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John Kirkland.

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

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Events Likely to Influence Prices
and Notes.



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Edward

VII.
1901 to

1910



George
V. 1910
to 0000



duce Indian wheat was not im-
ported in large quantity until
after 1878.

Population of Great Britain
35.246,562 (i88i).



Population of Great
37,88o,7b4 (1891).



Britain



Great wheat speculation in
America. " Corner " attempted by
Leiter and others, lasted about
three months.

Population of Great Britain
4i,bo9,09i (1901).

From 15th April, 1902, to 30th June,
1903, there was a duty on imported
wheat of 3d. per cwt.



Population of Great
47.365.559 (1911)-



Britain



Great War started, Aug. 4th, 1914.



Figures are for first six months of year only.



C I



AN APPRECIATION OF THE MAIN

FACTORS IN THE RISE OF PRICES

AND FREIGHTS (1914-17).

The great war which broke out in the summer of 1914 and has now
lasted for over three years, without any immediate prospect of
peace, has naturally had the effect of raising the price of wheat to a
level it had not reached since the Napoleonic wars, though it must be
admitted that the very highest figures touched by the premier cereal in
that war-troubled period have not yet been reached, or even approached.
The wheat charts that have been published by one statistical autliority
or another give 120s. as the price made by the quarter of wheat in this
country in 1812, while that high figure, or very near it, was reached twelve
years earher. As a matter of fact this price of 120s. must stand as a
general average for the whole of the Kingdom, or perhaps for England and
Wales. It is certain that much more than 120s. was realised for wheat
in certain months of 1812. In the annual statement for 1812 by Titus
Woolhead, a diligent compiler in his day, of statistics, relating to the
price of wheat, flour and bread in London and its neighbourhood, it is
recorded that in January of that year wheat touched at its highest point
136s., while in March 142s was made and 152s. in April. The maximum
was reached in October with 172s., but 170s. had been made in the previous
July. These were prices actually made in the open market, but such
were the fluctuations on the corn exchanges of that day that simul-
taneously with these swollen figures much more moderate prices were
accepted now and again. As an example of the extreme irregularity of
the market in those days Woolhead records iocs, as the lowest price in
the July of 1812, when 170s. was the top figure , in September loos. was
the lowest price as against i68s., the highest figure, and in the following
month a maximum of 172s. was balanced by a minimum of 76s. The
average for that month dropped to 115s. Ojd., but the monthly averages
in that year (for London) of 142s. ojd. and 139s. 4|d. for July and August
respectively justify the prices of is. 8d. per quartern of bread set by
the Civic Authorities in those months of that year. The highest



APPRECIATION OF WAR PRICES, WHEAT, ETC. 37

price for bread in the Assize of 1812 was is. 8^d. in the first
week of October. The lowest bread price recorded was is. 3id.
early in February. The weekly average for 1812 was a fraction over
IS. 6.M. which compares with is. 3d., the weekly average of London's
Assize for 1811. If I have gone so minutely into these figiires of the
Napoleonic era, it is because it seems not undesirable to compare the prices
reached since the outbreak of this world-wide war with those that
obtained in Georgian England during the utmost stress of the conflict
with Napoleon. It is as well to bear in mind that the population of the
United Kingdom during those strenuous days of the reign of George III.
was about 16,000,000, the whole of whose breadstuffs supphes had
practically to be found within the British Isles. Between 1800 and 1818
the price of wheat fluctuated between 86s. and 120s., that is, striking a
rough average for the whole Kingdom. To-day, under the strain and
stress of a war which has taxed and is taxing the resources of the British
Empire to the utmost, wheat advanced in thirty- four months from the out-
break of hostihties from about 32s. to 87s. 6d., taking the highest price of
wheat as sold by the Wheat Commission. While more than three-fourths
of the breadstuffs supply required to feed 47,000,000 people is imported,
the control of this supply, so far as wheat is concerned, had been vested
in the hands of the State since October, 1916. The reasons that led the
Government to undertake this onerous charge will presently be duly set
forth. Suffice it to say that the nationalisation, as this war measure
may be termed, of the external wheat trade of the United Kingdom, has
so far been justified by results, that it has probably given millers
cheaper wheat than would have been obtainable had the trade been left
in private hands. It may be noted that native wheat, which had been
left in the hands of traders, appreciated very rapidly in the winter and
spring of 1 917, when the farmers were enabled by cold drying winds, to get
their stacks threshed out in January and February. At the close of
March, 1917, English wheat had reached, in many provincial markets,
from 88s. to 90s. Higher prices than these have been quoted, and were
probably made, but the conditions were doubtless more or less abnormal.
As much as loos. was reported to have been made in a Southern market,
at the end of March, but if such a figure was realised it was probably paid
for wheat intended for seeding in April, and was essentially a fancy price.
It is a fact, that in the third year of the great war " controlled," that is
imported wheat, was being S0I4 to millers at an average 01793. to 80s., whil§



