A slice of working-class life

Bread and the British Economy, c.1770-1870
May 24, 1996

Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are." "Man is what he eats." The 19th century gave birth to a number of proverbs about the relationship between society and subsistence. A good illustration of this could be found in Britain, where the bulk of the people lived on a diet in which wheaten bread played a predominant role. In the period covered by this book the population of Britain tripled and shifted from being a rural-based agricultural people to an urban workforce. Throughout the industrial revolution the people expressed a stubborn preference for white bread. A host of middle-class diet reformers and political economists castigated this choice, and accused the British working classes of "daintiness" in their food habits. Petersen challenges this received wisdom and does much to vindicate the prediliction for white bread. The wheat loaf possessed superior nutritional qualities and was highly cost effective.

This book covers some important themes long neglected by historians. A chapter on the assize of bread is the first attempt at a reappraisal of that important institution since Sidney and Beatrice Webb wrote on the subject more than 90 years ago. The chapter on milling and baking helpfully synthesises and augments the state of our knowledge on these important industries.

The central chapters are based on Petersen's new estimates of the consumption of wheaten bread. There are few reliable statistical indicators for the nation and the period as a whole on which to work and most students who have considered the problem, Petersen included, have gone back to the estimates and methods produced by Charles Smith, the 18th-century miller and amateur economist. Here Petersen shows himself to be fully in command of a difficult body of evidence and arrives at sensible estimates. These are open to criticism and revision, as would be any figures produced from equations in which several of the elements are no more than informed guesses. All these shortcomings are well understood by Petersen who presents them and alternative interpretations to his readers.

Questions about politics and the forging of social and political interests around the bread question should be reopened as a result of Petersen's study. Complex problems are treated in a clear, not simplified manner, making this a book suitable for undergraduates as well as specialists. This is an essential purchase for all serious libraries. It is an important book which started life as an Oxford DPhil by a mature student who died before completion. His editor and friends are to be commended for bringing the book to press.

Richard Sheldon is a PhD student in economic and social history, University of Birmingham.

Bread and the British Economy, c.1770-1870

Author - Christian Petersen
ISBN - 1 85928 117 6
Publisher - Scolar Press
Price - £49.50
Pages - 346

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