John Kirkland.

Three centuries of prices of wheat, flour and bread. War prices and their causes online

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Three Centuries of Prices


Wheat, Flour and Bread.







Published by





Printed by
J. G. HAMMOND & Co., Ltd., Fleet Lane, Old Bailey, London, E.C.4.



Three Centuries of Prices


Wheat, Flour and Bread.







Published by



Printed by
J. G. HAMMOND & Co., Ltd., Fleet Lane, Old Bailey, London, E.C.4.



The middle of the widest and wildest war in the world's history
hardly seems the time for pubHcation of long lists of figures on prices, yet
when conditions are so abnormal, it may not be without profit to study
prices and other times, some of which were hardly less harassing to the
people who lived through them. In 317 years of the history of Great
Britain there are many such momentous periods.

This work is not issued for entertainment, but only as a handy
source of reference to the many who do, or who must, make them-
selves familiar with relative prices.

It has again been demonstrated, that lowly as bread is esteemed
in normal times, it becomes the thing of prime importance in periods of
stress, and its price affects in a remarkable degree the whole social fabric.
The suspicion that consumers have to pay more for bread than the prices
of raw materials — wheat and flour — warrant, generate the heat and fire
that produce revolutions.

This little book supplies the figures which can be read and understood
by anyone. It may have therefore a popular use. To the student its
value may consist in its being a collection from many sources, each
difficult enough to discover, or, if known, then hard to use. The
works from which information has been secured are given in a short
bibliography at the end , this method being adopted in preference to that of
adding cumbersome and confusing notes to the text.

The chapter on "" Wheat prices during the war " has been prepared
wholly by my friend Mr. Arthur Barker. He is recognised as a leading





authority on wheat and flour prices, and is in the closest touch with
Mark Lane, the Baltic, and other British and Foreign Grain markets.
The figures may be accepted as authoritative.

The chapter on Bread Prices and regulations during the war is added
for historical reasons. Just as everything that was attempted and done
during the Napoleonic wars at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning
of the nineteenth centuries, has a peculiar interest for us at the moment,
so another day in the future people will read with interest of our troubles,
our efforts, our failures and our successes, and the great bread problem
will not be the least in interest. It is probably as well to note details
accurately at the moment ; the memories of individuals are short , and
the memory of the public is shorter and unreliable.

I have endeavoured to compile the matter with much care, but
hardly expect that it will be free from faults and inaccuracies.

J. K.

National Bakery School,

Borough Polytechnic Institute,
July 25th, 1917.


AMONGST economists the price of bread has been generally taken as
the index for estimating the value of workmen's wages and their
social condition at any period. But when an effort is made to com-
pare conditions at different periods by such an index the data for the pur-
pose is seldom available. Tables of wheat prices there are in plenty, but
even these are unsafe as guides because of the manner in which the tables
are compiled, or the different character of the grain to which they refer.
Flour prices are not available for any lengthened period, and if they were
the causes which make wheat prices suspect would be intensified in the
case of flour because of differences in quality and in kind, and differences
in the factors which influence flour prices at different times or in varying
circumstances. There have been from time to time bread prices pubHshed
for considerable periods, but in these cases also comparison of figures are
wholly misleading because the same designation does not at different
times refer to the same quality of bread.

This essay is the result of an effort to collect for a range of some three
hundred years all the reliable wheat, flour, and bread prices, and, without
altering relative values, to reduce the figures to terms which can fairly
be compared. At the same time with a view to the interpretation of
the historical significance of the prices, columns are devoted in the tables
containing the names of reigning monarchs at the respective periods,
and such events as might be considered as influencing prices in one direc-
tion or another are given.

Everyone may be quite certain that our present very high wheat prices
are due solely to the war, yet such an opinion is only right with] quali-
fications, the sum of which makes it very nearly wrong. Thus it may
be correct to say that without the war there would not have been such
an increase of prices, yet if by the war we mean the efforts of our enemies
to reduce supplies, that effort may be considered the least of the factors


in the problem, affecting prices only to the extent of higher insurance
premiums on war risks, and that in spite of the considerable destruc-
tion by submarines. But because the war has engaged about half
our shipping in work other than that of carrying food supplies, the
freight charges for the other half have been raised abnormally, and these
charges have to be added to all imported food stuffs. The scarcity of
ships reduces the supplies of grain, while the demand increases with the
high rations and wasteful distribution to the army. Prices rise therefore
quite according to the regular rule governing prices in relation to supply
and demand. If any other cause than war produced the same shortage
there would be equal increase in prices.