38 THREE HUNDRED YEARS PRICES.

the native article had reached 90s. The former had appreciated from the
outbreak of war about 150 per cent., while the latter had made an
advance of nearly 200 per cent. * If it were asked what had impelled the
authorities to allow a free hand to the British farmer, while placing
imported wheat under State control, the answer would be that in this
time of war it seemed imperative to give the British wheat grower every
inducement to put as much land under that cereal as his resources per-
mitted.

After this brief view of the stringency in wheat markets in the earlier

years of the past century it will not be without interest to watch the rise

and fall of wheat prices in those Victorian days when the nineteenth

century had sped on a little more than half its course. Those were the

days of the Crimean War, which dragged on for about two and a half

years. The population of the United Kingdom had then more than

doubled the early nineteenth century mark. In 1847 and 1848, two

years respectively marked by the disasters of the Irish Famine and a

very bad harvest in this country.the price of English wheat rose to between

69s. and 70s. Those calamites sealed the fate, or perhaps it would be

more correct to say sounded the death knell, of the protective duties on

wheat and flour, popularly known as the Corn Laws. After a bitter struggle

maintained for many years, the party of progress finally triumphed in 1846

when Sir Robert Peel carried the repeal of the Corn Laws, though in

deference to the powerful landed interest this beneficent measure did not

take effect till 1849. The protective system abolished by Sir Robert

Peel was replaced by a so-called registration duty of is. per quarter, which

continued in force for twenty years, till abolished by Robert Lowe, then

Chancellor of the Exchequer, in 1869. This duty was revived by Sir

Michael Hicks-Beach, in his 1902 Budget, to help to pay for the South

African War, but was abolished by his successor, Mr. Ritchie, in the

following year. But that is another story. There was an interval of

relatively low corn averages, from the passing away of the Corn Laws till

the Crimean War, which had the effect of cutting off our imports of

Russian wheat and brought back, for a while, high prices. In 1849 English

wheat fell as low as 44s., and in 1850 it dropped down to 39s., recovering

a couple of shiHings by the following year. The average "Gazette " price

♦Though English Wheat at the outbreak of war was 35s., yet this price was the
result largely of the scarcity inevitable at the end of season. For the latter half of
the season 30s. to__3is. would have been a fair price, averaging all qualities.



