Help yourselves! The Littleport and Ely Riots, 1816.
200 years ago, in the early summer of 1816, postwar England was alarmed by news of a revolt. Not by revolt itself - in the uneasy decades following the French Revolution, England was used to that. But where it happened. The long-suffering, conservative rural heartlands of East Anglia.
It began with attacks on farm machinery in remote villages. Later, when the price of bread accelerated further, unrest took the form of attacks on property and persons in Bury St Edmunds, Norwich and Downham Market.
And, on 22 May 1816, it reached the quiet village of Littleport in Cambridgeshire. So dramtically did it do so - spilling over into the city of Ely the next day - that these 'Bread or Blood' riots are still being commemorated 200 years later.
Labourers had gathered for a Benefit Club meeting at The Globe. A wild night followed. The rioters attacked and burgled a string of (to them no doubt fabulously) affluent homes belonging to shopkeepers; an unpopular local magistrate (the Vicar of Littleport) who had earlier tried to read them the riot act; and gentlemen farmers like Henry Martin, a hated parish overseer and principal farmer of the district. As early hours plans were made to invade Ely, another unpopular landlord-farmer was relieved of three horses and a wagon, which the rioters would weapon into an impressive rural 'tank'.
On May 23, this rustic army marched with its horse-drawn 'tank' to Ely, brandishing pitchforks, muck cromes and fowling guns; enlisted the aid of the locals and terrorised the millers, butchers and magistrates. They made the latter agree to their demands. When the mounted military was sent in to Littleport the day after, they took them on in an unequal battle and one rioter was killed.
Some 80 rioters were later tried at a Special Ely Assizes, preceded by a service at Ely Cathedral. Prebendary magistrate Sir Henry Bate Dudley - The 'Fightin' Parson' - drinking companion of a Prince Regent doing his best to singlehandedly bankrupt the country in his own personal riots of luxury, was given the sermon to preach. Not exactly on merit - Dudley was a comically incompetent preacher - but probably because he had led the dragoons in brutally 'pacifying' the disturbances. He chose as his text 1. Timothy 9 "The law is not made for the righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient."
5 Littleport men were hanged and 6 others transported for up to 14 years. Dudley declared that transportation on the long discredited hulk ships to New South Wales was a 'wise measure' for such men and was the hero of the hour, at least among those rich enough to raise a subscription of £179 13s 0d to thank him. The Judge - eager to downplay the hardships that postwar austerity was costing the poorest - alleged the labourers had all been in receipt of 'great wages'.
Yet throughout East Anglia, many were experiencing lengthy spells out of work or not employed full time. Families were susbsisting on oatmeal bread. And a warped system of poor relief meant that many even in full time work had to claim parish relief on top of their wages - just to survive.
During the war and now even more so after it, millers and farmers had been greedily pocketing the mismatch between wages (doubling) and prices (trebling). The war artificially stimulated production and prices, eating up the labourers' land - especially the commons - and his time - overworking all three. Now the boom was bust. Magistrates - clergymen and farmers - failed to intervene on the labourers' behalf; parsons preached the virtue of a poverty that enriched the landlords; and after leading the united country against a common 'Jacobin' foe, a gentleman-farmer's Parliament was passing new laws - Enclosure Acts, Game Laws and Corn Laws - in its own narrow class interest. On top of all this, half a million demobbed servicemen joined the post-war unemployed.
At Ely - as earlier at Norwich and Downham Market - agricultural labourers broke into mills and butchers and distributed food and money among the crowd. They deemed the miller as big a rogue as the farmer, "for the millers raise the price by a shilling per comb, just as the farmer raised it 2d per stone."
The labourers' demands, punished as sedition by a political establishment fearing revolution (by judges brought in from outside) were heartbreakingly modest. For all the drunken unruliness, they merely extracted from intimidated local magistrates an agreement to do what the landed governing class, committed to a one-society Christianity, had once done for them. Adjust the price of bread and the level of wages so that the latter could afford the former.
But, with Napoleon defeated, all out class war was the new 'spirit of the age.' Cobbett called it 'Scotch feelosophy' - after the Scottish economist Adam Smith. We might call it the capitalisation of agriculture. The toiling hand was turned out of his master's house and left to fend for himself. Labourers' cottages were no longer a show of landed magnaminity but subsistence hovels thrown up as cheaply and nastily as possible. The stringent property laws were made more stringent. The harsh Poor Laws were made even harsher.
The old order was changing. Jane Austen's Persuasion (1817) presents a redundant baronet, perpetually admiring his reflection in mirrors and The Baronetage, urged by his agent to abdicate his country seat to a war-rich Admiral. Austen's novel implies that the heroic navy will become future and better guardians of the country - and of the heroine - but, on its opening page, condemns the consuming self-regard of the present.
