Austerity in the Regency – taxation

 

What does a nation state do when faced with years of unavoidable emergency spending leading to an annual government deficit and a massive historic debt to pay off? That’s still a relevant question today!

It’s a question that the British government had to deal with in 1815. The war with revolutionary and Napoleonic France had led to an accumulated debt of £829 million, mostly held in consuls sold by the British government. The rich had bought the debt on interest bearing bonds that had to be paid back. And there was great political pressure to clear the deficit quickly.
What to do? The most important thing that was done was that income tax was abolished . This was not the doing of the government, but the parliament, who refused the Tory request to maintain the tax for a few more years. The government promised to remove it very quickly, but the House of Commons insisted that it happened immediately.
Income tax (called the Property Tax) had been  an emergency measure, introduced as a war tax in 1799. It was only introduced on the understanding that it would end when the war did. Sir William Curtis, an eccentric Tory MP made the point in the House of Commons when his simple argument was “where is the war now”? Sir William had an ideological opposition to income tax; it involved government officials enquiring into their income, property and lifestyle; it eroded the idea about the sanctity of property. It was “Unnecessary, Unconstitutional and Inquisitorial”.

billy2billyx

Sir William Curtis MP                                            Billy Biscuit

 

It was about protecting  private income, in a way, but it was more complicated than that. Sir William was a prime example. He had gained his knighthood by voting as he was told by William Pitt, and had made his fortune by making hard tack food for the British Navy. He was known, behind his back, as “Billy Biscuit” or sometimes, more politely, “Sir W Biscuit”. He personally would have been better off if government expenditure on feeding the Navy continued, but he was having not of it. He was happy to see income tax abolished and two-thirds of the Navy (90,000 people) demolished to reduce his tax burden. He claimed that he would then be in a position to spend more money on charity for those made unemployed by the reduction of government spending.This position made perfect sense to him. Income tax was compulsory, the spending of the money was outside of his control, and nobody was grovelling grateful. Charity was the opposite.

There was no sense during the Regency that the rich should pay a higher proportion of their income to provide funds for services used by the poor. Another example of this  was the last speaker in the Property tax debate. He accepted that the poor would suffer much more than the rich; he demanded savage cuts in expenditure immediately. His name was William Wilberforce, famous for his liberality towards Negro slaves, but not to the British lower orders.
Where was the money to come from? There was the National Lottery, which is mentioned here;

https://about1816.wordpress.com/2015/03/07/the-first-national-lottery-1816/

The main difference between the UK state lottery today and the Regency version was that the only good cause the proceeds were used for was paying interest on government debt, which was held mostly by the rich.
Taxes on property were replaced by taxes on consumption, which hurt the poor more. Bread was taxed, in the sense that the Corn Law stopped cheap imports entering the country. Coal attracted duty, as did salt, leather, soap, candles, tea, spirits, windows, houses, carts, toll road.
Lord Byron was angry about austerity. It was clear that this belt- tightening was around some people’s waist, but others had it around their neck. From his poem Don Juan

“ To Wellington
…and I shall be delighted to learn who
Save your and yours , have gained from Waterloo?

 

 

For more, new material, try my new book on Georgian Britain

If you are in the UK, please ask your local library to stock a copy. Most regency books are not like this! 3 minute book review here

More details here
https://about1816.wordpress.com/2017/11/17/the-dark-days-of-georgian-britain/
Best price here
https://www.socialbookco.com/book/9781526702548/dark-days-of-georgian-britain
or support your local bookshop if possible, or consider asking your library to buy one

 

Thanks for reading

James

 

 

 

Introducing “The Dark Days of Georgian Britain”

Three minute review of the book here
The blog contains different material to the book; if you like the blog you will like the book.

 In 2014 I retired from teaching History at the relatively young age of 55 and wanted to continue my interest in the subject. In the autumn of that year I attended a WEA ( Workers’ Educational Association)  course on great law cases in British History. This was the work of a remarkable tutor called Peter Blood who made it look effortless. One week the subject was Crim. Con.( adultery)  cases from late Georgian England. The era of the Regency attracted me immensely I was hooked. Although always a history enthusiast, the late Georgian period had passed me by- until that point.

I started a blog on WordPress ( hi!)  and regarded it as a  lovely hobby, with a bit of third-party validation as people read my blog.  Two of the blogs-adultery and bodysnatching felt like they were chapters of a social history of Regency England. I did nothing for a year, except read about the Regency and write about it. After that year, my wife suggested  that I send my work to a publisher.

Much to my surprise it was accepted.  I had found one of those elusive gaps in the market that people look for when they are trying to make a success of any venture.  I am just sorry I waited a year. If you are in the same situation as me and you are wavering; I suggest that you do it. What can you lose?

