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  • David Fouser

The Shape of British Bread

Britain's imperial expansion saw wheat go from a locally-sourced ingredient to one sourced from various locations around the globe. As a result, the grain underwent major changes that had a knock-on effect to how flour and bread were made in Britain and the values people placed on their 'daily bread'.

four loaves on white bread on a white and blue gingham cloth against a blue background

The source of a food shapes the food itself. This may seem obvious in the abstract, but the devil, as they say, is in the details. In few instances is this more clear than in the case of British bread, which went from an essentially local food source for Britons to one reliant on globalised trade with remarkable speed. Wheat is not the only ingredient impacted by increasingly globalised supply chains over the course of the late 18th and 19th century but as a staple grain, this history can help us understand how early imperialism and industrialisation has impacted our current relationships to food and drink.

The effects of globalisation went beyond changing where staples like wheat were sourced, imported wheat also profoundly altered the bread of Britain. Agriculture was the economic foundation of British societies, stretching back to Roman times and beyond. While we could identify important changes in Britain’s daily bread from say, the time of Caesar to the time of George (I through IV, take your pick), British bread remained constant in one crucial respect: it was essentially local. In that long span of ancient, mediaeval, and early modern history the supply chain was within reach. Most grain was consumed within 50 miles of where it was grown; mills were scattered across the countryside; bakers served their local communities, and a whole set of feudal customs and statutes regulated food under a rubric historians call the “moral economy.”

People had an intimate understanding of the bread they consumed. The ‘moral economy’ prioritised stability above all else and sought a direct relationship between production and consumption. Anyone standing between the production and consumption of food—a merchant, say, or a miller or baker—was morally suspect at best and criminal at worst.

The locality of Britain’s grain shaped the bread. Grain, whether wheat, barley, rye, oats, or others, is highly variable. Soil, climate, and methods of cultivation and processing also lend to this variety. Britain’s temperate, damp climate meant that grains cultivated there, particularly wheat, were themselves moist, often white in colour, and fairly soft both physically and in baking terms– “soft” flour has low gluten content. This soft flour was rather more like what we might purchase today as cake or pastry flour, rather than the “hard,” or “strong,” high-gluten bread flour which contemporary bakers use for bread-making.

Baking a well-risen, lightly-textured and porous loaf of bread is a challenge under any circumstances, but historically, British bakers had their work cut out for them when working with the soft—if flavorful—flour of the island. Mediaeval statutes like the Assize of Bread (1), as well as the highly diverse customs of food over many centuries, produced a dizzying array of specific types of bread available to consumers: “Wastel,” a fine white bread with a high price, “cocket,” “bread treet,” and so on, right down to the classic “quartern loaf,” a four-pound loaf that was the daily bread for many, many people. Still, despite this variety, bread essentially fell into two categories: white and brown. And, those categories mapped onto social classes. Those with wealth, power, and status ate some kind of white bread; those without ate some kind of brown bread.

The bifurcation of bread into those two categories was an essential function of the local nature of British grain and the rules that governed it. The main difference between the two types boiled down to the amount of labour needed to create brown and white bread.

For centuries, the milling process for grains involved millstones that were roughly four feet in diameter that grain was fed into through a central hole via a hopper. Once in the hopper, the grain was pressed and ground between stones that were carved, or “dressed”, with radiating grooves. The texture of these stones provided a shearing action to smash and tear the grains apart while the resulting meal was pushed to the outer edge of the stones for collection. Once collected, the meal was “bolted” or sifted to separate the bran and germ, known as offal, from the actual flour. Millers knew this broad method as “low grinding,” or “sudden death,” and with it, a typical run might produce something like 25% white flour, 50% brown flour, and 25% offal. The exact nature and proportions of the extraction could and did vary enormously, but broadly speaking, there was rather more brown flour available than white flour. Consequently, white bread was a relative luxury and this was a defining fact of British bread for centuries.

stacks of various types of white bread on a green table top against a wood background
'...white bread was a relative luxury and this was a defining fact of British bread for centuries.’

