves and their families, on the lowest scale requisite for human existence; and the classes above the lowest, including some portion of skilled labourers, could do little, if at all, more than provide themselves with food, clothing, and shelter, without any of the indulgences which habit had rendered necessaries. If under these circumstances there had been no rise of wages, no contributions by parishes and by individuals, in aid of wages, great numbers of the people must have actually perished, and the classes immediately above the lowest would with difficulty have preserved themselves from the same fate. In such case the suffering from dearth would have been correctly designated as a famine, a term which has been somewhat loosely applied to the period under consideration. For, severe and intense as were the sufferings and privations of the people of this country, in the dearths of 1795 and 1796, and of 1800 and 1801, there were few recorded instances of death from actual destitution.

A rise of wages was imperatively called for by the urgency of the case, and was complied with to some extent in most of the branches of industry, the claims for increase being aided by the resource which workmen and labourers had of enlisting in the army and navy. There had already been an advance of wages in 1795 and 1796, and the allowance system had been begun and carried to some extent in those years. A further advance of wages took place in 1800 and 1801; but still so inadequate, compared with the prices of provisions, as even with parish allowances and private contributions, to leave a vast mass of privation and misery.”

(Ibid., pp. 225-227)

“Section 5.- On the Wages and Salaries as connected with the Prices of Necessaries [1809-1813].

It may be, as indeed it has been, observed as a ground for questioning, whether there was a scarcity in these seasons justifying the high prices, that although the prices of corn were as high as they had been in 1795, and 1796, and in 1800, and 1801, there was nothing like the same importance attached to them. No committees of parliament to inquire into the causes of the deficiency and to suggest remedies. The answer is that the high prices of 1795, and 1796, and of 1800, and 1801, came abruptly, combining dearth from failure of produce with the effects of heavy taxation, which fell directly or indirectly on consumable commodities, while wages and salaries had been adjusted to the scale of prices resulting from a state of peace and plenty. It has already been observed, in treating of those earlier periods of dearth, that they presented the alternative of the actual starvation of considerable numbers of the working population, or of a rise of wages, whether permanent, or temporary and variable. A great rise of wages, but still short of the rise of necessaries did take place, partly permanent, and partly temporary and variable, including under the latter description parish allowances and individual contributions. And not only did a rise of wages take place on the occasion of those memorable scarcities, but there was a further rise, when, after a short intermediate subsidence of the price of provisions, between 1801 and 1808, a recurrence of defective crops and increasing taxation, and consequent high prices of food and necessaries, gave occasion to further claims for advance of wages; in most occasions these had reached their maximum before 1812. 

The wages of agricultural labourers and artisans had been doubled, or nearly so. Salaries from the lowest clerks up to the highest functionaries, as well as the profesional fees, had been considerably raised on the plea of the greatly increased expenses of living; the expense of living having been increased, not only by the increased price of necessaries, but by a higher scale of general expenditure, or style of living, incidental to the progress of wealth and civilisation. Thus, upon the recurrence of the seasons of dearth between 1808 and 1812, there was more of an adjustment, although still inadequate, of the pecuniary means of a large part of the different classes, which prevented so great a degree of the pressure of distress as had been observable in the previous scarcity.But while the wages of agricultural labourers and of artisans had been raised in a considerable, although still inadequate proportion to the increased price of necessaries, this was not the case, or only partially so, as regarded the wages of the working people in manufacturies. Considerable numbers of these had no advance of wages; or if they had, the advance was more than compensated by reduced hours of work. In the branches of trade which were affected by the state of stagnation and discredit in 1810 and 1811, and those which depended on a demand for export, many workmen were thrown wholly out of employ. The distress accordingly among these classes was very severe, and was the cause of considerable disturbances in the manufacturing districts.” 

(Ibid., pp. 328-330)

We see, however, that in spite of the help given by the better classes to the poor in certain dates, the annual number of deaths increased by 10,000 to 20,000 in 1795, 1801-1803, 1810, 1814, and 1816.

Burials per Year, 1780-1820, England and Wales 

YearBurials YearBurials
1781189,000 1801204,000
1782181,000 1802200,000
1783182,000 1803204,000
1784188,000 1804181,000
1785185,000 1805181,000
1786179,000 1806183,000
1787179,000 1807196,000
1788181,000 1808201,000
1789179,000 1809191,000
1790179,000 1810208,000
1791180,000 1811189,000
1792183,000 1812190,000
1793197,000 1813186,000
1794191,000 1814206,000
1795203,000 1815197,000
1796185,000 1816206,000
1797185,000 1817199,000
1798181,000 1818214,000
1799183,000 1819214,000
1800201,000 1820208,000

1780-1800, Marshall, 1832, p. 61; 1800-1820, equal figures from Marshall, 1832, p. 61, and Rickman, 1822, Preliminary Observations, p. xxiii.

Many of the agricultural labourers’ families could eat a little better than their monetary incomes would seem to indicate, as they had allotments with potatoes, or they had salt pork from a pig that they had fattened and then killed:

“Were it not for potatoes, with such wages, many of their families must starve or come upon the parish.”

(Vol. XXIV, 1795 (1), Letter IV, Shropshire, p. 61)

“Most of the poor people and labourers have a plot of potatoes in their garden, so they seldom have occasion to buy any.”

(Vol. XXIV, 1795 (1), Letter XLVI, Devon, p. 208) 

“Very few of our labourers but what kill a fat hog (which they bring up) of about 30 stone, of 8 lb. in general, and have mostly a good spot of garden ground to their cottages.”

