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History of Free Trade page 4


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Of course, the effect was partially to destroy not only our timber trade, but the manufacture of those products which we sent in exchange. In 1809, when this system began, 428,000 tons of British shipping were engaged in the Baltic trade; in 1815, though the Baltic was then perfectly open to British commerce, we had only 242,000 tons of shipping engaged in that trade; while in 1816 the amount had fallen to 181,000. In fact, the countries of the Baltic being no longer able to purchase our goods with timber - almost the only article they had to sell - transferred their trade to Prussia and other countries. Our exports to Sweden, which in 1814 amounted to 511,818, had declined in 1819 to 46,656; and the exports to Norway, which had in 1815 amounted to 199,902, amounted in 1819 to 64,741 only. Meanwhile the cost of house-building, to which timber is so necessary, was greatly increased; while, to add to the folly of these differential taxes, our ships could only be built at far greater cost than those of other countries, who were gradually securing to themselves that shipbuilding trade which is generally regarded as peculiarly the birthright of British industry. In short, British landlords alone profited by this impolitic tax, the wastefulness of which was infinitely greater than the gains of any particular class. All that the Government of Lord Althorp, however, proposed-was a reform which would still have left the duty on European timber at 50s. the load, while that on Canadian timber was to be rated at the enormously disproportionate sum of 10s. In vain did Mr. Spring Rice and Mr. Poulett Thompson, the Vice-President of the Board of Trade, show that the Canada timber trade had been a losing one for the country, and that great quantities of timber shipped in Canada for this country were not the produce of Canada at all; in fact, a great trade had sprung up in the shipment of Baltic timber for Canada, where, having acquired the character and privileges of Canadian timber, it was re-shipped and sent to England at the lower duty. Of course, all the expense of this roundabout proceeding fell ultimately upon the English people, and was sheer waste. Added to this, the Canadian timber was far inferior to that imported from the Baltic. The Admiralty had declared it to be unfit for the use of the navy, and it was entirely excluded from all timber contracts. Nevertheless, the House of Commons would listen to no arguments of this kind. Great part of the property of the landed gentry consisted of the timber on their estates, which must fall considerably in value if the country could have obtained abundant supplies so near home as Norway and Sweden. The landowners throughout the country were, therefore, loud in denouncing the alleged injustice to our own colony, for whose benefit they asserted that this unjust and profligate system ought to be continued; and the Government plan was finally abandoned.

In 1832 some trifling reductions were made in the duties on hemp and other raw materials. In 1833 the mischievous duty imposed two years before upon cotton wool - a duty which, of course, tended greatly to diminish employment for the Lancashire mill-hands - was reduced; and in 1834 some reductions were made in the duty on oil and grocers' articles, which formed important items in our import trade. But the great injustice of the corn laws still remained untouched, and to all appearance appeared little likely to be modified in favour of the poor. The sliding scale which had been established in 1828 still raised its cumbrous but too effectual barriers against the food supplies which were ever ready at our doors to relieve the distress of the people. Under the Act of that year, foreign corn could be admitted as soon as our own corn had reached 2 10s. a quarter, but then only on paying a duty of 1 16s. 8d.; after which, by four violent jumps, which seemed to have been devised for the express purpose of rendering the corn trade more hazardous than any other kind of business, the duty settled at Is. when the price of our own corn had reached 3 13s. Nature herself, it must be remembered, had done something for the protection of the British landlord in the difficulties of bringing supplies from the plains of Poland, and the far distant fields of Canada and the United States. The cost of this long transport, of course, added greatly to the low prices at which the corn could be obtained in those abundant grain countries; but to this the importer must add these enormous duties before he could be reimbursed his outlay. How little shelter from the famine of bad seasons the people could expect from this law may therefore be easily perceived. And yet there were years when they paid these exorbitant dues - when some foreign corn was imported, and a trifling relief secured, even upon the harsh terms which the landowners had imposed upon them. It was at such times only that the faint cry for free trade in corn could obtain a hearing; for in years of plenty the troubles of the farmer were invariably brought forward as a plea for more complete prohibition.

