9.1. Consumption of Cereals

Having seen the movements of nominal incomes and of inflation-adjusted incomes, at least in the industrial employments, we can pass to other methods of measurement of living standards. The numbers referring to wages are somewhat suspect, since we cannot know if we are adjusting correctly for the cost of living. What we can do, is to investigate the physical consumption of food per person. In advanced economies, we have to evaluate the Gross National Product – that is, the total value of goods and services produced – because there are many different types of expenses of the people, and using the ratio of incomes to food costs would not tell us much. But when we look at the period of the Industrial Revolution, the majority of the people did not have many expenses except food, rent, fuel, and clothing, and a certain percentage did not eat sufficient food. Thus we should collect data as to the food consumption of the people, and see the development of these figures during this period.

There can be no doubt that the production of farms increased in efficiency from 1790 to 1860. There were continual improvements in the farms, which were communicated between the farmers; these improvements were, for example, new implements, new ploughs, new methods for preparing the food for the animals; often the improvements were only introduced after comparative experiments; Farmer’s Associations were set up in each county; these Associations gave out prizes for the largest animals, or the most productive milk cow, etc.; the Board of Agriculture required reports about each county.

The farmers and landlords would not have undertaken these activities, if they could not see real improvements in production.

“The vast increase of agricultural produce has not only proceeded from any greater number of people being employed, but chiefly from the use of improved implements, better courses of cropping, the reclaiming of waste land, melioration of every species of soil, and improved farm stock. By such means farm produce has been doubled, and the condition of the soil, the occupiers of land, and every description of labourers, has been much improved during the present generation.”

(William Aiton, Remarks on Mr. Malthus’ Opinions on Agricultural Subjects, The Farmer’s Magazine, Vols. 25-26, 1824, p. 464)

The first estimate that we have of the real human consumption of cereals is from Charles Smith in 1758, as follows. He made the calculation on the basis of observations of real food habits of labourers (he has about 20 pages of detailed information).

Numbers of the People                                                            qr. b.

                                               Consume annually each

                        3,750,000                                           Wheat   1 0

                          739,000                                           Barley    1 3

                          888,000                                           Rye        1 1                           

623,000                                           Oats       2 7

(Charles Smith, Three Tracts on the Corn-Trades and Corn Laws, J. Brotherton, London, 1758, p. 140)

In the majority of years from 1794 to 1821, due to weather problems, the harvest was not sufficient in quantity or in quality. This caused hunger, but not deaths from starvation (there were some thousands of additional deaths in 1794-5 and in 1799-1800, from pneumonia and fevers, acting on people weakened by the hunger).

YearHarvest QuantityHarvest Quality
1790Peace and favourable Seasons 
1791   “       “         “               “ 
1792   “       “         “               “ 
1793War but favourable Seasons 
1794Deficiency of crop 
1795       “          “     “ 
1796Season less unfavourable 
1797      “       “           “ 
1798      “       “           “ 
1799Bad season 
1800   “      “ 
1801Good crop followed by Peace 
1802Favourable crop 
1803       “             “ 
1804Deficient crop 
1805Average Crops 
1806      “           “ 
1807      “           “ 
1808Partial deficiency 
1809Great deficiency 
1810Good crop 
1812Favourable Crop 
1813        “            “ 
1814Nearly average crop 
1815Full average CropQuality good
1816Great and General DeficiencyVery bad quality; nearly rotten
1817Not exceeding average CropQuality not very good
1818  “          “              “         “Quality very good
1819Somewhat below Average CropQuality good; but not so good as 1818
1820Exceedingly average CropSound and dry
1821Average CropVery inferior; much injured by wet
1822      “          “Very good; harvest remarkably early
1823ScarcityInferior; wet harvest after a cold spring
1824AverageQuality indifferent
1825Nearly an AverageVery good; fine dry summer
1826Average CropQuality of the wheat excellent
1827      “          “Quality various, but mostly inferior
1828ScarcityBad; damaged by wet weather
1829AverageBad; fully as much so as 1828
1830Full AverageQuality various; some injured by wet
1831Nearly an Average CropVery similar to that of 1830
1832Above an Average CropQuality good
1833     “      “        “          “Quality very fine
1834     “      “        “          “Quality good; but hardly equal to 1833
1835Considerably above an AverageMiddling; injured by heavy rains
1836Above an AverageQuality good in England and Wales
1837Under an Average CropMiddling
1838 Bad
1839 Bad
1840 Middling
1841 Very inferior
1842 Very good
1843 Various
1844 Moderately good
1845 Indifferent
1846 Indifferent
1847 The quality fair
1848 Bad; worse in the south than in the north
1849 Good
1850 Indifferent
1851 Good
1852 Injured by wet in the south
1853 Very bad
1854 Good throughout
1855 Indifferent