The blog contains different material to the book; if you like the blog you will like the book. If you want a copy of the book, try here.

The book is biased in favour of the poor, and is an attempt to seek out their stories. This is difficult; newspapers are by definition “establishment”. However, there is a radical press at the time of the Regency and there is the skill of “reading between the lines” of the more traditional media.  You cannot talk about the poor without referencing the rich, so their selfish behaviour runs through the book. Here are the main chapters

THE DARK DAYS OF GEORGIAN BRITAIN

Chapter 1- The Darkness Years

This is an overview of the problems of the period 1811-1820. It was a time of austerity, climate change and poverty, with all the major institutions of the government being rotten and in need of reform. Sound familiar?

Chapter 2- The Poor Weavers

This chapter looks at examples of real people – Thomas Holden of Bolton; the Luddites and their refusal to accept that they should starve to death as industrialisation and the new attitudes of employers made their life miserable. Sound familiar ?

Chapter 3- Making Life Worse

The Tory government made life worse for the poor after 1815 because of their political beliefs. This chapter deals with the rich avoiding income tax, high prices for bread and scandalous National Lottery which took money from the poor and gave it to the rich. We meet MP William ” Billy Biscuit” Curtis, who made a fortune for himself but tried to cut benefits for the poor.

Chapter 4-Why People Rioted

This deals with the rioting of 1816. Some of it was old style rioting that had been common for centuries…but there were new developments.

Chapter 5- Bread and Potatoes

Three thousand words on bread and potatoes? Remember that was a large proportion of the diet of the poor…and it is an interesting story. You will be amazed at how much bread people ate, and how many ways you could justify other people not eating much.

Chapter 6-The Poor Law

The British had a quite a generous benefit system before the Poor Law was made harsher in 1834 – that’s the Poor Law people study at school. The system is explained here, with lots of examples of the poor suffering. One family are evicted by having their roof removed and their house flooded with excrement…and yes, the landlord did get away with it!

Chapter 7- Cold Charity

The rich loved to help the poor…but with huge strings attached. I remain unimpressed throughout this chapter.. hence the title ! You will see William Wilberforce in a new light when you read what he thought was acceptable treatment of Britain’s war heroes.

Chapter 8- Old Corruption- The General Election, 1818

The 1818 General Election is covered in some detail the corruption the collusion, the rioting, the bribery and the intimidation.  And it was regarded at the time as a better than average election.

Chapter 9- All About The Money

This chapter shows that in order to achieve anything in the  Regency you needed money. Most things were for sale- parishes, army ranks, seats in parliament, everything. You will met a lot of rich people who took taxpayers money for imaginary jobs.

Chapter 10- The Disgusting Prince Regent?

What were the main personal failings of the Prince Regent? Its all in this chapter, which therefore has to be quite long . He also represented a rotten system. He did not know the meaning of money, as it all came from the poor taxpayer. When he died in 1830, they found £10,000 hidden in pockets and notebooks, money that he had simply forgotten about. That’s the same amount of money Mr Darcy had for a year, and he was a rich man!

Chapter 11- Arthur Thistlewood- The Gentlemen Revolutionary

Arthur was born a minor gentlemen  and ended up being hanged for trying to assassinate the cabinet. This chapter tells the story of him and his revolutionary friends in the Regency. He may have planned to parade the streets of London with the Home Secretary’s ‘s head in a bag, but you may still like him, albeit  as a very flawed human being.

Chapter 12- The New Revolt of the Peasants

In 1817, the poor tried new ways of overthrowing their oppressors, that scared the establishment more because they were “political” riots. So the punishments were more severe.

Chapter 13-Who Killed Joseph Lees?

Joseph Lees died after being beaten up at the mass meeting at St Peter’s Field ( Peterloo). However the government were able to prove “otherwise”. This chapter looks at the victims of Peterloo, how they were treated by the government that was not going to take responsibility for the poor or the actions of their own soldiers.

Chapter 14-The Women of Peterloo

What’s more frightening that a radical? A women radical! Despite the difficulty in finding evidence, here we have the story of Alice Kitchen,  Nancy Prestwick and Mary Fildes and others This is my favourite chapter of the book.

Chapter 15- The Freeborn Englishmen?

Britain was freer than most, but in the Regency that was put under great strain. People were imprisoned without trial. We meet William Ogden , 74, manacled in goal without charge for months with a 30 pound weight. His crime- wanting a reform of Parliament.

Chapter 16-The Punishment Didn’t Fit the Crime

This is a well-known regency topic. In my version, real people suffer at the hands of a floundering system that was at the end of its time. Reform did come- just not then. We meet Horace Cotton, who worked at Newgate with those condemned to die. He was a real charmer.

