Victoria: What were the Corn Laws and why did Sir Robert Peel oppose them?

The series two finale focuses on one of the biggest political rows of the Victorian era

Nigel Lindsay as Sir Robert Peel in ITV's Victoria

Discontent about the Corn Laws has been bubbling under the surface of ITV’s Victoria for a while now, erupting briefly in the Irish Potato Famine episode and then quieting back down again. But the repeal of the Corn Laws lies at the heart of the series two finale – and we finally get to grips with this huge political conflict that touched everyone in 19th-century Britain.

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In the final episode Sir Robert Peel battles his own party in his mission to scrap the laws, which kept food prices high and protected the interests of landowners and farmers. Will Prince Albert’s support help or hinder his cause?

What were the Corn Laws and why were they so controversial?

Simply put: the Corn Laws restricted the amount of foreign grain that could come into the country, protecting the profits of landowners and British farmers by artificially pushing up the price of bread.

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In 1815, four years before Queen Victoria was born, the Napoleonic Wars were finally coming to an end – which meant it would soon be possible to import corn from the continent again.

British farming had expanded during in the war and food prices had been high. Now, the agricultural sector faced the prospect of foreign corn flooding the market and causing prices to tumble.

A lot of people – especially low-paid workers in Britain’s fast-growing towns – were pretty happy about the idea of food prices finally coming down. But of course Parliament was dominated by the landowning class, and MPs weren’t so pleased about the idea.

The Tory government soon passed a law that permitted the import of duty-free foreign wheat only when the domestic price had reached “80 shillings per quarter” (a very high ceiling), and imposed such steep import duties that it was too expensive to buy grain from abroad.

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There was public outrage. The Houses of Parliament actually had to be defended by armed troops while the bill was being passed – and there were food riots all over Britain when the harvest failed the following year and prices went up. The patchwork of legislation which made up the Corn Laws was held up as an example of how politicians only helped themselves, without worrying about how poorer Britons would afford to eat.

At the same time, these laws had the support of many farmers who worried they would be bankrupted unless their livelihoods were protected against foreign competition.

Who wanted to repeal the Corn Laws?

The laws were opposed by urban groups and by many Whig industrialists and workers, but even Whig governments declined to repeal the Corn Laws when they were in power.

The Anti-Corn Law League was founded in Manchester in 1838 and began to pick up speed in the 1840s. The League’s leader Richard Cobden worked to influence the Conservative Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel and campaigned heavily, eventually becoming an MP himself.

After the Irish Potato Famine, the Prime Minister was finally persuaded to support the repeal of all Corn Laws.

Peel cartoon

In 1846 he achieved repeal with the support of the Whig opposition party in Parliament, in the face of opposition from within his own party. But even though he won the vote 327-229, it was not a simple victory.

Did the Corn Laws end Robert Peel’s career as Prime Minister?

After Peel announced his plans to repeal the Corn Laws, Lord Stanley resigned from the Cabinet in protest. Faced by internal opposition, Peel actually resigned as Prime Minister – but when Whig leader Lord John Russell was unable to form a government to replace him, Peel remained in his post.

Having stayed on as Prime Minister after all, Peel got his bill through Parliament (with the help of the Duke of Wellington who guided it through the House of Lords).

But just as the Bill was passed, Peel’s Irish Coercion Bill was defeated in the Commons – with the help of rebels in his own party. This defeat indicated he had no control over his party and forced Peel to resign as Prime Minister.

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The political aftershocks went even further. The Conservative Party split in two, with “Peelites” peeling off from the main party. The Whigs instead formed a government with Lord John Russell as PM.