Among the earliest of the parliamentary champions of the people's right to cheap food was the Hon. Mr. Villiers, afterwards President of the Poor Law Board. Mr. Villiers had been educated in a sphere in which popular rights were little likely to find an advocate. He was a younger son of the Hon. George Villiers, nephew of the Earl of Clarendon and the Earl of Morley. Originally destined for India, he studied at the East India College under Mr. Malthus and Sir James Mackintosh, the former being the celebrated professor of political economy, and the author of the well- known work on population. It is remarkable that Mr. Malthus differed from most economists in his views of the subject which afterwards engaged his pupil's attention, and was an advocate of the principle of protection to agriculture. But Mr. Villiers soon found himself in a better school for acquiring just views on the operation of the corn laws. He became a pupil of Mr. M'Culloch, the author of the " Commercial Dictionary," who was also one of the soundest and most consistent advocates of commercial and fiscal reforms. The bold attacks of Mr. Huskisson and Mr. Canning upon commercial monopolies naturally excited his admiration, and as a supporter of those statesmen he offered himself as a candidate for Hull at the general election in 1826.

The election was lost by a small majority, and Mr. Villiers was afterwards called to the bar, became Secretary to the Master of the Rolls, and subsequently one of the Examiners in Chancery. At the general election in 1835, he presented himself as a candidate for Wolverhampton, avowing the same free trade principles which he had professed nine years before at Hull. It is said to have been at a meeting at Sir William Molesworth's, in 1837, that Mr. Villiers was strongly urged to take the opposition to the corn laws as his peculiar field of parliamentary duty; and in that year he pledged himself at the hustings to move for their total repeal, an object at that time generally regarded as too wild and hopeless to be undertaken seriously by a practical statesman. In some degree, however, the time was well chosen. The condition of the people had been growing worse for some years previously; the price of corn had shown a tendency to rise for several seasons; and a severe frost, lasting with little interruption from the beginning of January till near the end of February, and followed by cold, ungenial weather, still further increased the people's sufferings. For the first time for many years, the Thames was completely blocked by the floating ice. On the 21st of January several persons passed over the ice in safety, and during the whole of the day there was a regular communication between the vessels lying in the middle of the river off the Tower and the shore, over the ice. Navigation had become impossible, and business at the whole of the wharfs along both shores was brought to a. standstill. From the London Dock pier immense fields of ice were visible as far below as the eye could see, and imbedded in them were barges, boats, and steam-vessels. At Blackwall there was a complete block. Steamers ceased to go out of the river on the 20th, and even at Gravesend business was suspended. Scenes took place which reminded the old people of the terrible times of 1814, when the frost fair was held on the Thames, and the British farmer's heart was rejoiced with corn at famine prices. At Hammersmith a sheep was roasted whole on the ice near the centre of the river by the Suspension Bridge; and skittle grounds were formed on the ice opposite the eastern corner of the Custom House, where the game was played by great numbers all day; while fires were made on the frozen river, and booths erected for the sale of beer and other refreshments. Such a time, however picturesque in these aspects, is always one of cruel suffering for those who have only the labour of their hands wherewith to support themselves and those dependent on them. That large class who are employed in the shipping trade and in the warehouses of our great commercial ports were, of course, thrown out of employment by these causes; and the numerous classes dependent directly or indirectly upon them were in scarcely any better condition. The price of coals in February rose to 2s. a bushel. This year, too, the rigours of the new poor law began to be bitterly complained of, and were not the less real because that measure was in the end destined to contribute largely to the moral and social well-being of the people. It was asked by benevolent men whether this act should be continued until the poor were roused to rebellion? It was stated in Parliament that the deaths in Ampthill and other workhouses had been frightful; that wages had not risen, as the advocates of the poor law had expected, but, on the contrary, had been everywhere in the country reduced, while the parish " head-money," as it was called, had been taken away; that hundreds of labourers were out of work; that the poor were suffering distress to an extent never before known among them. Mr. Fielden, the member of Parliament, himself an overseer of the poor, declared " that they could not obtain a sufficiency of food of any sort; that their furniture was going, that their bedding was going, and that they were reduced to the last resource of selling their clothing to buy bread." * In Nottingham such great and severe distress prevailed, that it had been found impossible to maintain the new poor law system; the commissioners declaring that the union being full, it was not the principle of the new act to refuse out-door relief; but in Holbeach, where the distress was no less urgent, the commissioners declared that they dared not admit this doctrine, as the farmers and others who were employing the labourers at no immediate profit would at once throw them on the rates. A meeting of women took place at Elland, in Yorkshire, in which the new law was denounced in the most violent language - the separation of husband and wife, and of mother from child, by this law, being particularly dwelt upon. In addition to these signs of the times, the Chartists, of whose movements we have already given an account, now, for the first time, began to attract notice. -A very uneasy spirit had taken possession of the working classes in the manufacturing districts. The people had, unfortunately, but a confused sense of the causes of their troubles. They described their agitation, indeed, as " a knife and fork question," and declared that they meant by universal suffrage "that every working man in the land had a right to have a good coat and hat, a good roof over his head, and a good dinner upon his table." But few spoke of those mischievous burdens upon trade and industry which, while they deprived the workman of employment, increased his misery, by rendering his food, his clothing, and the very materials for building a home to shelter him, dear through artificial scarcity. Indeed, the Chartist leaders openly declared themselves enemies of free trade. They regarded the free trade movement as a middle class affair; they absurdly imagined that cheap food would lead only to the lowering of their wages; and the Protectionist speakers in Parliament took care to favour these ideas. Meanwhile, the more intelligent reformers and advocates of free trade were exasperated by reading in the papers of the low price of food in countries within a few hours' sail of our shores, from which, however, our merchants were forbidden to import it for the relief of the people. The Times, February 19, 1838, contains the following paragraph: - " The price of white wheaten bread of the finest quality in Paris is 65 centimes the two kilogrammes, which is less than 5½d. the loaf of 4 lbs. English weight; and the price of bread of the first quality in London being 9d. the loaf of 4 lbs., the difference shows that bread is 56J per cent, dearer in London than in Paris. The highest quotation of flour of the first quality answers to 35s. 10d. the sack of 280 lbs. English weight, and the quotation of flour of the first quality in London being 55s., it follows that flour is 53 per cent, dearer in London than at Paris, and that with the sum of 2 15s. a man may buy 430 lbs. of fine flour at Paris; whereas, with the same sum he can buy only 280 lbs. in London." Such was the case in a country within sight of Dover cliffs; but in neighbouring countries the contrast was still greater. The same journal for the 27th of February publishes the following " Comparison of Foreign Grain: " - " The highest quotation of white wheat of the first quality at Hamburg answers to 31s. 5d. the quarter, and the highest quotation of red wheat of the first quality answers to 30s. Id. the quarter, and therefore the mean price at Hamburg of white and red wheat together is 30s. 9d. the quarter. The highest quotation of white wheat of the first quality in London is 64s. the quarter, and the highest quotation of red wheat of the first quality is 60s. the quarter, and therefore the mean price in London of white and red wheat together is 62s. the quarter. It appears, therefore, that wheat is 10½ per cent, dearer in London than at Hamburg, and that with the sum of 3 2s. a man may buy 16|- bushels of wheat at Hamburg; whereas, with the same sum he can buy only 8 bushels in London.

