Anti-Corn Law League

Last updated
A meeting of the Anti-Corn Law League in Exeter Hall in 1846 1846 - Anti-Corn Law League Meeting.jpg
A meeting of the Anti-Corn Law League in Exeter Hall in 1846

The Anti-Corn Law League was a successful political movement in Great Britain aimed at the abolition of the unpopular Corn Laws, which protected landowners’ interests by levying taxes on imported wheat, thus raising the price of bread at a time when factory-owners were trying to cut wages. The League was a middle-class nationwide organisation that held many well-attended rallies on the premise that a crusade was needed to convince parliament to repeal the corn laws. Its long-term goals included the removal of feudal privileges, which it denounced as impeding progress, lowering economic well-being, and restricting freedom. The League played little role in the final act in 1846 when Sir Robert Peel led the successful battle for repeal. However, its experience provided a model that was widely adopted in Britain and other democratic nations to demonstrate the organisation of a political pressure group with the popular base.

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Historical sovereign state from 1801 to 1927

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was established by the Acts of Union 1800, which merged the kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland.

The Corn Laws were tariffs and other trade restrictions on imported food and grain ("corn") enforced in Great Britain between 1815 and 1846. The word corn in the English spoken in 1815 Britain denotes wheat and not maize. They were designed to keep grain prices high to favour domestic producers, and represented British mercantilism. The Corn Laws imposed steep import duties, making it too expensive to import grain from abroad, even when food supplies were short.

Robert Peel British Conservative statesman

Sir Robert Peel of Drayton Manor and Bury, 2nd Baronet, was a British statesman and Conservative Party politician who served twice as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and twice as Home Secretary. He is regarded as the father of modern British policing and as one of the founders of the modern Conservative Party.


Corn Laws

The Corn Laws were taxes on imported grain introduced in 1815, [1] and designed to keep prices high[ citation needed ] for cereal producers in Great Britain. The laws indeed did raise food prices, and became the focus of opposition from urban groups who had less political power than rural Britain. The corn laws initially prohibited foreign corn completely from being imported at below 80s a quarter, [2] a process replaced by a sliding scale in 1828. [3] Such import duties still made it expensive for anyone to import grain from other countries, even when food supplies were short. The laws were supported by Conservative (and Whig) landowners, and opposed by urban industrialists and workers.[ citation needed ] The League was responsible for turning public and elite opinion against the laws. It was a large, nationwide middle-class moral crusade with a utopian vision. Its leading advocate Richard Cobden, according to historian Asa Briggs, promised that repeal would settle four great problems simultaneously:

Tory A conservative political philosophy

A Tory is a person who holds a political philosophy known as Toryism, based on a British version of traditionalism and conservatism, which upholds the supremacy of social order as it has evolved throughout history. The Tory ethos has been summed up with the phrase "God, King, and Country". Tories generally advocate monarchism, and were historically of a high church Anglican religious heritage, opposed to the liberalism of the Whig faction.

The Whigs were a political faction and then a political party in the parliaments of England, Scotland, Great Britain, Ireland and the United Kingdom. Between the 1680s and 1850s, they contested power with their rivals, the Tories. The Whigs' origin lay in constitutional monarchism and opposition to absolute monarchy. The Whigs played a central role in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and were the standing enemies of the Stuart kings and pretenders, who were Roman Catholic. The Whigs took full control of the government in 1715 and remained totally dominant until King George III, coming to the throne in 1760, allowed Tories back in. The Whig Supremacy (1715–1760) was enabled by the Hanoverian succession of George I in 1714 and the failed Jacobite rising of 1715 by Tory rebels. The Whigs thoroughly purged the Tories from all major positions in government, the army, the Church of England, the legal profession and local offices. The Party's hold on power was so strong and durable, historians call the period from roughly 1714 to 1783 the age of the Whig Oligarchy. The first great leader of the Whigs was Robert Walpole, who maintained control of the government through the period 1721–1742 and whose protégé Henry Pelham led from 1743 to 1754.