(Vol. XXIV, 1795 (1), Letter LX, Sheffield, p. 245) 

There are also several references to the fact that, although the poor did not have the money to buy “butcher’s meat”, they did buy inferior parts of the animal, and parts of chicken, at reduced prices:

“These are the present prices of joints in the consumption of the poor;- breasts and legs of ewe mutton, 4 d. a pound; the shoulder clod of beef, 4 d.; belly pieces of hog, 5 d.; the cheeks, 3 ½ d.; butter made from whey, 11 d., salt butter, 9 d.; the most ordinary cheese, 5 d.; potatoes, 6d. a gallon; before the frost, 2 ½ d.”

(Vol. XXIV, 1795 (1), Letter XLII, Berkshire/Reading, p. 196) 

We have one comment on the long-term change in the financial situation of the poor:

“Upon an attentive consideration of all circumstances, I am inclined to think that the total present possible earnings of our poor, of every denomination, weavers, combers, spinners, and agricultural labourers, in this parish, is very little more than it was fifty years ago. These exigencies, mean time, from the advanced price of provisions of every kind, are increased, on the most moderate estimate, more than 2,500 L. a year; of this, only 500 L. have been annually supplied by our rates, and the remaining 2,000 L. have sunk them to that destitute condition in which we see them; have stript the cloaths from their backs, torn the shoes and stockings from their feet, and snatched the food from their mouths.”   

(Vol. XXIV, 1795 (1), Letter XXXIII, Essex, p. 161)

The new wages for 1795, and the increases in basic wages for the day-labourers, according to Young’s informants, were as follows:

  Per days. d.Per weeks. d.Advance
Bucks1 48 0some advance
Essex1 58 6one-sixth
Berks1 48 0one-fifth
Salop1 27 0one-seventh
Sussex1 58 6one-sixth
Lancaster1 4 ½ 8 3one-seventh
Staffordtwo pence a day
Kent1 810 0one-fifth
Durham1 48 0one-fifth
Lincoln1 69 0one-fourth
Norfolk1 48 0one-sixth
Nottinghamshire1 58 6one-seventh
Somerset1 27 0one-seventh
Hants1 58 6one-seventh
Cornwall1 58 6one-seventh
Middlesex1 99 0one-seventh
Anglesea0 115 6 
Gloucester1 27 0one-seventh
Cambridge1 27 0 
Huntingdon1 06 0 

(Vol. XXIV, 1795 (1), Recapitulation by the Editor, pp. 334-335)

Thomas Malthus commented on the very high prices in 1800, and the initiatives of private persons and parish administrators to help the poor labourers.

“The harvest of 1799 was bad, both in quality and quantity. Few people could deny that there appeared to be a very considerable deficiency of produce: and the price of the load of wheat rose in consequence almost immediately to £ 20. I returned from the north in the beginning of November, and found the alarm so great and general, and the price of corn so high, that I remember thinking that it was probably fully adequate to the degree of the deficiency, and, taking into consideration the prospect of importation from the very early alarm, that it would not rise much higher during the year. In this conjecture, it appears that I was much mistaken; but I have very little doubt that in any other country equally rich, yet without the system of poor laws and parish allowances, the price would never have exceeded £ 25 the load of wheat; and that this sum would have been sufficiently high to have excluded such a number of people from their usual consumption, as to make the deficient crop, with the quantity imported, last throughout the year.

The system of poor laws, and parish allowances, in this country, and I will add, to their honour, the humanity and generosity of the higher and middle classes of society, naturally and necessarily altered this state of things. The poor complained to the justices that their wages would not enable them to supply their families in the single article of bread. The justices very humanely, and I am far from saying improperly, listened to their complaints, inquired what was the smallest sum on which they could support their families, at the then price of wheat, and gave an order of relief on the parish accordingly. The poor were now enabled, for a short time, to purchase nearly their usual quantity of flour; but the stock in the country was not sufficient, even with the prospect of importation, to allow of the usual distribution to all its members. The crop was consuming too fast. Every market day the demand exceeded the supply; and those whose business it was to judge on these subjects, felt convinced, that in a month or two the scarcity would be greater than it was at that time. Those who were able, therefore, kept back their corn. In so doing, they undoubtedly consulted their own interest; but they, as undoubtedly, whether with the intention or not is of no consequence, consulted the true interest of the state: for, if they had not kept it back, too much would have been consumed, and there would have been a famine instead of a scarcity at the end of the year.

The corn, therefore, naturally rose. The poor were again distressed. Fresh complaints were made to the justices, and a further relief granted; but, like the water from the mouth of Tantalus, the corn still slipped from the grasp of the poor; and rose again so as to disable them from purchasing a sufficiency to keep their families in health. The alarm now became still greater, and more general. The justices in their individual capacities were not thought competent to determine on the proper modes of relief in the present crisis, a general meeting of the magistrates was called, aided by the united wisdom of other gentlemen of the county; but the result was merely the continuation and extension of the former system of relief; and, to say the truth, I hardly see what else could have been done. In some parishes this relief was given in the shape of flour; in others, which was certainly better, in money, accompanied with a recommendation not to spend the whole of it in wheaten bread, but to adopt some other kind of food. All, however, went upon the principle of inquiring what was the usual consumption of flour in the different families, and of enabling them to purchase nearly the same quantity that they did before the scarcity. With this additional command of money in the lower classes, and the consequent increased consumption, the number of purchasers at the then price would naturally exceed the supply. The corn would in consequence continue rising. The poor’s rates in many parishes increased from 4 shillings in the pound to 14; the price of wheat necessarily kept pace with them; and before the end of the year was at near £ 40 a load; when probably without the operation of this cause it would not have exceeded 20 or 25.” [One load of wheat = 5 quarters = 2,400 pounds] 

(Malthus, 1800, pp. 4-5)

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