As is so often the case, the return of peace in 1814 led to financial cut-backs by the British Government. This satirical print, drawn by George Cruikshank, is a comment on one of the most unpopular pieces of legislation, the Corn Bill of March 1815.

The new law was intended to favour British farmers by fixing the price of grain and thereby keeping out cheap foreign imports. This was all very well for farmers and landowners, but disastrous for the urban poor who relied heavily on bread as a staple of their diets. In combination with the discharge of substantial numbers of men from the armed forces now that hostilities were at an end, the result was substantial urban unrest, which had to be met by the dispatch on policing duties of many of the soldiers who had been retained in the Army. Serious confrontations in London and elsewhere had barely come to an end when the escape of Napoleon from Elba led to renewed hostilities and a temporary resurgence of national unity.

The image is composed of three groups of figures. In the centre are four men whose clothes and decorations identify them as wealthy landowners. They reject the cheap imported corn being offered by the French merchants in the boat at the left of the picture. This corn is being offered for only 50 shillings a sack, but the new law required that foreign corn could only be sold when the price of wheat reached 80 shillings. The lack of logic is shown by the fact that the warehouse is full of 80 shilling corn that no-one can afford to buy, whilst the French merchants are obliged to throw their good corn overboard as they have no market for it. The landowners express their lack of compassion for the poor who will starve as a result of the policy.

On the far right of the picture a John Bull figure is shown, along with his family, protesting against the effects of the Corn Bill and declaring that he will leave the country for one where the poor are not “crushed by those they labour to support”: this is possibly an allusion to emigration to the Americas. Although the hostilities of the Hundred Days brought about a brief return of unity, the Corn Laws remained a bone of contention until their eventual repeal in 1846.

Sources:

Bonar, James (ed.), “The Disposition of Troops in London, March 1815”, The English Historical Review, Vol.16, No.62 (April 1901), pp.348-354.

Encyclopaedia Britannica on the Corn Laws: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/137814/Corn-Law

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This object is in the collection of British Museum