The People’s Bread: A History of the Anti-Corn Law League.

The People’s Bread: A History of the Anti-Corn Law League. – book review

David Johnson

The People’s Bread A History of the Anti-Corn Law League Paul A. Pickering and Alex Tyrrell Continuum/Leicester University Press 304pp 45 [pounds sterling] ISBN 0 7185 0218 3

AFTER TWO DECADES OF BAD HARVESTS, high bread prices and widespread unrest, The Corn Law of 1815 dismayed British radicals and was inevitably seen to be in the interests of landowners rather than consumers. It became the most hated symbol of aristocratic dominance; at the Peterloo Massacre banners proclaimed `No Corn Laws’ and `Down With Monopolies’. In seeking total repeal, the middle-class Anti-Corn Law League whose membership cards invoked the Lord’s Prayer — `give us this day our daily bread’ — sought to unite the whole country in a moral and religious crusade. It wanted to pull down the devil’s kingdom of aristocratic privilege. A generation later, the Salvation Army offered the `bread of heaven’ to the poor of Britain’s cities. It waged holy war on the devil’s kingdom of unbelief, and sought to bring the `vast continent of vice, crime and misery’ that was London’s East End to salvation.

It is half a century since Norman McCord wrote the standard account of the Anti-Corn Law League, seeing it as the most highly organised extra-parliamentary political pressure group of its age. Even so, it was but `an offstage noise’ to events in `the decisive theatre’, the House of Commons. For his fellow historians, the 1830s and 1840s were `the age of Peel’, and subsequent studies focused on the parliamentary conflict over repeal.

But McCord passed by `many, open inviting doorways’ (Geoffrey Best). In recent years historical debate has focused on issues like religion, gender, kinship, ritual, local and national identity as well as class. The People’s Bread revisits the League, passing through those doorways to study the famous and the obscure, workers as well as the middle classes, women as well as men, ministers of religion as well as laity, and Scots, Irish and Welsh as well as English. It recaptures the League’s sense of being part of the age-long struggle against the Norman yoke. In short it has put the League back where contemporaries saw it, at the centre of society.

There is much new detail, but not always a new picture. The role of women, particularly in giving the movement moral and religious imperatives, is highlighted. Women also organised the distribution of tracts, held tea-parties, helped with bazaars and fund-raising, attended lectures (albeit in separate seating), and circulated and signed petitions. A chapter on theatres of discussion and ritual breaks new ground in analysing `the League experience’ — the process of bonding, with its emotional theatricality. Venues ranged from the pulpit to the market place with larger assemblies in theatres like London’s Drury Lane and Covent Garden. Their ultimate symbol was Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, which held 10,000 and stood on the site of Peterloo.

A principal contention is that the League was a national rather than regional body, attracting support from all classes and religious groups. But the evidence looks tenuous. Its strength lay mainly in northern England and Scotland; and it failed to take firm root in Wales and Ireland where the population was dependent upon the landowning class. Indeed there is heavy irony in Peel’s repeal of the Corn Laws in response to an Irish famine caused by potato blight. Moreover, although repeal had been part of the radical campaign since 1815, the League’s efforts to enrol working-class support largely failed. Anti-Corn Law Association membership (and the Manchester Council) did however extend downwards to include grocers, drapers and bakers. In religion, members were mostly Old Dissenters. All in all, it seems unlikely that John Bull was a leaguer.

Pamela Walker’s new study of the development of the Salvation Army between 1865 and 1890 is the most comprehensive analysis so far. It traces the early history from Methodist parenthood through the work of the East London Christian Mission. There is an illuminating discussion of theology. But its particular strengths are the treatment of gender and the evolution of the Salvation Army as a working-class neighbourhood religion. It was not only one of the first denominations to proclaim women’s right to preach the gospel, but it also allowed them to exercise authority on the same terms as men. At the same time a masculine religiosity based on military organisation was devised to draw men away from pub culture. In the streets and market places, inside converted pubs and music halls, the Army drew people to its meetings by adapting working-class popular music and theatrical forms of presentation. In its sensationalist and emotional style it was not unlike the League.

History has not dealt kindly with failure and marginality. Mid-Victorian Whig history, celebrating progress and prosperity, secured legendary status for the Anti-Corn Law League. With depression in the 1880s, the League sank from sight, and while in the 20th century Chartism’s importance in the development of working-class consciousness has been rediscovered, McCord’s study inadvertently left the League up a blind alley. The Salvation Army on its own could never stem the tide of unbelief in Victorian Britain. Walker’s study reveals that attendance at Army meetings in London varied between 0.49 and 0.72 per cent of the population; only in Scarborough did it reach 5 per cent. Religious historians have therefore deemed it a failure.

These more balanced works should become standard texts. The Anti-Corn Law League is therefore `a more varied, vital, robust and radical organ’ than the dour middle-class pressure group of earlier interpretation. It was a catalyst in the development of political institutions and helped to expand the horizons of political activity for many `outsider groups’. Religion in late nineteenth-century Britain was also more varied than general analysis based on attendance figures suggests. The Salvation Army helped to revitalise older forms of evangelicalism. The role of women was integral to both movements, and the `Hallelujah Lasses’ stand alongside the `petticoat politicians of Manchester’ in advancing the political and social role of women in Victorian Britain.

David Johnson

University of Leicester

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