Overview. The Corn Laws were a series of statutes enacted between 1815 and 1846 which kept corn prices at a high level. This measure was intended to protect English farmers from cheap foreign imports of grain following the end of the Napoleonic Wars.
Note: in this context "corn" means grain of all kinds, not simply the vegetable corn.
Background. During the Napoleonic Wars, the British blockaded the European continent, hoping to isolate the Napoleonic Empire and bring economic hardship to the French. One result of this blockade was that goods within the British Isles were protected against competition from outside sources. Farming became extremely lucrative, and farming land was traded at very profitable rates.
When the wars ended in 1815 the first of the Corn Laws was introduced. This law stated that no foreign corn would be allowed into Britain until domestic corn reached a price of 80 shillings per quarter.
Who Benefited? The beneficiaries of the Corn Laws were the nobility and other large landholders who owned the majority of profitable farmland. Landowners had a vested interest in seeing the Corn Laws remain in force. And since the right to vote was not universal, but rather depended on land ownership, voting members of Parliament had no interest in repealing the Corn Laws.
Who suffered? The artificially high corn prices encouraged by the Corn Laws meant that the urban working class had to spend the bulk of their income on corn just to survive. Since they had no income left over for other purchases, they could not afford manufactured goods. So manufacturers suffered, and had to lay off workers. These workers had difficulty finding employment, so the economic spiral worsened for everyone involved.
Reform. The first major reform of the Corn Laws took place during the ministry of the Duke of Wellington in 1828. The price of corn was no longer fixed, but tied to a sliding scale that allowed foreign grain to be imported freely when domestic grain sold at 73 shillings per quarter or above, and at increasing tariffs the further the domestic price dropped below 73 shillings. The effect of this reform was negligible.
The Reform Act. In 1832 the right to vote was extended to a sizable portion of the merchant class through the passage of The Reform Act. The merchant classes were far more likely to look favorably on changes to the Corn Laws.
The Reformers. Several groups arose during the early and mid 1800s to fight for repeal of the Corn Laws amid other social reforms. Most prominent among these movements were the Chartists and the Anti-Corn Law League. The ACLL began in 1836 as the Anti Corn Law Association, and in 1839 adopted its more familiar name. Despite its social reform agenda, the league drew its members largely from the middle-class; merchants and manufacturers. Their aim was to loosen the restrictions on trade generally, so that they could sell more goods both at home and around the world. After constant agitation, the ACLL was successful, and in 1846 the government under Sir Robert Peel was persuaded to repeal the Corn Laws.