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Extracted from an essay by Gareth Williams titled " How's the tenors in Dowlais ? [Hegemony, Harmony and Popular Culture in England and Wales 1600-1900]
" Despite attacks from moral reformers, Methodists, market-orientated farmers, capitalistic employers, magistrates and the 'plague of blue locusts ', age-old sports and pastimes survived even when aristocratic patronage was withdrawn. They might, like the 5th November celebrations , acquire new meanings, but the rise of industrial capitalism did not sign their death warrant. On the contrary, new economic conditions provided new opportunities and a reshaped environment for their continuation.
The coming of the railways provides us with an obvious example. The train boosted demeaning entertainments like public hangings and created respectable ones like seaside excursions. It revolutionised the Turf by enabling owners to transport their thoroughbreds rapidly from one venue to another. More races and larger cash prizes transformed the Turf from being the preserve of the Quality to becoming a spectator sport. Thus was one sport diffused downwards ; others, like cricket and pugilism were common among the lower orders but with the onset of industrialisation moved socially upwards. In sum, what were once class specific sports were by the mid C19 well on the way to becoming the entertainment of the masses, for there were now more people to participate and spectate and better means of communication to transport them.
Many other customs survived not in spite of but because of the railways............................in mid century Oxford's St Giles Fair was pulling in rail excursions from as far afield as London, Birmingham and Cardiff. And in Wales a particular beneficiary was the eisteddfod, a classic illustration of the way ' in which a chapel orientated working class culture appropriated an essentially aristocratic...tradition and transformed it into something very different'.
In 1863 seventeen carriages carried 1300 passengers from Aberdare to a Sunday School eisteddfod in Swansea.
Continuity was agreeably personified by those 'traditional ' dispensers of sociability, publicans, to whom the provision of popular amusements had for centuries been a commercial activity. In the C19 many of them diversified into circus management , movable theatres, pantomime and eventually the music hall. We have only to think of the well attested eager anticipation there was across south Wales for the visits of travelling fairs with their side shows, naphtha flares and shouting showmen ; Bostock and Wombell's menagerie, Ebley's travelling theatre, Leon Vint's conjuring show, Poole's myriorama.
It was the travelling fairs of Studt, Dooner, Haggar and Walbrook with their Bioscope and Vitagraph that introduced Welsh audiences to 'living pictures'. The palace of varieties supplanted the fair, just as in time, it, and that other centre of entertainment , the chapel, were supplanted by the cinema. By the 1930s there were more cinema seats per head in north Wales than in London ..........."
[From Llafur, journal of Welsh Labour History, Vol 5/1, 1988. Gareth 8 Nov 2000 D/G]
This summary of events based on the most informative book Before Rebecca, Popular Protests in Wales 1793-1835, by DJV Jones, Allen Lane, 1973 is in the form of a chronological timeline running throughout the counties of Cardiganshire, Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire and Glamorganshire as randomly seen. The many references in the book to events in other parts of Wales have not been included however.
There is an introduction and contents listing from the book here
Corn Riots began in 1793, after a poor harvest in 1792.
In Swansea, with a population of c 6000 at the 1801 census, there were frequent gatherings of hundreds of people demanding corn. On 2 February, a market day, a great crowd of people terrified farmers, merchants and maltsters as they went to their houses seeking corn.
Two days later, an army of copper workers and others from the area of Llangyfelach marched in protest on Swansea. They raided farm houses on the way and even took some farmers as hostages. They put their greivances to the portreeve and magistrates in front of the Guildhall. An appeal for help from the military by the civil authorities was sent to William Pitt, the prime minister, and a detachment of the Second Regiment of Dragoons was quickly despatched to the area.
Following a succession of poor grain harvests there was an acute shortage of corn in 1795, especially in south Wales. In the first 4 months of the year disturbances broke out in many parts of Wales. By Sept of that year wheat and barley had at least doubled in price since the previous September, this hit heavily those classes which depended on corn for their daily subsidence.
The Cardiganshire magistrates spoke for the authorities of most Welsh counties when they declared that the working classes were 'much discontented and restless at the present exorbitant Price of all grain in the County '.
At Aberystwyth, lead miners entered the town at night and broke open store houses and took away the corn.
Corn riots broke out at Narberth in Pem, and Bridgend in Gla, and troops were rushed to these places, and also to Carmarthen..
There was also trouble in the south over the new standard corn measure called the 'Winchester', at Fishguard, the small farmers, stoutly resisting this perceived imposition, defied the clerk of the market and a magistrate, and rioting also broke out in Bridgend and Carmarthen early in the year. At Carmarthen, a large mob led by small farmers dragged the brass Winchester measure from the market place to the Dark Gate and destroyed it.
During the summer there were food riots proper in the counties of Pembrokeshire[ Pem ] and Mon, in Pem colliers supplied themselves with corn at reduced prices.
One of the most notable disturbances took place at Haverfordwest in August when a great crowd of colliers, women and children from Hook came marching down the High St shouting 'One and All - One and All'. They fixed their attention on a ship loaded with butter in the harbour, but found their way blocked by firstly men of importance in the town, and secondly by 50 men of the Carmarthenshire Milita.The Riot Act was read and the milita ordered to load with ball upon which the colliers turned and ran out of the town. Some were seized, the following day the Fishguard Fencibles were called in to replace the Milita. The colliers were reported to be frightened and would not stir again.
There were also dangerous corn riots in north east Wales which overshadowed those seen in the south.