Chapter 17- Retribution

Fancy a trip to Newgate or a Prison hulk? We meet the poor in prison, including one man in gaol for stealing a cucumber.

Chapter 18- Child Labour

Traditionally, this is mostly about textile factories, but there were other, possibly worse jobs. Chimney Sweeping for example, and coal mining. However, people’s attitudes to child labour may surprise you.

Chapter 19- Currency Crisis

The Regency government did little to help people, but when the money and coinage went into crisis, they were happy to get things done. Never have banknotes and old coins been made so interesting!

Chapter 20- Adultery

If your wife  had sex with another man, you could go to court and claim compensation. The amount of money depended on how posh you were and how many salacious details you could provide. The newspapers loved it, and so will you.

Chapter 21- Regency Body Snatchers

It was not against the law to steal dead bodies from their graves, as long as you left behind their shroud and personal belongings. That’s why its called body snatching, not grave robbery. Lots of people made a living from it, and some of the best examples are in this chapter.

Chapter 22- Being Irish

The Irish were treated as second class citizens both in Britain and in Ireland. There are lots of examples here, and the prejudice has not gone away. The chapter features the famous brewery flood of 1814, when the press lied about the behaviour and hardly any money was raised for the victims, but the government reimbursed the brewery for their loss…

Chapter 23- A Rash and Melancholy Act?

This is about suicide- how traditional harsh attitudes to suicide where changing into something more humane, but it was still more sympathetic to the rich than the poor.

PS If the English Civil War is more to your taste, try here 

Let them eat stale bread. The diet of the poor in the Regency

James Hobson

Britain was running out of bread in 1800.The Napoleonic blockade was beginning to have an effect and British domestic production had not yet started to increase. Bread filled the bellies of the poor; children had dry bread for breakfast; workers had bread and cheese for their lunch; the workers wife’s had bread and lard ; drinkers had a salted herring and a slice of bread in the pub; everybody had  bread was the main accompaniment for scraps of bacon. Only on Sunday afternoon did bread not rule the house.

Something needed to be done, so in 1801 the government passed the Stale Bread Act. This did not, as the name may suggest, ban the sale of bread that was old and hard. Indeed it was the opposite; it was fresh bread that was banned. Bakers had to keep all loaves for 24 hours before selling them. This logic here was sound, but brutal. Stale bread did fill people up more, and added about 20% to the stomach filling capacity of the loaf. The government believed that up to 50% of all bread sold in the streets of London was hot, and eaten immediately as a snack. This indulgence by the poor could no longer be allowed

Bread consumption fell. Stale bread was also less pleasant to eat, so the government was also able to stop poor people being greedy. However, the Act lasted less than a year. Like many governmental panic measures through the ages, it turned out to be impossible to enforce. The government did try; they had draconian punishments for bakers and offered rewards to people offered fresh bread. They would receive half of the 5 shilling fine; the other half would be given to the poor. A second offence would mean that the bailiffs would take all   of the baker’ property. Many criminals made a living entrapping bakers into breaking the law.  

News of the arrest of bakers was always popular. People were very suspicious of them throughout the eighteenth century.  They were accused of   giving short weights (hence the bakers dozen being 13). Local city authorities, not usually ready to interfere in business, were more than happy to raid bakers and check their weights and measures. Some towns like Derby insisted that the bakers put their initials into each loaf so the bakers could be tracked down if necessary.

People did not, as a rule bake their own bread, so the bakers had a near monopoly. Most fireplaces in Britain were calamitously   inefficient   and it made no economic   sense to use fuel to bake at home. By 1800 poor people could no longer buy small amounts of flour at a reasonable price, as it was more profitable for millers, who were as unpopular as the bakers, to sell it to middlemen.

Bread consumption was reduced by people starving and living off other staples. The potato was unpopular; some people still believed that it was poisonous   and many resented the link with the Catholic Irish. It was regarded as watery and tasteless; outside of Lancashire, it was merely boiled to death. The North West had the advantage of a potato   industry in from the early eighteenth century, and then later on, am Irish diaspora which knew slight more about the tuber through regular and monotonous contact.

 By 1812, large numbers of farmers in Scotland were saved from death by the potato, and the working classes of Manchester were living off potatoes, bread, bacon, gruel, tea and beer- a similar diet to the Irish farmer, who had the same but probably a little more milk.

 Millers and bakers were still the scapegoats after 1815, when the government artificially maintained the price of wheat by banning imports until the price reached a level that could maintain aristocratic rents and profits. Most   rural riots in the period 1815-1817 would converge on the millers. Armed with sharpened agricultural implements, they would demand that prices returned to an earlier level. In towns, sellers in the markets would have their food stolen as a protest at the price. The normal cry was   “Bread or Blood” , often with a loaf on a stick as a symbol of the problem and a way of breaking windows.

