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  Years of Distress, 1815-1822

Years of Distress, 1815-1822

This period of seventeen years may be still further subdivided. The first seven years (1815-22) were years of even greater dis­tress for the people than the later years of the Napo­leonic War, and those who thought that times of peace were necessarily times of prosperity were grievously disappointed. British shippers, instead of enjoying a monopoly of the carrying trade, found eager rivals. British manufacturers found a great reduction in the demand for their goods both at home and abroad, partly because munitions of war were no longer required, and partly because foreign nations began to develop their own manufactures. British farmers found that the price of corn was nearly halved. In addition to this there were heavy taxes and some very bad harvests, especially that in 1816. As a result, there was a general depression in every industry. Mills were closed, iron furnaces blown out, and farms given up in many districts. Artisans and agricultural labourers, soldiers and sailors, were thrown out of work, and the numbers of the unemployed were further swelled owing to the transition from hand labour to machinery referred to in the last chapter. Nor did the poor gain the full effects of the reduced price of corn, as the price of bread did not decrease proportionately.

As a result of the widespread distress, many riots arose. In the midland counties the riots - called Luddite (Ned Ludd was a village idiot in a Leicestershire village. Baited one day, he pursued his tormentors into a house and broke some machines. Hence, when machines were afterwards broken, it became customary to say that Ludd had broken them) after the name of the man who originated them - took the form of the destruction of machinery. In London a mob, whose leader demanded universal suffrage and annually elected Parliaments, marched from Spa Fields with the intention of seizing the Tower, and did actually reach the City and effect some damage before it was dispersed. In Derby a riot, in which it is said some five hundred rioters were routed by eighteen hussars, was dignified with the name of an insurrection. In Manchester in 1819 a great meeting of some fifty thousand people was held in order to press for reform. The magistrates considered such a meeting illegal, tried to arrest its leaders, and finally ordered the yeomanry to charge and disperse the crowd. The yeomanry accordingly charged and killed one man, besides wounding forty other persons - an action generally known as the Manchester Massacre or the Battle of Peterloo, though the killing of one man hardly constitutes a massacre, and a contest in which one side was defenceless could hardly be called a battle. A year later, in 1820, came what is known as the Cato Street Conspiracy. A plot was hatched by some men in Cato Street, London, the purpose being to murder all the members of the cabinet whilst they were at a dinner party in Grosvenor Square, but the plot was fortunately discovered before it could be carried into effect. In Scotland also there was great discontent; a general strike took place in Glasgow in 1820, whilst at Bonnymuir, in Stirlingshire, the yeomanry had to fight a mob of armed insurgents.

In dealing with the critical situation produced by the depres­sion in trade and the consequent rioting, the Tory Government relied upon two cures. To encourage farming, a law was passed forbidding the importation of corn till the price was 8os. per quarter. To discourage agitation and rioting, resort was had to coercion. The leaders of the mob were tried, and, if found guilty, were executed. The Habeas Corpus Act was suspended, and the Government was therefore able to keep people in prison without bringing them up at once for trial. And, finally, in 1819 Parliament passed what are known as the Six Acts or the Gag Acts - the most important being one which imposed a heavy stamp duty on pamphlets, and another making the calling of big public meetings illegal without the consent of the mayor of a town or the lord-lieutenant of a county.

This policy of coercion, though successful, was not popular. Moreover, on George IV's accession to the throne in 1820, the unpopularity of the Government was further increased by their attempt to pass, at the king's instigation, a bill of divorce against Queen Caroline, whom George had married in 1795, though he had lived apart from her for some time. Popular opinion was strongly in favour of the queen, and when the Government majority in the House of Lords sank to 9, the bill was abandoned. Though the death of the queen in 1821 saved further complication the Government was discredited.

Chronology


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