Penny Loaves and Butter Cheap: Britain in 1846 by Stephen Bates

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Penny Loaves and Butter Cheap: Britain in 1846 by Stephen Bates

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A survey of events of 1846, dominated by the repeal of the corn laws, but also with emphasis on other artistic and social achievements of the era.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 344 Date: February 2014
Publisher: Head of Zeus
ISBN: 9781781852545

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Until I picked up this book, I would never have really thought of 1846 as a pivotal year in British history. Stephen Bates has proved convincingly in these pages that if it was not exactly a watershed one, it nevertheless marked an era of change.

During the early 1840s, developments ushered in by the industrial revolution were still setting the pace of the nation’s economic life. It was the decade which saw the introduction of penny postage throughout the land, and the first to be documented albeit sparsely by the daguerreotype or photograph. The railway network was rapidly developing, and in the process making it easy to get from A to B in a way which nobody could have imagined a generation earlier, while much of the population was moving from countryside to towns and cities.

The most important event of 1846 was a political one – the repeal of the Corn Laws. In brief, these were a protectionist measure designed to safeguard British and Irish cereal producers against competition from cheaper foreign imports, by imposing steep import duties and making the importation of grain from overseas prohibitively expensive – even in times of famine when as much food as possible was badly needed. The Tory Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel made it his mission to sweep this legislation away, even though his eagerness to do so was bitterly opposed by many in his own party. Peel was in some ways a surprisingly radical Tory, intent on reducing food prices and reducing the power of landowners in the interests of free trade. His was a high-risk strategy, and he was applauded by the opposition. But the old Tory party was split as a result, and found itself out of power for many years. (Bitterly divided political parties – nothing changes, does it?) A new alignment was the result, with a remodelled Conservative party emerging on one side and a Liberal party, consisting of a merger of Liberals and Whigs, on the other.

The character of Peel and his fight to do right, even if it meant making enemies, dominates this book. A picture emerges of a warm-hearted, generous man prepared to play for high stakes, even if it meant the end of his career – which in effect it did. Yet much else was happening outside the world of politics. Britain almost went to war against the United States of America over a border dispute with Canada. It was a good year for art and literature with Charles Dickens writing Dombey and Son, the as-yet-unknown Charlotte Brontë writing Jane Eyre, Felix Mendelssohn writing his oratorio Elijah and conducting the premiere at Birmingham. Sporting life reached a milestone when the first English professional cricket team took the field in Sheffield.

Yet there were tragic events as well. In Ireland, a fungal blight was devastating the potato crop, the result being famine on a disastrous scale, which not only helped to precipitate the crisis at Westminster, but also had reverberations and a direct bearing on Anglo-Irish relations for many years afterwards. Meanwhile, that same year in London the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon, disillusioned by years of frustrated ambition, failure and debt, locked himself in his studio, wrote his will, and cut his throat. It is recorded that when Peel heard the unhappy news, he immediately wrote a cheque for the immediate relief of the dead man’s family, and promised that another one would be forthcoming once a subscription was opened.

There are glimpses and snapshots of much else besides: major paintings by J.M.W. Turner (see below) and William Powell Frith of the railways, both very different but both long since regarded as masterpieces; a translation by Mary Anne Evans, later known as George Eliot, of the 1,5000-page ‘Life of Jesus by Strauss, for which she was paid a mere £20; Elizabeth Barrett eloping to make a clandestine wedding with fellow poet Robert Browning, both desperate that her father should not find out before they had fled as man and wife to Italy; Sir John Franklin gallantly leading a naval expedition from Greenwich to the Arctic in order to find a way through the Northwest Passage, which might open a route to the Pacific, but sadly perishing in the attempt.

An enterprising eight-page section of plates halfway through includes portraits, caricatures and engravings. Among the most striking pictures are a reproduction of Turner’s last great painting, Rain, Steam and Speed, a daguerreotype of Whitehall seen from Westminster Square in 1839, thought to be the earliest photograph ever taken in London, and one of the Chartist demonstration in Kennington nine years later, probably the first news photograph.

This is a fascinating book, an overview of an important year in a very interesting age. Bates has done his research well, and this is exactly the kind of book to stimulate the appetite for further reading on different aspects of the subject.

If this book appeals then you might like to try High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain by Simon Heffer.

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