Reign of Queen Victoria - M. B. Synge

Free Trade

Few movements in our modern history have been more hotly discussed than that of Free Trade. When Queen Victoria came to the throne some twelve hundred articles coming into Britain were taxed more or less heavily. By this means, Britain, like every other nation, protected her commerce from foreign competition. This encouraged British people to buy British goods in preference to foreign goods, and British farmers to grow corn. It enabled farmers and manufacturers to obtain higher prices for their goods than they could have done if foreign goods had not been taxed.

But the population of the British Isles was growing rapidly in the great manufacturing districts of the north. Up to this time it had been possible to grow enough corn in Britain to supply the wants of all our people, but now there were many extra mouths to feed, and there was not enough bread for all.

It was in the fast-growing city of Manchester, where men fought for bread, where women sold their wedding-rings to get food for the starving children, that the idea of repealing the Corn Laws, and allowing foreign corn to enter this country untaxed, was forced upon a little band of thinking men.

Foremost among those Lancashire men who wished for the repeal of the Corn Laws were two whose names will ever stand out in our country's history—Richard Cobden and John Bright. There is nothing more attractive in the whole history of Victoria's reign than the close bond of brotherhood which existed between these two apostles of Free Trade.

Having convinced themselves that nothing else would bring prosperity to their country, they set to work, never sparing themselves, never resting, till their object was attained. The two men worked together in perfect harmony. They were both eager to lift the whole question above the strife of party.

But Sir Robert Peel, the Prime Minister, who had succeeded Lord Melbourne, was pledged to Protection—that is, to keep some tax on foreign corn—and he was slow in coming round to the new idea of Free Trade, lest the farmers of Britain should be ruined.

Richard Cobden


Cobden and Bright went about the country speaking to vast masses of people, explaining the idea of Free Trade. Though they were opposed by the large landowners and farmers, the agitation grew with amazing vigour.

When, in 1845, the Irish potato crop partially failed, a great cry rang through the land for free corn. It was echoed in England by the Anti-Corn Law League, and Cobden and Bright renewed their efforts to convince the people of the real necessity of taking this step. "Famine itself, against which we warred, had joined us," said Bright, long years later.

John Bright


The months passed on and still a tax of 18s. a quarter lay on the importation of foreign corn, which supplied the people with bread. At last matters reached a crisis. The New Year of 1846 dawned, and with it came a rumour that the Prime Minister intended to repeal the Corn Laws. On January 22 the House met—the Queen opened it in person. The speech from the throne suggested a change. Then Sir Robert Peel announced his conversion. He was convinced that the time had come to abandon Protection; he felt that the Manchester school of Free Traders was right.

Peel the Protectionist had become Peel the Free Trader.

But there was one man listening to him who was not converted so easily, who did not agree with Cobden and Bright that Free Trade was the only remedy for the present discontent.



Young Benjamin Disraeli had sat in the House of Commons for the past ten years. Entering public life in 1832 as a Radical, he changed his opinions and became Tory member for Maidstone in 1837. His first speech, made in the year of the Queen's accession, had been received with laughter and contempt, but as he sat down he had shouted these prophetic words: "Ave, sir, and though I sit down now, the time will come when you will hear me." His dramatic manner, his wild gestures, his exaggerated dress, all helped to make him ridiculous. He had a long, pale face and black eyes, his coal-black hair fell in bunches of "well-oiled ringlets over his left cheek ". His favourite dress consisted of a bottle-green frock-coat and waistcoat, a black tie with no collar, and large fancy trousers. Such a grotesque figure could not command respect, and so far his political career had failed.

Now his time had come, and he showed the "genius of the born leader by stepping forth at the critical moment and giving the word of command."

From this time, when he upheld the principles of Protection against Free Trade, he made great strides to fame. He urged that to abolish the taxes on corn must ruin agriculture. He acknowledged the possibility of temporary triumph. "For a moment your ports may be filled with shipping, your factories smoke on every plain, your forges flame in every city . . . . But the dark and inevitable hour will arrive . . . . there will be an awakening of bitterness."

But, notwithstanding Disraeli's vehement protest, Free Trade won the day, and the summer of 1846 found the Corn Laws repealed.

It was followed by the repeal of many other duties, until at the death of the Queen, only twenty articles out of twelve hundred were taxed, and they were for the most part luxuries, such as wine, spirits, tobacco, &c.

The result was that goods of all kinds became much cheaper in this country than they had been before. Large quantities of corn were imported, and the price of bread fell. American cotton, Australian wool, and other raw materials were cheapened, and our manufacturers were able to produce much larger quantities of finished goods at lower prices. More ships were needed to bring the raw materials from abroad, and to carry back manufactured goods. Our foreign trade was enormously increased, and Great Britain became the most prosperous manufacturing country in the world.

The advocates of Free Trade made no doubt that if Britain once opened her doors to foreign goods free of tax, other nations would immediately follow, and all would adopt Free Trade. This, however, was not the case; many countries, indeed, increased their taxes, and their peoples began to complain of the higher prices they had to pay for everything, just as our own people had done in the days of Protection.