People Power

The years following war were always time of depressed wages and soaring costs as soldiers returned in search of work in an economy based on war production. The years following the Napoleonic Wars were famous for their unrest, which continued up to and beynd the Great Reform Act of 1832. But protests were not always violent, and often managed to get improvments by negotiations with farmers who were, after all, their neighbours in many cases. Cities were more of a problem as the consumers and producers were separate, often also with intermediaries that exploited shortages. This is a letter from Tom Poole in Somerset to the poet ST Coleridge, April 9 1801 in the wondrful collection of articles, Pandemonium by Humphrey Jennings:

“Ever since the receipt of your last 3 letters (i.e. Two metaphysical and one miscellaneous) we have been in a continued state of agitation and alarm by the riots concerning the price of provisions. It began in Devonshire and has gradually travelled down to the Land’s End and upwards to this neighbourhood, so that last week it might have been said that from the Land’s End to Bridgwater the whole people had risen en masse. It is not now much otherwise though there is a momentary calm. It is now, I understand, all in arms at Bristo, and among all the colliers, mminers, and Pill-men [ie pilots], of that neighbourhood. Here, for the present, the people have succeeded in lowering the price of provisions as follows:- the quartern loaf from 21d to 0d; butter, cheese, and bacon from 1s and 14d to 8d; shambles meat from 9d to 6d per lb.

The people of Stogursey and the neighbourhood parishes joined the people here, and patrolled the country. They committed no violence, indeed they met with no opposition. I have been, as you may suppose, engaged enough by this busness – a hundred people calling on me, being with the magistrates, etc. It is a curious phenomenon, but we see the people doing what the Government dared not do, and Government permitting them to do it. Is Government timid, weak or ignorant? One of the three it must be. ”

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