The Cornish Food Riots of 1847: Background and Context

Reading time: 15 minutes

The Famine Statues, Custom House Quay, Dublin. By Rowan Gillespie, 19971. The potato blight that caused the Irish Famine also hit Cornwall in the winter of 1846-7

In consequence, however, of the failure of the potato crop, prices had gone up beyond their expectation.

Report of the Annual Meeting of the Wadebridge Farmers’ Club, Royal Cornwall Gazette, 25 December 1846, p1

The moral economy of the Cornish crowd

Clay strikers, St Austell, 19134

Throughout the May and June of 1847, looting and riots were seen rather a lot.

The causes of the 1847 Riots

Free Trade protest, London, 1840s6

The fundamental conflict of a food riot was between builders of Britain’s Empire and commerce, who believed in operating a free inland trade in grain, and the lower orders who maintained that trade should be regulated in their interests, with corn to be sold at a ‘just’, or traditional price: the forces of modern economics meet the forces of folk traditions.

In Cornwall farmers preferred to sell their corn in bulk to factors, rather than piecemeal in local markets. These middlemen, of course, increased the price of corn and looked to export it from the county in an effort to maximise their profits. This is classic capitalism: buy in the cheapest market, and sell in the dearest; or, take your supply to where the demand is willing to pay top mark. Obviously, the Cornish labouring poor could ill afford what they took to be inflated prices, and took a dim view of merchants of any stripe. As the crowd at Redruth told one factor in no uncertain terms that year, they believed that

…all flour-merchants were rogues of the first order…

Royal Cornwall Gazette, July 9, 1847, p1

Why write about the 1847 Riots?

…food rioting [in the rest of England] was already a thing of the past. In Cornwall the riots of 1847 were the final fling of this traditional form of protest.

John Rule, Cornish Cases, Clio, 2006, p43

The Cornish Food Riots of 1847 are worthy of study because, at the time, they had a geographical heft significant enough to be a real cause of concern to the authorities. There were outbreaks in Wadebridge, Callington, Delabole, Camelford, St Austell and Breage. These were not isolated or localised incidents of a few dozen village roughs, putting the frighteners on the farmers and officials, to secure grain at an advantageous price before melting away to their cottages. 300 miners took to the streets of Helston. 3,000 demanded corn in Penzance. 2,000 in Pool. 5,000 faced off against the militia in Redruth. This was a concerted fight for survival, virtually county-wide.

Study of the Riots also give us an insight into the attitudes and culture of the people who lived then, through the reports on the events and individuals involved. There’s emboldened miners, self-righteous women, high-handed magistrates, dutiful constables and victimised merchants. There’s patronising lectures and short, impassioned speeches. There’s cowardice, and bravery. There’s handbills, and tip-offs. There’s negotiation, and violence. There’s fugitives from the law, and harsh punishments. In short, there’s a lot worthy of historical interest.

I’ve broken my work on the Cornish Food Riots of 1847 into four more separate posts:

  1. Part two takes in the tumults of Wadebridge, Callington, Delabole, Camelford, and St Austell. As they’re all linked, particular attention is given to the uprisings in Breage, Helston and Penzance.
  2. Part three discusses the rioting in Pool.
  3. Part four analyses the uproar in Redruth.
  4. Part five looks at the disturbances in St Austell, and summarises the events as a whole.

Click here to read part two: Rise of the Miners

With special thanks to Deana Schultz Wade, who recommended I start using footnotes.

References

13 thoughts on “The Cornish Food Riots of 1847: Background and Context

  1. What a fantastic article, my only question is, why on earth don’t we get taught this at school, it’s such an important
    piece of history. My grandfather was a miner at East pool mine as were most of my relatives. Please keep up the good work.

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    1. Brian- we must share a few genes. My Temby line started in pool but migrated to the USA about 1860.

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  2. Excellent article and I look forward to reading the subsequent ones.
    I also can echo an earlier comment – why are we not taught this important part of local history? It’s far more interesting and relevant.

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  3. Enjoyable read. Only one thing, Cornwall was not a county then. The legality of it as a county now is dubious according to the Kilbrandon Report or Royal Commission into the constitution.

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  4. Why are we as cornish people not taught this at school? we are taught very little of our Cornish heritage, disgraceful

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  5. Worth mentioning that the same blight that affected Irish potatoes also struck Cornish potatoes – meaning a subsistence crop that would normally be available was lacking in 1846 and contributing to famine locally. So it seems a bit like ‘Trevelyan’s corn’ grain merchants in Cornwall were also profiteering whilst the working class starved.

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  6. I think the failure of the potato crop in Cornwall in those years must also have been a contributing factor to the Cornish diaspora as was the discovery of copper in South Australia where many Cornish emigrated.

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