Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/The weather and the price of food




Our knowledge of the causes of Weather is so superficial and so narrow, that we are exposed to embarrassments and dangers from our ignorance in that department, as the ancients were in that and many others. We say sometimes how strange it must be to have lived in the early times, when men understood next to nothing of the heaven above or the earth beneath, or of the workings of nature all around them! How like guess-work their ways of living and seeking a living must have been! and how their daily life must have been made up of accidents!

It is a wholesome check to our vanity of knowledge, that we are almost as helpless as the most ancient people in everything that depends on meteorology. We are trying to learn, by means of observations made all over the world. We can explain something of the order of nature about hot and cold weather, about calm and windy weather, and about rainy and dry weather; but we are nearly as much at the mercy of accidents in regard to the production of our food as our forefathers of the remotest generation.

The practical good that we have gained by study and improvement in the application of science to the arts of life is considerable; but it does not affect our actual slavery to the mysteries of the weather. We have learned that we may save the lives of many hundreds of fishermen every year by putting up barometers for public use in our fishing-stations all round the coast. The fishermen, at first scoffing or timid about such venturesome ways of fore-reading the will of Providence, are becoming very glad to be warned of approaching storms. We have just bethought ourselves that we may as well use our electric telegraphs in giving notice all over the country of any considerable storm in any one direction; because, as we are beginning to understand the laws of storms, and can tell what course any hurricane is sure to take, we are able to give warning of the danger to threatened places. All this is a great gain; and so is all agricultural art which renders us less dependent on weather. A hay-making machine which finishes off in eight hours the crop which must otherwise take the risks of the weather for three or four days, and perhaps lie spoiling for a month, is a great advantage: and so is the reaping-machine, for the same reason: and so are all methods of draining, irrigating, and preparing and using the ground which render rain, and frost, and drought less injurious than they used to be. But, after all, we remain at the mercy of that mysterious and all-powerful abstraction which we call the Weather, for our very existence, because we depend upon it for our food.

It still happens, as through all recorded time, that in countries in the temperate zone, at least, the seasons come in batches of good or bad. We read of five or seven years of good weather and plenty; and of five or seven years of bad weather and scanty crops; and we ourselves have heard our fathers tell of such groups of seasons in their time; and we can remember some ourselves, unless we are very young. But however we may have advanced in science, we have no more power over the seasons than the Hebrews and the Pharaohs had in Egypt. Joseph had the good sense to lay by stores in the good years to avert famine in the bad; but he could not control the causes of the difference: and this is just our case. We can be on our guard against adversity; but we have no means of encountering such a drought as that of last year, or of stopping the rains of the late spring, and turning the cold storms into warm sunshine. We all probably have an idea that it will be otherwise hereafter. Meantime, it is exceedingly interesting, and it ought to be very cheering, to look forth from the level of our common ignorance of the causes of seasons, and compare the consequences of them, as seen formerly and now.

The inhabitants of more countries than one have lately been apprehending a scarcity of food for man and beast,—the last and the present year having been unfavourable to the production of grain, roots, grass, and therefore animals for domestic consumption. The danger seemed to threaten our own country particularly; and our condition is something like this.

For several years before 1860, the rain-fall had been much under the average; so that for two or three autumns at least there had been difficulty in watering the cattle. In some parts of the country the graziers and farmers had to pay by the gallon for water from a distance,—paying also as much as 1s. 6d. a day toll for the passage of the water-carts. The weaker cattle gave way, or were got rid of under these difficulties; and thus we began the last winter with a diminished stock. The drought had seriously affected the hay and root crops, so that the farmers hoped for an early spring as the only chance for keeping up their stock. But, before the root crops were half got in, the October frost overtook them. Some perished in the ground, and some in the pit or stack. I will not dwell on the miseries of the late winter and spring. The story of them will go down to remote generations in our rural districts. It is enough to say, that the mortality among cattle and sheep has been beyond example in modern times.

