In Sheffield on the morning of 14 April 1812, a group of unemployed men who had been ordered to dig the foundations for a new cemetery downed their tools. Rather than dig graves, the men marched on empty stomachs to the marketplace where their numbers swelled with hundreds of other out of work artisans.
The crowd stole vegetables, fish, grain and butter, believing their prices to be unfairly inflated, before proceeding to an arms depot where they looted and smashed the rifles stored there.
The uprising, involving some 5000 people, happened amid a war in Europe that undermined Britain’s ability to trade. Unemployment had increased and food prices had rocketed.
Today South Yorkshire is calm. On a cold, clear afternoon in February, I stood outside a Tesco store in Rotherham, an area that is more deprived than 80% of the country, to try and find out if high food prices still make people angry.
Shand, a man in his late 20s, was the first person I spoke to. “It’s pretty tough, I’ll be honest,”’ he told me. “I’ve been out of work for four years now. So I buy the cheapest I possibly can. You just got to deal with it at the minute.”
In total, I talked to 26 people over the course of an afternoon. All were upset about high food prices, yet only four suggested anything could be done about them. Shand expressed his support for workers striking to demand wages rise in line with living costs: “A couple years ago everybody were clapping for our key workers, now they want to sack them”. But Becky, a single mother in her late 20s, had a take I found far more typical: “It’s probably something we’re going to have to accept,” she said. “I try not to get involved in politics.”
While an apathetic fatalism seemed to be the norm that afternoon in Rotherham, food riots were once a regular occurrence across England from the early modern period until around the end of the Napoleonic wars. Although they weren’t always as riotous as the one in Sheffield in 1812, nor as indeed the name would suggest.
“Riot is a very blunt term, and it doesn’t reveal much about what was actually going on,” Steve Poole, a professor of history, told me when I met him in the now up-market Narrow Quay area of Bristol. “Usually [food riots] were a collective action designed to provoke magistrates into intervening,” he explained.
Poole prefers the term food disturbances, which, he said, appeared when a shared set of values were contravened. These values, or the “moral economy”, as the historian EP Thompson famously called them, assumed that “the price of basic resources should never outstrip the ability of the poor to pay for them. This is an idea in which production and consumption are mediated by both law and custom, rather than the market.”
Food riots, Poole told me, began to die out when the iron hand of the state replaced this system of community values with a free market.
In the 19th century, in the wake of Chartism, came very gradual political representation for the lower classes in Britain, alongside the development of trade unionism: the two chief means of integrating the needs of the lower classes into what emerged as the welfare state. But with Margaret Thatcher, enthusiastically followed by Tony Blair, came the end of collective bargaining and a decline in the state’s ability to meet the needs of its working class citizens. So where does that leave those with material grievances today?
For those unable to take part in what remains of the UK’s trade union movement, there are other avenues to go down. Last year, taking inspiration from the anti-poll tax campaign, 200,000 people pledged not to pay their energy bills when Ofgem’s price cap was lifted in October. In her brief stint as prime minister, Liz Truss didn’t raise the cap as high as was expected, and so the boycott failed to go ahead. But leaked documents show that energy companies saw the Don’t Pay campaign as an existential threat to their business model. So could the same thing happen with food?
As the economist James Meadway explained to me when I interviewed him last year, there are several causes of food price inflation. Foremost is Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has seen energy and fertiliser prices rise, as well as stifling an important producer of grain. Brexit has played a part, although, as the presence of food inflation across Europe shows, this is far from the primary cause. The issue that really ought to trouble people, Meadway told me, is climate change. “From this point onwards, it’s going to get harder to grow food than it used to be,” he said.
These enormous and complicated reasons for rising food prices are difficult for people to unpick and, to an extent, obscure who to blame. But as with energy, giant agri-businesses have used their concentration of market shares to exploit these crises, making super profits for their shareholders. Supermarkets made a killing during Covid and continue to post record profits now, while the number of billionaires in Britain has increased tenfold since 1990, with the richest 1% capturing an ever increasing share of wealth created since the pandemic. Like the food rioters of Britain’s past, those struggling to make ends meet today have a number of potential targets for their anger, should they want one.
Meadway thinks targeting the government could have an impact. “Do we start to say something like: ‘well, why don’t you control the price of essential foods?’ You can see the argument getting traction,” he said. “A protest campaign around some of these issues might start to push the government towards working like this.”
But it might not just be the absence of a clear target that is stopping people from mobilising, said Poole. “The main thing that’s lost when the moral economy vanishes is the sense that we have a legitimate right to subsistence,” he told me. People today tend to view the modern market economy as natural and unchangeable. Where food rioters and magistrates once saw forestalling, market engineering and profiteering as interferences in people’s right to bread, “that’s the sort of thing [that] in the 1980s we learned were entrepreneurial virtues.”
Back in Rotherham, Mick, a tree surgeon in his early 40s, isn’t exactly crying out for a radical campaign. “Something needs to be done but I don’t know what,” he told me. “I take trees down, I’m alright at that, so I leave [other] people to run the country.”
Although high food prices bother him, Mick isn’t struggling financially. Tanya is. Last year she moved in with her sister, when chronic back pain put her out of work. Her sister has a full time job, yet the pair are unable to pay for heating and depend on hot water bottles and blankets to keep warm. They’ve also cut down on what they eat. “We’re doing our best, really. I mean I think most of us are. But what can you do?”
I asked Tanya about the Don’t Pay campaign. “No, I don’t know about that, ” she told me, and she isn’t sure she would have taken part in it either. “But something has got to be done,” she said, “because it’s just getting worse and worse every week.”