First, it would guarantee the prosperity of the manufacturer by affording him outlets for his products. Second, it would relieve the 'condition of England question' by cheapening the price of food and ensuring more regular employment. Third, it would make English agriculture more efficient by stimulating demand for its products in urban and industrial areas. Fourth, it would introduce through mutually advantageous international trade a new era of international fellowship and peace. The only barrier to these four beneficent solutions was the ignorant self-interest of the landlords, the 'bread-taxing oligarchy, unprincipled, unfeeling, rapacious and plundering.' [4]

The League

The first Anti-Corn Law Association was set up in London in 1836; but it was not until 1838 that the nation-wide League, combining all such local associations, was founded, with Richard Cobden and John Bright among its leaders. [5] Cobden was the chief strategist; Bright was its great orator. A representative activist was Thomas Perronet Thompson, who specialized in the grass-roots mobilisation of opinion through pamphlets, newspaper articles, correspondence, speeches, and endless local planning meetings. [6] The League was based in Manchester and had support from numerous industrialists, especially in the textile industry. [7]

Richard Cobden English manufacturer and Radical and Liberal statesman

Richard Cobden was an English manufacturer, Radical and Liberal statesman, associated with two major free trade campaigns, the Anti-Corn Law League and the Cobden–Chevalier Treaty.

John Bright British Radical and Liberal statesman

John Bright was a British Radical and Liberal statesman, one of the greatest orators of his generation and a promoter of free trade policies.

Thomas Perronet Thompson British parliamentarian, Governor of Sierra Leone and radical reformer

Thomas Perronet Thompson (1783–1869) was a British Parliamentarian, a governor of Sierra Leone and a radical reformer. He became prominent in 1830s and 1840s as a leading activist in the Anti-Corn Law League. He specialized in the grass-roots mobilisation of opinion through pamphlets, newspaper articles, correspondence, speeches, and endless local planning meetings.

The League borrowed many of the tactics first developed by the anti-slavery crusaders, while also attempting to replicate its mantle of moral reform. [8] Among these were the use of emotionally charged meetings and closely argued tracts: nine million were distributed by a staff of 800 in 1843 alone. [9] The League also used its financial strength and campaign resources to defeat protectionists at by-elections by enfranchising League supporters through giving them a 40 shilling freehold: [10] the strategy certainly alarmed the Tories, [11] but was expensive and led to numerous defeats, which the League blamed on the tyrannical power of the landlords.[ citation needed ] One of the most nationally visible efforts came in the 1843 election in Salisbury. Its candidate was defeated and it was unable to convince voters regarding free trade. However, the League did learn lessons that helped to transform its political tactics. It learned to concentrate on elections where there was a good expectation of victory. [12]

Nevertheless the League had a restricted capability for contesting electoral seats, and its role in the final act of 1846 was largely that of creating a favourable climate of opinion. 1845 saw Lord John Russell, the Whig leader, declare for complete repeal of the corn duty as the only way to satisfy the League; [13] while the Tory leader, Sir Robert Peel, had also been privately won over by Cobden's reasoning to the league's way of thinking. [14] When the crunch came, Peel put through a (staggered) repeal through Parliament without a general election, [15] to the applause of Cobden and Bright. [16]

The League then prepared to dissolve itself. [17] The Tory victory of 1852 saw preparations to revive the League, however, in order to keep a watching brief on Protectionist forces; and it was only after Disraeli’s 1852 budget that Cobden felt able to write to George Wilson: “The Budget has finally closed the controversy with Protection...The League may be dissolved when you like”. [18] Many of its members thereafter continued their political activism in the Liberal Party, with the goal of establishing a fully free-trade economy.

George Wilson (reformer) political activist and reformer from England

George Wilson (1808–1870) was an English political activist, known as chairman of the Anti-Cornlaw League.

Liberal Party (UK) political party of the United Kingdom, 1859–1988

The Liberal Party was one of the two major parties in the United Kingdom with the opposing Conservative Party in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The party arose from an alliance of Whigs and free trade Peelites and Radicals favourable to the ideals of the American and French Revolutions in the 1850s. By the end of the 19th century, it had formed four governments under William Gladstone. Despite being divided over the issue of Irish Home Rule, the party returned to government in 1905 and then won a landslide victory in the following year's general election.