APPRECIATION OF WAR PRICES, WHEAT, ETC. 39

for English wheat in the cereal year, 1852-53 — not the calendar year —
was but 44s. 7d. At that time the population of the United Kingdom
was about 27,500,000, while our total consumption of wheaten bread-
stuffs in the twelve months in question, was estimated at 16,335,464 qrs.
Deducting our net home production (less 2| bushels per acre for seed), namely
10,433,464 qrs., we get a total importation in that year of 5,902,000 qrs.
of raw wheat or of wheat in the shape of flour. A great change
from the Napoleonic era, when our bread stuffs imports were a negligible
factor. The downward tendency of wheat prices was sharply arrested
by the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853. The wheat average for the
1853-4 cereal year was no less than 72s. iid., an advance on its
immediate predecessor of 28s. 4d. This sharp rise was due not only
to the loss of our Russian wheat supplies, but also to a bad
harvest. For some reason or another our wheat area had diminished
by 44,678 acres from the acreage of 1852-3, while the yield was
exceedingly poor, but 205 bushels to the acre. The total avail-
able home produce was only 9,337,546 qrs. leaving a deficit, as against
the previous year of 1,095,918 qrs. It is not surprising that the imports for
that cereal year reached 6,092,000 qrs. an advance of 190,000 qrs. on the
previous season. But even so, the total available supply for a population
of 27,619,999 was short of the stocks in the preceding cereal year by just
905,918 qrs. These figures are very interesting, as they clearly show
how the smallest shortage will artificially enhance prices. In dealing
presently with the advance of breadstuffs under the pressure of this, the
greatest war in which Britain has ever been engaged, we shall have
occasion to show how markets can soar upwards in the midst of plentiful
supplies, under the mere fear of scarcity at a later but indefinite date. It is
not surprising then that, under the conditions existing at the outbreak
of the war with Russia in 1853, wheat should have taken an upward hft,
which may roughly be expressed as 64 per cent. Right through the
Crimean period wheat maintained this relatively high level. The average
for the cereal year 1854-5 fell, indeed, 2s. lod. but this fall was made up
and more, in the following year (1855-6), when the British corn average
stood at 73s. I id., the highest point in the annals of the nineteenth century,
always excepting the Napoleonic era . The history of these two latter cereal
years of the Crimean period (1854-5 and 1855-6) is full of interest to
the student of economics. The protectionist school is never tired
of repeating that the assurance of high prices is bound to stimulate



40 THREE HUNDRED YEARS PRICES.

production, and that the country which desires to safeguard its bread
supply has only to put a high import duty on wheat, to see the wheat area
at once expand by leaps and bounds. Now, admitting that the im-
port duty of one shilling per quarter was not in the days of 50s., 60s., and
70s. wheat much of a protection against oversea imports, it is still undeni-
able that the British farmer in the Crimean period had every inducement
to increase his wheat acreage. In addition to a very tempting rise in
price — an advance of about 60 per cent, would in any country be hailed
as a godsend by the producers of any staple article — the British agri-
culturist of that day was effectively protected against foreign compe-
tition by the elimination of our then chief source of foreign supply,
Russia to wit, to say nothing of the then primitive method of ocean
transport. Steam navigation was still in its infancy ; the day of 12 to
15,000 tonners equipped with room-saving triple expansion engines
had not yet dawned. The wheat area in the 1853-4 season was indeed in-
creased to a small extent as compared with its predecessor, the advance
being a trifle over i per cent. Fortunately for the wheat growers of those
days the season was as propitious to wheat culture as the previous cereal
year v/as the reverse. Instead of the miserable yield of 2o| bushels
to the acre, the very high figure of 34I bushels was attained, which gave
a net yield of 16,427,742 qrs., or 7,090,196 qrs. in excess of the total net
yield of the previous j^ear, and 998,196 qrs. above the total available
supplies of the previous season. In other words, the British farmer had
produced in this season, thanks to the bounty of nature, nearly a million
quarters over and above the previous total available home harvest plus
more than six million quarters of imported bread stuffs in the previous
season. The imports in this bounteous cereal year dropped to 2,983,000
qrs., which, added to the home crop, gave a population of rather over
27,750,000 a total supply of 19,410,742 qrs. Yet the price of wheat
gave way but slightly — a drop of about 4 per cent. What clearer proof
could be furnished that, when war's alarms have seized on any land, there
is a strong tendency on the part of producers to charge exorbitant prices
even in the midst of plenty. The following year there was a further
increase in the wheat area, the natural result of high prices and a success-
ful season in the 1854-55 cereal year. There was an extension of the
wheat area of nearly 40,000 acres, which gave the United Kingdom in
that season a total wheat acreage of 4,076,447 acres. But this
season, though not exactly bad for the farmer, did not favour



APPRECIATION OF WAR PRICES, WHEAT, ETC. 41

wheat as did its predecessor, and with a yield of only 27! bushels
the total net yield was but 12,776,300 qrs., which with the imported
3,265,000 quarters gave a population of 27,947,933 a total breadstuffs
supply of 16,041,300 quarters. The British corn average rose 3s. lod.
above the 70s. id. of the previous season, but dropped 13s. lod. in the
following season (1856-7) under the influence of an increase in the wheat
area of 137,204 acres, a fair return in the shape of a net yield of
13,007,453 quarters, not ilhberal imports (4,102,584 quarters), and
above all a state of peace.

