9.2. Changes in Cereals

The pattern of consumption of cereals for bread changed from 1800 to 1850. In 1800 wheaten bread was generally eaten in the South and East of England, rye in Yorkshire and the northeast of England, oats in Lancashire, and barley in Wales, the East Midlands, and the southwest of England. But by 1850, practically all England was eating wheaten bread.

“This enormous Consumption [of wheat] may not only be attributed to the great Increase of Consumers, but the different Habits of living, and the almost general Adoption throughout England and Wales, of the finest Flour, instead of Household; and that the lower Class, or labouring Poor, consume a greater Proportion of Bread Corn than they otherwise would, through the high Price of all Kinds of Animal Food.

This Change of Bread Corn is particularly observable in, and felt by the County of Yorkshire alone. The West Riding of that County alone, containing 565,000 People, and nearly as populous as London as Westminster.

The Vicar of Wakefield attributes the principal Cause of Scarcity, in the Difference of the Consumption, more especially in that County, and observes that the prodigious Number of Tradesmen, Mechanics and Husbandmen, who twenty Years back subsisted on Oat and Barley Cakes, as their favourite Diet, now consume none but the best Wheaten flour.”   

(Benjamin Pitts Capper, A Statistical Account of the Population and Cultivation, Produce and Consumption, of England and Wales, G. Kearsley, London, 1801)

As the largest part of the expenses of the labourers and their families was for cereals and breads, and the prices were very different between wheat on the one hand and barley, rye and oats on the other hand, it is important to define the percentages used for each one. The figures would also have to reflect the change from the inferior cereals to wheat in some regions of England during the eighteenth century.

For the period 1760 to 1780, it appears that the proportions should be:

Wheat 63 %, rye 15 %, barley 12 %, oats 10 %.

“ … But the most minute and curious statement we can find upon this statement is that given in the second edition of Mr. