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English hunger and industrial disorders : a study of social conflict during the first decade of George III's reign Shelton, Walter James


This dissertation deals with the provincial hunger riots and the metropolitan industrial riots of the first decade of George III's reign. By focussing both on the immediate causes of these disturbances and on the underlying social tensions which determined their form and direction, it seeks to explain why this was the worst period of disorder in the century, although in other decades the deprivations of the poor were greater. Early studies of the riots of the 1760's which have not dealt exclusively with political disturbances have treated the riots as part of the history of trade unions or of the story of the rural labourer's degradation. As a result, the interrelationship of these two expressions of social discontent has been ignored by most historians of popular movements. More recent studies have presented the hunger and industrial disorders primarily in terms of the discontents of the rioters. By focussing closely upon the "faces in the crowd" scholars have corrected the misconception that eighteenth-century mobs were chiefly composed of the most depraved elements in society. But in the process of this legitimate attempt to rehabilitate the historical crowd, such students have been rather reluctant to concede its manipulation by those standing over and apart from the mob. This is particularly true when rioters clearly acted according to socially appropriate goals, as was usually the case with rural hunger mobs and industrial strikers. This results in the undervaluing of the role of other interests, and stresses immediate at the expense of secondary causation. This work sets the rioters of the 1760's in their social context and presents the riots as the product of an interaction of the poor, the landowners, the industrialists, the local authorities, and the national government. All of these interests contributed to disorder in some fashion: by suggesting the poor regulate markets for themselves, the gentry encouraged them to take actions for which many later were tried by special assize; by failing to suppress the initial disorders, the magistrates appeared to sanction the acts of the mobs; by blaming middlemen for high prices of food, clothiers and other industrialists in the distressed cloth counties of Southern England diverted their underpaid workers towards bunting mills and local markets; by proclaiming the old anti-middlemen statutes against forestalling, engrossing, and regrating instead of ending grain exports, the Ministry confirmed that the food shortage was artificial and encouraged further attacks upon middlemen and farmers; by blaming coal-undertakers and then failing to enforce existing legislation against these middlemen of the coal trade, the government encouraged coalheavers to act in their own defence. While the timing of the disorders of the 1760's was determined by such factors as sudden fluctuations in the prices of provisions, attempts to reduce wages or employment opportunities for the poor, or grain movements in times of anticipated famine, the form and direction were the result of the expectations of various interests. The significance of expectations is apparent in the important role played by veterans of the Seven Years' War and the equivocal reaction to the initial hunger riots of the ruling orders. The responses of the poor and the privileged alike can only be explained with reference to important social changes, which resulted after the mid-century from agricultural and industrial developments. The effects of these social changes was aggravated by war and by the progressive abandonment of the principles and practices of the old "moral economy."

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