John Kirkland.

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

. (page 2 of 6)
Online LibraryJohn KirklandThree centuries of prices of wheat, flour and bread. War prices and their causes → online text (page 2 of 6)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

is hardly reached, but the wheat is broken into irregular pieces, and by the
shearing action of the rolls, which have finely corrugated surfaces, and
revolve at slightly different speeds, the whole bran, which includes the
parts usually included as " offal " is scraped off and the endosperm, or
inner part of the grain, separated as fine pellets. This is technically
known as " semolina." When the endosperm pellets are passed through
smooth rolls, the waxy httle nodule, which is the germ of the grain,
is flattened, and can then be separated from the other parts by suitable
sieves. The semolina, ground very fine on smooth rolls, constitutes
the highest grade of flour, and its weight may be some 40 or 50 per cent,
of the total weight of wheat used in its production. From 100 lb. of
wheat there is normally from 70 to 74 lb. of white flour obtained, so that,
besides the 50 per cent, of the highest grade, there is about 24 per cent,
of lower grade. This latter flour is that produced inadvertently when the
wheat is passing through the " break rolls," as well as that which adheres
to the bran when it is first scraped off, but is afterwards separated.
The total flour from wheat, if sold as one grade, is generally designated
"Household," or in some districts" Bakers grade." The highest grades
are called Patents ; sometimes ist Patents and 2nd Patents and are of
course sold at prices from 3s. to 5s. more than the " Household." Other
arbitrary names for different grades are used by millers. In the tables
here given the prices refer to household grade of flour.

As there are no continuous records of flour prices, that can be com-
parable, the plan has been followed of calculating all the flour prices
from those of wheat, except those for the last decade, which have been
obtained principally from the market reports of the National Association
of Master Bakers Review. The basis of the calculation is the assumption
that in the absence of disturbing causes the intrinsic value of a household
grade of flour per sack of 280 lb. should be about f that of a quarter
of wheat form which it is made. The average prices taken for flour
per sack have therefore been as 4 to 3 of the average prices of wheat.
This was the only possible method of obtaining flour price averages
that would be nearly correct for the long period chosen.

In deaUng with so extended a time some explanation is necessary
to assist in a due appraisement of the figures given. At the beginning
of the seventeenth centmy, bakers were either the millers of the grain


themselves, or were buyers of grain, sending it to " custom " mills in
their immediate neighbourhood, receiving from the miller the whole
product of their grain, and only paying him an agreed toll for work done.
According to Pownall the time when a distinct separation of the trades
of bakers and mealmen, as millers were called, was about the first decade
of the eighteenth century, but the change, hke all others in industrial
organisation, had probably been going on for very many years before.
Thus in tables of " allowances " published in 1495 one of the items is
for the miller, who is allotted 4d. for grinding a quarter of wheat,
and in one published in 1592 the miller's toll is given as is. 4d. for a quarter
of wheat. As these items were stipulated amongst the baker's " allow-
ances," the miller was evidently subject to assize regulations, treated in
fact as the servant of the baker with a fixed rate of wages. The change
referred toby Pownall is that of a distinct separation of the two trades
by which the mealmen became in fact merchant millers, buying the wheat,
making it into flour and offal, and marketing both, the fust to bakers,
the other to farmers and others for cattle feeding. This development
freed the miller from the regulations of the assize laws under which
bakers continued for quite a century longer.

While flour prices have been calculated as depending solely on the
prices of wheat, tliere are in practice all sorts of modifying factors. In
the old days when there was practically only one grade of white flour,
wheat prices had necessarily the paramount influence in determining
what the price of flour should be, the only disturbing factor being the
price obtained for offal. If for any reason the value of the latter rose the
miller would be able to shghtly reduce the price of his flour below what
it would naturally be in relation to wheat, and in any district in which
keen competition amongst millers did exist cheap flour might have been
really sold. The value of offal has still a highly important share in
determining the price of flour ; but another influence has appeared in
connection with the sale of different grades. When, on account
of excessive competition amongst bakers, bread prices fall to a level
at which it is unprofitable to use the highest grades of flour, then millers
who have a market for several grades, may raise the price of the lower.
As stocks of the dearer sorts tend to accumulate, these are likly to fall
in price ; in other words the best flour is cheap. On other occasions
when opposite conditions obtain and good bread prices induce the baker