A general statement that import duties levied on grain tend to in-
crease prices, and the remission of duties to lower them, is almost univer-
sally accepted, yet in the tables here given such relations between duties
and prices are not specifically shown. In the more recent examples
of duties on imports the amounts were so small, in comparison with the
total cost of grain, that several other factors which normally influence
wheat prices may have operated to mask the effects of the duties. But
it is certain that these duties were somehow collected as part of the flour
prices by the miller, and as part of the bread prices ultimately collected
by the baker from the consumer. And as the grain merchant had to use a
larger capital and be put to considerably greater trouble in clearing his goods
through the customs, so his extra charges to his miller customer must have
been greater than the actual amount of duty paid ; in his turn the latter
must increase his flour price because of the tax by more than he had paid
the grain merchant. The baker finding his flour so much raised must also
exact a commission for his extra capital used, and endeavour to pass
all the charges on to the consumer. But, as will be explained in detail
later, he has not the same facilities as the grain dealer and the miller
for making his charges exactly right ; and, according to his situation
and the state of competition in his neighbourhood may either require
to pay all the import duties and the additions made by those who have
handled his raw material at the several stages before him out of what
should normally have been his profits ; or in other circumstances the con-
sumer may have to pay a considerable sum more than the initial duty
charged. In certain circumstances a remission of import duty may not
be totally secured by the consumer, if it happens, as it does so often


in the case of bread, that the amount of the remission cannot be divided into
portions that can be deducted from the price of loaves, since the smallest
deduction must be a farthing from the price of one two-pound loaf, and that
amount would be the equivalent of nearly 5s. on a quarter of wheat.

Thorold Rogers notices another important rule operative in changing
prices. When there is a scarcity in an article of prime necessity Uke
wheat, the rise in price is always greatest in the commoner or cheaper
kinds of the article. The stint in the article causes a greater demand
for inferior kinds. Variations in prices due to such a cause cannot be
shown in subjoined tables, since no indications are given of the prices
of different kinds or qualities, and even the averages are more likely to be
for only one well known or standard kind of grain.

Economists,the most notable of whom were Tooke, Eden, Gregory King,
Fleetwood, Arthur Young, Thorold Rogers and others, have attempted
with only partial success to trace the connection between historical and
economic circumstances and the varying prices of wheat. Their efforts
show that great wars have been in progress and wheat prices remained low ;
revolutions even have had little effects on markets. It is noticeable
all through the three centuries under review that high and low prices
seem to be in comparatively short cycles of two, three, or four years.
These periods, unless some other distinctive cause is known, may general^
be ascribed to a very bad harvest or to a succession of such calamities. In
the days when the scythe was the only reaping machine, wet weather at
harvest was worse than a wet season now, and grain very frequently
sprouted before it could be gathered with, of course, great deterioration in
value and abnormally high prices for what had been saved in a sound

From the beginning of the seventeenth up to near the end of the
eighteenth century the agricultural interests had practically no foreign
competition in wheat ; on the other hand considerable quantities were
exported whenever the harvest was plentiful. The cycles of high prices
within that period were evidently therefore due to local causes. From
1647 to 165 1, which included the great Civil War period, wheat prices
went up considerably over fifty per cent. A reasonable explanation
is that as the Civil War was conducted principally over the best wheat
growing districts of England, the land during that time was but poorly


cultivated, while there was probably also abnormal demand and great
waste consequent on militarj' operations. The high prices which ruled
up to 1662 afford evidence of the lasting effects of the causes referred
to above, but are also indicative of a general prosperity throughout the
kingdom. For nearly the whole of the eighteenth century prices steadily
dechned until near the end. From 1797 to about 1820 was a period of
abnormally high prices and great distress. There had been a succession
of bad harvests, and, owing to the demand for men for both
military and naval service, in connection with the French Wars,
the cultivation of the land was seriously hindered. The growth of
great manufacturing industries, through the development of machinery,
was another cause of the depletion of farm labour ; there was a steady
immigration from the country to the towns. The production of food
had not been keeping pace with the increase of population, and when a large
number of agricultural workers were drafted away to the wars something
hke a collapse occurred in agricultural districts.

The figures given in the tables deal with average prices, and with regard
to very short periods may be misleading, but over fairly long periods
they do teach a lesson. Thus concerning the two decades just referred
to, from 1796 to 1 8 16, which included the great French Wars and was
before the regulation of prices by Corn Laws, the average price of wheat
was 84s. 4d. per quarter. In a succeeding peace period, from 1816 to
1845, when the Corn Laws were passed to protect agricultural interests,
the average price was 6is. 2d. In the succeeding period, from 1845 to
1873, under free trade, but with very little foreign competition, theaverage
price was 53s. 2d., but this included the high price years of the Crimean
War. In the period from 1873 to 1885, which w'as one of free trade with
strong foreign competition, due to the opening up of immense wheat
areas in America, India and AustraHa and a great reduction in cost of
transport by land and sea, the average price fell to 41s. 5d. Since that
time the same causes operating and great agricultural developments taking
place in the Argentine, prices have continued very low with spasmodic
variations. Transit faciUties had become so cheap that the whole world
was, until the outbreak of the present war, a single market, in which scarcitv
in one corner was almost automatically balanced by plenty in another.
The European countries are more or less buyers of imported grain, and
therefore strong competitors of one another for supplies, yet a serious


shortage in one of these countries has only the sUghtest effects in raising
prices. The effect, if there was any, of an import duty of 3d. per cwt. on
wheat in 1902-3 cannot be traced in average annual prices.

