This article was published in Cirencester Miscellany No 2 in 1991, pp.15-18.

Prof Jeremy Black was Lecturer and then Professor in History at the University of Durham between 1980-96, when he became Professor in History at the University of Exeter. He has published over 100 books, mostly on 18th-century British politics and international relations, and has been described as “the most prolific historical scholar of our age”. He contributed this essay to the Society’s Miscellany, as an exemplar of publishing in a local journal and using newspaper archives as an historical resource.


The Cirencester Grain Riots of 1766

Fresh material for the Cirencester grain riots of 1766 can be found in Berrow’s Worcester Journal. The intention of this note is to draw attention to, and publish, this information. 

High grain prices caused by the poor harvest and by the continuance of corn exports led to a series of disturbances in England in 1766. Most took the form of the forcible purchase of goods at prices considered fair by the rioters. This conformed to the classical pattern of early-modern grain riots. As John Walter has recently written: ‘years of harvest failure in England in this period was not scarred by widespread food riots; disorder was largely confined to the weak points within the as yet immature marketing structure’ [1]. 

The extensive riots of 1766 particularly affected the West Midlands, disturbed already economically by agitation over the cider tax and over new fiscal moves in Anglo-American trade. One of the leading newspapers in the region, Berrow’s Worcester Journal, a weekly that appeared on Thursdays, devoted a lot of attention to the disturbances.

The paper was sympathetic to the rioters. The high price of grain was blamed on the failure to prohibit exports and on the manipulation of the market by profiteers. One item discussing the situation in Northamptonshire referred to ’the present artificial scarcity’ [2]. The paper criticised the failure of bakers, other than in Stourbridge, to give value for money [3], referred to reports of nefarious dealings at Bewdley and of farmers privately discussing increases in the price of grain [4], pressed for a prohibition on grain exports [5] and commented favourably on reports that Parliament was to be pressed to do something about the high prices [6].

The paper’s account of the situation in Cirencester is best appreciated when considered in the light of the disturbances elsewhere. On 4 September, a disturbance at Stourbridge market in which butter was seized and thrown into the air, was commented upon: 

‘Such daring, lawless Proceedings, it is the Business of everyone to discountenance, and to endeavour to bring the Ringleaders to Justice. On the other hand, that the poor in general have for some Time been greatly distressed by the exorbitant PRICE of ALL MANNER of PROVISIONS must be acknowledged; and it is likewise much to be lamented that all Methods of Redress are so effectually eluded by the cruel Avarice and Artifices of some already very wealthy Grassiers, Farmers etc, whose shameful connections with Engrossers, Jobbers, Badgers, Exporters, etc seem to be some of the principal causes of the National Grievance.’

Three weeks later, it was the turn of Worcester:

‘Yesterday there was a great Disturbance here, occasioned by the Market People asking 8d and some 9d a Pound for Butter and refusing to take 6d, whereupon the Populauce seized several Baskets and sold out the Butter at six pence per pound; but notwithstanding the great Confusion there was about two hours, we do not hear of any personal Hurt being done. And we are very glad to observe likewise, that it does not seem to be at all the Intent of the Poor to plunder the Property of others; that they only desire (for their Ready Money) is to be supply’d with a Price agreeable to the well-known Plenty with which the Divine Goodness has been pleas’d to bless us this Season. This, their reasonable Remonstrance, ‘tis hoped will be duly consider’d by Those who usually supply this Market with Provisions; and who, we are persuaded, will not meet with the least abuse, either in their Property or Persons.’


Having established the general viewpoint of the paper, one can turn to the reports concerning Cirencester. In the issue of 18 September, the following item appeared:

‘We have just been informed that on Tuesday last [7] there was an Insurrection of many Hundred poor People in the Neighbourhood of Gloucester and Cirencester, who have destroy’d several Mills, and done other great Damages among the Millers, Farmers, Cheese-Factors, etc; and to such an Height has their Resentment already risen, on Account of the Dearness of Corn, etc, that, if some proper Means are not immediately used in order to suppress these Tumults, it is to be fear’d very alarming Consequences will ensue. Tis said that last Night an Express arriv’d here, to solicit the Aid of the Military Forces quarter’d in this City and Neighbourhood, in order that these unhappy Disturbances may be timely suppress’d. That some of the principal causes of the present exorbitant price of all Manner of Provisions may be effectually remov’d it is hoped due Regard will be paid to his Majesty’s Proclamation, lately issued, and which is inserted in the next page’ [8].