to buy the best flour in greatest quantity, then the miller must make
as much high grade flour as possible. This he cannnot do without
making the due proportion of low grade flour. The latter is in the
circumstances likely to accumulate, and in consequence be sold below,
in cases even considerably below, its proper value. There is yet another
factor which may warp flour values from their natural level. Prices of
home milled flours, on account of our open ports are much influenced,
if not actually determined, by prices of imported flour. Considerations,
other than intrinsic values, have before now caused large quantities of
flour to be consigned to our markets from America, Austraha, France, etc.,
and the home millers, even though unable to make flour from wheat
obtained from those consigning countries at a price as low as the
consigned flour, are still constrained to take a low price, although by
doing so they have for the time being to greatly reduce their normal
profits. All these considerations must be recognised as modifying the
rule that the price of flour is governed by the price of wheat. The
general rule that the price of a 280 lb. sack of 70 per cent, flour is roughly
three fourths of that of a quarter of wheat of the quaUty from which it
is made may be considered as in abeyance in the present abnormal
circumstances of almost universal war.


The people do not eat wheat or flour, do not even buy these in any
considerable quantity, but they do buy and eat bread. In relation to
their incomes and their expenditure, it is the price of bread and not
of flour or wheat that matters. So far as prices of these raw materials
of the miller and baker do influence the price of bread they are of conse-
quence, but they are not the only determining factors.

In the period for which prices are first given, beginning at 1600 and up
to 1815, bakers were under the Assize of Bread Laws, and, as already
noticed, millers up to about 1710, were considered merely as workers
for the bakers at a fixed toll, and in an indirect way were also subject
to Assize of Bread Rules. The price of bread was fixed by the magistrates
sitting as an Assize Court. The Court had to perform its functions strictly
according to rule. It was supplied with the average current prices of wheat
in certain authorized markets by the meal weighers or clerks of the markets.
By regulation under the Assize Acts, bakers were assigned a fixed sum
per quarter of wheat as the " allowance." In the earher tables the items
of this " allowance " were definitely allocated. Thus in that fixed in
1592, which still obtained at the time of the commencement of the present
tables, the following items were specified : —






Two journeymen

and two boys






Candles and salt


Himself, his wife,

his children and house



The millers toll






There was a specific method of incorporating the " allowance " amongst
the total debits in the cost of breadmaking. The Assize Court was
instructed to add this allowance to the prevaihng price of a quarter of
wheat, and divide the sum by the number of peck loaves which might
be made from a quarter of wheat less two loaves, which the baker was
allowed to " his advantage." The peck loaf weighed 17 lb. 6 oz.,
and as it contained four quarter pecks, or as now named " quarterns,"
each of these weighed 4 lb. 5 oz. 8 drams.

According to Young the Statute i, Geo. I. (1714) is the earliest enact-
ment which authorizes the manufacture of definite sized loaves — namely,
peck, half peck, quartern, and half quartern, "so as the same could be
made and sold both as to weight and price in proportion to the assize
table." Before that date the table provided only for weights of loaves,
the prices of which were fixed. In the time prior to 1600 it seems the
farthing loaf was the standard size ; later tables specified the weights
for the halfpenny and penny loaves, but made no reference tq farthing
size. Later tables still specified for loaves the price of which was fixed
but the weights altered, according to the price of wheat or flour, and at the
same time gave prices for loaves the weight of which was already fixed
but the price varying with the market price of wheat or flour. The
first set of these latter tables referred to loaves as " Assize Bread," and
provided for " Large Assize Bread " as eighteenpenny, twelvepenny,
and sixpenny loaves, and for " Small Assize Bread " as twopenny
and penny loaves. The loaves sold by designation as peck, half peck,
and quartern loaves had their prices fixed in what was called the price
table, and were therefore known as " Priced Bread." According to the
method adopted by the Assize Courts in fixing the price of bread so was it
made easy or difficult for bakers to conform. There is no direct evidence
to show why the system of fixing prices and altering weights to suit the
price of wheat was modified by the adoption of an alternative method
of fixing weights and altering prices, but it was probably because bakers
had practically ceased making the smaller sizes of loaves, and made only
very large ones. In such a case there would be little hardship from the
bakers' point of view in the Assize Courts fixing prices for loaves of
statutory weights. But when small loaves of say, 2 lb. size are
the great majority of all sorts made, as at present, then the plan of
altering prices only, and leaving the weight rigidly fixed, is not only


