Meat is murder: James Gillray, The British-Butcher, supplying John Bull with a substitute for bread, vide message to Lord Mayor, 6th July 1795
The present is a season of ferment and riot. The old cry against forestallers has been raised again with more violence than ever… There is no weak, no wild, no violent project, which did not find countenance in some quarter or other… [T]he multitude began to pursue their usual course of providing in the shortest way for their instant wants, or of terrifying, or punishing those, whom they had been taught to consider as their oppressors.
– Edmund Burke, Thoughts and Details on Scarcity, 1795
When Burke sat down to write his Thoughts and Details on Scarcity in November 1795, he did not have to look far to find an explanation for the severe recession that had taken hold of the British economy during the previous twelve months. In the lengthy preamble of his memorandum, he noted that the “dry and burning summer” of 1794 had given way to a prolonged winter of “unnatural frosts” and torrential rain which had “utterly destroyed” the new year’s harvest. Crops of wheat, rye, barley, beans, turnips and peas had failed all across England, whilst livestock and dairy farmers were forced to cull there herds as they found that even the grass in their pastures had been “killed to the very roots”. By April the price of bread, the staple food of Georgian England, had shot up by 40%, while the cost of meat, butter, milk, cheese and vegetables, virtually doubled. The failure of the harvest had also produced widespread unemployment in a nation where the majority of the population still relied on agriculture for their living. By the spring of 1795 many British households found themselves being viciously squeezed by a pincer movement of high inflation and falling wages, with a loaf of bread now costing more than the daily wage one could expect to earn in most manual occupations.
These shortages were particularly acute across the south of England, where the remains of the shrunken harvest were often snapped up by provision merchants from London and carted off to the capital to be sold on at an inflated price. It has been estimated that London consumed almost three-quarters of the grain traded within England by the end of the eighteenth century, and in times of dearth its merchants were known to range as far afield as Yorkshire and Devon in order satisfy the rumbling guts of the metropolis. Government attempts to impose price caps on the sale of bread proved to be almost entirely unenforceable and for many people it became all too easy to blame these speculators for further pushing up the price of food.
Sporadic rioting began to break out all across the southern half of England during the spring and summer of 1795. In some cases the rioters appear to have had no greater motive than to exact revenge upon those deemed guilty of profiting from the crisis. In April 1795 for example, a mob carried a ‘mourning loaf’ covered in black crepe into the marketplace at Coventry and then set about smashing the windows of every butcher, baker and greengrocer in sight. But in other areas the rioters showed a remarkable degree of restraint, with the threat of physical force being used only as a last resort in order to prevent foodstuffs from leaving the local area. In Congleton, Cheshire, a group of women seized an outbound wagon carrying wheat and oats in October 1795, forced the driver to return to the centre of town and then presided over an impromptu auction of the goods which were sold off at pre-shortage prices. At times it appeared as though the riots risked pitching the country into a full-blown revolution, as reports began to filter into London that units of militia and regular soldiers were siding with the rioters. In Wantage, Oxfordshire, troops from the 114th Regiment marched into town to protect local businesses and then turned on the horrified proprietors and ordered them to immediately lower their prices. Men from the 112th went even further, seizing cartloads of provisions as they entered the town of Wells in Somerset and then selling them on cheaply to the hungry locals.
Surprisingly, given the degree of coverage which the riots received in the press and Parliament at the time, the unrest of 1795 does not appear to have made much of an impression on contemporary caricaturists. The British Museum’s huge collection of eighteenth-century satirical prints contains only a handful of designs which refer to the food shortages and the unrest that followed. The explanation for this is probably twofold; firstly, because the worst of the rioting took place in the provinces and English caricature in this period was often myopically indifferent to events that occurred beyond the immediate confines of central London. And secondly, because a lot of the more radically-inclined prints which were produced during 1795 have not survived. We know for example, thanks to an article that appeared in the Oracle of 10th July, that a radical caricature by an unidentified artist was “shewn about” the huge crowd which attended an open air meeting of the radical London Corresponding Society on 29th June.
The image exhibits a large tree, with innumerable branches, from which, by way of fruit are suspended ‘loaves of bread! different joints of meat! heads of cabbage!’ a bottle, with “Gin” inscribed upon it. Under these several men are sitting, with their mouths wide open and these words printed on a label – “if you don’t fall I must rise”. The Ministers and other personages are represented at some distance diverting themselves with the misery of the scene.
However, no copies of this print are known to have survived and therefore our understanding of the caricaturists response to the grain riots is inevitably skewed towards the more collectible output of the fashionable West End print shops.
Gillray’s The British butcher, supplying John Bull with a substitute for bread, vide Message to Lord Mayor shows Pitt in the guise of a butcher, holding a joint of meat towards the figure of John Bull. The meat, Pitt informs us haughtily, is priced as “A Crown… take it or leave it”. The dishevelled John responds by miserably fumbling in his empty pockets as he gazes back forlornly at Pitt. His predicament is explained by the two signs that are pasted to the front of the butcher’s slab, one of which shows the “Prices of Provision 1795” and the other giving “Journeymens Wages 1795”. These make it abundantly clear that even the cheapest cuts of meat would be unaffordable for someone in John’s position and make Pitt’s offer seem both ridiculous and cruel. The rhyme which accompanies the picture further reinforces the image of Pitt as the representative of an indifferent and out-of-touch elite. His instance that the penniless John Bull should feed himself on expensive cuts of meat no doubt intended to carrying deliberate overtones of Marie Antoinette’s famous exhortation – “let them eat cake”. It reads:
Since Bread is so dear, (and you say you must Eat,)
For to save the Expence, you must live upon Meat;
And as Twelve Pence the Quartern you can’t pay for Bread
Get a Crown’s worth of Meat, – it will serve in its stead
The historian Diana Donald describes this print as an attempt to “exceed, perhaps even to burlesque, the emotional violence of the radicals” and whilst it was certainly one of the most outspokenly critical satires which Gillray was to produce during 1795, it reflects Foxite demands for government intervention to secure higher wages and fixed prices, rather than adherence to a genuinely radical political agenda. For confirmation of its mainstream political credentials we need look no further than the figure of John Bull, who is shown accepting his fate with a glum but thoroughly deferential silence that stands in marked contrast to the threatening tone of the radical satire described by the Oracle newspaper. Ultimately, Gillray’s John Bull is intended to be an object of pity for the paternalistic middle class consumer, rather than a radical symbol of working class defiance or self-liberation. The representation of radical agitators and their followers as subhuman halfwits in prints such as Copenhagen House (1795) and London Corresponding Society alarm’d, – vide guilty consciences (1798), also provides us with further evidence with which to dispel any notion that Gillray was sympathetic to the reformist cause.