Alexander Howison (b.1795): Politics & Protest – Writing Lives

Alexander Howison (b.1795): Politics & Protest

Alexander himself doesn’t say much upon the subject of politics, however from what we know about his hometown, class, and the time he was born and living within Scotland we know the Political pressures of the time. Non more so than the Cholera epidemic and the food shortages due to bad crop weather and general disruption.

The final decade of the eighteenth century was one of great recession and rising food prices triggered by war time inflation (Here we should remember that in the space of twenty years there were various wars including American Revolutionary War (1775–83), the French Revolutionary Wars (1792–1802), the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15) causing the disruption of the European grade trade.) Bad weather also had a huge part to play, ‘dry and burning summer of 1794 had given way to a prolonged winter of ‘unnatural frosts’ and torrential rain which had utterly destroyed the new year’s harvest’. (Burke) The national death rate increased only a little, but there were regional pockets of sever mortality both in 1795-6 and 1799-1800; in the latter years there were people who starved to death.

The comparison between a working wage and the price of meat in 1795
The comparison between a working wage and the price of meat in 1795

Food prices were  high in 1799 and 1800 and wheat, barley, rye, turnips, peas, beans and potatoes were all scarce that the Board of Trade warned the government of rioting in the streets. Livestock owners and dairy farmers were forced to cull their herds as they found that even the grass in their pastures had been ‘killed to the very roots’ (Burke)

By April the price of bread had shot up by 40%, while the cost of meat, butter, milk, cheese and vegetables, doubled. With the failure harvest brought widespread unemployment in a nation where the majority of the population still relied on agriculture for their living. By the spring of 1795 many households found themselves battling high inflation and falling wages, with a loaf of bread now costing more than the daily wage one could expect to earn in most manual occupations.

There were at least 200 riots in various parts of Scotland and Ireland.  In most cases it was an act of frustrated revenge on those who were profiting from the starvation of the people and the smashing of windows of  butchers, bakers and greengrocers.

After this recession there was further despair ‘The cholera appeared in England on October 26 1831, and reached Oxford in about eight months, on June 24, 1832.’ (Ormerod) so demand was high throughout England, Scotland and Ireland.

As there are ‘- only estimates exist for the number of Cholera deaths in Scotland probably between 7,000 and 8,000.’ (Hamilton) the exact number is not known, however it is apparent that she, at the time of writing the autobiography, is shortly to join this number. In his mind’s eye, can see her ‘sepulchre in the garden with the view of causing little alarm, [and considering the] economy of expense etc.’ (p.57) the idea of home burial would have been favourable to using the Cholera pits that were becoming necessary to deal with the demand of burying the deceased.

Memorial to the victims of the 1832 Cholera epidemic at the Howard Park Cholera pit, Kilmarnock, 45m from Falkirk.
Memorial to the victims of the 1832 Cholera epidemic at the Howard Park Cholera pit, Kilmarnock, 45m from Falkirk.

It is worth remembering here that ‘In the 1830’s, the disease was still unfamiliar in most of the world beyond parts of the Indian subcontinent’. This created terror as symptoms were alien and ‘doctors were helpless to do anything but try remedies that they thought had worked for other diseases.’ These ranged from ‘giving of opiates to – bleeding or burning the skin’ obviously most ‘treatments’ were pointless experiences and theories on transmittance were wild and ranged from ‘bad weather, foul smells, electro-magnetism and divine vengeance’. (Gilbert)

This personal account of Cholera in Scotland, although cannot be used for data collection, we can see how people felt being in the situation where powerless against the advancement of the epidemic just like the food pricing row and the crop failure, extreme hardship, illiteracy, demoralization and disease was creating ripples within the society and the people appeared powerless to stop it.


Works Cited:

Burke, Edmund. Miscellaneous Writings. E. J. Payne, ed. 1990 . Library of Economics and Liberty. Web. Accessed 28 December 2014

Gilbert, Pamela K. “On Cholera in Nineteenth-Century England.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. N.d. Web. 29 December 2014

Gillray, James. Caricature & Visual Satire in the Long Eighteenth Century 2013. Web. Accessed 29 December 2014

Howison. Alexander. (n.d) Autobiography of Alexander Howison ‘Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library. 1:354

O’Grada, Cormac ‘The Great Irish Famine’ Cambridge UP: 1995

Ormerod, W. P. On the Sanatory [sic] Condition of Oxford. Oxford: The Ashmolean Society, 1848 (pp. 37–48)

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