 

My three books are above. 

Radical Victorians 

The Dark Days of Georgian Britain

Passengers  



 

 

The Regency Poor filled their stomachs with bread.

Bread and Blood 1816
The price of bread mattered to everybody in 1816, and not just those who were obliged to eat it in large quantities to survive. It was a controlled commodity in many ways; outside of London, the price was fixed by the Assize of Bread, which regulated not only prices but the size of loaves that could be produced. Bread was made in 3 main sizes, the peck, the half pack and the quarter loaf, and in most jurisdictions no other sizes were permitted. Neither was it allowed to hawk bread on the streets. The last government regulation on bread sizes was not repealed until 2008, so the regulation of this staple runs very deeply in the psyche of all governments

The weekly Assize was lead by the magistrate or the mayor. Its job was to determine the cost of bread based on the market price of wheat and a due allowance for the profits of the miller and baker. It was assumed that about 90% of the price of a loaf was made up by the ingredients. The assize of bread was a facto control mechanism on the profits of these two groups and put a local limit on the size of their profits.

Bread prices rose rapidly in 1816. Here are some prices for the family sized quarter wheaten loaf. This loaf weighed about 4lb when baked, which makes it twice as heavy as the modern standard 800gram loaf of bread

February Leicester 9 ½ d
April Worcester 9d Leicester 10d
July Northampton 12d
November Leicester 14 ½ d
December Northampton 14d
December Exeter 17 ¼ d Leicester 17d

By August 1816 the price of wheat had risen to 80 shillings a quarter, which was the price that imports were allowed. However, even with the increase in (mostly French) imports in the latter part of the year, prices did not fall. Foreign imports had stopped by December. The catastrophically poor weather had led to shortages in Europe. There were no available surpluses in the USA either.The domestic harvest had been mediocre; this exacerbated the situation. Most other crops for people and animals had been unspectacular because of the poor weather. In Oxford the quarter loaf was 8d to 10d in January; by December it had doubled 1s 2d (6p) and wheat reached 94 shillings a bushel. Conditions were much worse in France and the rest of the continent, as the British papers gleefully reported,

“In many parts of France bread is absolutely twice dearer than in England” Stamford Mercury (6.12.15)

It was clear that this was to be a food crisis all over Europe, perhaps the last one in Western Europe were people starved in significant numbers

Millers and Bakers already had a reputation for rapacity and dishonesty. The rise in prices in 1816 made this worse. There were accusations of both profiteering and adulteration in the newspapers. Conspiracy theorists commented that bakers had been receiving secret delivers of potatoes. Bakers were often one of the first victims of rioters. The Spa Fields protester of November 1816 smashed shops and paraded the streets with loaves on the end of a stick. The Littleport rioters attacked the bakers first and the butchers second.

The quality of the flour being used fell. The Royal Navy, as part of its post war disposals, offered defective flour for sale, clearly advertised as such. Recipes suggested that the poor could turn the worst grown wheat into nutritious ships biscuits instead; one correspondent suggested that adding carbonate of potassium to flour would render it “less “black, damp and tenacious”. Mr John Saines of Masham seemed to have written to every newspaper in the country with his plan to make bread out of unsound corn.

The newspaper editorials suggested that the populace should eat more “household” bread that contained more bran; and if the people would not eat it (especially those in cities who had a loathing of the coarse brown bread) then a least it could be used to feed those in the poor house. Other suggestions were cheap salmon and oysters. A “Morning Post” correspondent (August 9th) justified the use of more fish in the labourers’ diet with the Biblical but not nutritional reference “Man cannot live by bread alone”

Petitions were made to parliament to stop the distillation of grain. The rich sent letters to the papers asking people not to waste bread-as if this was the main reason for the problem. The concerned citizens of Cambridge organised subsidized household bread for the poor, with a stern warning for those who tried to buy better quality bread with their “ticket”

Potatoes were suggested as an alternative to bread. Giving money in lieu of bread to servants was another suggestion. The assumption was that they would eat potatoes instead. On December 28, a letter in the Northampton Mercury suggested that the poor were not cooking their potatoes well enough- it was only “done well in Ireland and Lancashire” –a reference to the poor Irish peasant and the Irish Diaspora in Liverpool and Manchester. Cobbett, as usual, took the contrary view with a letter from a Mr Goodman of Warwick (Political Register 20.1.16) who argued that potatoes were less value for money in terms of nutrition. He had boiled them down and concluded that they filled the belly but did not support the body.

Cobbett was criticised for saying that prices would continue to rise in 1817. He was right.

My book about the poor and powerless or regency Britain is available now. Google for best price, they can vary a lot. Please consider asking your Library to stock a copy