We heard of 2000 sheep in one flock being actually dying of hunger, after the owner had bought every kind and amount of food he could procure from the ports. In Mansfield market 700 dead lambs were offered for sale at threepence a-piece. In places where farming goes on on a smaller scale, it was dreary to go from homestead to homestead, and look into the yards. In one you might see two horses lying dead, after having gnawed the bark of three or four trees so as to destroy them. In the next, there lay the skins of five cows—the whole stock of the owner. In the next case you might find the place empty, the farmer having sold off all his animals early, while somebody would buy. In another house you would find dismay and horror. When the last scrap of fodder was consumed, the owner had turned out his herd of thirty cows into the wood to pick what they could find: and by the next morning nearly all were dead, from having cropped the yew trees. When the cows could not be kept, the bulls were not likely to be preserved; and in many districts there is now scarcely a bull within many miles; and the charges are so high that the cows are kept in milk; and thus the prospect of increase is narrowed for next year. This is in some small degree met by the behaviour of some of the people in the villages who do not yet understand their case and prospect. They have clamorously refused to pay an increased price for milk; and in some places have entered into a combination to leave off milk till the farmers will sell it at the ordinary price. While heaping defiance and abuse on the farmers who have suffered so much more heavily than themselves, these recusants have discovered themselves to be the weaker party. The farmers have quietly ceased to sell milk at a price which would not pay, and have reared more calves—foreseeing that meat must become very dear. Where there are children milk cannot be long refused, and for some time past there has been a thronging to the farm-yards, and a scramble among people with their money in their hands, eager to pay the high price they refused when the milk was brought to their doors.

As the year wore on the prospect did not improve. All stocks of food being exhausted, the new grass was looked for with extraordinary eagerness; but never did it seem so slow in growing. The mortality of cattle and sheep became greater than ever at the time when it had been hoped that they would be grazing in comfort. Before June arrived it was plain that the hay crop, on which our prospects for 1861 so largely depend, would be far below the average. Everywhere one might see lean beasts feeding where the grass ought to be then in flower for cutting; or, worse, trusses or cartsful of immature grass cut for the beasts in the yard; showing that, for the season, the only way of getting on was “from hand to mouth,” leaving the future to take care of itself. What prices became in this state of affairs I need not remind my readers. For some time past Londoners have talked of the phenomenon on all occasions, in all companies; and in the country the prices have risen nearly, and the anxiety quite, as high.

To deepen the anxiety, the prospects of the harvest were dark, up to the last moment. A burst of fine weather averted much of the apprehended mischief: but there must, at best, be such partial failure as will bring the image of scarcity distinctly before the minds of the people of England.

Here, then, is the moment for looking back to former scarcity, in order to derive a lesson about that which is to come.

At the opening of this century there was a great scarcity. At that time, when the population of England and Wales was only three times as much as that of London is now, the labouring classes ate more meat in proportion to their numbers than our present labourers do, though the condition of the latter is, on the whole, much improved. In the scarcity of sixty years since the complaint was that beef and mutton were 9d. per pound, and butter 2s. These prices were supposed to put meat and butter beyond the reach of the poor; but they had not the resource of wholesome bread. The quartern loaf was 1s. 10d.; and the quality was bad. Agriculture was in such a backward state that the new proposal to manure the soil with dressings advised by Sir Humphry Davy and other competent judges was received with mockery and anger by the landed interest, and the crops were left to the caprice of the season. There are men living who remember the loaf of those times—the hard pinching of the poor to get a loaf at all; and then the look of it! When the outside crust was broken the inside poured out, looking like the contents of a cup of dirty paste. None but the starving could swallow it. In middle class families the bread was one-third potatoes; and the poor took to the nettles by the wayside—not as a delicate dish of greens, composed of young shoots, as Soyer’s cookery-book advises, but pulled up, or cut whole, as the only thing that could be got to eat. Salt would seem to be indispensable in such a case; but the salt tax was then 15s. per bushel. In comfortable houses where servants were kept, families dined two or three times a week on shell-fish or herrings, or some cheap substitute for meat, and eked out their home-made bread with any substance which would mix with flour, and fill the stomach without injury. Parliament tried its hand at mending matters, as it had often tried before. A law was made against the sale of bread less than twenty-four hours old: and a Committee reported against selling flour or bread cheap to the poor, and against all lavish and needless consumption of it at the tables of the rich; and in favour of giving charity, legal or private, in the form of soups, rice, and good vegetables. The Lords recommended associations of gentry, who should solemnly pledge themselves to abstain as far as possible, in their persons and their households, from the use of flour, carefully adopting such substitutes as they could hear of. The poor, meantime, were thrown upon the poor-rate, which increased to four millions sterling in a population of nine millions. The farmers took their rates easily, as they were getting from 112s. to 120s. per quarter for their corn; but the shopkeepers daily sank into ruin. The working-men of the towns made their own rule, which the bakers would violate at their peril, that flour should be 3s. a stone and no more. When the result was disappointment, the angry populace rioted, burned the militia rolls, broke to bits every implement which they fancied could supersede human labour, poached the game, mobbed the Irish who appeared at haymaking, harvest, or hop-gathering; skulked from the press-gang, or took the shilling from the recruiting-serjeant, leaving their families to the parish. Murders, thefts, coining, smuggling, poaching, rioting, became so frequent that prisoners were condemned to be hanged by the score in a day in a single court. When two-thirds were let off (to the weakening of the authority of the law), and the remaining third were strung up in a row on a market-day, the spirit of the populace became more and more brutalised. Wise men and good patriots said that the spirit of the English people seemed to have undergone some unaccountable and portentous change. Such was the operation of dearth from fifty to sixty years ago.