Reference has already been made to the effects of increasing population
on wheat prices. During the latter part of the nineteenth century the
improvement in transit facilities easily compensated for the natural
deficiency of home grown suppHes, but before that the balance was
becoming progressively very difficult to adjust. When only sailing ships,
and those of small burthen, were employed as wheat carriers, and these
subject to the stress of stormy weather, it was extremely difficult in a
hurry to relieve shortage due to a poor or a spoiled harvest. A consider-
ation of population alone makes rather hollow the ideal of those who
think we can grow sufficient for our complete sustenance. Making due
allowance for increased yield due to a better system of agriculture, tliere is
not such a great difference in the amount of land cultivated now and that
cultivated at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

In 1528 the population of the British Isles was roughly estimated
(there were no census returns then) at about 5| millions : by 1712 it
had risen to 9^ milHons ; in 1780 it was 12 i millions ; in 1801 it was about
16 millions. It rose to 2i|- milHons by 1821 ; and to 24^ in 1831. By
steady gradations it has now risen to over 46 millions. Land is hmited
in amount and intensive agriculture also has its limitations. An aggregate
area that was barely sufficient to provide grain for 13 million people must
be far short of enough for the needs of 46 millions.

In making comparisons of wheat prices over such a long stretch of time \j
as here given, there are several difficulties which cannot be overcome and
at the best can only be roughly allowed for. Thus in deahng with annual
averages as given in recorded figures, it is not always certain that those
taken from one source refer to the same kind of wheat as those from
another. Different market prices vary considerably, the differences
sometimes representing not different value of grain but added charges for
carriage which accrue in one market and not in another. Before 1770 when
a Corn Registration Act was passed, the prices were obtained in a loose
way from weighers and clerks of markets, and may to some extent,
considering the period, be suspect, or at least unreliable for purpose of


Another possible cause of error in the table for wliich allowance must be
made, is due to difference in the capacity of the vessel used for measuring
a bushel of wheat at different periods. Up to 1826 the recognised measure
for wheat in the markets of the United Kingdom was the Winchester,
bushel, which was at the date given, replaced by the Imperial bushel.
The Winchester and Imperial quarters consisted of 8 bushels of the
respective sizes. The difference between the two measures is not very
great. The Winchester measure is to the Imperial measure as-^^^is to.|ir
that is, 32 quarters Imperial is the equivalent of 33 Winchester quarters ;
or, in other words, a Winchester quarter is ^5 of an Imperial quarter
Although the measuring vessels were not quite alike, it is very probable
that the quantity of grain actually deHvered under the older system, was
as much as that under the new, for it was a common market practice, as
no doubt insisted on by buyers in the olden days, that the bushel measure
(Winchester) was " heaped " while the legal instructions applied to the
Imperial measure, when it was introduced, were that it should not be
" helped " but " stricken by a straight roller." This difference in method
of measuring justifies to some extent the retention of prices as recorded,
without adjusting them to what they should be if the measure for the
whole period had been Imperial. The prices from 1800 to date are all based
on the latter measure. There is still cause for misconception as to wheat
prices as quoted in market reports. English wheat is sold by the
bushel of 63 lb. and a quarter of 8 bushels therefore v/eighs 504 lb.
while imported wheat is quoted by the Imperial quarter, the weight of
which is 480 lb. for wheat is now generally sold by weight.*

To prevent misconception regarding wheat prices as given in the sub-
joined tables, it is advisable that the sources from which they have been
obtained should be clearly indicated. From 1600 to 1645 the averages,

• English farmers sell wheat by the quarter of eight bushels, the standard
weight of which is about 63 lb., but wheat has weighed as much as 65 lb. per bushel,
and farmers have charged in proportion. When the Food Controller (Lord Devon-
port) on April i6th, 1917, fixed the maximum price of wheat at 78s., he also fixed
the quarter by which it should be sold at 480 lb., which has long been the " statutory"
quarter for wheat and for maize. But in the c.i.f. trade wheat has for many
3'ears been sold at the 480 lb. quarter for American and Canadian from the
Atlantic Coast, while American from the Pacific Coast is calculated at a
quarter of 500 lb. These weights do not hold when the stuff is landed and
sold in port. In London the 480 lb. of American or Canadian wheat becomes a
quarter of 496 lb. ex-ship or ex-quay. In Liverpool and Manchester wheat is sold
largely by the cental of loo lb. net. In Glasgow the standard measure is the boU
oi 240 lb.