inconvenient, but actually makes it impossible for the price of bread to
be kept nearly in the correct relation to the price of wheat or of flour.
Thus the smallest possible alteration in the price of a 2 lb. loaf is a farthing, *
but such an alteration is the equivalent of nearly 4s. on the price of a
280 lb. sack of flour. There may be alterations in flour prices for long
periods which range from is. to 3s. per sack, and it may be j'ears in
normal times before the full 4s. of either increase or decrease has taken
place. In such circumstances, in Assize times, if the court lowered the
price of the 4 lb. loaf by \d. when flour had fallen say 2s., it was evidently
forcing the baker to accept 2s. less per sack of " allowance "t than was
his due, or, if the price was not lowered, forcing the public to pay 2s.
per sack more than it ought. So, in a rising market, either the baker
or the public were forced to lose. The theory was that losses on one
occasion were balanced by gains on another but in practice the theory
was so badly realised that the findings of the Bread Assize Courts were
the causes of constant agitation and complaint. One change after another
was made in an effort to remedy the trouble. Young states that there
were no less than eleven Acts of Parliament passed in the reign of Geo. III.
regulating the Assize, each amending and explaining the preceding ones
in the most complicated wa3^

The troubles incident to the operations of the Bread Assize Courts
caused magistrates, where the option was allowed, to refrain from interfering
in the matter at all, with the result that, for considerable periods in
many districts there was no Assize of Bread set. The culmination was
reached when, in 1815, after an exhaustive enquiry by a Parhamentary
Commission, the Assize of Bread Law was abolished and the baker from

* In the regulations attached to Assize tables, the stipulation was made that
in cases in which small loaves (2 lb.) were allowed, the baker should charge half a
farthing more for such loaves if the Assize price necessitated the splitting of a farthing
Thus if the price of the " quartern " loaf was fixed at 6id., the baker was entitled
to charge 3id. for a " half-quartern."

I Local custom determines to some extent the names used and the weight of
packages of flour. In London a sack is 280 lb., and this weight is generally recog-
nised throughout England, Scotland and Ireland. But in the London area a half-
sack is 140 lb. is referred as a " bag " of flour. In the Midland district, with Bir-
mingham as centre, the sack of flour weighs only 224 lb. In Liverpool, bakers
make all their calculation by the " pack," which weighs 240 lb. In America
the standard weight for flour is the barrel of 196 lb. In Canada and U.S.A. much
flour is put up in bags weighing 100 lb. In Australasia the standard sack weighs
200 lb., and the ton 2,000 lb. Australian prices quoted as they generally are at so
much per ton, have for comparison to be adjusted to our heavier ton of 2,240 lb.



that date was allowed to charge what price he could afford for his bread.
But after the repeal of the Assize Law a new Act was passed making
provision for fixed weights for loaves. Thus the peck loaf was to weigh
17 lb. 6 oz., half peck 81b 11 oz., quarter peck 4 lb. 5^ oz, half quarter peck

2 lb. 2| oz.

This Act, although the Assize Courts were abohshed, retained the rule
of fixed weights which had been the cause of most of the trouble, and it
evidently was ineffective, for just seven years after (1822) a new Bread Act
was passed which aboHshed fixed weights for loaves and gave the baker
liberty " to make, bake, sell, and offer for sale, bread made of such weight
or size as such bakers or sellers of bread shall think fit ; any law or
usage to the contrary notwithstanding." The old designations for loaves
were still in regular use but the " quartern," evidently as a matter of
convenience, weighed only* 41b. instead of the 41b. 5^ ozs. of the Assize
tables and this weight of bread is still adopted as the standard on which
bread prices generally are calculated.

