‘Bread or Blood’: 200th anniversary of East Anglian bread riots commemorated with film

PUBLISHED: 17:38 20 January 2016 | UPDATED: 17:38 20 January 2016

Scene shots from Bread or Blood video from Downham Market Academy. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Scene shots from Bread or Blood video from Downham Market Academy. Picture: Matthew Usher.


It was one of the most tumultuous periods of the region’s history, as towns were stalked by insurrection. Now, 200 years after the East Anglian bread riots, a series of events are being planned to commemorate them.

The East Anglian bread riots of 1816

In 1815, the government had increased tax on imported wheat and grain to help pay for the costs of the Napoleonic Wars.

Poor laws introduced were set out to alleviate the financial stresses – but only helped to keep wages artificially low.

This was because farmers knew labourers’ wages would be supplemented by the system. Harvests had also been ruined following heavy rains and freak weather that had resulted from a massive volcanic eruption in Indonesia.

The widespread social unrest developed when basic commodities, such as cereals and bread, became overpriced and unemployment was rife.

Farm labourers across East Anglia struggled immensely in the years leading up to 1816.

Unemployment was high as manual work on the land was gradually being taken over with early forms of machinery being introduced to farming and previous heavy rains had destroyed crops ruining any chances of a decent harvest.

The cost of grain was also high and food was becoming unaffordable for the poor.

Kathleen Wiseman from the Downham and District Heritage Society, said: “Soldiers who had fought in the Napoleonic wars were returning home to nothing.

Scene shots from Bread or Blood video from Downham Market Academy. Picture: Matthew Usher.Scene shots from Bread or Blood video from Downham Market Academy. Picture: Matthew Usher.

“There were no jobs, food was expensive, and there was a lot of bitterness felt amongst those whose livelihoods depended on agriculture.”

To add to the tension, new laws were introduced that meant the poor could no longer use the common land they relied upon to grow extra food or graze cattle.

These ongoing political, social and economic pressures finally came to a head in May 1816. Isolated incidents and small protests cumulated into full scale riots in which the military was called in to control.

Those considered to be the most troublesome were arrested; most were imprisoned, some were deported and a handful were hanged.

Areas where disturbances are reported include Brandon, Downham Market, Norwich, Littleport and Ely.

And local heritage organisations and groups are currently considering how these challenging times can be best commemorated this year.

In Downham Market, for example, where there were riots involving up to 1,500 people, a 30-minute dramatisation of the events has been produced starring former students from Downham Market Academy.

Officials are currently deciding if the film, called ‘Bread or Blood’, could be shown at some point around the anniversary of the events.

In Littleport, the bread riots are considered to be the town’s most significant historical event.

Deborah Curtis is a Fenland author and a director at the Field Theatre Group, which is hosting a series of free history workshops on selected Saturdays leading up to May’s commemorations.

The workshops - titled Rioters in the Blood - are being supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and will take place at the Adams Heritage Centre in Main Street.

She said: “There is strong feeling in Littleport even today about the injustice of those five men who were hanged as a result of the riots.

“There are still descendents of rioters living locally, it’s incredible that they’ve remained in this area, and the community definitely wants to be involved with commemorating its history.”

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