Austerity capitalism in the early nineteenth century: Malt & beer taxes & revolution

In Uncategorized on April 16, 2016 by kmflett

Austerity capitalism in the early nineteenth century: Malt & beer taxes and revolution


As the People’s Assembly against Austerity marched in large numbers in central London on 16th April a reminder that the struggle against oppressive Government has a long history.

In his classic text The Making of the English Working Class, E.P. Thompson noted that ‘per capita beer consumption’ went down between 1800 and 1830.

The reason was straightforward. In order to pay for the war against Napoleonic France successive Governments had hiked the tax on malt which had led to a significant rise in beer prices.

Thompson notes that for workers engaged in heavy labour such as miners and agricultural labourers beer was regarded as ‘drink’ (that is water which was far from always safe to drink). He argues that the ‘home brewing of small ale was essential to the household economy’.

The Malt Tax became so unpopular that Thompson suggests that some saw it as ‘an incitement to revolution’.

There was wide spread evasion of the tax and also a rise in the drinking of both spirits and tea.

The increase in drunkenness caused by the former, as well no doubt as the rise of rural unrest (this was the period of Captain Swing and then the Tolpuddle Martyrs) saw the tax on beer abolished with the 1830) Beerhouses Act. The Malt Tax was also significantly reduced leading to a significant increase in beer drinking (Beer houses could not sell spirits).

It underlines (see the House of Commons debate from 1830 below) that there were limits to how far Governments could push austerity measures in the early nineteenth century. That is surely true in 2016 too


HC Deb 19 March 1830 vol 23 cc620-2 620

Mr. Carter presented a Petition from Portsmouth and Portsea, against the opening of the Trade in Beer.

The Marquis of Chandos presented a Petition from owners and occupiers of land of a hundred in the county of Buckingham, praying for a reduction of the Duty on Malt. The noble Lord expressed himself pleased with the reduction of the Duties on Beer; but still he must say, that unless the tax on Malt were also repealed, the farmer would not get that relief which his condition required. If the Malt duty had been taken off instead of the Beer tax, the advantage to the community would have been greater. He hoped that a motion which stood on the Orders on this subject would be pressed; and that if Ministers were not prepared to repeal this tax this year, they would announce their intention of doing so next year.

Mr. Heathcote contended, that the repeal of the Duties on Beer would give relief to the poor; and that, with the abolition of the present licensing system, would do away with the monopoly of the brewers, who had not reduced the price of Beer though the duty on and price of barley, had been nearly doable their present amount. The reduction of duty since the peace had been from 4s. 6d. to 2s. 6d., and barley had fallen from 65s. to 25s. the quarter; but the diminution in the price of Beer was next to nothing. The wholesale article, or rather the raw materials, were cheap, while the retail article was both dear and bad. As a remedy for this, he recommended the abolition of the Beer monopoly, which would probably allow some of the advantages of the reduction of taxation to be reaped by the poor, and not be wholly engrossed by the great brewers. If the Malt tax were repealed, he believed that they would benefit by that more than the people.


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