W.H. Chaloner argues that the repeal in 1846 marked a major turning point, making free trade the national policy into the 20th century, and demonstrating the power of "Manchester-school" industrial interests over protectionist agricultural interests. He says repeal stabilized wheat prices in the 1850s and 1860s; however other technical developments caused the fall of wheat prices from 1870-1894. [19]

Model for other lobbying organisations

The League marked the emergence of the first powerful national lobbying group into politics, one with a centralized office, consistency of purpose, rich funding, very strong local and national organization, and single-minded dedicated leaders. It elected men to Parliament. Many of its procedures were innovative, while others were borrowed from the anti-slavery movement. It became the model for later reform movements. [20]

The model of the League led to the formation of the Lancashire Public School Association to campaign for free, locally-financed and controlled secular education in Lancashire. It later became the National Public School Association. It had little success because national secular education, was a divisive issue even among the radical groups However it did help convert the Liberal Party from its laissez-faire philosophy to that of a more interventionist character. [21]

Historian A. C. Howe argues:

Although historians remain divided on the impact of the league on Peel's decision to abandon the corn laws it was undoubtedly, in appearance, the most successful of nineteenth-century single-issue pressure groups, in its ability to generate enthusiasm, support, and unparalleled financial backing. Although its potential was not realized, it had shown the capacity for an extra-parliamentary middle-class organization to reshape politics so as to reflect the anti-aristocratic objectives of a determined band of entrepreneurial politicians.
It remained the model for many diverse pressure groups, for example the United Kingdom Alliance, the National Educational League, the Navy League, the Tenant League in Ireland, and the National Society in Piedmont, as well as those specifically related to free trade, including the Edwardian Tariff Reform League and Free Trade Union, and in the 1950s S. W. Alexander's Anti-Dear Food League. It also inspired imitators in France, Germany, the Low Countries, Spain, and the United States. The league had only temporarily reshaped the landscape of parliamentary politics but it had helped create a vibrant popular attachment to free trade within British political culture that would last well into the twentieth century. [22]


See also


  1. E Halévy, The Liberal Awakening (London 1961) p. 4
  2. E Halévy, The Liberal Awakening (London 1961) p. 5
  3. E Halévy, The Liberal Awakening (London 1961) p. 249
  4. Asa Briggs, The Making of Modern England 1783–1867: The Age of Improvement (1959) p. 314
  5. E Halévy, The Triumph of Reform (London 1961) p. 330-4
  6. Michael J. Turner, "The ‘Bonaparte of free trade’ and the Anti-Corn Law League." Historical Journal 41.4 (1998): 1011-1034.
  7. Spall, 1988.
  8. Simon Morgan, "The Anti-Corn Law League and British anti-slavery in transatlantic perspective, 1838–1846." Historical Journal"" 52.1 (2009): 87-107.
  9. G M Trevelyan, British History in the 19th Century (London 1922) p. 270
  10. Eric J. Evans, The Forging of the Modern State: Early Industrial Britain 1783–1870 (2nd ed. 1996, pp. 280–81)
  11. E Halévy, Victorian Years (London 1961) p. 110-1
  12. Ronald K. Huch, "The Anti-Corn Law League and the Salisbury Election of November 1843." Canadian Journal of History 6.3 (1971): 247-256.
  13. E Halévy, Victorian Years (London 1961) p. 115
  14. G M Trevelyan, British History in the 19th Century (London 1922) p. 268
  15. Norman Gash, Sir Robert Peel: The Life of Sir Robert Peel after 1830 (1972) pp. 575–76.
  16. E Halévy, Victorian Years (London 1961) p. 123-5
  17. «As no other gentleman has anything to address to this meeting, it is now my duty to say that the Anti-Corn-Law League stands conditionally dissolved» [George Wilson at a meeting of the Council of the Anti-Corn Law League held in Manchester Town Hall (Thursday 2 July 1846)]
  18. E Halévy, Victorian Years (London 1961) p. 325-8
  19. W. H. Chaloner, "The Anti-Corn Law League," History Today (1968) 18#3 pp 196-204
  20. Briggs, The Making of Modern England, p. 116
  21. Donald K. Jones, "The Educational Legacy of the Anti‐Corn Law League." History of Education 3.1 (1974): 18-35.
  22. A. C. Howe, ‘Anti-Corn Law League (act. 1839–1846)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press. accessed 8 Nov 2017
  23. R S Surtees, Hillingdon Hall (Stroud 2006) p. 44-7 and p. 39

Further reading

Scholarly studies


Contemporary publications

Related Research Articles

Classical liberalism is a political ideology and a branch of liberalism which advocates civil liberties under the rule of law with an emphasis on economic freedom. Closely related to economic liberalism, it developed in the early 19th century, building on ideas from the previous century as a response to urbanisation and to the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the United States. Notable individuals whose ideas contributed to classical liberalism include John Locke, Jean-Baptiste Say, Thomas Robert Malthus and David Ricardo. It drew on the classical economic ideas espoused by Adam Smith in Book One of The Wealth of Nations and on a belief in natural law, utilitarianism and progress. The term 'classical liberalism' has often been applied in retrospect to distinguish earlier 19th-century liberalism from social liberalism.

