Black Country hunger riots 1766

Tony Gosling tony at
Sun Oct 6 18:36:21 BST 2013


(Part One: The 'Bread And Butter' Hunger 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'.3These 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
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