The high price of corn continued until the summer of 1796 before falling gradually to a low level where it remained until the end of the century before rising sharply again. In February 1796, the Pembrokeshire magistrates denounced the activities of engrossers and regraters. The poorer classes wanted ' no buying corn but in Market and at the usual reasonable price'. They claimed, for instance , that agents shipped corn from Gower farms direct to Swansea breweries under the pretence that it was 'English corn'.
Even without this deception, the use of grain by the malsters and distillers was a constant source of trouble.
Perhaps the most hated men in the corn trade were the 'badgers', who were corn dealers who bought the corn from the farmer and shipped much of it away from the rural areas , partly for exporting.
Such was the opposition of the working classes to the export of corn in years of scarcity and high prices that in Cardiganshire, for example, magistrates late in 1795 , passed a resolution ' that no Exportation of any Grain from this County should be permitted till the next Harvest, if it is , such in all probability will cause Riots'.
So severe were the corn riots of 1800 and 1801 that people feared widespread disaffection and revolt. In local newspapers it was pointed out that an "artificial scarcity of wheat " had been one of the main instruments in bringing about the French Revolution.
One of the most spectacular corn riots of 1800 was at Llangattock in Bre involving a load of barley-meal and bran from Abergavenny being taken to Dowlais iron works in Gla which was stopped by a large crowd of miners and colliers intent on preventing it leaving the county, although they were eventually unsuccessful in that attempt.
This was followed some months later, in the area of Dowlais, by the most serious of the corn riots in Wales in the 1793-1801 period.
The first disturbances took place at Merthyr Tydfil in September, a report at the time talked of 'Morgan Lewis Shop is totally demolished ' and 'I fancy 2000 people are at present doing all the mischief they can', and 'Immediate assistance must be had' and ' They have stopped everything at Cyfarthfa & Pendaran but the Furnace' etc etc. Simon Homfray, the iron master and magistrate, had left the town that morning at there was no military force within miles. The damage done to property was estimated at thousands of pounds with bakers and shopkeepers being targetted. The end result was that the panic stricken shopkeepers came to terms with the rioters and agreed to price regulation.
The following day, Homfray envisaged a wave of rioting spreading through Neath and Swansea until it reached the Pembrokeshire coast, but for the moment attention still centred on Merthyr Tydfil. Industrial workers were pouring into the town from neighbouring works to join the 'Merthyr mob', local furnaces were stopped and rioting was at its height.
The defences of the propertied class were gradually marshalled, troops began to arrive and within a few days they had a sufficient presence to put the town under curfew. Fifty odd prisoners were taken and escorted to Cardiff gaol.
Throughout 1800, there had been much unrest in Pem. Magistrates and others recived anonymous letters threatening to destroy their property.
Working class people in the Haverfordwest area were in a very agitated state over the price of barley, their staple diet. To relieve their suffering, corn was bought and sold to them at half price, but this alarmed the merchants who then stopped importing corn. The workers started to burn the property of farmers, and late in 1800 the Carmarthen Milita were called out when riots took place all over the county[Pem]. A report in the Spring said " the People are upon the Eve of rising in Mass " and were waiting for the landing of French troops.
The workers from Newport, [Pem], who complained of the high price of bread in January 1801, stated that barley had risen at Cardigan to eleven shillings and ninepence a quarter and oats to thirty shillings a teal, whereas they were not able to pay for the barley and oats more than ten shillings and fourteen shillings respectively. The Newport rioters suspected the work of men as well as nature behind such excessive prices since the harvests of 1799 and 1800 were not catastrophic failures leaving the working classes to doubt whether a natural scarcity existed.
A mob led by John Ladd, mayor of Newport, set off for Llwyn-gwair, home of the Bowen family, where two justices lived, but they were not there. A plan was made to gather again the following day at Newport market and force the sale of corn cheaply but John Ladd was arrested and kept in gaol for the following 3 market days, the plan was never carried out.
At Carmarthen, where wheat was 20s per Winchester bushel and barley 11s to 14s, soldiers were called out to stop the colliers causing a riot.
In April 1801 , at Swansea, a crowd of women and children paraded the streets and forced open the doors of a warehouse demanding corn at reasonable prices. The military were called, and the Riot Act was read, two ringleaders were taken but were allowed to escape. Theer were further disturbances that evening and fearing the participation of a large number of colliers, a request was made to Cardiff for military assistance who arrived the next day when matters had quietened down anyway.
The Corn Riots 1793-1801 did not represent a conflict between capital and labour, and were not generally over wages or working conditions despite disputes in Swansea and Merthyr that did also involve wage claims. The main cause of unrest was the high cost of provisions, and the main enemies of the rioters were farmers, 'a very fine Tongued Gentry', bakers, and 'petty merchants'.
In other words, supplier-consumer conflicts rather than employee-employer conflicts, it would not be incorrect to refer to them as "hunger disturbances by desperate men".
They were not overtly political, although there were hints of political motives on occasion such as with the 'Patriots' of Swansea who spoke of France as "a warning". There was some disaffection of constables and military; two examples--it was reported that the Fishguard Fencibles actually helped a rioting mob unload butter from a ship in Fishguard harbour ; and Samuel Homfray stated that the Glamorgan Milita " would be of little service as there are a great many merthyr people amongst them".
In the wider British context, the disturbances were a factor behind the prohibition on grain export in 1795-97 and 1800, and also behind the suspension of import duties for some protected grains in 1795-97.
[Based on Before Rebecca, Popular Protests in Wales 1793-1835, by DJV Jones, Allen Lane, 1973.]