The landed interest was now self-interest. The farmer's traditional guardianship of the poor had gone out of the window. As had - sometimes literally! - any property inspector from the government who tried to peg back the farmers' war wealth.
Much of the 18C had been the Golden Age of the agricultural labourer - and his swan song. Now the old peasant with common rights was part of a class war between capital and labour, a subsistence-wage labourer unless he augmented his income and diet illegally. (eg by poaching, which, under the new game laws, endangered his life, liberty and limbs.) The 'deserving' poor were now seen as the 'designing' poor.
All this enriched the farmer. At a huge cost. Quite a few live-in labourers in Ely and Littleport defended their masters against the agitators while only one live-in labourer in the whole of East Anglia joined them. But the majority, abandoned to self-help, helped themselves. Greed had fatally divided rural England against itself.
Gareth Calway will perform his story about the riots, commissioned by the Ely Folk Festival and City Council and with ballads sung by Andy Wall, at the Swan on the River, Littleport May 22; Marriott's Warehouse Upstairs South Quay Lynn May 27, Sessions House Ely 17 June, Babylon Gallery Ely 28 June, Folk in a Field Festival West Acre (extract) July 2 and Ely Folk Festival July 10. 'The Ballad of Bread or Blood' is published in 'Doin different, new ballads from the East of England' (Poppyland). The riots' double centenary will be celebrated on Riot Day in Littleport on May 22 with Maypole Dancing, costumed guided walks, a re-enactment of the march on Ely, information collated and displayed, some descendants invited back from Australia. Relations of the hanged have been traced. A field theatre film to be shown; balladeers singing songs about the events and Morris dancing around the village. The Commoners Choir will be singing, local schoolchildren encouraged to dress up.
Suffolk Norfolk Life Magazine feature about the 1816 Littleport and Ely Riots
Regency England, 1816. "A mob of three thousand men assembling in St George's Fields; the Bank attacked, the Tower threatened, the streets of London flowing with blood."
Hardly 'Jane Austen' you might say. Yet the quote is from her novel Northanger Abbey. (publ.1817) Habeas Corpus was suspended the same year and Wellington - the 'victor of Waterloo' and future Prime Minister - required iron shutters (hence- 'Iron Duke') on his windows against the threat of mob attacks on his house.
The national debt stood at £800 millions; the expenses of Wellington's army of occupation and the extravagance of the Prince Regent was crippling the country. In Austen's Persuasion (1817), a redundant aristocrat 'retrenches' by leasing his estate to a war-rich admiral. In desperate reality, half a million demobbed servicemen, many without means of livelihood, returned to a country of rising unemployment. The authorities feared a revolution. They did not expect it in the conservative farmlands of East Anglia, where bread riots raged in 1816.
The Littleport and Ely Riots - demanding nothing more revolutionary than affordable bread and a 'living wage' to buy it - terrified the authorities so much that 5 Littleport men were hanged and 12 others transported for up to 14 years. Their crimes - aggravated burglary - were punished as sedition.
Ever since the French Revolution, those with something of England to lose had feared the poor taking it. But no matter how bad conditions got, the horny hand of rural toil was frozen in salute of the parson and the squire. Until a unique combination of old and intolerable new hardships forced that hand.
Unhealthy dwellings; low wages; the humiliation of having to claim benefit from the parish even when in full work; unemployment, the vicious damp climate of the fens; floods (at Littleport cultivation was 'extremely precarious') and diseases (when the floods subsided) were all too familiar.
But now an Indonesian volcano - killing 200,000 people - dispersed thick clouds from the Far East to the American West. Harvests failed and no sun shone. 1816 ('the year without a summer') is the worst in agricultural history.
War riches had fuelled a new loftiness and indifference from the labourer's traditional guardians, the farmers, an indifference piously supported by pastors and magistrates, and aggravated by the profiteering millers. Owing to the high war-price of corn, farmers got airs. They served port and Madeira at the time their employees were going short of a wheaten loaf and good ale. Farmers' sons followed the hounds instead of the plough. Their daughters applied cosmetics to their harpsichord-playing hands instead of milking their cows.
The ancient 'one nation' landlord-tenant bond and balancing of prices and wages gave way to a competition of capital and labour more common in the industrial towns. It suited the new-rich farmer to have the labourer out of his house (just when he could least afford to be) completely reliant on a weekly wage and without any distractions like a garden of his own. Greedy farmers "cannot keep them upon so little as they give them in wages," commented Cobbett. Yet, significantly, in Ely and Littleport, many who did 'live in' defended their farmers from the agitators. And across the whole of East Anglia only one 'live in' labourer rioted.
