The 18th century in Manchester was a turbulent period which saw numerous riots over food distribution. This article investigates the history of these food riots and the importance they played for the working class.
During the cotton revolution of the 1790s, rural voices were increasingly raised against cotton weavers who leased agricultural land at high rents. In Manchester insufficient farming techniques, soil conditions and a wet climate resulted in increasing disparity between grain production and consumption. This created a harvest of vast mix quality in 1772 and meant there was greater reliance on fewer crops, causing the cost of grain to double and oat prices to increase per bushel.
By March 1776, the rise in food prices made it very hard to purchase food, food most labourers relied on for their existence. Virtually all the food riots between 1775 and 1800 were concerned with the subsistence crops of oats and wheat. The market was an ideal venue for the venting of mob frustration as it provided a ready-made audience, facilitated subsequent escape and the houses of local grain dealers were an easy target. In reaction to the rise in food prices, in July 1795 a Manchester mob attacked the houses of unpopular grain merchants, broke windows and destroyed the furniture of the corn dealers. The sound of breaking glass was a common feature of food rioting in the region and worried the authorities. Once the rioters mastered an area, they seized grain, forced storekeepers to sell it at a reasonable price and then set about distributing it fairly.
The food riots were a fairly representative cross-section of the labouring classes. Labourers and weavers made up the majority of the rioters. Manchester was the ideal ground for interaction between food rioting and politics, and the riots were highly organised where even women played a prominent role. Popular unrest was also paralleled by discontent with Manchester’s lack of representation at Westminster, and the town quickly became a centre of racial agitation as well. During the food riots, the political element was almost non-existent but the experience of rioting provided an audience of working-class that by 1800 was willing to listen to revolutionary political ideas. The foot riots became an integrated part of a wider conception of working class protest, it was the first step in the protracted process of class development in the region.