IN THE mid-1840s countries all over Europe were plunged into severe turmoil. Poor harvests and a general downturn in international trade, which was exacerbated by financial panics which spread rapidly across the continent, created the worst political and economic crisis since the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Abortive revolutions in Germany and France in 1848 revived memories of 1789 and 1830. Even Britain, the world's leading economic and imperial power, was rocked by the severity of the depression. Bankruptcies, rising unemployment, poverty, famine in Ireland, Chartist agitation and the rise of the anti-Corn Law league buffeted the political establishment. The Repeal of the Corn Laws by Robert Peel's Tory administration split the party and ushered in decades of Whig/Liberal political and intellectual dominance. The crisis reached its peak in 1847/8 when a wave of failures and bankruptcies swept through Britain's major cities, hitting the City of London particularly hard. The Irish famine and a succession of poor harvests bankrupted a number of corn merchants in the summer of 1847, particularly in Liverpool. Excessive speculation in railway construction in the early 1840s also contributed to the crash. The full severity of the crisis became apparent in September 1847 when the London merchant firm of Messrs Gower, Nephews & Co. failed, to be followed by scores of failures in London, Liverpool, Glasgow, Manchester and elsewhere throughout the autumn.
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