Social unrest in Britain 1815-1820
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
The [Napoleonic] war had caused distress, the price of food had risen to a very high point, and wages had fallen because the supply of labour was greater than the demand; the more so because the output of the new machinery was very much greater than that of the old hand labour, so that fewer hands were needed, and at the same time the population was increasing at a rapid rate. Expansion of the area of cultivation had, however, hitherto provided some compensation. But the peace increased distress instead of diminishing it. On the Continent industrial occupations revived, while the completeness of the British monopoly of maritime commerce disappeared. The market being overstocked with British goods, British production was checked.
The 1815 Corn Law
In the natural order of events the price of food-stuffs in Britain would have fallen, and the purchasing power of a stationary money wage would have increased, so that distress should have been reduced. Here however, the Agricultural Interest in parliament intervened, and the Corn Law of 1815 prohibited the importation of corn whenever the price in the home market was less than eighty shillings a quarter. Thus the high price of food was maintained, while the other conditions were tending to a diminution of wages; and even the corn tax was insufficient to keep under cultivation much of the land which had been brought under the plough only when the country was compelled to depend wholly upon the supply of food raised within the four seas.
Income Tax abolished
Here, then, is a sufficient indication for immediate purposes of the economic causes of unrest and discontent. And these were aggravated by the wasteful finance of the Government, which continued after the peace the extravagant and ill-irregulated expenditure which the country had borne with during the time of the war. Parliamentary criticism, however, was concentrated upon the better regulation of the civil list, and the abolition of the income tax which had been introduced by Pitt expressly as a war tax. The Government proposed to appropriate the tax to the maintenance of an army of a hundred and fifty thousand men, which, from the point of view of the economists, was an unnecessary extravagance in time of peace; besides which, expenditure on the army was made the more unpopular by the suspicion that it would be used in the interests of the Holy Alliance. The abolition of the income tax was carried against the Government mainly owing to the energetic agitation of Henry Brougham.
In the country the agricultural and industrial depression brought about disorders and riots, while the Government held fast to its conviction that the remedy for these was to be found in severe repression, not in any attempt to investigate and deal with economic causes. Again the result was to intensify in the sufferers the belief first that relief could be obtained only by their own acquisition of political power, and, secondly, that the acquisition of political power would bring relief as a matter of course. Agitators clamoured against the monarchy and the constitution, and the Government failed to distinguish between agitators and sober reformers. The Spitalfields riot in December 1816 led in the following year to sharp measures, for the suppression of "seditious meetings" and the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act. Nor was the temper of the ministry improved by a serious rebuff, when a bookseller named Hone was acquitted on three several charges of publishing "blasphemous and seditious libels."
The Peterloo Massacre
A lull during 1818 was followed by renewed agitation during the next year, culminating in the affair called the Peterloo Massacre, when a large assembly in the neighbourhood of Manchester was dispersed by soldiery, certainly with insufficient reason. Half-a-dozen persons were killed, large numbers who had assembled without any sort of seditious intent were injured, and a feeling of bitter indignation was aroused.
The Six Acts
Unfortunately the Government identified itself with the action of the magistrates - which might reasonably have been condoned as an error of judgment in a difficult exigency - and it proceeded to pass a further series of repressive measures known as the Six Acts. Of the six, three were at least justifiable on the hypothesis that there was an appreciable danger of armed insurrection Two, directed to the suppression of seditious publications, were at best liable to interpretation as a tyrannical interference with the right of free criticism; while the sixth, virtually suppressing all public meetings unless summoned by the principal local authorities, was a wholly inexcusable encroachment upon acknowledged liberties. The general soreness, it may be remarked, was increased by the persistent neglect of the Government to accompany its repressive measures by any recognition of the necessity for remedial legislation.