(“Harvest Quantity”: Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Vol. 1, 1839, p. 56-57)

(“Harvest Quality”: Tooke, A History of Prices … 1848-1856, 1857; p. 129)

We have a contemporary cross-check as to the total production of wheat. In 1842 Lord Kinnaird presented to the House of Lords, during a debate on the “national distress” at that time, figures as to the sales of wheat in the country (England, Wales, and Scotland). He had collected reports of sales in 150 large towns, which were multiplied by 5 to give a probable total for all the country. This gave sales of 13,100,000 quarters of wheat, which is 104,800,000 bushels, which divided by a population of 18,500,000, gives 5.66 bushels per year per capita, corresponding to 6.53 pounds per person per week. 

(Hansard, HL Deb 02 June 1842 vol. 63 cc1118-42, https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/lords/1842/jun/02/national-distress#column_1119)

It should be noted that a wheaten loaf was composed not just of wheat, but weighed about 30 % more than the grain. Thus 6.53 pounds of wheat per person per capita translates to 8.5 pounds of loaf, that is, exactly 2 quartern loaves per week.

In order to have a better idea of the state of nutrition of the population from wheat during this period, we have to see if a) the people ate more or ate less than in 1770, b) if the people ate sufficient quantity, in each year. This requires data as to yield per acre, and as to acreage in production of wheat, for each year.  

As to an estimation of the real unit yield of wheat in each year, Mr. Thomas Tooke (a financial and economics expert of the period) describes a physical investigation made yearly by wheat merchants, Cropper, Benson, and Company, from 1813 to 1836, and a Mr. Sandars, from 1837 to 1855.             

“The surveys were set on foot for a purely business purpose – namely, of placing before the members of the firm, as authentic a statement as possible of the probable yield of the harvest of England in each year; the materials of the statement being collected by persons more or less competent – travelling for the express object, a short time before the harvest, always through the same selected districts of country; pursuing year by year the same methods of observation and confining themselves rigidly to the single question of the yield per Acre of Wheat, as stated in Bushels of a weight of 60 lbs. each.”

(Tooke, A History of Prices … 1848-1856, 1857; p. 119)

“What are the districts of country generally included in this survey of 1,000 miles?” “We have generally commenced in Kent, and gone down the whole of the east coast down to Berwick, and once or twice to Edinburgh, as one part of the survey; the others we have taken from Liverpool through Cheshire, Shropshire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire, round by Birmingham, and taken in the whole of Warwickshire and Staffordshire, and come round in that circuit here again.”

(Agricultural (Commons) Committee, 1821, page 263. Evidence of David Hodgson, Esq., 12th April, 1821; quoted in Tooke, op. cit., p. 121)   

“In what way did you make that Survey?” “Men are sent all over the country, and they are provided with a machine that cannot err; by a movement made it embraces a certain space, the stalks in that space are counted, the number of grain is counted and then weighed.”

(Agricultural (Commons) Committee, 1836, Evidence of Mr. Sandars; quoted in Tooke, op. cit., p. 121)

(Actually a metal grid one yard square was thrown at a random position in the field)

It must be clear that this survey was the most exact that could have been made in those years, and that the merchants were convinced of the usefulness of the work, otherwise they would not have paid out the salaries of the employees.    