But we must remember that at that time we could not trade freely in food, corn or other. Our manufactures had not yet enabled us to trade abroad according to our needs. We lived under a much-abused poor-law, itself unsuited to modern times, by which virtuous industry and economy were ruined, and idleness and profligacy rewarded. All articles of food were kept at an arbitrary price by the privileges of the landed interest, among which was an atrocious system of game preservation. The production of food was an unskilled department of industry. The labouring-classes were then more ignorant, in proportion to the rest of society, than perhaps at any time before or since.

Now, again, Englishmen find themselves thinking about a scarcity; but under how much more hopeful circumstances!

The bad sign of the present occasion is, that there is still a notion abroad among some of the working-classes that the scarcity is artificial, and brought about by selfish traders for their own gain. It is true that, in all former times of difficulty, the populace showed the same tendency to ignorant suspicion and bad construction. They have fancied, at the time of an epidemic, that the wells were tampered with, and that the doctors poisoned the poor. When hungering they have hunted the authorities or hanged the bakers. But in our age and country it might have been supposed that such mistakes had been outgrown. It is not so yet. We may hope that the time for violence has gone by; but the mistake about the facts remains. Recent meetings at Bristol, Sheffield, and other places have shown us that much of the mischief of ignorance still exists to mar our efforts to repair our misfortunes. Some of the speakers at these meetings have uttered wild imaginations about provision dealers, jobbers, stock-owners, and others having put fancy prices upon cattle and sheep, and being enabled to do so by having “a monopoly.” All this is very sad. It is sad that any of our citizens should not know what is meant by “a monopoly.” They ought to be aware that the trade in cattle and provisions is open to everybody, and that foreign beasts and meat can be freely imported; so that there is no restriction at all in favour of the dealers, and to the disadvantage of the consumer. The dealers cannot put any price upon their articles greater than the public will give; and any one, or any dozen who tried it, would be immediately undersold by others. High as the price of meat is, it is the natural price under the circumstances of the season.

Beyond this one incident the case of Englishmen in the prospect of scarcity has a less gloomy aspect than at any time in the life of our fathers. The circumstances are more favourable, all round.

The improvement in agriculture is so great that the same area of cultivable land can feed twice the number that it did at the beginning of the century. The soil is itself improved by treatment, and the produce by improvement of the soil; and to this we must add the increased speed and skill in gathering the produce; so that what is a scarcity now would have been a famine in old times. Again, we can now buy food freely wherever it is to be had. Foreign countries are not now called upon to supply our needs in a vast hurry, and without preparation. The fertile lands of our colonists and our allies, all over the world, produce crops for our market, so that we are always sure of getting enough to eat, at more or less cost. It is true, this unusual demand affects the money-market, and our own industry and commerce, so as to act very mischievously upon our fortunes; but this is something very different from the wholesale starvation which our forefathers had to apprehend after a bad season.

