Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/The national loaf and purse in 1863




In writing of the seedtime and the prospect of the harvest last May, I spoke of the season as a time of trembling. It can now be spoken of only as a season of adversity—it is not too much to say—of calamity. The dislike of trembling, and of confronting calamity, has never been more plainly shown than during the whole course of this summer, in which we have not manifested the cool, clear-sighted courage which is one of the prominent characteristics of the English temper. This must be in no small degree owing to the uncertainty in which we always live in regard to the agricultural produce of the country. If we lived under a system of statistics in agriculture at all comparable to that which regulates our commerce, we should be wiser, braver, and richer than we can ever be without it. As it is, our “agricultural interest” lies under a disadvantage which affects every class of the community, and which the manufacturing and commercial interests would not submit to for a single year, after the remedy had once become apparent. By means of the Board of Trade returns, it is constantly known how the British supply of manufactured commodities and the markets of the world stand related to each other; and the producers regulate their proceedings accordingly, relaxing, stimulating or diversifying their production according to the facts of the time.

The food department, though more important than those of clothing, convenience and luxury, is always in the dark,—voluntarily and needlessly. Our farmers have surmounted many prejudices in their generation, and their art of food-manufacture has advanced most strikingly since the repeal of the Corn Laws: but they have not yet got over the mischievous and unreasonable prejudice which makes them refuse to allow returns to be made of the use and productiveness of their land. To the rest of the world this looks very strange, because their industry is pursued in the open air, and under the broad sky, so that it is not in their power to conceal the state of any one field or any one farm, from end to end of the kingdom. We may all remember how, twenty years ago, the Anti-Corn Law League sent its agents into the agricultural districts, to report of the condition and management of the farms belonging to large landed-proprietors. There was furious wrath among those proprietors, as those reports became more and more numerous, and more systematically produced; but the answer given to their complaints by the League satisfied everybody but themselves. When it was found that certain of these lords and gentry were dismissing labourers who had been interrogated by any stranger, and insisting that all hospitality should be refused in their villages to any traveller who asked questions, the League agents published the fact that they had ceased to speak to any labourer, and to make inquiries of anybody connected with any estate: but they published reports more and more full and precise, from their own observation. No power on earth could prevent their looking over the hedge on each side of the high road, and noting the state of the crops, the disposition of the land, and the condition and arrangement of the farm-buildings. If the manufacturers had had the same repugnance to observation, they could have baffled it, because they could keep their books and their warehouse stocks under lock and key: but they early perceived and valued the advantage of knowing what was doing in their branch of industry, and what was likely to be required. The farmers meanwhile, though their production was going on before all men’s eyes, were incessantly trying to make a secret of their procedure and its results. The consequence, in the days of the Corn Laws, was that the corn-trade was the most gambling business going. It was such a lottery that none but men of large capital were considered justified in engaging in it, because almost every year was one of vast gains or dead losses. And, now that free-trade in corn has removed some of the elements of vicissitude in prices, the corn-merchant still suffers much from the perverse reserve of the corn-growers at home, which keeps him in the dark about how to conduct his transactions abroad; and society suffers from the constant and universal uncertainty about the supply of food. I believe and trust that the prejudice is giving way. Year by year we read of one or other parish or district in which the farmers consult on the subject of a system of agricultural statistics, and in which there is a growing majority of tenant farmers who declare that they have no objection to a note being made, by duly authorised persons, of the acreage which they devote to different crops, or to pasture, and of the number of their live stock: but there are still so many who object that no general scheme can yet be established. We still go on explaining that nobody wishes to pry into the affairs of A., B., or C. Nobody cares to know whether the wheat grown, and the cattle reared, belong to A., B., or C. The names of the men and their abodes, and the precise locality and extent of the farms, are of no consequence. What society wants is to learn, year by year, how much of the land of the kingdom is devoted to wheat growing, and barley, and oats, and roots, and what live stock we have to depend on for animal food. These facts could be learned, in spite of all opposition, as the League agents learned the agricultural condition of particular districts: but it would cost too much to do it without the co-operation of the farmers. The thing is actually achieved in Ireland, with the best results; and, for a time, it was done to a considerable extent in Scotland, without injury or offence to anybody; but the whole virtue of such a procedure is in its completeness; and there is no near prospect yet of such an agreement among the agricultural interest as will admit of any regular and constant estimate of the food-supply of the country, or as may make the trade in food as sound, and safe, and economical as the trade in other commodities. While this wilful obscurity is maintained, there must be a great deal of risk and of loss on all hands: the corn-trade must remain the most speculative of all the branches of commerce: farmers must be still liable to grow the crops which will be least wanted, and which will pay them worst: good seasons will ruin some while enriching others, and bad seasons will be more disastrous than they need be. It is abundantly plain that if the food-manufacturer saw his way as plainly as the manufacturer of clothing, or the importer of exotic productions, he would be less liable to loss than now, when all calculation as to demand is impossible; and more clear-sighted as to profit, in proportion to his certainty of what the national demand would be, and how it was likely to be met. The thing will be done. After all that has been effected towards making the English farmer a man-of-business, and his art one of precision, grounded on a scientific basis, the remaining step, of making his appropriation of his land a matter of calculation also, must surely be taken before long: but meantime there is no year in which the agricultural interest does not incur risks, and the nation at large suffer anxiety and loss, from the absence of a sound system of Agricultural Statistics.