As the reach of the British Empire extended across the globe in the 19th century, the sources of Britain’s wheat began to change and Britain’s bread changed too. As early as the 18th century, the appetite of the Kingdom began to outpace its domestic agriculture. In years when domestic harvest was particularly short, imports from the European Continent made up the difference. Such years became more frequent as Britain’s population grew in the 18th century. Shortages became more common from the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1792, through the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. Wartime uncertainty, demands on food supplies to inflated military forces, and duelling commercial blockades meant that the price of grain rose to unheard of levels by the early years of the 19th century.

High grain prices were a burden for those who bought bread but a boon to those who collected rents on grain-growing land. Of necessity, the Crown resorted to a number of expedients to address problems of food scarcity to keep British society functioning, most famously the subsidies known as the “Speenhamland system.” Implemented following the disastrous harvests of 1795-6, this system granted workers wage subsidies on a sliding scale based on the price of bread and funded by local rate-payers. At the same time, landowners increased rents on the farmland they let to tenant farmers which substantially increased their own incomes.

With the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, landowners looked in some alarm at the prospect of falling grain prices, fearing their rents would collapse as well. The landowning class dominated Parliament and implemented a set of taxes on imported grain in 1815 called the Corn Laws which aimed to ensure that grain prices—and hence farm rents—in Britain would stay high.

The Corn Laws were one of many actions taken to preserve the power of Britain’s land-owning aristocracy as the industrial revolution saw a dramatic social and economic transformation. High grain prices kept rents high in favour of the land-owning class despite the demands of workers and capitalists alike for cheaper food. The inherent tensions behind high food prices and an increasingly urban, industrial Britain came to a head In the 1830s and 1840s.

The Great Reform Act of 1832 enfranchised and represented the men of the industrial middle class. With the inclusion of these voters, a new wave of politicians attentive to industrial Britain and supportive of the new doctrine of Liberalism gained office. Liberals of the 19th century saw unrestricted commerce as the only path to freedom, progress, and wealth. Under this theory of free commerce, Liberal’s believed it was best for the various nations and countries of the world to specialise in various commodities, and exchange them, thereby increasing the wealth of all. More specifically, this presented the possibility of Britain importing agricultural commodities that might be more cheaply produced elsewhere, while Britain emphasised its industrial development.

Tenets of the Liberalist movement also enticed those still excluded from voting rights under the Great Reform Act. These still disenfranchised women and working-class men led the Chartist movement which was characterised by demands for political reform, and is the best-known example of working-class political activism in the 1840s. At a practical level, Chartism involved an insistence on cheaper bread, a demand that dovetailed with Liberals’ support for free trade. The two movements coincided in an attack on the Corn Laws and eventually saw their repeal in 1846. With the end of the Corn Laws, “free trade” became the formal policy of the United Kingdom.

‘Wheat was a particularly promising global commodity for farmers: it was widely known and grown, it travelled well and, with the opening of the British market for imports, it brought relatively high prices.’

Imports grew slowly at first but then with gathering pace. By a stroke of historical convergence, Britain’s embrace of free trade corresponded with a massive expansion of grain cultivation and trade, some of it under the formal aegis of the ascendant British empire, but much of it from many other regions. Wheat was a particularly promising global commodity for farmers: it was widely known and grown, it travelled well and, with the opening of the British market for imports, it brought relatively high prices.

The largest expansions of grain cultivation occurred in North America. Though no longer under the British Empire, the United States saw an opportunity to supply the UK with the grain it so needed while bolstering its own domestic economy. Following the American Civil War and many wars against Native Americans—sometimes genocidal, always expropriating—the great grasslands of the American Midwest were ploughed and replaced with wheat. The Canadian prairies to the north waited only slightly longer for their own seizure, settlement, and cultivation. Parallel processes unfolded in Australia and Argentina. All told, tens of millions of acres, many times the farmland available in Britain, were seized from indigenous peoples, cleared, irrigated, drained, ploughed, and turned to wheat.

Despite the myth of the rugged frontiersman as the archetype of European settlement, the settlers on these lands did not—could not—realistically achieve economic independence. Rather, they extended the reach of European markets, and particularly European stomachs. And in that regard, wheat was their crop of choice. It was hardy and durable and could travel far, particularly with the expansion of steam-driven transportation. In Europe generally and Britain particularly, the appetite for cheap grain was all but insatiable. In 1846, Britain imported about a quarter of its grain. By the outbreak of World War I in 1914, that figure had ballooned to a staggering four-fifths, and it was four-fifths of a much, much larger total figure.