(Tooke, Vol V, p. 131)

Following, a graphic representation of the yearly figures by this author:

We see that the yield per acre was around 30 bushels (of 60 lb.) per acre in the period 1815 to 1839, and from 40 to 50 bushels per acre from 1840 to 1855. The authors of the reports were of the opinion that the above figures were somewhat too high, as these supposed that the whole of each field produced a full quantity of wheat, and the reality was that some parts of fields could not be properly sown; the correction proposed was to reduce the calculated yield by one sixth. Further, if we want to convert the figure of seed produced to the amount consumed by humans, we have to retain one ninth part for the seed reserve for the next sowing. This means that the effective yield was about 22 bushels in 1815-1839, and 30 to 36 bushels in 1840-1855. 

The figures from 1841 onwards would seem to be too high. But Mr. Tooke informs us that he did believe them, because he actually had a conversation with Mr. Sandars on the subject, and Mr. Sandars showed him the originals of the notebooks of his employees. But we also know that in 1841-1845 there were considerable imports of wheat, and even higher amounts in 1846-1855 (Abolition of the Corn Laws); these in general came from France and Belgium, where the prices were low. The explanation would appear to be that as these imports appeared, the farmers reacted by reducing proportionately the quantity of acres put to cultivation of wheat, and that the remaining acres were exactly those with the highest yields (see a general commentary by Mr. Tooke, in his pages 51-53). Mr. Tooke quotes the estimates of Mr. McCullogh of: 3,800,000 acres at 32 bushels per acre gives 15,200,000 quarters total in 1849; 3,000,000 acres at 30 bushels per acre gives 11,250,000 quarters total in 1854.   

This gives us an increase of about 50 % from 1815 to 1855, which normally would mean an improvement in the per capita consumption. But we have to take into consideration the growth of the population, which was practically the same velocity.

Census YearPopulation England + WalesPopulation Great Britain

This means that we cannot guarantee that the consumption per capita remained at least constant in these years, unless we can show that the acreage of wheat remained the same, or increased. The only data that we have on an annual basis, are those of Mr. William Jacob, the Inspector-General of Corn Returns, who in 1828 made a detailed calculation of the production for the years 1816-1827, giving figures from 11,000,000 to 13,000,000 quarters for England and Wales, with the exception of 1816 of 9,000,000 (the “Year without a Summer”) and of 1820 with 16,000,000. These figures, in combination with the yields reported by Mr. Tooke, give from 3,500,000 to 4,100,000 acres. But then, taking interpolations from the Census populations, we have as production of wheat per year, in 1817, 1.01 quarters per person, and in 1827, 0.94 quarters per person; that is 8.5 pounds per week, respectively 7.8 pounds per week. 

“A SCALE OF PRODUCTIVENESS as far as regards the Crop of Wheat in each Year, from 1816 to 1827, both inclusive; in which the Number 240 is used to represent the Portions of Wheat here supposed to be consumed, in each Year, for Food, in Great Britain.

Indicating the Proportion
Supposed Quantity of Wheat
grown in each Year 
according to the Rate

Although the preceding Scale goes back no further than to the harvest of 1816, it is to be borne in mind, that the crop of the year 1813 was of a most abundant character; the harvest of 1814 was a full average; and that of 1815 abundant, but a little inferior to that of 1813. When the calamitous harvest of 1816 occurred, the excess of the three preceding years had been preserved, and formed an accumulated store, which providentially prevented a dreadful scarcity, if not a famine, in the greater part of 1817.” 

(quoted in: Tooke, Vol V, p. 103)

That was the general idea in the corn trade in England, and among politicians; the production of wheat was taken to be between 0.8 and 1.0 quarters per person. There are actually reports of experts calculating the volume of wheat production as equal to the population divided by 0.8, to give the number in quarters. This was because they did not have any other method to collect or estimate the amount of production.

The figure of 1.0 quarters per year per person (9.3 lbs. a week, or a little more than 2 quartern loaves), or a little less, was taken to be a reasonable amount to be eaten by an average person. It was the amount of bread to be given to a pauper without family, but often without any other food; also the menservants in houses were given 2 quartern loaves per week, plus some meat and vegetables. 