Again, our countrymen have now been well employed and well-paid for a long period of time in their various departments of industry; and they are, therefore, well prepared to meet a season of adversity. The poor-law, in its present state, affords a refuge for the helpless, without corrupting those who can work, and ruining the tradesman class. It is now a sound part of our institutions, instead of being the most ruinous of them all. Again, we are, as a people, better educated, more civilised, less likely to fly at one another’s throats, when exasperated by suffering. We shall not suffer so much as formerly; we shall not aggravate our miseries by bad laws and arrangements: and we shall not rush into violence when good sense and patience are our only chance of getting through. We have no press-gangs to madden the fathers, husbands, and sons whom they may entrap: the recruiting sergeant is a very different person from what he was: and there is no temptation to make bonfires of militia rolls, or anything else. Smuggling has been extinguished by free trade. Men have been too comfortable and busy, generally speaking, to be any longer prone to the brutal crimes which formerly multiplied as soon as beef and bread became dear. It is evident at a glance that our case is every way milder and more manageable than any case of impending scarcity ever was in former times.

Still, it is serious enough to require very grave, careful, and complete consideration. This consideration should include the two points of our Present Resources in the way of food, and the Prospect of the further interval, before new crops can have grown, and the mortality among the cattle and sheep have been repaired.

Such a thing was never heard of before as the price of wheat being moderate while a scarcity was known to be impending. Far on in the spring, when the prospects of the crops are usually discussed with some confidence; and when, this year, there was thick ice in the cattle troughs in the mornings, and snow lying on the hills, wheat was selling for from 45s. to 48s. per quarter. In every market the farmers were reporting badly of their wheat. In clay districts much land remained unsown: and elsewhere much was ploughed up. At the same time, last year’s crop was turning out ill in the threshing. In former times, these circumstances would have carried up the price of wheat to 60s., 70s., 80s., or higher. I need not explain that the difference between former days and the present is owing to free trade in corn; and I need spend no words in describing the blessedness of the change.

Here, then, is the grand resource of all. The corn markets of the world are always open and always busy; and there we can get, at more or less cost, the wherewithal to feed our people, till the time of good harvests comes round again. The customary lowness of the price of wheat, and the slowness of the price in rising, is inducing more and more of our farmers to rely on other crops for their rent. In our great wheat-growing counties the change is becoming very marked; and it is owing to the secure and complete establishment of a trade in corn with the wheat-growing districts of the world.

And what is it that our farmers think of growing instead? More barley, more oats, and roots to a great extent—the object being to raise sheep and cattle. Here opens a prospect of a largely increased supply hereafter of animal food, to say nothing now of the augmented wool-supply for our manufactures. It will be a long time, however, before we obtain the promised beef, veal, and mutton: and we cannot buy meat from abroad ready for use from the continental cattle countries. The Denmark cattle which we import, require much feeding and tending before they are turned over to the butcher; and the deficiency of fodder, by which we lost our own cattle, prevents our entirely filling up the gap by live importation.

From another continent, however, we can procure meat ready for use. At the working-men’s meetings I have referred to, the sensible suggestion to abstain from British meat was accompanied by a favourable mention of American beef and pork, which are to be had, according to the speakers, at 5d. and 6d. per lb. To all of us this ought to appear an inestimable boon. The meat is excellent when properly cooked; and no time should be lost in ascertaining how much we can get of it. The excellence of the Ohio pork is due to the same cause as the fame of the Westphalian hams—the diet of the swine. The beech woods of Ohio shower down mast enough to feed legions of hogs; and free trade now gives us the produce when, in our own markets, pigs of six weeks old are selling for 27s. to 30s. As for the American beef, when we hear of its being tough, we may be sure that the complainant does not know how to cook it. We have been kindly furnished by the highest possible authority with instructions on this head which I will here quote, as more to the point than anything I can say:—



Sir,—In consequence of the high price of provisions, the press has drawn the attention of the public to the American beef. As a great prejudice exists against it, resulting from the want of knowing how to prepare and cook it, I have thought that the following suggestions might be useful, if you would give them publicity.

The American salt beef comes to this country in pieces from 81b. to 121b. in weight; before being cooked they should be well washed, and soaked in cold water for 24 hours, changing the water three times.

For boiling it should be placed in a stewpan of cold water, and made to boil quickly; as soon as the water boils the meat must be taken out, the water thrown away, and fresh cold water placed in it, with the meat still warm; boil it the usual time, according to the description of joint.