The effect this year has been so remarkable as to attract much notice. It has exposed us to the charge of cowardice and folly, from the way in which we have been talking about the harvest for the last six months. I have watched the process very closely, and with ever-increasing wonder,—as I know that others have done. From my mountain perch I have, in a manner, overlooked the country as it lies between the four seas, and listened to the speculations which the people were calling out to each other. There is no other subject on which so many people are always saying something as that of the Weather and the Crops; and never, within my experience, were the sayings so strange and so instructive.

In the absence of all authentic record of what the soil is intended to produce of various kinds of food, everybody is afraid of doing mischief by uttering unfavourable anticipations in regard to any one article. It is still considered a matter of religious trust, on the one hand, and of social duty and good manners, on the other, to assume that the harvest will be good. This year, the strenuousness of the effort has been remarkable. Almost everybody has been eager to be deceived, and to help to deceive others, from the dread of doing something ungrateful and mischievous in apprehending that the harvest would be bad, when it might turn out a good one after all—a habit of mind formed and fostered by the obscurity belonging to a defective organisation of agricultural industry. When the warm and beautiful month of February was over, and the rainy spring set in, it could be no secret that a worse seed-time had never been known: but it was a long way to harvest; and fine weather in the interval would set all right. Week after week, month after month passed on, and the fine weather did not come; yet, it seemed to me, there was more avowed confidence of a good harvest, the shorter the time became in which such a thing was possible; and the most sanguine paragraphs in the newspapers, all over the country, have been since a good harvest had become clearly impossible. In each particular place there was a wet soil, never warmed by any natural summer sunshine: in each particular place there were swarms of insects of every mischievous kind: they blighted the cereals, they arrested the growth of roots, they devoured the blossom and the fruit of orchard and garden. Everywhere there were fields ploughed up and resown; and everywhere there were blustering winds, when a calm atmosphere was needed for the blooming and fruiting of the corn, and cold weather when summer heat was wanted for the ripening of the grain. Yet, everywhere there were people talking of a harvest above the average. It might not be so in each person’s particular parish; but three hundred miles off everything was very promising, if the newspapers were to be trusted;—yet the authors of the newspaper reports were such sanguine people as these,—each emulating every other in giving cheerful pictures of the season. When a few real summer days came at last, the reporters were well pleased with themselves for having taken and given no alarm, though they should have admitted that it was then too late for any considerable retrieval of the crops. Such an admission would have been a matter of course under a method of estimate, and a habit of seeking the truth, such as prevails in other departments of business.

On the disclosure of the truth I need not dwell. We shall none of us forget what the crops were found to be like, when they were looked into. The “Agricultural Gazette” of August 16th brought us face to face with our calamity. “There can be no doubt,” said that trusty Journal, after summing up the evidence it had obtained from all parts of the country, “that the wheat harvest crop of 1862 is one of the worst we have had for many years.” The estimate is, in fact, unequalled for badness; for, though there are always some among the two hundred reporters to that Journal who are wont to see things couleur de rose, there is this year only one of the whole 188 of that week (and he writes from an Irish county) who reports the wheat crop to be “very good.” Only thirty-seven declare an average crop; and 150 pronounce it a very inferior one. There is nothing under other heads to compensate in any degree for this misfortune. Barley is hardly an average, and oats not above it, pulse about an average; and roots, it is to be feared, very much below it. I need not remind my readers how the hay-crop has disappointed expectation,—how much difficulty there has been in saving it, such as it was; nor how the weather has spoiled thousands of acres of pasture and tillage by flood, and then soaked the swaths and sheaves which were cut in the few days of sunshine. Of potatoes the accounts are still uncertain, as they usually are till the middle of autumn, unless the quality is unquestionably good: but the reports do not grow more encouraging as the weeks pass on. The plain truth is that, after a very indifferent harvest in 1859, a deplorably bad one in 1860, and a barely average one in 1861, we now find ourselves in the midst of “one of the worst we have had for many years.”

It ought not to be a question with Britons whether to face a great misfortune frankly, or to tamper with it, and try to disguise it. I will not make it a question, but assume that, as Englishmen, we do not flinch from any necessary pain, but rather feel our spirit rise to meet and bear it.

