S OME 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
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.