As Britons soon learned, the source of the food shapes the food itself. Unlike the soft, damp, white wheat grown in Britain, the harsher, often drier and hotter climates in which wheat was grown elsewhere in the world almost always produced wheat that was darker in colour, drier, and physically harder.

The first to encounter and really grapple with this change were the millers. The key difference was in the wheat itself. The grains were often smaller, with the starchy endosperm tightly bound to the hard, tough bran. When British millers ran this tough, dry grain through their mills, it had an alarming tendency to catch fire in the intense friction between the stones traditionally used for milling. And even when handled with care, the hard grains were more difficult to separate into flour and offal. The dry bran often shattered in the process resulting in a discoloured flour. Clearly, another method was wanted.

The answer to this problem was largely technical: the replacement of millstones with steel rollers. Hungarian millers had pioneered the first roller mills in the 1830s and 1840s, and American millers in Minneapolis had created the first integrated milling systems, combining steel rollers with a set of other devices to automatically clean, grind, and bolt the meal. British millers took up these technologies with surprising speed starting in the 1870s.

By the 1890s, British milling was utterly transformed: the old wind and water-powered mills scattered across the countryside were dramatically reduced in number, rapidly eclipsed by a new generation of steam powered roller mills, located almost exclusively in the port cities that gave them access not to British-grown grain, but to American, Indian, Russian, and Canadian wheat. Liverpool, London, and a handful of other ports came to dominate British milling, their techniques and practises set the standards for Britons’ daily bread.

And their daily bread was rapidly transformed as well. Steel rollers had the key advantage over the traditional stone mills in that they could be more minutely and precisely adjusted. This permitted millers to adopt a wholly new method.

A stack of sliced white bread sits on a muslin cloth with an orange linen backdrop
'With whiter flour came whiter bread. The change was rapid and remarkable. Britons had long sought the whitest bread they could manage, but only in the last quarter of the 19th century was it almost universally available.'

Rather than the “sudden death” or “low grinding” methods on which their ancestors had relied, British millers of the late 19th century turned to “high grinding,” or “gradual reduction” methods. While a low-grinding method intended to reduce the wheat into a siftable meal in just one or at most two passes, high-grinding began with the rollers farther apart, so that the initial runs merely cracked the hard bran, allowing it to be more easily separated from the rest of the grain. This bran could then be removed, often using a puff air pushed through a flowing stream of the semi-ground grain. Bran pieces are lighter than the denser, starchy cores of the grain, and thus are pushed out of the stream by the air, landing in a separate chute. Each run through the mechanical mill repeated that process, slowly reducing the wheat to flour. This allowed a much greater proportion of white flour. Millers could extract as much as 60% white flour, a smaller proportion of brown flour, and 20% offal. If millers (or the bakers who were their custom) sought the whitest possible flour, they could adjust their machinery so as to produce 30-40% ultra-white flour.

With whiter flour came whiter bread. The change was rapid and remarkable. Britons had long sought the whitest bread they could manage, but only in the last quarter of the 19th century was it almost universally available. Bread became so much whiter overall that, reflecting on the change, one baker remarked “brown bread now sells at fancy prices”: the ancient binary of white and brown bread, mapped onto a broad social structure of those who could afford white bread and those who could not, was gone. White bread was available to all. In response, many middle-class Britons began to deliberately seek out brown bread, seeking to somehow maintain the class boundaries that bread had marked for so long, even if they had become a mirror image. All this came about in the last quarter of the 19th century as the source of Britain’s bread shifted from Britain to a multitude of international sources thereby changing the shape of the bread itself.

(1) The Assize of Bread regulated the price and quality of bread in several ways but most importantly by tying to price of a loaf to the price of wheat. It set a standard price that all bakers had to adhere to; bakers selling over the Assize price could lose the privilege of baking and selling bread.


David Fouser earned his PhD in history at the University of California, Irvine in 2016. He has since taught at many colleges and universities around Southern California, specializing in cultural and environmental history, histories of Britain and the British empire, and histories of Europe and the world. He now lives in Cork, Ireland where he continues to teach and write. His was most recently featured in Acquired Tastes: Stories about the Origins of Modern Food (MIT Press, 2021) and is currently working on a world history of Cork. You can find him on Twitter @journeymanhisto.

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