Our Island Story - H. E. Marshall

Victoria—When Bread Was Dear

Some time after Victoria began to reign, the poor people were in great distress. Work was scarce and bread was dear, and many died of hunger.

Long ago, most of the people in Britain used to live by cultivating the land; that is, by ploughing, sowing, and reaping. In those days enough corn was grown in Britain to feed all the people. But as years went on, the great lords, who owned the land, found that they made more money by rearing sheep for their wool than by growing corn and wheat for food. So year by year less and less corn was grown in the island. Year by year, too, more babies were born and grew up into men and women, so that there were more people to feed. Then discoveries began to be made and factories were built, and the people who used to plough and sow went into the towns to work in the factories. And so, because it became more difficult to find people to do farm work, still less corn was grown. Gradually the supply of corn became very small and, in consequence, very dear. For it always happens that if there is only a little of something which a great many people want, that article becomes very dear and only those who are well off can afford to buy it. That is what happened to corn in Britain. There was not enough for all, and it became so dear that only the rich people could buy it, and the poor people starved. Bread was so dear that, however hard men worked, they could not earn enough to feed themselves and their children.

There was plenty of corn in other parts of the world. In fact people in other parts of the world had more than they wanted. They would gladly have sold it to Britain, and have bought instead, the beautiful cloths which were being made in the British factories. In that way the people in Britain would have had plenty to eat, and the people in other parts of the world would have had better clothes to wear, and every one would have been happier and better off.

But, unfortunately, some years before this, a law had been passed that no foreign corn might be brought into the country until British corn cost eighty shillings a quarter, which is very, very dear indeed. The people who made this law meant to be kind to the farmers and help them to get a good price for their corn, but they did not see how unkind they were to the poor.

At last a few people saw what a dreadful mistake these Corn Laws, as they were called, were, and they began with all their might and main to try to have them altered. The chief of these people were John Bright, Richard Cobden, and Charles Villiers, but they found it was very difficult to make others think as they did.

For a long time they fought in vain, while the people grew poorer and poorer, starving, struggling, dying. Even little children and old men had to work hard all day long, always hungry.

'Child, what has thou with sleep to do?

Awake and dry thine eyes:

Thy tiny hands must labour too;

Our bread is tax'd, arise!

Arise, and toil long hours twice seven,

For pennies two or three;

Thy woes make angels weep in heaven,

But England still is free.

'Up, weary man of eighty-five,

And toil in hopeless woe;

Our bread is tax'd, our rivals thrive,

Our gods will have it so.

Yet God is undethron'd on high,

And undethron'd will be:

Father of all! hear Thou our cry

And England shall  be free!'

But there was worse still to come. In Ireland nearly all the poor people lived on potatoes only. And the potatoes all went bad. In a few weeks the food which ought to have lasted for a whole year became rotten.

This was such a terrible misfortune that some of the men who had been against the repeal of the Corn Laws went over to the other side and tried to do away with them as fast as they could. Among these men was Sir Robert Peel, who was now Prime Minister. They knew that unless corn could be brought cheaply into Ireland there would be a famine.

A famine did come, and the people died in hundreds. Little children cried in vain to their mothers for something to eat. The mothers had nothing to give. It was a dreadful time, worse than any war.

Rich people sent money and food to the poor, starving Irish, but in spite of everything that was done, the misery was terrible. Some of the food and money came from the United States of America—from the colonies which Britain had so lately lost. The owners of ships and railways did what they could too, and all parcels which were marked 'For Ireland,' were carried free on their trains and ships. When at last the famine was over, it was found that nearly a quarter of the people in Ireland had died.

But the Corn Laws had been done away with.


Front Matter

Albion and Brutus
The Coming of the Romans
The Romans Come Again
Caligula Conquers Britain
The Story of Boadicea
The Last of the Romans
The Story of St. Alban
Vortigern and King Constans
Hengist and Horsa
Hengist's Treachery
The Giant's Dance
The Coming of Arthur
Founding of the Round Table
Gregory and the Children
King Alfred Learns to Read
Alfred and the Cowherd
More About Alfred the Great
Ethelred the Unready
Edmund Ironside
Canute and the Waves
Edward the Confessor
Harold Godwin
The Battle of Stamford Bridge
The Battle of Hastings
Hereward the Wake
Death of the King
The Story of William the Red
The Story of the "White Ship"
The Story of King Stephen
Henry II—Gilbert and Rohesia
Thomas a Becket
The Conquest of Ireland
Richard Coeur de Lion
How Blondel Found the King
The Story of Prince Arthur
The Great Charter
Henry III and Hubert de Burgh
Simon de Montfort
The Poisoned Dagger
The War of Chalons
The Lawgiver
The Hammer of the Scots
King Robert the Bruce
The Battle of Bannockburn
The Battle of Sluys
The Battle of Crecy
The Siege of Calais
The Battle of Poitiers
Wat Tyler's Rebellion
How Richard Lost His Throne
The Battle of Shrewsbury
Prince Hal Sent to Prison
The Battle of Agincourt
The Maid of Orleans
Red Rose and White
Margaret and the Robbers
The Story of the Kingmaker
A King Who Wasn't Crowned
Two Princes in the Tower
The Make-Believe Prince
Another Make-Believe Prince
The Field of the Cloth of Gold
Defender of the Faith
The Six Wives of Henry VIII
The Story of a Boy King
The Story of Lady Jane Grey
Elizabeth a Prisoner
A Candle Lit in England
Elizabeth Becomes Queen
A Most Unhappy Queen
Saved from the Spaniards
Sir Walter Raleigh
The Queen's Favourite
The Story of Guy Fawkes
The Story of the Mayflower
A Blow for Freedom
King and Parliament Quarrel
The King Brought to Death
The Adventures of a Prince
The Lord Protector
How Death Plagued London
How London was Burned
The Fiery Cross
The Story of King Monmouth
The Story of the Seven Bishops
William the Deliverer
William III and Mary II
A Sad Day in a Highland Glen
How the Union Jack was Made
Earl of Mar's Hunting Party
Bonnie Prince Charlie
Flora MacDonald
The Black Hole of Calcutta
How Canada Was Won
How America Was Lost
A Story of a Spinning Wheel
Every Man Will Do His Duty
The Battle of Waterloo
The First Gentleman in Europe
Two Peaceful Victories
The Girl Queen
When Bread was Dear
Victorian Age: Peace
Victorian Age: War
The Land of Snow
The Siege of Delhi
The Pipes at Lucknow
Under the Southern Cross
From Cannibal to Christian
Boer and Briton
List of Kings