Death in the loaf

Tonight’s episode of Victorian Bakers takes the history of bread forward, from the 1830-40s of episode one, to the 1870s. The bakery has changed too, from the rural surroundings of Sacrewell, near Peterborough, to the very urban Black Country Living Museum, on the outskirts of Dudley. This reflects changes in Victorian Britain. In the 1830s, most people still lived in the countryside and, although industrialisation and urbanisation was well underway, we still had an essentially agrarian economy. By the mid-century for the first time more people lived in cities than in the countryside, and by the 1860s we were entering into a second phase of industrialisation. Now it wasn’t about mills and child labour: it was about finding the balance between machinery and manpower.

As you’ll see if you watch the episode, baking lagged behind other industries. There were far more bakers than were necessarily needed, so there was little incentive to install expensive machinery, when labour was cheap and plentiful. Other workers unionised and forced through changes in working hours and conditions. Bakers also unionised, and went on strike regularly, causing minor meltdown in the middle class press, but they never achieved their aims of no overnight-working and a reasonable shift length. Nor did mechanisation reach the average – still very small – bakery until after the First World War in many cases. Indeed, traditional High Street bakers still work very long hours, and they still work through the night (though they do have mixing machines). All of our bread bakers – the Johns and Duncan – shrugged off the thought of working into the night and getting up in the small hours as something they were well used to, and which they still saw as normal in that industry.

The episode was hard to film, because we all did the nightshifts, and not only fatigue, but also practical matters such as light and the fact it was freezing cold and drizzling, made it rather less pleasant than Sacrewell. It was doubly difficult for the bakers because they were confronting a period in bread’s history which in most cases shocked, and offended them to the core.

The programme is emphatically not a challenge programme – we were in no way testing the bakers, and there was never a question of success or failure. Any jeopardy the viewer feels comes out of the situations and tasks which we all tackled together. It is a living history format, which essentially means it’s based on experiential learning. Within archaeology, a field both Alex (my co-presenter) and I are trained in, there’s a strong element of experimental learning – have a go and see – which underlies both his and my academic approaches to our chosen fields. It’s why it was so important to me that the bakers were professionals, and that they knew what they were doing. There’s nothing to be learnt – by us or, more importantly bearing in mind that this is intended for a wide, general audience, by viewers – by someone who can’t do something trying to do it and finding it hard. The reaction of the team to the adulteration segment in this episode was therefore doubly telling.

Bread had always been a focus for public and official scrutiny. In medieval Britain, bakers were subject to rigid regulation, including on price. A vital piece of legislation called the Assize of Bread was passed in 1266, and set a standard price for a loaf. The loaf size could vary, as market conditions changed, but it ensured that consumers could always afford a loaf of daily bread. There were also penalties for selling underweight loaves and adulteration. The assize remained in place, albeit modified, until 1815, but regulation on adulteration remained in force.

Some things were easy to adulterate, hard to detect, and relatively harmless. Milk and beer were watered down, and potatoes or other cheap starches could be added to bread and pre-prepared cooked dishes (the pies, soups and stews which formed the bulk of working class takeout food). Even many of the adulterants which did pose a health risk – such as the chalk or the alum which we use in the programme – wouldn’t have killed you. Or rather, shouldn’t have killed you. They wouldn’t do much harm to most of us today. But this was an era of widespread and worsening malnutrition, especially in towns. The poor, then as now, had limited access to food shops, no space to grow their own fruit and veg, little time, money and, again in an echo of today, often had no real knowledge of what was nutritionally useful or of how to prepare it. They also lacked cooking facilities or money for fuel. They were utterly reliant on what they could buy, and therefore at the mercy of manufacturers. And manufacturers, especially bakers, were only one step above their customers, desperate to make a tiny profit, and under constant pressure to cut corners. The millers who supplied them were under similar pressures, which is why the end consumer faced a double whammy in the worst cases: adulterated by the miller, adulterated by the baker. It was no-one’s fault, per se, but it was a growing problem in the 1850s and 60s.

Alum is an astringent, and it can irritate the stomach lining. In the young, old, or sick, it could have been, if not fatal by itself, certainly a contribution to illness and eventual death. Additionally, substitutions, such as water for milk, removed a significant proportion of the good stuff, and replaced it with empty stuff (a bit like fat-free yoghurt today, bleurk). If you were 3, and reliant on milk and bread for your health, and your bread was an irritant, and your milk largely water, it’s easy to see the bad consequences in store. In truth, very few loaves would have had as much in as ours did, but in some cases the proportions were dangerous, and, of course, data is hard to obtain. By the mid-century there was growing pressure on the government from health officials to investigate these food frauds for the good of the whole nation – but especially the put-upon workers, without whom industry would crumble.

The Lancet, founded in 1823 as a medical journal, and still in publication (and still very important) today, spearheaded the battle against food adulteration. There were a number of crucial individuals, but particularly vital were the analyses and articles written by Arthur Hill Hassell. In the face of government disbelief, denial and vague suggestions that it would all get sorted out by market forces, they launched a campaign showing just how widespread the issue was. In the 1850s, when Hassell carried out analyses of London foods, not a single bread loaf was alum-free. Tea, mustard, pickles, beer, milk….the list of foods which seemed pure, but were potentially deadly was shockingly long. Eventually the government rather reluctantly passed the Food Adulteration Act (1860) which sort of provided sort of funding if localities really really wanted to test foods and really insisted on prosecution. It did sod all. The struggle for a decent Act was lengthy, and makes for fascinating reading (I’ve put some references below, as this is very bare bones). In 1875 an Act was finally passed which did have some teeth, and which still forms the basis of legislation today. It worked, and by the 1880s, not only were foods generally testing negative for adulterants, but canny companies were realising that marketing foods as ‘pure’ was a good way to sell them. Hence all of those PURE COCOA adverts from the late 19th century, and hence, in the end, loose products such as tea, coffee, and cocoa, being sold in nice little sealed packets with a clear maker’s mark as a brand of quality.

We haven’t entirely sorted the issues out, of course, but today adulterants have to be tested to make sure they won’t kill you, and they generally have to be declared as additives. And some things have come full circle – chalk is back in bread. Now it’s a good thing, adding calcium and making up for people consuming fewer dairy products than once they did.

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The bakers (l-r): Harpreet, John Swift, John Foster, and Duncan

Further reading:

John Burnett, Plenty and Want
Bee Wilson, Swindled
John Marchant et al, Bread
Arthur Hill Hassell’s original Lancet reports (available on Google Books)
EXARC, the Experimental Archaeology Group (website here)

The Victorian Bakers website is here – it’s on iPlayer for a little while yet.

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