Popular Petitioning and the Corn Laws, 1833-1846

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IN 1837, Arthur Anderson, a London merchant who hailed from the Shetland Islands, petitioned the House of Commons for the repeal of the corn laws—the statutes which regulated the importation and exportation of cereals, and imposed duties on foreign corn to protect domestic agriculture. The Islands were in ‘a state of great backwardness’ compared to other areas of the country. On account of their geographical position, soil and climate, the Islanders’ food supply was precarious; Anderson estimated that during the previous season, two-thirds of the population, or 20,000 people, had been partly or wholly without the means of subsistence. The Islanders’ ability to obtain sufficient food was dependent upon exchanging their fish for corn and other foodstuffs from elsewhere. The corn laws, Anderson argued, were an injurious restriction of trade that prevented the inhabitants from obtaining food in the cheapest market and from profitably trading fish, which they had in abundance. Anderson, later a member of the Anti-Corn Law League, and Liberal MP for Orkney and Shetland between 1847 and 1852, coupled his demand for repeal with a package of other policies designed to promote the economic development of the islands.1 As was customary, Anderson’s petition closed with a prayer, summarising the petition’s contents before finishing with ‘And your petitioner, &c’, before the petitioner’s name. The themes of Anderson’s prayer were supported by a petition from the Island’s inhabitants in the same year, and another in 1841.2 The case of the Shetlands may perhaps be an unusual example, but nonetheless suggests how a study of petitions can reveal support for repeal of the corn laws far from the League’s Lancashire heartland, and the ways in which such support was grounded in local contexts, including political traditions, economic interests and geography.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)822-919
Number of pages37
JournalEnglish Historical Review
Issue number527
Publication statusPublished - 7 May 2012

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