As might have been expected, the price of bread reached a high leve 1
during the dear days of the Crimean War. In the City of London as
much as is. 3d. and is. 4d. per quartern was paid for bread ; the writer
has had those prices quoted to him by bakers who, in those days, had
shops in that part of London. It is probable that these prices, which
respectively came within 75 and So per cent, of the top figures of the
Assized bread of 1812, did not last very long, but bread at a shilhng
was perfectly justified by the then level of wheat. That farmers should
have been allowed to exact such figures for the staple food of the land in
such a season of plenty as the 1854-5 cereal year, will ever be a blot on
the history of those days. It may be urged in defence of the rulers of
that time, that that was an age of extreme individualism, in which the
right of the individual trader or producer to exploit to the utmost his
fellow citizens was admitted without question. We have progressed a
little since those days, yet have not advanced very far on the road to
State socialism, if we are to judge by the experience of this war. It
took about twenty-six months of war to convince the powers that were
that the hand of the State, or in other words of the community, should
be laid on shipowners' prices and profits. We shall return to this
subject in dealing with the causes that led to the " nationalisation "
of the British wheat trade in the fall of 1916.

In considering how far the great war which opened at the end of
July, 1914, has affected the price of wheat, it is necessary to take a
panoramic view, so to speak, of Europe in the summer of that year.
Germany, a federated Empire of about 67,000,000 people, occupying a
central, and in some respects very advantageous strategical position
between Russia and France, having as an ally, one might say vassal,



42 THREE HUNDRED YEARS PRICES.

the military Empire of Austria-Hungary with a population of possibly
50,000,000, suddenly struck at both her neighbours. The ostensible cause
of hostilities was the undoubted resentment by Russia of the cavalier
treatment by Austria of the Balkan State of Serbia, a small but inde
pendent kingdom, with aspirations to the assumption, whenever the
time should be ripe, of the mantle of sovereignty of the South Slavonic
peoples. It must be borne in mind that from the Adriatic, right away
to the ^gean and to the shores of the Black Sea, there have existed at
various times during many centuries past a series of kingdoms and
principalities, of which the most famous was the realm of Tsar Dushan,
that was largely coterminous with the modern kingdom of Serbia, as
reconstituted after the Balkan wars of 1912-13. The dream of a Serbian,
or South Slavonic Empire, embracing some of the fairest lands of South
Eastern Europe, was shattered by the Turks at the Battle of Kossovo,
when the army of Tsar Lazar was utterly routed, and that hapless
monarch was captured and beheaded. Serbia was for the time being,
and for centuries after, under the heel of the Turk, but a few Serbian
warriors found refuge on the rocky heights of Montenegro, where they
maintained their independence of both Turkey and Austria until their
mountain fastness was recently overrun by the Austrian forces in the
course of this war. It is not difficult to understand why the modern
kingdom of Serbia, with roots stretching deep into the historic past,
was an object of the utmost suspicion and dishke in Vienna, which
had to consider the dissolvent effect of the new-born Serbian kingdom
on her own Slav subjects, Croatians, Slavonians, and others, who share
the Serbian blood, though unlike them they profess the Roman and
not the Greek form of Christianity. The Greek Church, known by its
sectaries in Greece, among Greeks still under Ottoman rule, in Bulgaria,
Serbia and Roumania, as the Orthodox Church, is also, or was till the
recent Russian revolution, the State Church of Russia. In Russia,
however, the words " and Imperial," were added to " Orthodox," signify-
ing that the Russian Church had the special distinction of the patronage
of His Imperial Majesty the Tsar and Autocrat of all the Russias, for the
moment a fallen idol. The Bulgarians, another South Slavonic people,
but whose features bespeak a strain of Tartar blood, though co-religionists
of the Serbians, have been more or less jealous rivals of the Serbs.
Russia, the patron from time immemorial of the Southern Slavs, in all