To get free from the intrusic difficulty, with fixed weight loaves, of
keeping prices in proper relation to the price of flour, bakers within the
last five or six years have been openly reverting to the other plan of selhng
bread allowed by the original Assize Bread Law. They have fixed
certain standard prices for loaves and varied the weights by an ounce or
more according to small changes in the price of flour. In the trade this was
called the " Assize System " of seUing and it had been adopted to a greater
or less extent in most large towns, Manchester and Liverpool wholly.
As in normal times about i oz. alteration in the weight of a 4 lb.
loaf would balance an alteration of is. in the price of a sack of flour, this
method of working evidently is fairer to both public and baker than the
other which prevents any just alteration in the price of bread unless flour
cl anges in price by 4s. per sack. The baker in the case of the 2 lb. loaf
^^ ould of course alter its weight by | oz. for an alteration of is. in the
price of a sack of flour.

The Order recently issued by the Food Controller fixing weights of loaves
at 2 lb. and 4 lb. brings back to the baker all the difficulty as experienced
during the Bread Assize time. It is impossible for the baker to closely follow

* In his history of the Worshipful Company of Bakers, Mr. Sydney Young says
he cannot trace the Act which fixed the weight of the quartern loaf at 4 lb. There
is no such Act in existence; the change has occurred by the evolution of custom.


the price of flour in that of his bread. The difficulty will not be apparent
while prices remain nearly steady, however high they be. But there is
another effect of the Food Controller's action which hardly conduces to
the advantage of the public. As soon as the Order was made for fixed
weight of loaves at 2 lb., etc., the price of bread was raised. The baker
could do no other. Whatever precautions he may take he cannot regulat e
the weight of all his loaves exactly. The last operation over which he has
any control is when he weighs the pieces for the separate loaves. When
these are baking in the oven, although exactly the same weight on enter-
ing they lose different quantities of moisture according to their position
in the oven, etc. Differences from this and other causes, over which the
baker has practically no control, may range as much as 2 oz. amongst
individual loaves. To ensure therefore that the lightest loaf in the bate h
weighs 2 lb. after it is 30 hours old as the Food Controller's Order stipa -
lates, an excessive allowance of dough has to be made for losses.

The consequence is that while no customer may get less than 2 lb.
most customers must get more than 2 lb. and because the baker has to
allow such a large margin he is forced to increase his price by one farthing —
the lowest available coin. Thus customers getting only bare weight pay
a farthing, while those getting only a little more, probably less than a
farthing's worth, have also to pay that farthing. In ordinary circumstances
the baker got over the difficulty and the public got the full value, by his
selling loaves of a guaranteed minimum weight, which was in most cases
less than the actual weight, and the customer therefore shared with him
the chances of slight variations ; weights of loaves do not really corres-
pond with the variations in quantity of real bread ; the difference is not
due to loss of weight of dry solid matter — which is food — but to loss of
water only.

From the foregoing explanations it will be apparent that tables of bread
prices as recorded for three hundred years under such various systems of
selling may have little in common to afford fair comparison. To surmount
difficulty all the recorded bread prices up to 1822 have been reduced as
for 4 lb. loaves instead of 4 lb. 5^ oz. as required by the old statutes.

Bread prices from 1600 to 1735 have been calculated on the basis of y
recorded wheat prices with addition of the legal allowance made to bakers
for each period in the manner already described. These allowances are


recorded. Thus from 1598 to about 1648 it was 6s. lod. for manufacturing
a quarter of wheat into bread. From 1649 to about 1688 it was reduced to
6s. per quarter. From that date to 1709 it was los. per quarter. After 1796
it was then raised to 12s. per quarter. In 1796 it was 14s. per quarter
and in 1815, when the Assize Law was aboUshed, it stood at i6s. 9d. the