The lowing week the paper printed the ‘Extract of a Letter from Cirencester, Gloucestershire, dated Sept, 23′:

‘Great damages have been done in several Parts of this Country by large Mobs assembling themselves on the several Market Days, particularly at this Place. Yesterday, when they bid Defiance to both the Civil and Military powers, by compelling the Farmers, Male-shops [sic. meal] and Cheese Factors to sell their Goods at such a Price (as they) themselves thought proper to fix on them, which, on the Whole, was so low that, it is said, one considerable Cheese Factor in the Place was Two Hundred Pounds and upwards Loser by the Cheese and Bacon they took from him, at what they called their Market Price. The whole Neighbourhood, of Farmers, Millers, etc shared an equal Fate, by having their Goods took from them and sold at a low price. A large Reinforcement in the Military Way has been petitioned for and are expected here in a few days.

Sir Thomas Rich’s regiment of dragoons was sent from Worcester to Gloucestershire to deal with the disturbances, and it is noticeable that the unsympathetic tone that characterised the above report was repeated in the last item, a report carried in the issue of 9 October, an issue that also reported the foiling of an attempt to pull down a mill near Evesham. The report was headed ‘Extract of a Letter from Cirencester in Gloucestershire, dated Oct. 6, 1766’:

‘Almost every Day we have fresh Alarms with Respect to the Rioters, different Parties of whom are continually patrolling about this Neighbourhood. But since my last letter nothing very material happened till last Saturday, when the Mob came to a Resolution to chastise a certain Farmer near this place, for a Breach of Promise and not having either the Love or the Fear of the Poor before his Eyes. The case was as follows, viz. This farmer, a few days before, happening to come within Smell of a Party of the Rioters, and imagining himself to be pretty well-known, industriously gave out that he would sell his Wheat at 5s per Bushel; but being applied to soon after [by] his poor Neighbours, he refused selling under 6s 6d a Bushel. Notice of this being transmitted to the Head Quarters of the Mob, a numerous Band of them were presently detached to visit him and his Neighbours, amongst whom they committed great Outrages, by pulling their Corn Ricks to Pieces, taking away their Meat, Drink, etc, besides extorting Money from them. An Account of these Proceedings being brought hither, a Party of six Dragoons, with an Officer, were sent in Quest of them, and presently falling in with them, a stout Combat ensued, wherein the Soldiery became Conquerors and brought off 21 Prisoners, some of whom were sent to Gloucester Gaol. I should have observed to you that the Officer and his Six Men, who were to undertake the quelling of this Disturbance, before they had proceeded far, return’d back, the noble-spirited Officer thinking it would be rather dastardly and ungenerous to engage such a Handful of Men (about 300) with Swords and Guns, and therefore it was agreed that they should provide themselves with Sticks only, and engage this Rabble in their own way, which they did with so much Bravery and Success that they presently put the Whole of them to Rout, except those taken Prisoners.

The Cirencester correspondent of the paper, anonymous in the fashion of the time, was clearly unsympathetic to the rioters. Whether this, as contrasted with the Worcester editorial remarks, reflected anything more than personal views is unclear. The contrasts do, however, reveal the need to place reports from the provincial press in perspective when considering them as sources.


[1] J Walter, ‘Grain riots and popular attitudes to the law’, in J Brewer and J Styles (eds), An Ungovernable People: the English and their law in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, London 1980, page 47; E Thompson, ‘The moral economy of the English crowd in the eighteenth century’, Past and Present no 50, Feb 1971; J Walter and K Wrightson, ‘Dearth and the social order in early modern England’, Past and Present no 71, May 1976.

[2] Berrow’s Worcester Journal, 25 Sept 1766.

[3] Berrow’s 27 Feb 1766.

[4] Berrow’s 13 Feb and 28 Aug 1766.

[5] Berrow’s 11 and 18 Sept 1766.

[6] Berrow’s 6 and 13 Nov 1766.

[7] 16 Sept 1766.

[8] The proclamation against forestalling and other manipulations of the grain market.

Jeremy Black