APPRECIATION OF WAR PRICES, WHEAT, ETC. 43

their struggles with their former or present masters, such as the Turks,
and the Austrians, has never allowed anything in the shape of hberty at
home till a partial revolution some dozen years ago created a feeble
imitation of a free Parliament which received the title of Duma. The
revolution in March last certainly brought a free State into being, and
for the time being swept autocracy into the dust. That the ruthless
oppressor of Poland and the organiser of massacres of helpless and
unoffending Jews should have posed as the would-be hberator of hei
brother Slavs from the Austrian yoke, is one of the grimmest jests recorded
in history. The Austrian Empire, to which is joined the kingdom of
Hungary, is a mihtary State of a rather antiquated type, but its diverse
and to some extent mutually antagonistic nationalities are in the enjoy-
ment of local autonomous Government. After this survey of the con-
ditions obtaining in Southern Eastern Europe, in Austria-Hungary and
in Russia, it will be quite easy to understand how completely Germany
had Austria under her thumb. It was the fear of Russia that forced the
late Emperor Francis Joseph to do the absolute bidding of Germany.
Italy, on the other hand, though a member of the tripartite treaty
which bound Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy to mutual defence
in case the territories of any one of those States were attacked by any
Power, had long cherished ambitions on the so-called Trentino, that part
of Southern Austria which contains an Italian-speaking population ;
moreover, Italy coveted a dominating position on the Adriatic httoral-
When Austria, therefore, presented a note to Serbia, practically demanding
that the latter should, as penance for her alleged complicity in the murder
at Serajevo, in June, 1914, of the Heir to the Austrian Empire, surrender
her independence, and become Austria's vassal, the Dual Empire placed
itself technically in the position of a disturber of the peace. Italy used
this fact as a valid reason for refusing to march with her Alhes against
France and Russia, but from that moment began to arm with the
intention of entering the hsts against her former ally as soon as her
mihtary preparations should be complete. France, the age-long foe of
Germany, had her ravished provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to recover .

In this war Germany was the aggressor, and happily for France,
her unscrupulous violation of the soil of Belgium, of which the neutrahty
had been guaranteed by several European Powers, not forgetting Prussia
herself, brought this country into the fray. We could do no other than



44 THREE HUNDRED YEARS PRICES.

honour our signature to the piece of paper binding us to defend the
neutraUty of Belgium. Nevertheless the entry of this country into the
great war, on Tuesday, August 4th, 1914 came as a great shock to the
people of this country. Nor could it have been otherwise. While
talk of the great European war that would break on the world some
day or another had been going on for more years than most of us care to
remember, yet not one business man in ten thousand ever dreamed that
war would be forced upon the world, because of the consuming ambition
of Kaiser Wilhelm, who only crystallised however in his own person
the ambitions of nine-tenths of the German people to possess the earth.
We are an insular folk, full of all the defects of insularity, with an ower
guid conceit of oursels, and it had never entered our heads that the
Germans, of all people in the world, would ever challenge us for the
world's supremacy. It is true that for years the intentions of Germany
in this respect had been freely advertised in the writings of the militarist
German school. But few of us either talk or read German. The only
Germans that the stay-at-home Briton had ever seen were either waiters
or barbers, who no doubt struck him as a somewhat feeble folk. Few
of us dreamed that the German Empire was a vast entrenched camp,
with the largest population of any European country (Russia excepted)
trained to arms, a land of vast material resources, with an immense
productive capacity as far as the outturn of arms, munitions and ships
is concerned, and above all, a land capable of living on its own resources,
at least for a considerable time. Deaf and bhnd to what was passing
a few hours journey from our shores, we offered our jealous and vigilant
rivals the edifying spectacle of a house divided against itself. After
Parliament had solemnly ratified the grant of Home Rule to Ireland,
a small but militant faction deliberately expressed its intention to rebel
against the authority of Parliament and to seek to upset its decisions by
force of arms. These well-advertised rebels even went to the length of
importing arms from Germany. Is it wonderful that the Kaiser and his


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Online LibraryJohn KirklandThree centuries of prices of wheat, flour and bread. War prices and their causes → online text (page 4 of 6)