Baked or Roasted Salt Ribs of Beef.—Prepare the meat as above; make a paste of flour and water, cover the meat with it (as hams are done in many parts of England), and bake it in a slow oven for 20 minutes for every pound of meat; do not cut it when hot, and it is fit for the breakfast tables of incomes of 1000l. a-year.

Stewed Salt Beef.—Prepare it as above, and cut it into steaks of the usual thickness; have some cabbage or other greens, ready boiled; chop them up, and, with the meat, place in a stewpan with a gill of water to every pound of meat, one teaspoonful of sugar to each pound, and a teaspoonful of pepper to every four pounds of meat; stew gently for two hours, and serve. The flavour of this may be varied by adding either carrots, potatoes, haricot beans, chesnuts, or boiled maccaroni, cut up into pieces about an inch long; and it may be flavoured with vinegar, mustard, or sauce, and, in fact, in many other ways, in order to give a change, and render it agreeable.

This beef contains much more nourishment than the majority of that which is now sold in the London market.

I am, sir, your obedient servant,
G. Warriner.
Instructor of Cookery to the Army.

If the aristocracy and gentry would take the hint to try the American beef and pork, it would be a great benefit to their neighbours. Every joint of English meat which they dispense with will be left for others who may want it more; while the superior cookery of their kitchens would prove whether this food might not be made as agreeable as it is certainly nourishing. We ought to prepare immediately for the greatest possible economy of home-grown meat, and a large consumption of all good foreign meat, for many months to come. The speakers at the meetings are undoubtedly right in their recommendation, though not exactly for the reasons they assign. They will not find that the withdrawal of their custom for a month, or for two or more months, will compel the provision dealers or stock merchants to lower their prices; but it will economise the existing supply, and spread it over a longer time, for the benefit of all parties.

The next obvious resource is—fish. What can I say on this familiar subject, but that it is a bitter disgrace that anybody should suffer for the want of animal food while we live in the middle of the sea, and have winding coasts which might seem to invite us to live upon fish? At present, every citizen who has any authority or influence should exert himself for four objects: and, first, to see that the laws are observed all round the coasts, and along the rivers, for the protection of fish in spawn and young fry. Because the fishermen offend, and nobody looks after them, our supplies of herrings and other fish which come in shoals are perpetually dwindling away; and times and seasons and the meshes of nets must be looked to, if we are not to lose the resource altogether. Again, let our importation of fish be looked to at once. In April we heard complaints of the depreciation of British herrings by a vast importation of Norwegian herrings, while the high duties in France and Spain and other countries exclude our fish from their markets. There may be such a market at home this year as may make up for our exclusion from some foreign ones; and we ought to have every facility for importing. Again, let those of us who live on the coast see that an understanding is established between inland consumers and the fishermen, who are usually slow in hearing of public affairs. There ought to be no burying of tons of good fish in the sands, or rotting of them for manure, to keep up the price, under the notion that only gentry eat fish. Let every basket be sent by the nearest railway to some inland market. And, once more, let some pains be taken inland to get the fish under the notice and command of the classes who want it most. There are many small towns, villages, and populous road-sides, where the labourers never see or hear of fish, except as a luxury which comes to the squire’s. A little zeal and attention on the part of public-spirited men would easily have brought mackerel into ten thousand cottages this dear spring, and may yet bring shoals of herrings among the labourers during the yet dearer autumn which is to come. At best, we shall not have nearly the quantity of fish that we ought: but let us have as much as we can.

Why do we buy eighty millions of eggs annually from the continent? and why are chickens and ducks reckoned a luxury in England and Ireland, when there might be poultry reared on every common and in every lane, and housed at the end of every cottage? Working men’s wives and children manage to keep fowls in the alleys and yards of our great towns, finding them so profitable that they never eat eggs or chickens at home. If our rural labourers would take to this gainful enterprise at once, we might have a large addition made to our stock of animal food by this time next year. There are pigeons, again—not so substantial a resource, but well worth attention. Formerly, we should have been met by the objection that these creatures would consume more grain than could be spared in our present condition: but, besides that inferior grain answers for them, we are growing too wise to waste hard barley upon fowls while Indian corn-meal is to be had. It is not only a question of swelling the food before it is swallowed instead of after, but of the fowls getting the nourishment or going without it. The amount of hard grain which passes undigested is a serious consideration in the best times; and the practice of presenting the food in the most digestible state is fast superseding the flinging away of good barley to make mere manure.