A parliament of gentlemen - which had encouraged the nation to stand together against Napoleon - passed laws, like the new Corn Laws, in its own class interest. Laws against forestalling and engrossing - which protected the poor against price rises - were repealed at the end of the 18C. These sparked riots against millers, shopkeepers and butchers whenever the prices went up.
At the same time new Enclosure Acts were fencing out those who most needed common land - common land meant a mouthful of meat added to a bread-only diet and firewood for their hovels. Game Laws, forbidding all but landowner to shoot game, were enforced by new man traps, spring guns and transportation: class violence dressed up as 'social' reponsibility. While poaching gangs of labourers, defending ancient common rights, were called 'anti-social', violent gangs of farmers opposing attacks on their war wealth threw property inspectors through windows without punishment. 5 Littleport rioters were hanged for doing little more.
On May 21 1816, amid general East Anglian unrest, about 50 such labourers met at the Globe Inn to talk about grain prices and lack of work. They sent out for a boat horn, which attracted a crowd. A bread riot erupted. The rioters began breaking and entering the houses of shopkeepers, millers and a hated parson-magistrate who came out to read them the riot act. They told him to "go home!" … That home, along with those belonging to parish overseer Henry Martin, the principal farmer, wealthy shopkeepers and others who fell in the mob's path, was attacked and burgled. £1 or £100 burglaries - an unimaginable fortune for a labourer on 2s a day - received the same - capital - punishment later, "I may as well hang as starve," as one rioter put it.
The next day the labourers marched, armed with bludgeons, pitchforks, muck cromes, fork staffs headed with iron spikes, fowling pieces and fowlers' guns mounted fore and aft on a stolen waggon, to Ely. Here they enlisted the aid of the locals and terrorised the millers and magistrates. They made them agree to their demands - lowering the price of bread, raising the level of wages and insisting that the farmer - not the parish - pay the full wage earned. When the mounted military - including Waterloo veterans - was sent in in defence of 'civilisation' -"Ely Cathedral itself is in danger!" - they took them on in an unequal battle and one rioter was killed.
They were rounded up for 'show' trials with judges (brought in from outside) handing down vicious sentences that successfully quelled all unrest in the Ely/Littleport area for a generation. On the scaffold, the 5 found most guilty begged forgiveness. 6 others were transported on the hulk ships for between 7 and 14 years.
They must also have wondered what else they could have done. Bread riots in Norwich had previously been successful in re-setting prices and wages. No-one spoke for them. They had no vote; no union (The Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 forbade meetings and outlawed unions) to represent their interests. Riot (like rick burning and machine breaking) was their traditional political redress. Now, in the austerity of victorious freeborn England, the hapless farm worker was miscast as the enemy within.
The double centenary of the riots will celebrated on Riot Day in Littleport on May 22. Maypole Dancing, costumed guided walks, a re-enactment of the march on Ely, information collated and displayed, some descendants invited back from Australia. Relations of the hanged have been traced. A field theatre film to be shown; balladeers singing songs about the events and Morris dancing around the village. The Commoners Choir will be singing, local schoolchildren encouraged to dress up. Bread or Blood - a show telling the story of the riots with music/ballads- tours to The Function Room, Swan On The River, Littleport on May 22; Marriott's Warehouse, Lynn on May 27, Sessions House Ely 17 June, Babylon Gallery Ely 28 June, Folk in a Field Festival West Acre (extract) July 2 and Ely Folk Festival on July 10.
Lynn News Review of Jeff Hoyle's Talk about the Riots
Lynn News Review of Jeff Hoyle's Talk about the Riots
Jeff Hoyle True's Yard
The Littleport and Ey Riots of 1816
Regency England is a proverb for graceful buildings and refined civilisation but Jane Austen's description of "a mob of three thousand men assembling in St George's Fields; the Bank attacked, the Tower threatened, the streets of London flowing with blood" is more accurate. The 'Iron Duke' of Wellington was named not for his mettle at Waterloo but for the iron shutters erected on his windows against the threat of mob attacks on his house. So dire were economic conditions after the Napoleonic Wars that even East Anglia's normally docile agricultural labourers rose in revolt. The Littleport and Ely Riots of 1816 - demanding cheap bread and a 'living wage' to buy it - and reminsicent of the 'let them eat cake' revolutionary crowd in France - terrified the authorities so much that local justices (who granted these demands) were not trusted to oversee the trials and impose the viciously disproportionate sentences. 5 Littleport men were hanged - and 6 others transported for up to 14 years - for aggravated burglary. Jeff Hoyle's penetrating and skilfully illustrated talk to a packed room raised disturbing questions: did the right side win the Napoleonic Wars? (England's common people could have used some liberty, equality and fraternity) - why did the rioters attack and rob innocents as well as 'legitimate' targets like the singularly unchristian magistrate Parson Vatchel? And why does too much of this story - with the poor paying the price of 'austerity' - feel so familiar today?