“In our present established modes of living, bread is an indispensable article, of which every one expects his fill, which cannot in general be restrained, or limited in quantity, without causing clamour and complaint; and this generally made of good wheat, without any mixture; the quantity made from oats, barley, and other grain or pulse, being but a small proportion of the whole. Respecting the quantity necessary to each individual, various estimates have been formed; eight bushels per annum has been reckoned, but this is certainly too much, and more than necessary. The late Dr. Withering reckoned that a labouring man, who lived chiefly on bread, would consume a pound weight a day; this allowance for a year, I believe, he made from six bushels of good wheat; but women and children require, in general, less. In a Report from the Birmingham Union Mill, a quartern loaf and a half per week, to each individual of a family, is stated as a good allowance; and this agrees with my own observations upon the consumption by grown persons; but I think that children and old persons require less, where they have plenty of potatoes, as well as others who have plenty of animal food and beverage; and am of the opinion that to one half of mankind, the full grown, healthy and active, one pound of bread each day may be required; and that to the other half, women, children, and those who have plenty of other food, ¾ lb. per day is sufficient, making the average 14 oz. per day, or 320 lb. per annum.»

(Pitt, 1806, p. 284) 

“What do you conceive to be the average consumption of wheat in the British islands?” “I have looked at the subject; formerly, five or six years ago, I calculated it was about six bushels per head for the population.”  (Select Committee on the State of Agriculture, 1837, p. 13; question to Mr. W. Jacob, Comptroller of Corn Returns in the Board of Trade).The figure is only for wheat, not the total of cereals, and averaged over all the United Kingdom; thus the figure for England and Wales, and for all cereals, would be somewhat higher.

The question as to whether this amount of wheat produced was sufficient for the appetites of the population, is resolved by Mr. Tooke for the years 1833-1835, in which he says there was a surplus that was actually not eaten by the people:

“The hypothesis, that an unusual abundance of wheat causes an immediate expansion of its consumption as bread, would have entitled us to expect that the surplus wheat produce of the years 1833 to 1835, or the greater part of it, would have been applied in that way. But the facts of the case did not bear out such an anticipation; for so little impression did the extra consumption, as food for man, make upon the extra supply, that wheat in 1834 and 1835 was used to a considerable extent for the purpose of feeding cattle, and sheep, and pigs, and for brewing and distilling. It is true that in consequence of the dryness of the summers of 1833 and 1834 the crops of spring corn were short, and fetched higher prices than usual, relatively to wheat. But still the fact remains, that Wheat, cheap as it was, cheaper than it had been for fifty years before, with a greatly increased population to feed, proved to be, even at extremely reduced prices, so unequivocally in excess of thedemand for it as human foodas to render necessary the adoption of unusual and inferior methods of absorption; …”

(Tooke, op. cit.; p. 74)

Corroborated by:

 “Are you aware that any quantity of wheat has been consumed in feeding cattle?” “Immense quantities of all descriptions of corn.”

(Select Committee on Agriculture, 1837, Mr. George Trumper, Land agent, Middlesex, p. 170; examined on 8th March 1836)

“Have you the means of knowing if the increase in wheat has not been occasioned in those counties by its being grown on that land on which they used to cultivate oats?” “I think not; the crops of wheat for 1832 and 1833 I compute as having been crops yielding a supply sufficient for the consumption of the country.”

“From England and Ireland?” “Yes; 1834 the crop greatly exceeded the consumption.”

“What do you say of 1835?” “It was an average, and not producing what I should think would be equal to the consumption of the year.”