In such a year as this the landlords ought to provide for a free sale of their rabbits. Every year the rabbits do the farmers more mischief than almost any amount of bad weather; and every year certain gamekeepers are understood to make two, three, or four hundred pounds each by the sale of this particular perquisite. We may believe this from the fact of one landowner having sold 40,000 rabbits in one year, after taking a farm into his own hands,—his tenant having thrown it up on account of the rabbits. The farmers ought, in such times as these, to use freely their right of taking the rabbits, wherever they have not foolishly parted with that right. There ought to be a sweep of the rabbits, whatever the gamekeepers may say,—both for the sake of present food and next year’s crops. It will be objected that there is no getting at the creatures when they choose to hide. Well; let us have all that can be got at. We know that one gentleman got at 40,000 in one year. Let us see how many more may be obtained by early watching in the mornings, and by all known methods.

As for game,—we shall have such a winter for poaching as has not been known since the great war, if the price of meat is what we may expect. Something may come out of it. One year of actual popular hunger, or of any severe pressure for food, would put an end to the preservation of game in England. Sportsmen would be plainly directed to the Scotch moors, and Norwegian rivers, and foreign or colonial hunting grounds for their amusement, while at home there would be a vast reduction of rural crime, and an important increase of food. The produce laid waste, over and above what is eaten, by game and rabbits, would feed herds of cattle and flocks of sheep; and it would never be allowed to lapse to the game when once a winter of hardship had driven our labourers into the covers for such food as could be got. Let us hope that the landowners generally are already turning over in their minds some such course as the Duke of Bedford and several others of their class took long ago,—not under the pressure of any scarcity, but from a sense of justice to the producers and consumers of food.

The duty is off cheese, happily. Cheese stands high in the scale of animal food, from its amount of concentrated nourishment. Let us, in short, consider what animal food of any sort may be imported at a popular price, and make known the facts.

There is another thing to be done;—and it is for our countrywomen to do it. It cannot be effectually done in a day, or a month, or a year; but it may be begun to-morrow. Let the people of England be taught to cook. If we could obviate the waste from mere bad cookery, the service would be equivalent to a vast grant of food. Every lady, every retired cook, every good-natured housekeeper of any rank, who shall enable three or four labourers’ wives or daughters to make the most of the food they have in the house, will be saving her country from a certain portion of calamity. Before the next batch of bad seasons, we ought to be secure from the disgraceful aggravation of ignorance about the treatment of our food.

I can now only just indicate what can be done in the direction of next season. It is clear that we must get, not only our corn, but our cattle-fodder from abroad, in proportion to our failures at home. Lord John Russell has promoted a system of inquiry of our consuls in countries which produce dates, carob-beans, and other nutritious products which are good for cattle, and relished by them. We must acquaint ourselves with all practicable resources of this kind, grains, meal, oilcakes, fruits, roots, &c. No less diligently must we look at home to make the most of every foot of ground, in compensation for the shortness of the hay crop, and the exhaustion of our reserve stores. Let us have winter vegetables for mankind, and the largest breadths of cabbages and early grasses ever seen, for the cattle, lest the roots should turn out ill in the winter, and the crisis of the spring ruin us again. It is not too early now to be preparing for the weeks which precede a late grass-springing. The walls which straggle over mountain-sides in Cumberland and Westmoreland were first built to enclose crofts in which the ash and holly were protected, to protect in their turn the sheep and cattle on the Fells. The young shoots and sprays of the holly and ash were, as they still are, a favourite food of cattle; and so are the tender sprouts of the gorse. We need not disdain these in hard seasons, if the cows themselves, in all seasons, seek them eagerly. We may now, too, learn to value the new condiments by which coarse food is improved up to a very good value, in the estimation of beasts and owners alike.

Such are some of the considerations suggested by the existing pressure. It seems to be the right course for all of us to look out all our resources, to communicate freely with one another, to understand the case before we blame anybody for it, to admit that demand, supply, and prices must hold their natural course; to be thankful that the conditions of our case are so much improved within the memory of one generation; and to be careful that they are improved still further by our own patriotism, and our regard for future generations.

Harriet Martineau.