Political correspondent and bestselling author Stephen Bates tells us why 1846 was such a pivotal year for Britain and why he chose to write about it in his new book, Penny Loaves and Butter Cheap: Britain in 1846, which hits the shops tomorrow.


The first thing people tend to ask me when they hear I’ve written a book called Penny Loaves and Butter Cheap: Britain in 1846 is why? Whatever happened that year to make it worth writing about?

I suppose I should loftily bemoan the shortcomings of history teaching in our schools – that would get me noticed – but, of course, it’s not that. People old enough to have been taught about the Corn Laws – say my generation – were generally put off history for life by the dryness of the subject and anyone much younger probably had to skip from the Tudors to the Holocaust because of the shortage of time in the curriculum to develop a full historical narrative. So I just gently mention repeal of the Corn Laws…Irish famine…Charles Dickens…railways…stuff like that…and generally, politely, their eyes light up, say that’s interesting and change the subject. They just don’t know about it.

And that’s the point: it really was an interesting – and I believe pivotal – year not only in Victorian history, but more generally for British politics, economics and society. It was a time which, although 170 years ago, really changed things. People grappled then with some of the same problems we have today and sometimes in strikingly similar ways; questions of foreign trade and economics, a huge natural disaster: a famine, in that case close to home in Ireland rather than in South Sudan; the last time we nearly went to war with America (over the line of the Canadian border as it happens); the first professional England cricket team’s debut match…and that’s before we get to Charles Dickens writing Dombey and Son and Charlotte Bronte starting Jane Eyre to while away the time while her father recovered from an eye operation, or Felix Mendelssohn conducting the premiere of his great oratorio Elijah in, of all places, Birmingham Town Hall.

At the heart of the year’s politics too, there is a deeply human story, of a Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel being brought down by his own Tory backbenchers because they disagreed with his economic policy. They thought that his decision to repeal the Corn Laws, ostensibly to lessen the effects of the Irish famine, would ruin British agriculture and destroy the country. If you read the Parliamentary debates there are times when you could be listening to UKIP – the arguments are not much different in some ways. And if David Cameron reads the accounts of the tormenting of Peel he is likely to have a rueful smile of recognition, though Cameron’s backbenchers haven’t got round to calling him a traitor to his face yet (nor has he threatened to challenge one of them to a duel as Peel nearly did). The splitting of the Tory Party in 1846 catapulted it out of government for 30 years and caused personal animosities which never healed. So you can see in 1846 a sea change in British politics as well as a change in economic policy that would last for the best part of 100 years.

All this is true, but secretly, my other fascination with 1846 is in its photographs. The daguerreotype had just been invented and so, for the first time, we can see directly what people looked like, the clothes they wore and the poses they struck and we can see also what cities like London looked like then too. It’s like opening a door onto another world. I’d like to think my book is a snapshot of a time that’s often overlooked these days, but in which we can  see our world starting to take shape.


Penny Loaves and Butter Cheap: Britain in 1846 is published on 27th February 2014 and will be available in both hardback and ebook formats.