The Story of the Infamous Glasgow ‘Malt Tax Riots’

malt tax riots
Beer Street, by Daniel Hogarth; used to emphasise the healthy nature of beer.

On 23rd June 1725, the streets of Glasgow were a scene of absolute chaos as the ‘malt tax riots’ erupted.

The riots broke out in response to the extension of English taxes on malt across Scotland – a move which would have seriously impacted Scottish brewers and raised the price of beer for the average citizen.

This was more than a riot against prices though, the new tax had serious implications for public health. Until the late 1800s, poor urban access to clean water meant that many citizens relied on ‘small beer’ – which had a low level of alcohol and was safe to drink.

So why were taxes being raised on such a vital resource?

Recouping losses

In England, a malt tax had already been in place for decades and had originally been imposed to pay debts incurred during the Civil War.

When Scotland joined the union in 1707 it had been granted exemption from any such tax, but within the space of a few years things began to change. The War of Spanish Succession had left a sizeable hole in British coffers and taxes were raised across the board.

With Scotland becoming more settled in the union, the British Government also sought to reform elements of Scottish taxation and create closer fiscal alignment. And the malt duty was a prime target for lawmakers in Westminster.

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The first attempt to extend the malt duty came in1713, but these plans were scrapped due to stiff opposition from Scottish MPs.

In June 1725 however, the House of Commons introduced a sweeping new malt tax that was applicable across Great Britain. Admittedly, the new tax was charged at half the rate previously paid in England – 3d a bushel – but the move still sparked significant backlash.

The malt tax riots erupt

Riots first broke out in Hamilton and quickly spread across the country. Brewers in Edinburgh went on strike while other protests flared in Ayr, Stirling, Elgin and Dundee.

The fiercest reaction to the new tax was in Glasgow though. The home of Glasgow MP Duncan Campbell was ransacked and burned in reprisal for his support of the tax, excisemen were harassed and rioting reached such an extent that troops were called in to quell the unrest.

This escalated the situation further and dozens of protestors were shot by troops, who were subsequently driven out of the city and forced to retreat to Dumbarton Castle.

Eventually, a sizeable, combined infantry and cavalry force under the command of General Wade was sent into Glasgow to restore order and troops remained stationed there for some time.

Sporadic protests continued throughout the summer of 1725 and opposition to the tax continued on.

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