Feeding the Poor, 1795 England

I’ve been dipping into Humphrey Jennings’ wonderful collection of historical sources, Pandaemonium. It’s a huge tome and was as major inspiration to Danny Boyle and his colleagues in staging the opening for the 2012 London Olympics. I seem to be doing a similar thing here – presenting documents as images to – I hesitate to use the word – explain, the complex story of the Industrial Revolution. The truth is far too complex, but occasional examples can throw up a whole pile of insights. I have a number of issues with some of his comments, but will deal with them when appropriate.

For the moment, I am intrigued by a letter he included from Capell Lufft to the Annals of Agriculture which was printed in 1796. Lufft had written to a parson in Ingleton, West Yorkshire inquiring about the food of the poor. This was in 1795, when Britain was in dire straits. Afraid of the English poor copying the French, also afraid of slaves uprising in the West Indies, it was also a time of food shortages, so a very scary time for all. It is not long before Cobbett was on his Rural Rides, describing widespread hunger and poverty of the poor in southern England, so the situation in Yorkshire is surprising.

The food of the poor was described by the local parson as mostly bread, either leavened or unleavened, and made of oats. Their daily diet was described as breakfast of oatbread with milk or tea. Potatoes, occasionally with a little meat for midday. Then a supper of potatoes. The parson claimed that those who could afford wheat bread sometimes had it for tea. But that even opulent families had oat bread at most meals.

This sounds like people living on the edge perhaps. No sign of fruit or veg, no cheese, cider or beer, little meat. And yet the people are described as “strong, vigorous and healthy as in any other part of the kingdom or perhaps more so. In the neighbouring parishes great quantities of potatoes are planted; great quantities are exported to various settlements, especially to the West Indies.”

This is extraordinary, and seems to echo what happened decades later in Ireland. In the south, the poor were starving, yet here, some distance from any major port, they are exporting potatoes to the West Indies. Potatoes came from South America, so should have been grown closer to the colonies, and potatoes were heavy and I would imagine hard to ship as they would go mouldy before arrival. But I am guessing that since most of the ships to the West Indies were going out in ballast, the potatoes may have been part of this. It also allowed slaves to concentrate on cash crops rather than subsistence.

It also suggests that rich and poor in northern England and slaves of the West Indies were all on a rather similarly bland, high starch diet.

So why were the poor of southern England starving?

Because, as Cobbett ranted,  their land was flat, so had been extensively enclosed, depriving them of land to grow their own food. Yorkshire was hilly and damp so harder to plough for wheat. It was also closer to mines and factories, farmers had to compete for labour with factories, so wages were higher and the agricultural workers were, as stated, strong and healthy. In the south there was no alternative to agricultural work, so the landowners were free to starve the poor.

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