What we have to consider, therefore, is this. We are already, though the most blest of the nations of the earth, in adversity. The mere money loss of the cotton failure,—of the suspension of the industry,—is computed at many millions. I have seen forty-eight millions assigned as the probable loss from the suspension of the cotton manufacture, up to last month. I have no means of judging how far this is correct. But we all know that our chief manufacture has nearly stopped; and that we have to sustain four or five millions of persons connected with the manufacture for many months to come, at best. The bad harvest, in addition, will cost us twenty or thirty millions more. As I have said on a former occasion, we usually spend twenty millions in the purchase of food. The bad harvest of 1860 cost us sixty millions, from first to last. This shows us what to expect for 1863. Instead of floating pleasantly along the tide of our national life, with no heavy care on our minds, and no stringent difficulty on our hands, we must now, for some months to come, endure to see and hear of much that is painful, and be ready to give up our indulgences, and our leisure, and our repose of mind and complacency of national feelings, if by such sacrifices we may hope to mitigate in the slightest degree the general adversity. We should begin now by thinking about what we may expect, and what we can do.

We hear from two quarters accounts which at first sight appear to be contradictory. We are told that New York is shipping vast quantities of grain to Europe, and particularly to England: and, again, that there is a great rise in the price of food in Jamaica, because the troubled state of America prevents the present unusual demand of Jamaica from being met as on former occasions. It is good news for us that so much grain and flour are coming; and we may account for it by a great mass of American securities having changed hands, and being paid for in wheat, as more convenient than gold—a species of demand which does not exist in the case of Jamaica.

Next to the United States, Russia has hitherto been our main dependence for corn: but Russia has never, perhaps, had so little corn to sell as this year. Not only is the labour-system broken up, and the tillage of much soil neglected, but there has been so much drought that Southern Russia is in a comparatively barren state. So we are told; and we shall soon know whether it is true or not. At the moment when we are threatened with the stoppage of this source of supply, we are invited to rejoice at the first shipment of wheat and flour to London from the colony of Victoria. It is not much; but it is a beginning,—a new resource for future years. We may hope that the Turkish and Baltic provinces may send us as much as we shall ask for. If Hungary were but through her troubles, we should want nothing more than she could give us. She might be the granary of Europe, if her industry were freed and restored.

On the whole, there can be no fear of our being disappointed of any supply that we may be able and willing to pay for, at the price that the circumstances of the year will determine. Since the corn trade of the world has been thrown open, there has been an end of all apprehension of famine, in a country like England. There is always enough to be had by those who have ports to receive it, roads for its transit, and money to pay the price that it may bear.

Next comes the consideration,—how much more than usual we shall want to buy, and how it is to be brought within the reach of the largest and poorest classes. Before we can ascertain these conditions, we must know more than we yet do of the quality of our own grain. Some, grown in the best way on the best soils, is sound and good: much more, it is to be feared, will turn out ill,—blighted, damp, shrunken,—needing a large admixture of hard old wheat, if it can be made into flour at all. Now, what can we do in such a case?

The common idea is that we can only let things take their course,—pay our poor-rates, pay high for our flour, give away more money in alms than usual, and wait for better times,—that easy waiting, which means for some of us no more than spending somewhat more in food and in charity, and somewhat less in fancy ways! I, however, am old-fashioned as well as old; and there is nothing in political economy, even in its most pedantic purity, which alters, to my eyes, the old view that every pound of flour spared from the dinner table of the rich is so much left in the market to which the poor resort. To me it seems plain, after all that can be said, that every pound of flour saved from my pastry is available for somebody else’s loaf. Therefore it is that, while anxious to avoid all censure of my neighbours, and all shallow asceticism in the ordering of my household, I do feel sympathy with certain friends of mine who, with the first tidings of a bad harvest, open their extra flour-bin to receive, week by week, what they save from their ordinary consumption of flour, so that, when the time of pressure comes, they may keep out of the market, or, better still, sell at cost price to some needy neighbour the store they have accumulated. To me it seems that it is a very small sacrifice, when flour is scarce, to banish pastry from the table, and substitute rice, and fruit, and foreign maccaroni, and cheese, and other good things into the making of which domestic flour does not enter. This is, however, a resource generally considered appropriate to times of dearth: and we have no reason to dread actual dearth, as if the season had been as unfavourable everywhere as in England. All I want is that we should steadily confront the fact that the coming year must be one of considerable trial, and that we should prepare ourselves to do, bear, and sacrifice anything that may be found desirable, in aid of the classes by which the main pressure must be felt. Let us see the truth, face the truth, and match ourselves stoutly against this one of the many troubles to which nations, as well as men, are born.

From the Mountain.