(Part One: The 'Bread And Butter Riots' of 1766)

by David Cox

Pre-industrialised England is often represented as a golden age of prosperity and plenty, with well-fed peasants happy with their lot in life, knowing their place in a benevolent and paternalistic society. Reality, as is so often the case, was somewhat different from the myth. This is the first of two articles looking at civil unrest in the Black Country during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

In September 1766 the Annual Register (a yearly compendium of memorable events) remarked:

"there having being many riots, and much mischief done, in different parts of England, in consequence of the rising of the poor; who have been driven to desperation and madness, by the exorbitant prices of all manner of provisions; we shall, without descending to minute particulars, or a strict regard as to the order of time, in which they happened, give a short abstract of these disturbances."1




It went on to describe briefly over thirty popular uprisings throughout England, caused by a combination of factors concerned with the price and availability of staple foodstuffs (see Figure 1). Such uprisings were not a new phenomenon in England, but they became increasingly common during the latter half of the eighteenth century due to the fluctuating cost of staple foods. The average price of wheat had remained relatively stable during the first half of the century averaging 34s.11d per quarter-hundredweight for the period 1713-1764, but between 1765 and 1800 it rose to 55s. per quarter-hundredweight, reaching a peak of 128s. per quarter-hundredweight in 1800.2

The harvest of 1766 was a particularly poor one, and the number of popular uprisings rose dramatically - '…something like sixty incidents were reported in the press in a dozen weeks'.3 These uprisings were almost unfailingly described as 'riots', but this term is perhaps not apposite for all of the demonstrations witnessed throughout the Black Country in September 1766. The term riot suggests an out-of-control mob, intent on pointless destruction, whereas contemporary sources such as the Annual Register or the Gentleman's Magazine often remark that although goods were seized by force, personal violence was not always employed. Self-control, rather than brute intimidation, was often the guiding force. E.P. Thompson, in his classic The Making of the English Working Class, quotes a contemporary report that at Honiton in Devon, 'in 1766 lace-workers seized corn on the premises of the farmers, took it to market themselves, sold it, and returned the money and even the sacks back to the farmers'.4 Similarly, in the Black Country both the participants and many observers often regarded the uprisings as a justifiable method of righting a perceived wrong, rather than a mindless destructive riot.

It is interesting to note that in many of these 'bread and butter' uprisings the active participants were usually of the proto-urban working class, rather than agricultural workers or rural inhabitants. This seems to have been the case throughout the country, and the Black Country was no exception to this trend; in 1795, 1800 and 1810 the main body of 'rioters' was comprised of colliers. The Hue & Cry (forerunner of the Police Gazette) stated on 16 June 1810 that:

some disposition to riot, under the pretence of the high price of provisions shewed itself among the very lowest of the people of Birmingham and Wolverhampton, and the Colliers in the vicinity of Stourbridge a few days back; but [it] was immediately suppressed by the prompt but humane interference of the Magistrates with other civil assistance, and the appearance of some Military parties…

There was no doubt that occasionally the disturbances did take a violent and abusive turn; threatening letters were sent to farmers and millers, often containing specific details of what could be expected if they were suspected of profiteering (spelling and punctuation is original):

"Winter Nights is not past therefore your person shall not go home alive - or if you chance to escape the hand that guides this pen, a lighted Match will do eaqual execution. Your family I know not But the whole shall be inveloped in flames, your Carkase if any such should be found will be given to the Dogs if it Contains any Moisture for the Annimals to devour it..."5




A specific threat was received by Stourbridge magistrate and farmer, Thomas Biggs, in September 1812 (spelling and punctuation is again original):

Mr Bigges,


We right to let you know if you do not a medetley [immediately] see that bread is made cheper you may and all your nebern [neighbouring] farmers expect all your houses rickes barns all fiered and bournd down to the ground. You are a gestes [justice] and see all your felley cretyrs [fellow creatures] starved to death. Pray see for som alterreshon in a mounth or you shall see what shall be the matter."6

Local magistrates, aware of the tide of public opinion, often ensured that farmers and millers sold wheat and other staple foods at a reasonable rate during periods of shortage. The Annual Register informs us that

'at Kidderminster the populace obliged the farmers to sell their wheat at 5s a bushel', whilst at Stourbridge 'they lowered the price of butter, meat, and wheat'. Similarly, at Halesowen 'they rose, and forced the people to sell cheese at two-pence halfpenny, and flower [sic] for 5s. They destroyed two dressing-mills before they dispersed'.7




Figure 1 Map showing locations of food 'riots' of September 1766 mentioned in the Annual Register

Outline map reproduced from Ordnance Survey map data by permission of the Ordnance Survey)

Despite the semi-official attempts by local magistrates to forestall such incidents by putting pressure on farmers and millers, the Government of the day was not prepared to stand idly by and let matters worsen. Letters were sent to chief magistrates in each town where rioting had occurred, requiring the names of known offenders as evidence for special Commissions that were set up to prosecute the rioters. Repression could often be swift and final - eight rioters were reportedly shot dead on the road to Kidderminster during the uprising of 1766, and The Times stated on 5th May 1800 that thirty people were arrested during riots in Dudley, Stourbridge, Penn, Horton and Bilston.

However, the Government also took some positive steps to alleviate the problem. One of the main bones of contention between the rioters and the authorities was the export of grain to the Continent, which continued even in times of poor harvests. An Act to prohibit the export of corn, grain, meal, malt, flour, bread, biscuit and starch was passed on 26 September 1766, and another Act soon afterwards licensed the importation of duty-free grain from America and the Continent.

This had a beneficial short-term effect, but 'bread and butter' uprisings continued sporadically throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Corn Laws and agitation for their repeal ensured that public unrest over staple food prices was a continued threat until the late 1840s, and also had the concomitant effect of changing the face of English politics with the splitting of the Tory party under Robert Peel. The second part of this examination of civil unrest in the period will look at the continuing protests of Black Country colliers in the early nineteenth century. It will concentrate on the organised marches of colliers from Bilston and Wolverhampton to various parts of England in 1816 to protest at their appalling living conditions and the price of staple foods.

Annual Register Vol. 9 (1766) p.137
George Rudé, The Crowd in History (London: Serif, 1995), p.39
ibid., p.37
E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London: Penguin, 1991), p.69
ibid, p.68
Hue & Cry , 6 February 1813
Annual Register Vol. 9 (1766) p. 138

University of Birmingham Library
Internet Library of Early Journals (Bodleian Library)
Ordnance Survey

© David Cox 2002


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