19th Century Manchester Free Trade, Chartism and the Anti-Corn Law League THE ANTI-CORN LAW LEAGUE
Due to fierce competition from cheap imported foreign corn in the early 19th century, wealthy and influential gentlemen farmers had lobbied the ruling parliamentary party, the Tories, to prohibit their import by the imposition of Corn Laws in 1815. With this monopoly in place, British corn rose to prohibitive prices, making it impossible for the poor to buy bread.
The Corn Laws were seen by ordinary people as a symbol of the dominant ruling aristocracy’s feudal power over them, and of the suppliers’ unashamed self interest, at the cost of their staple food. Protests by Lancashire mill-workers at the imposition of such severe measures soon grew.
In September 1838, mill owners and local politicians joined protesters in the formation of an Anti-Corn Law League, at the York Hotel in King Street, Manchester, with George Wilson as its chairman. Support grew so fast that a temporary wooden hall was built in St Peters Street to hold protest meetings – it became known as the Free Trade Hall. Later a stone building replaced this original wooden one. Two major figures emerged as leaders of the Anti-Corn Law movement, Richard Cobden, a Bolton calico manufacturer, and John Bright, a Rochdale mill -owner and a Quaker. Cobden and Bright, both persuasive orators with powerful local backing, (including Archibald Prentice, radical editor of the Manchester Times newspaper), succeeded in getting elected to parliament, (Cobden – MP for Stockport in 1841) where they constantly lobbied and harassed the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel (born in Bury). Peel, under severe pressure from the League and its growing band of ever more powerful supporters, repealed the Corn Laws in 1846, thereby splitting the Tory party, and effectively ending his own political career in the process. Manchester would, henceforth be associated with the principle of Free Trade. The Free Trade Hall, the third and now a fine permanent stone building, was built later as a monument to honour the Manchester movement