English hunger riots in 1766.
This dissertation tests the theories put forth by Mr. E.P. Thompson (The Making of the English Working Class) where he points to 18th century hunger riots as examples of incipient class formation.
Using untapped local source documents, the dissertation examines the hunger riots of 1766 one by one and also in regional contexts.
The dissertation concludes that issues of class have very little to do with explaining the origins of the hunger riots. Instead, what was involved was an unexpected European-wide failure of the wheat crop following an unusual weather pattern which interrupted the westerly movement of weather masses. The sudden demand for wheat was picked up by English corn merchants and they quickly acted to export large amounts of wheat to reap windfall profits. The English river and canal system, the turnpike roads and the English coastline made rapid export both possible and expedient.
Large populations of rural textile workers in East Anglia, the Upper Thames Valley and the West Country were faced with vanishing supplies of bread which they relied upon. The crowds made use of common law concepts and Tudor statutes restricting sale and resale of wheat and establishing the “assize of bread”. The functioning of the central government is closely examined.
The episode caught the establishment entirely off guard. Troops were sent, the riots were quashed, the rioters were quickly tried and either hung, deported to North America or merely chastised. The riots show how the industrialization of Britain led to wholly unexpected events and social situations.
E.P. Thompson’s thesis was not directly supported by the evidence adduced in this study.
In 1776 Adam Smith used the hunger riots of 1766 to show how the private act of hoarding grain for profitable resale could serve the public purpose of avoiding dearth and starvation. The hunger riots of 1766 are therefore what might justly be deemed the “proximate cause” of the free market economy