" The highest quotation of Zealand white wheat of the first quality at Amsterdam is equal to 37s. lid. the quarter, and the mean price of wheat of the first quality in London being 62s. the quarter, it follows that wheat is 63½ per cent, dearer in London than. at Amsterdam. The highest quotation of white wheat of the first quality at Berlin answers to 32s. 2d. the quarter, and the highest quotation of white wheat of the first quality in London being 64s. the quarter, the difference is that wheat is 99 per cent, dearer in London than at Berlin. The highest quotation of red wheat of the first quality at Stettin is equivalent to 26s. 7d. the quarter, and the highest quotation of red wheat of the first quality in London being 60s. the quarter, it follows that wheat is 125½ per cent, dearer in London than at Stettin, and that with the sum of 3 a man may buy 8 bushels of wheat at Stettin, whereas with the same sum he can buy only 8 bushels in London. The mean or average of the prices of wheat of the first quality at Hamburg, Amsterdam. Berlin, and Stettin, is 31s. 10d. the quarter, and the mean price of wheat of the first quality in London being 62s. the quarter, the difference is 94½ per cent, that the mean price of London exceeds that of the four above- mentioned places. The present duty on the importation of foreign wheat into England is 32s. 8d. the quarter, which is equal to the following rates: - To a rate of 106 4s. 8d. per cent, on the prime cost of wheat at Hamburg; to a rate of 86 3s. 1d. per cent, on the prime cost at Amsterdam; to a rate of 101 10s. 10d. per cent, on the prime cost of wheat at Berlin; to a rate of 122 17s. 8d. per cent, on the prime cost of wheat at Stettin; and to a rate of 102 12s. od. per cent, on the mean price of the four above-mentioned places."

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