Charles Pelham Villiers British lawyer and politician

Charles Pelham Villiers was a British lawyer and politician from the aristocratic Villiers family who sat in the House of Commons from 1835 to 1898, making him the longest-serving Member of Parliament (MP). Pelham Villiers also holds the distinction of the oldest candidate to win a parliamentary seat, at the age of 93. He was a radical reformer who often collaborated with John Bright. He is best known for leadership of the Anti-Corn Law League, until repeal in 1846. Lord Palmerston appointed him to the cabinet as president of the Poor-law board in 1859. He worked for numerous reforms, most notably the Metropolitan Poor Law Act of 1867. Florence Nightingale helped him formulate the reform of nursing within the poor law. His Public Works Act of 1863 opened job-creating schemes in public health projects. His political importance was overshadowed by his brother the earl of Clarendon, and undercut by the hostility of W.E. Gladstone.

Free Trade Hall public hall constructed in 1853–6 on St Peters Fields, the site of the Peterloo Massacre and is now a Radisson hotel

The Free Trade Hall on Peter Street, Manchester, England, was a public hall, constructed in 1853–56 on St Peter’s Fields, the site of the Peterloo Massacre. It is now a Radisson hotel.

1852 United Kingdom general election

The 1852 United Kingdom general election was a watershed in the formation of the modern political parties of Britain. Following 1852, the Tory/Conservative party became, more completely, the party of the rural aristocracy, while the Whig/Liberal party became the party of the rising urban bourgeoisie in Britain. The results of the election were extremely close in terms of both the popular vote and the numbers of seats won by the two main parties.

Radicals (UK) parliamentary political grouping in the United Kingdom

The Radicals were a loose parliamentary political grouping in Great Britain and Ireland in the early to mid-19th century, who drew on earlier ideas of radicalism and helped to transform the Whigs into the Liberal Party.

Manchester Liberalism, Manchester School, Manchester Capitalism and Manchesterism are terms for the political, economic and social movements of the 19th century that originated in Manchester, England. Led by Richard Cobden and John Bright, it won a wide hearing for its argument that free trade would lead to a more equitable society, making essential products available to all. Its most famous activity was the Anti-Corn Law League that called for repeal of the Corn Laws that kept food prices high. It expounded the social and economic implications of free trade and laissez-faire capitalism. The Manchester School took the theories of economic liberalism advocated by classical economists such as Adam Smith and made them the basis for government policy. It also promoted pacifism, anti-slavery, freedom of the press and separation of church and state.

The Maynooth Grant was a cash grant from the British government to a Catholic seminary in Ireland. In 1845, the Conservative Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, sought to improve the relationship between Catholic Ireland and Protestant England by increasing the annual grant from the British government to Maynooth, a Catholic seminary in Ireland in dilapidated condition. It aroused a major political controversy in the 1840s, reflecting the anti-Irish and anti-Catholic feelings of the British Protestants.

Commercial treaty treaty concerning commerce

A commercial treaty is a formal agreement between states for the purpose of establishing mutual rights and regulating conditions of trade. It is a bilateral act whereby definite arrangements are entered into by each contracting party towards the other—not mere concessions.

George Sidney Roberts Kitson Clark (1900–1975) was an English historian, specialising in the nineteenth century.

Andrew Bisset, was a Scottish barrister and historical writer. His writing was an influence on Henry George, who cites Bisset’s Strength of Nations, in the notes to Progress and Poverty.

The Canada Corn Act was passed in 1843 by the British Parliament and allowed Canadian grains to enter the British market at reduced duties. The act was repealed in 1846.

Henry Ashworth was an English cotton manufacturer, friend of Richard Cobden, and vigorous supporter of the Anti-Corn Law League.

Jane Cobden English suffragist

Emma Jane Catherine Cobden, known as Jane Cobden, was a British Liberal politician who was active in many radical causes. A daughter of the Victorian reformer and statesman Richard Cobden, she was an early proponent of women's rights, and in 1889 was one of two women elected to the inaugural London County Council. Her election was controversial; legal challenges to her eligibility hampered and eventually prevented her from serving as a councillor.

Robert Ross Rowan Moore was an Irish political economist.

James Mellor was a Liverpool merchant, local politician, and friend of Richard Cobden.