The Price of Bread

An interesting letter has come to light among the Poor Law records and receipts being examined by the East Sussex project, Small Bills and Petty Finance 1700-1834; it is dated 12 October 1834 and is directed to the members of the East Hoathly Parish Council.[1] The letter is from one Richard Gardiner, who will be absent from the autumnal Vestry Meeting, but who wishes to communicate to the Council strong feelings about the market price of wheat and the consequent price of flour, which he can prove is unfairly set in favour of the producers and to the detriment of the consumers; consumers in this rural village being mainly agricultural labourers and the Gentlemen addressed, mainly their employers, the farmers.

These Gentlemen may be his friends and colleagues, but nevertheless, Mr Gardiner states his arguments very firmly, beginning by demanding that at the very least in these difficult circumstances,  the workers should suffer no pay cut:

I appeal to such of you  –  Gentlemen as are Growers, whether, under the depressed and as may be apprehended – the declining State of the Corn Markets, the present general Rate of two Shillings daily Wages, can, without Disadvantage to yourselves be continued to the agricultural Labourer, . . .

This against a back story when for decades the English countryside had known only poor harvests, bad winters and foreign wars. The lawmakers had unashamedly drafted the laws and passed the Acts that ensured the comforts of their own class, while the poor became poorer they suffered under the Enclosures (measures to facilitate new farming methods by consolidating holdings, but cruelly implemented, eradicating the old peasant class), the Corn Laws (measures that protected the farmers from bad harvests and cheap imports but caused a rise in the price of bread), and the Game Act (vicious anti-poaching law: no feeding the family with a rabbit for the pot; 7 years transportation for owning a trapping net, while Man Traps were lawful until 1831). In this way the labouring classes were impoverished, stripped of hope and criminalised.

However, the main impact of the letter concerns the Millers’ excessive prices for flour, a problem which is presented in tabulated detail. And even more seriously, Mr Gardiner writes,

I am credibly informed – that at Lewes, Hailsham, and the other Corn Markets, it is normal with the Millers who meet there to fix by their own Law of Assize, the Price of Flour for the ensuing Week. This, in itself illegal, is in Reality a Conspiracy against the Consumers, which they are unquestionably warranted to counterattack by such Measures as they may think most conducible sic to a Supply of Flour proportioned to the actual Average Price of Wheat . .

Having clearly stated the case, the letter concludes:

In common Candor sic and Justice to Mr John Marten, to the Sons of the late Mr Holman and many others of the Trade who may be in the Habit of supplying Flour to the Inhabitants of East Hothly sic you will, I feel confident, coincide with me in the Propriety of communicating to them whatever may be the Result of your Consultations on this Subject and you will I am equally confident, allow them a reasonable Time to consult with each other – with their Friends, and maturely to determine on their Answer – whether to reject – or satisfactorily, by Explanation, or otherwise – to meet – the Inquiry, which you may think proper to make and continue making – with a View to establishing a more equal…sic than the present Charge for Flour, when compared with the Market Price of Wheat –

                     I am,

                               Gentlemen,

                                           Your obedient Servant

                                                             Richard Gardiner

P.S. The penny – to the £1 – I consider a most unfavorable sic Scale to the Consumer . .

It is good to know that East Hoathly had one voice in support of the disadvantaged classes; that it is a calm, measured and reasonable voice ensures that it is particularly persuasive.

[1] ESRO: PAR378/31/3/ (to be confirmed)

Written and transcibed by Anne White

Senna and Prunes for Dame Trill

When parishes agreed to meet the costs of medicines for the parish poor, they might require medical practitioners to submit an itemised bill for the raw materials, procedures and travel involved in delivering treatment.  Many of the items were commonly known to contemporaries, but are less familiar to us: therefore when writers abbreviated entries for repeated supplies, they stored up a problem for twenty-first century readers.  It is notoriously difficult (and perhaps unwise) to try to decipher the abbreviated Latin prescriptions of physicians.  It is a little easier to understand the medical interventions involved when the original language was English, and/or the substances remain part of formal or informal treatments.

Eighteenth-century woman perched on public convenience.
National Portrait Gallery. ‘National Conveniences’, James Gillray, 1796. NPG D13021.

Dame Trill from East Hoathly had a problem we can recognise – she was constipated.  We do not know the background to her story; she may have suffered a dietary deficiency of roughage or, if struggling with piles, she might have found relief in additional stool softener.  Whatever the cause, the problem was stubborn.  The parish bought senna and prunes for Dame Trill repeatedly 1770-4, usually at a cost of six and a half pence per treatment.  Raisins were sometimes offered as an alternative to prunes.

Other treatments issued to the sick poor were more general.  The purpose of diuretic balsam is made clear in the name, in that it was designed to remedy the retention of urine, but the specific diagnosis is less easy to divine.  Medicines for the poor at this date still relied on humoural understandings of the body for their rationale.  Humoural medicine construed ill health as the imbalance of humours or fluids within the body.  The four humours of blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile had a unique blend or balance for each individual, and the restoration of health demanded the removal of any humour that was overly prevalent.  For this reason vomits, purges, diuretics and bleeding were among the most frequently used medicines throughout the eighteenth century.

In addition to generic remedies there was a willingness by parishes to pay for the equivalent of brand-name medicines, known at the time as patent medicines.  Widow Cane of East Hoathly was given Hooper’s Pills in 1773.  The patent for this medicine was first issued in 1743  and was one of the most successful and long-lasting products of its type, being sold well into the twentieth century in England and elsewhere.  It pledged to tackle female ‘irregularities’ and so was assumed by some customers to be a viable solution to an unwanted pregnancy.  It is important to say, though, that we don’t automatically suppose that this was the purpose of the parish in buying the pills for Widow Cane!  This medicine also offered to treat stomach problems, hysteria, and menstrual concerns: perhaps Widow Cane was menopausal?

Lists of medicines and treatments for the parish poor have presented a problem to historians thus far: how are we to use them, if we cannot work out the ingredients of items listed simply as pills, powders or mixtures, and if the recipients are not always obvious?  This is one of the problems this project is hoping to address.  Do get in touch with the project team if you have any ideas about how we might use these intriguing vouchers to ask historical questions.