have been calculated from prices given for St. John's College, Cambridge,
in Thorold Rogers' History of Agriculture and Prices. The figures used
there are those relating to the " Corn Rents " evidently paid to the college,
and as in such cases there were two parties with opposing interests, it is
a safe inference that the receiver would be careful to insist that the prices
at the several quarter days were not fixed at too high figures. Rogers
notes that the prices here given are for best qualities of wheat only,
and that in all the localities which were under the statute (legahzing corn
rents) other purchases were made for consumption at lower prices. Thus
prices in the records for St. John's College Bakery are considerably lower
than those given as for corn rents.

From 1646 to 1679 the wheat prices are those of Windsor market as
recorded by Bishop Fleetwood, which are accepted generally as authorita-
tive. Of his method of computing the averages he writes : — " In this
computation you are to know, that in every year there are two prices
of corn, one of Ladyday, the other of Michaelmas, both which I put to-
gether and take the half for the common price of the whole, " and he
has further noted — " the market I have computed by is somewhat
higher than those at a very great distance from London." This last
note would seem to imply that prices in London and near were lower
than in markets remote, but in Rogers' prices, in which those of many
markets are given, it is impossible to discern differences on which any
reliable rule in this matter can be established ; sometimes London prices
rule higher than in country markets, and sometimes the reverse is the case.
Local conditions, the state of the trade at any given time, and the size
of stocks in London, had probably much more influence in determining
prices on market days than the geographical position of markets. The
latter was a factor that would constantly operate but would be minimised
in influence on occasions by accidental circumstances.

From 1780 to 1799 wheat prices were obtained from Barker's " Trade
and Finance Annual," and from the statistical tables pubhshed in the
Annual Register. The only explanatory note that may be offered in
connection with these figures, is that the registers were, in the absence
of anything actually official, generally accepted as correct.

Wheat prices from 1800 to 1912 are those given in a Government relurn
printed October 21st, 1912. This return also gives prices of bread for


same period, and these have been used. From 1912 to date the average
wheat prices have been calculated from charts and tables published by
Broomhall in " Milling," etc.

Prices obtained from such a variety of sources may lack the quality
of continuity and in cases may not be exactly comparable, but, if an un-
broken record is desired these sources are probably as reliable as any
from which such information can be obtained. As the purpose of the
tables is rather to show the relations of wheat and bread prices, than merely
to record the former, and, as the bread prices given are for the most part
obtained from independent sources, slight discrepancies in wheat averages
are not of paramount importance.


If an attempt is made to discover the actual price of flour to-day
the figures can only be given with explanations that almost obscure
them. Thus price quotations sometimes include delivery charges,
and these of course vary according to distance from the supplying mill,
although the competition amongst millers is so great that in some cases
the miller may be prepared to bear part of the carriage out of income.
Again, millers at the large grain ports are in a position to sell " strong "
flours, which are made largely from imported wheat, cheaper than inland
millers. In their turn the inland millers, if in wheat growing districts,
have the advantage in selling " soft " flour, which may contain much
local wheat. In other days, when flour contained httle imported wheat,
there were many millers whose business consisted wholly in supplying
flour to bakers within a radius of only a few miles from the miUs ; then
prices, so far as position of the mills affected them, were more uniform.
In that early day the millstone was the only wheat grinding machine,
and its use necessitated practically only one grade of what we would now
call fine flour. There was in millstone days a seconds flour, but it was ob-
tained by " redressing," and sometimes regrinding, the material that the
sieves had separated as offal from the first grinding operation. It was dark
flour with a tendency to stickiness when made into dough and with a sweet
taste. The point of importance in relation to the question of flour grade, is
that the difference between fine flour and this seconds was so pronounced
that there was no probability of one being mistaken for the other. In
the modern system of milling by what is called " gradual reduction,"
the wheat is not, as in the old system, ground into meal and then separated
by sieves into the different products of the operation. As the name given
to the modem system imphes, the wheat is broken down more or less
gradually and each separate product treated by itself. Thus by what are
called the " break rolls" the wheat is broken into pieces: the theory
really is that it is split into halves, the object being to set free the fluff
or dirt which has settled in the crease of the wheat- In practice the ideal


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Online LibraryJohn KirklandThree centuries of prices of wheat, flour and bread. War prices and their causes → online text (page 1 of 6)