(Ibid, p. 102; Mr. David Hodgson, Corn merchant, Liverpool)

There were two fairly reliable sources for the real harvest of wheat in the second half of the period. From 1829 we have the Corn Returns, which were the sales registered (yearly total) in the main towns of the country; these were a sample of the total sales in the country, and the practice was to multiply the quantity consistently by a factor of 3. On the other, we have from 1845, estimates made by Mr. Lawes and Mr. Gilbert at the Rothamsted Experimental Station. These two numbers in each year have been combined by Susan Fairlie in her investigation: The Corn Laws and British Wheat Production, 1829-76 (1969), Appendix Table I. Following, the results corresponding to each Census year:

at Census
of Years
per head
    OutputImportsTotal Bushels
183113,897,0001829-36 13,75163414,385 8.32
184115,914,0001837-46 15,6301,66017,290 8.72
185117,928,0001847-56 13,4434,62018,063 8.08
186120,066,0001857-64 13,2797,28520,564 8.16
187122,712,0001867-76 10,81110,77521,586 7.60

(Fairlie, 1969, Appendix Table I, p. 102)

It is not exactly true that the consumption of cereals per capita remained constant. The proportion of (eaters of wheat + barley + oats + rye) to only eaters of wheat changed from 1.50 in 1800 to 1.15 in 1850. On the other hand, the population was eating more meat, dairy products, vegetables and fruit in 1850. 

The amount of 1 quarter, or 8 bushels, eaten per person, corresponds to 45 pounds per family per week. This is 1,700 calories per person per day.

Mr. James Caird, having visited the majority of the counties of England in 1850-51, for a series of reports to “The Times”, calculated the average yield at 27 bushels per acre (Caird, 1852, p. 480).In 1866, the first complete Agricultural Statistics for the whole country were collected. On this basis, Mr. Caird calculated that the yield per acre at that time was close to 28 bushels (Caird, 1868, p. 130)

Mr. Caird also made a comparison of the minimum healthy diet per person of bread, potatoes, and meat, with the real data calculated from the Agricultural Statistics of 1866. The required consumption was, according to his sources, one pound of bread per day, one pound of potatoes, and six ounces of meat. The real consumption was one pound of bread, one pound of potatoes, and only two ounces of meat, over the average of the United Kingdom. The real consumption in England, Scotland and Wales was 1 ¼ lb. of bread and ½ lb. of potatoes; the real consumption in Ireland was ¼ lb. of bread and 4 ½ lb. of potatoes (unfortunately, no figures per country for meat) (Caird, 1868, p. 142).

He also commented on the logical necessity that the consumption of bread per capita should remain constant through the years. “[the opinion of Mr. Newmarch, with which I concur] … is that the consumption of bread is very constant, that everything is given up before bread, and that bread being the staff of life it must be had by the people whatever the price may be. This view is confirmed by inquiries which I have since made among some of the leading bakers in the most densely peopled quarters in Whitechapel in the east, and the Harrow Road in the north-west, one of whom has been thirty years in the business, and now has three shops in a district entirely inhabited by the working classes. Their testimony is that the consumption of bread is now very large, for, although dear, it is still the cheapest article of food within reach of the poor, the next substitute, potatoes, being scarce and very dear.” (Caird, 1868, p. 134). 

Collating data on household budgets from the different chapters of this work, we have the following figures for consumption of bread in pounds per week per family, also the daily input of calories per average person. The differences are due to the amount of other food types eaten.

2nd half 18th century         50 lbs.   1,850 cals.   
1st half 19th century         40 lbs.   1,500 cals.


These were very important for the poorer part of the agricultural population, especially in the years of poor harvests and high wheat prices from 1795 to 1815. If they had not had the possibility to buy or to cultivate potatoes, they would have faced a situation of starvation. Probably these people consumed half of their requirement of eating volume with the cheaper type of wheat, or with rye/barley/oats, and the other half with potatoes. From 1820 onwards, a number of agricultural families cultivated potatoes in “allotments”, on plots of half an acre, given to them, or rented to them, by the farmer. But some of the potatoes were sold for cash, or fed to the pig. Starting at a date of possibly 1830, potatoes were a common food for the urban working class in their houses. 

There were also many farmers who produced potatoes, but the larger part would have been for their animals.

There are no useful statistics for the production of potatoes for human consumption, neither from allotments, nor from farms. The following figures from Harris, 2015, p. 25, seem reasonable, especially as they are close to the information of Caird from the Agricultural Statistics of 1866, that the consumption in Britain in that year was half a pound per person per day.

oz. /person/day. calories/person/day
1700        2 40
1750        3         60
1800       7 120
1850     10 200
1866 10 200

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