In mid-December of 1756, armed colliers in Wales seized barges on the River Wye near Lidbrook and damaged a nearby mill. For the next three days, numerous barges filled with wheat, barley, peas, and flour were seized up and down the Wye. Barge owners appealed to the rioters without success. When Nailers from nearby Ross-on-Wye joined with the collier-driven mobs, they came upon a scheme to free the barges of the agricultural booty. The food was what was wanting, not the skiffs. Colliers and nailers then began to empty the barges piling up the agricultural booty in the town square of Wilton.

Ross on Wye

(1782) William Gilpin, Grand Woody Banks near Ross-On-Wye. Aquataint etching

Here, both farmers and barge owners were lectured to: farmers about their high prices, and barge owners for transporting local foods to Gloucestershire and then Bristol. Rumours circulated that Bristol merchants intended to sell the grain to the French!  When the colliers offered to pay 5-schilling for a sack of wheat – the traditional price – farmers and barge owners found themselves in a bind. An attempt was made to contact the Justices of the Peace, but their homes were empty as the colliers’ demands grew.

The Daily Advertiser reported that a makeshift market was erected on the last day of the three-day siege in the town of Wilton. A magistrate was located. He dragged a few constables with him. Once arrived, the magistrate sized up the situation: clearly not good. With farmers and barge owners watching, the magistrate, assisted by the constables, set prices and began distributing three-days worth of collected foods. The paper reported that 1500 to 1800 bushels were sold  ‘in about an Hour and half’s Time’…

This food riot example from the eighteenth century demonstrates notions of fairness. Yes, the mob did damage to a nearby mill (the Old Forge Mills some three miles from Ross-on-Wye). And yes, these rioters took charge of dozens of barges (though none were sunk or damaged). And yes, all the agricultural goods they could unload were brought to a town centre. But the mob did not steal. Though they were hungry, though a food shortage had made prices more than double from the previous years, and despite their meager wages, and though it was likely that farmers were forestalling their goods (waiting for the price to go up, mid-December when this went down), the colliers, nailers, and their families were very much in desire to pay for the food. The sudden arrival of the magistrate on the third day of the siege was likely because he was summoned by the so-called mob, to ensure a witness to the transaction.  The rioters wished to hold some moral superiority. The real evil belonged to the farmers and their abhorrent pricing, and the barge owners for sending away locally grown food.

Will file this under “capitalism and its discontents”.