Blog 2: July journal entries

The Breakfast of Radicals

In May 1820 the radical orator Henry Hunt was found guilty of seditious conspiracy. He was sent to Ilchester gaol for thirty months. In the July section of Hunt’s prison diary, a product called Breakfast Powder is repeatedly referenced. In this blog post we investigate this curious side project of Hunt’s.

While incarcerated in Ilchester gaol Henry Hunt is reported to have begun collecting items for his own ‘radical museum’.

In his 1836 Hunt biography, ‘The History of the Private and Political Life of Henry Hunt’, Robert Huish writes that the museum ultimately consisted of three items.

The first item was, ‘a model of a loom in full work… accompanied with an ode, written by a weaver, wherein its wonderful powers are melodiously described.’ This was accompanied by, ‘a neat pair of slippers…a present from Mr James Huffman, the sturdy, unbending radical shoemaker.’

The collection was completed, Huish describes, by a bag of Hunt’s ‘own roasted corn.’

The tale of Hunt’s roasted corn is not a celebrated passage in the life story of Henry Hunt. Hunt’s roasted corn enterprise receives scant attention in most Hunt biographies. His interest in corn is mocked in the satirical cartoons of the time.  

However, for a time at least, corn was a major concern for Hunt.

I first saw reference to Hunt’s roasted corn in his prison diary. He is recorded as eagerly distributing a product called Breakfast Powder to inmates and visitors at Ilchester prison.

9th July, Sunday

‘Bridle said again when applied to by me to let the Prisoners have a 1/4lb Breakfast powder each ‘by all means’’.

13th July, Thursday

‘Pike brought in Mr. White who wanted more breakfast powder’.

25TH July, Tuesday

‘Mr Westlake came afterwards and drank Tea and we bespoke a Pianoforte- gave him ½ lb Breakfast Powder.’


After researching this intriguing sounding product, I found out a little more.

Huish’s biography, held at the Central Library archives, is one of the best sources on the subject.

Huish describes how, shortly before going to prison, Hunt opened a roasted corn manufactory in Broadwall, Sussex. In the manufactory rye was roasted to an old French recipe. When this roasted rye was crushed it produced Breakfast Powder. Breakfast Powder was Hunt’s cheap, non-taxed substitute for tea and coffee.

When Hunt was imprisoned his son took over the management of the Broadwall manufactory. Hunt enthusiastically continued his promotional campaign behind bars.

Why, I wondered, would Hunt begin such an operation so soon after the Peterloo Massacre?

Huish notes that, ‘Coffee…being an excisable item was not palatable to the taste of radicals.’ After the injustices of Peterloo Hunt did not want to profit the Excise. He swore off all taxed goods and urged his followers to do the same. When he was released on bail from Lancaster Castle in September 1819 Hunt made a solemn vow, ‘to Lancashire reformersnot to taste one drop of taxed BEER, SPIRITS, WINE or TEA, till we have brought these magistrates to justice’.

By all accounts Hunt was adept at spotting opportunities to further himself. He recognized the need for alternatives to these much-loved taxed products. Hunt also faced mounting legal bills and a dwindling income after Peterloo. He was eager for a chance to rectify this.

Historian Paul Pickering writes in his essay ‘Trade of Agitation’ that Hunt was a ‘manufacturer before he was a radical’. He had come to public attention as the owner of an ill-fated Bristol brewery selling ‘Hunt’s Genuine Beer’. He would later put his name to shoe-blacking.

Breakfast Powder was one in a long series of business ventures of varying success for Hunt.

By Hunt’s own testimony Breakfast Powder was a hit. In a letter held at the Central Library archives dated January 1821 Hunt raves that Breakfast Powder, ‘has greatly benefited the general populace’. He describes how Agents from across the country were clamouring to sell his product.

Huish remarks that Breakfast Powder ‘created some sensation among the lower orders’. The product was, indeed, popular enough to stay on the market for a decade.

Pickering records some of the product reviews of the time. ‘Common meadow hay is in my opinion preferable,’ judged the radical publisher Richard Carlile.  ‘Unpalatable’ decreed the radical reformer Samuel Bamford.

What was the cause of the beverage’s popularity, if not the taste?

The drink was cheaper than coffee and tea. And, by purchasing Breakfast Powder, sympathetic individuals could support Hunt. Hunt was a heroic figure to many reform-minded people following Peterloo. His collected letters testify to this.

In a letter dated August 1821 the Radical Reformers of Oldham profess, ‘unaltered attachment and respect towards yourself personally, as the Champion and the Leader in the great and sacred cause of Radical Reform.’

Pickering describes how many radical figures (and chancers) in England sold their own ‘radical’ products in the early 19th Century. These individuals would have struggled to find employment elsewhere. The sale of radical goods- including radical books, radical ink and radical crockery- provided an important source of income.

The tale of Breakfast Powder almost came to a bitter end in 1822. Huish describes how Hunt was fined £200 by the Excise for defrauding the revenue. His corn stock was seized. However, the spurious fine was ruled unjust by MPs. An Act of Parliament was passed in June 1822 allowing the continued sale of Breakfast Powder.

Hunt remarks venomously in his correspondences, ‘I believe I am indebted to thousands purchasing of it, that never would have done so, had it not been for these cowardly and dirty attacks.

Pickering judges Breakfast Powder to have disappeared from the market in the early 1830s.

But there was life in the beverage yet. In the 1840s the Chartists- a working class, reformist movement- began flogging Chartist Breakfast Powder. Their powder was made to Hunt’s specifications.

Truly this was a recipe to keep the reformers going.

This journal has been kindly transcribed by  Tricia Neal for Archives+. To view the original journal and full transcription for this section please see below. 

Archives+ volunteers will be writing more Peterloo Massacre blogs over the next few months, covering the next 2 sections of the journal and additional related topics. 

Explore the brand new Peterloo website telling the story through 3D interactive
images and timelines. Visit peterloo1819.co.uk to learn more. 

References

Robert Huish, ‘The history of the private and political life of Henry Hunt, Esq, MP for Preston’, 1836

John Belchem, ‘Orator Hunt’: Henry Hunt and English working-class radicalism’, Oxford: Clarendon, 1985

Henry Hunt, ‘ Letters to the radical reformers, male and female, of England, Ireland and Scotland’ London T Dolby, 1822

Paul Pickering, ‘Chartism’ and the Trade of Agitation in Early Victorian Britain’, Wiley, 1991