‘Bread or Blood’: Fenland Riots, 200 years on

'Bread or Blood': The soaring price of grain was a key ingredient in the 1816 riots across East Angl

'Bread or Blood': The soaring price of grain was a key ingredient in the 1816 riots across East Anglia. - Credit: Getty Images/Polka Dot RF

In the early summer of 1816, postwar England was alarmed by news of a revolt.

Not by revolt itself - in the uneasy decades following the French Revolution, England was used to that. But where it happened: the long-suffering, conservative rural heartlands of East Anglia.

It began with attacks on farm machinery in remote villages. Later, when the price of bread accelerated further, unrest took the form of attacks on property and persons in Bury St Edmunds, Norwich and Downham Market.

And, on May 22 1816, it reached the quiet village of Littleport in Cambridgeshire. So dramtically did it do so - spilling over into the city of Ely the next day - that these ‘Bread or Blood’ riots are still being commemorated 200 years later.

Labourers had gathered for a Benefit Club meeting at The Globe. A wild night followed. The rioters attacked and burgled a string of (to them no doubt fabulously) affluent homes belonging to shopkeepers; an unpopular local magistrate (the Vicar of Littleport) who had earlier tried to read them the Riot Act; and gentlemen farmers such as Henry Martin, a hated parish overseer and principal farmer of the district. As early hours plans were made to invade Ely, another unpopular landlord-farmer was relieved of three horses and a wagon, which the rioters would weapon into an impressive rural ‘tank’.

On May 23, this rustic army marched to Ely, brandishing pitchforks, muck cromes and fowling guns. On the way they enlisted the aid of the locals and terrorised the millers, butchers and magistrates. They made the latter agree to their demands. When the mounted military was sent in to Littleport the day after, they took them on in an unequal battle and one rioter was killed.

Some 80 rioters were later tried at a Special Ely Assizes, preceded by a service at Ely Cathedral. Prebendary magistrate Sir Henry Bate Dudley (The ‘Fightin’ Parson’), a drinking companion of the Prince Regent, was given the sermon to preach.

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Five Littleport men were hanged and six others transported for up to 14 years. Dudley declared that transportation on the long-discredited hulk ships to New South Wales was a ‘wise measure’ for such men. He was the hero of the hour, at least among those rich enough to raise a subscription of £179 13s 0d to thank him. The Judge - eager to downplay the hardships that postwar austerity was costing the poorest - alleged the labourers had all been in receipt of ‘great wages’.

Yet throughout East Anglia, many were experiencing lengthy spells out of work or not employed full time. During the war and now even more so after it, millers and farmers had been greedily pocketing the mismatch between wages (doubling) and prices (trebling). The war artificially stimulated production and prices, eating up the labourers’ land - especially the commons - and his time, overworking all three. Now the boom was bust. Magistrates - the clergymen and farmers - failed to intervene on the labourers’ behalf. Parsons preached the virtue of a poverty that enriched the landlords. And after leading the united country against a common ‘Jacobin’ [revolutionary] foe, a gentleman-farmer’s Parliament was passing new laws - Enclosure Acts, Game Laws and Corn Laws - in its own narrow class interest. On top of all this, half a million discharged servicemen joined the post-war unemployed.

At Ely, as had happened earlier at Norwich and Downham, agricultural labourers broke into mills and butchers and distributed food and money among the crowd. They deemed the miller as big a rogue as the farmer, “for the millers raise the price by a shilling per comb [or ‘coombe’, a unit of measure popular in East Anglia], just as the farmer raised it 2d per stone.”

The labourers’ demands, punished as sedition by a political establishment fearing revolution (by judges brought in from outside) were heartbreakingly modest. For all the drunken unruliness, they merely extracted from intimidated local magistrates an agreement to do what the landed governing class, committed to a one-society Christianity, had once done for them. Adjust the price of bread and the level of wages so that the latter could afford the former.

But, with Napoleon defeated, stringent property laws were made more stringent. The harsh Poor Laws were made even harsher.

Now the old peasant with common rights was part of a class war between capital and labour, a subsistence-wage labourer unless he augmented his income and diet illegally (eg by poaching, which, under the new game laws, endangered his life, liberty and limbs.) The ‘deserving’ poor were now seen as the ‘designing’ poor.

All this enriched the farmer. Quite a few live-in labourers in Ely and Littleport defended their masters against the agitators while only one live-in labourer in the whole of East Anglia joined them. But the majority, abandoned to self-help, helped themselves.

Greed had fatally divided rural England against itself.

Gareth Calway will perform his story about the riots, commissioned by the Ely Folk Festival and City Council and with ballads sung by Andy Wall, at the Swan on the River, Littleport May 22; Marriott’s Warehouse Upstairs, South Quay, Lynn May 27, Sessions House, Ely June 17, Babylon Gallery, Ely June 28, Folk in a Field Festival, West Acre (extract) July 2 and Ely Folk Festival July 10.

The riots’ double centenary will be celebrated on Riot Day in Littleport on May 22 with Maypole Dancing, costumed guided walks, a re-enactment of the march on Ely, information collated and displayed, some descendants invited back from Australia. Relations of the hanged have been traced.

A field theatre film to be shown; balladeers singing songs about the events and Morris dancing around the village. The Commoners Choir will be singing, local schoolchildren encouraged to dress up.

‘The Ballad of Bread or Blood’ is published in ‘Doin different, new ballads from the East of England’ (Poppyland).