Bread prices from 1735 to 1799 are taken from a return issued by the
City Corporation of London entitled " An accurate extract of the price
of the quartern loaf of wheaten bread at the commencement and conclusion
of the several mayoralties herein stated, from the year 1735 to 1799."
From i8ootoi9io wheat and bread prices were taken from a Government
return, already referred to, published in 1912. In that return the
following explanation is given as to the sources for which bread prices
were obtained between the dates given : —

" The prices of bread for the years 1800-14 are based on the Return
of the price of the quartern loaf of wheaten bread (H.C. 109-1814-5 X.), and
those for 1815-33 on information furnished by the Worshipful Company
of Bakers. The prices for 1834-48 have been taken from the Tables of
Revenue, Population, etc.. Part xviii. (No. 1159, 1850, liv.), and are for
the month of June in each year specified. The prices for 1849 and 185 1-3
have been estimated ; those for 1850 and 1854-74 are based on figures
in Haydn's Dictionary of Bates, and those for 1875-1910 are compiled
from the Report on Prices (H.C. 321, 1903), and the 15th Abstract of
Labour Statistics (Ed. 6228) ." The report continues : " It is not
known how far the figures obtained from the various statistical sources
are strictly comparable, but they are believed to indicate approximately
the course of bread prices within the period." The reservations here made
to a comparison of bread prices, apply whether these are for different
geographical districts or for different periods of time.

There is always the question of quality to be considered. Like
other commodities bread is made in several quahties. That produced
wholly from the highest grade flour is good value for at least a penny
more per four-pound loaf than that made from the lowest grade, and a
halfpenny more per four pounds than that from medium quality. In
districts far removed from the large milling centres, the baker has the
cost of carriage to add to the price of his flour, while the absence of very


keen competition amongst millers, and the higher selling costs, are
responsible for another increment of increase in price. These charges
the baker must pass on to customers as part of the price of bread.
Although the expenses of the country baker may be lower than those of
one in a populous centre, his cost of manufacture is little, if any, less,
because of the smallness of his trade, while his distributive expenses
may be much more on account of the scattered position of his customers.
But in towns and country alike the price of bread includes items, varying
in different cases, that have nothing to do with intrinsic value. When
credit is given there is the use of capital involved, a considerable cost for
books and book-keeping, and invariably a percentage of bad debts which
must in some way be liquidated out of the money received from those
who pay. A business which distributes bread over a wide area and gives
credit, must have a higher price than one in which the bread is sold in
the shop direct to consumers for cash. In trades in which the former
set of conditions obtain the price includes an item for credit and a much
larger item for cost of distribution.

When we come to consider prices as between different periods, the
comparison may be still more misleading. Bread as made in 1600 was
very unlike that of 1700 ; a greater disparity existed between the latter
and that of 1800, while the bread of 1900 had changed more than in
any of the previous periods mentioned. Part of these alterations was
due to changing conditions in the state of the people ; but a greater
part has been on account of the improvements in miUing and separating
operations. In the beginning of the seventeenth century, the bakers
were their own millers, except when tied to the mills of the Lord of the
Manor ; the apparatus for milHng was crude and hand-driven and the
sieves for sifting and separating (" bolting ") the various products
were still more simple and crude. The finest flour was nothing
hke the tine flour of to-day, because of the roughness of the apparatus,
also because the wheat from which it was obtained was wholly
home grown and comparatively soft, and it was not always
cleaned. In the early part of the eighteenth century milUng had become
to some extent a distinct business, and with specialisation had come
greater proficiency. There was a white flour and a brown product also
flour, besides the bran. The improvements in milling were for the most
part only improvements in separations. Wheat had still to be ground


into meal on stones, but sieves were finer and more expeditious in their
work. Since the " Roller System," or, as it is sometimes called, the
gradual reduction process, with steel rolls instead of composite stones
was introduced (first in Hungary about 1879), wheat is no longer ground
into meal, but the grosser parts are separated, as an initial operation,
from the parts suitable for making fine flour, so that the latter product
when ultimately ground, is white ; almost without a speck. What has

2 4 5 6

Online LibraryJohn KirklandThree centuries of prices of wheat, flour and bread. War prices and their causes → online text (page 2 of 6)