English Agricultural Markets and the State: The Corn Returns, 1685-1864

This research project offers a radical reconsideration of the centrality of the Corn Returns to the development of classical liberal political economy and shows how much the Corn Laws enriched agrarian interests and how their repeal represented a boost to British manufacturing.

At the urging of the Georgical Committee of the Royal Society, from 1685 the English Parliament required regular reporting of the average prices and quantities of six agricultural commodities (wheat, rye, barley, oats, beans and peas) sold in specified maritime ports and inland market towns. After 1770, these “Corn Returns” were published weekly in the London Gazette; reprinted in almost all local and regional newspapers, contemporary readers followed them as closely as stock market prices today. Yet despite their significance to contemporaries, most scholars have been put off by the sheer size of the data set. This project creates a resource (The Corn Returns Online) through which this data will be freely and publicly available in order to encourage scholars in related fields to revisit debates about the role of the Corn Laws in the Irish famine and to reconsider their contribution to the environmental and climate history of Britain in the first industrial age.