Roger Wells – Wretched Faces

Famine in Wartime England 1793-1801


In 1798, the Rev. T. R. Malthus published his explosive thesis arguing that population had a natural tendency to expand with the capacity of any society to feed itself. The most strident component of the Malthusian case turned on the ‘positive check’ to demographic growth, a subsistence crisis generating malnutrition-induced disease and starvation, and thereby inflicting a marked drop in population. Malthus’s argument was based on historical experience, but his vision was conditioned by, and conceived in, a late eighteenth-century context. Historians, while acknowledging that Tudor and Stuart precedents, and contemporary experience in continental Europe, and even in colonial Ireland, could be marshalled in support of Malthus’s position at that time, have ignored any consideration of why an English country clergyman, should have developed such a pessimistic theory. English historians unthinkably, and automatically, take an implied refuge in the optimistic view that English capitalism had, through industrialisation and an agricultural revolution, achieved a ‘maturity’ enabling the country to escape incarceration in a ‘pre-industrial’ vicious circle, turning on a fragile agrarian-based economic environment.

This book reverts Malthus in a thoroughly English context. It proves that famine could, and did, occur in England during the classic period of the Industrial Revolution. The key economic determinant proved to be the ideologically-inspired war, orchestrated by the Prime Minister, the younger Pitt, against the French and their attempted export of revolutionary principles at bayonet point, to the rest of Europe. This international context, in part, conditioned the recurrent development of famine conditions in England in 1794-6 and again in 1799-1801. Here the multiple ramifications of famine in this country, as it lurched from crisis to crisis in wartime, are explored in considerable depth. These were repeated crises of capitalism, juxtaposed with the autocratic and aristocratic state’s total commitment to war, which contrived to challenge not just the commitment to war, but both the equilibrium and the survival of the state itself. ‘WANT’ stalked the land; intense rioting periodically erupted; radical politicisation, notably of unenfranchised working people, proceeded apace, in part stimulated by the catastrophic events projected on the world stage by the process of the French Revolution. The book finally explains how such an oligarchic, unrepresentative government managed through determined economic interventionism, manipulation of the unique English social security system, and final resort to army rule, to preserve itself and the political structure during a key epoch within the Age of Revolutions.

1. Introduction: 'to shake the Foundations of the Government of Great Britain'
2. The Sociology and Economics of Food: Bread, Cheese, Butter, Meat and Potatoes: the '5 principel Things that poor Pepel want to bye'
3. Harvests and Markets in Wartime, 1794-1801: 'called Famine in any other Country than this'
4. 'Many an honest man doeth not know how to get one Week or Day over': the Reaility of Famine in Wartime

5. 'Extreme Avarice and Rapaciousness': Contemporary Analysis and Popular Prejudices
6. 'A more honourable Death than to be starv'd alive': Taxation Populaire and the 'Early Phases' of the Famines
7. 'Taking Bread out of our Mouths': the Crowd, Food Transportation, and the Midsummer Hypercrisis of 1795
8. 'Glorious tho' Awfull Weeks': the Hypercrisis of September 1800
9. 'Promoting General Confusion': Popular Political Radicalism and Protest
10. Conclusion: Famine, the Defences of the Poor and the Threat to Public Order

11. Intervention versus Free Trade: Securing Imports in Wartime 1794-1801
12. Dietary Expedients and Vested Interests: Recommendation versus Compulsion, June 1795 to July 1800
13. 'Brown George': Compulsion versus Vested Interests, Sepetember 1800 to July 1801
14. Public Relations: the State, and Society, and Famine

15. Riot Control and the Repressive Agencies: The Role of Government
16. The Role of the Courts
17. 'I Cannot work through this Time of Necessity without your Assistance': the Relief of the Working Class
18. Paradoxes, Ironies and Contradictions: some Conclusions

Appendices, Map, Tables and Figures
;The history of riots reaches its full maturity when riots break out of monographic case studies to be incorporated into full histories. Roger Wells includes riot as one dimension of his rich attempt to comprehend the whole range of responses of British society to the famines of 1794-96 and 1799-1801. These famines dramatically revealed the fragile equilibrium underpinning national subsistence, and its propensity to collapse. Wells explains how and why the archaic structure of state and society in Britain did just manage not to collapse. He succeeds masterfully at the national level. His study is essential to a full undertsanding of British society,', John Bohstedt, Albion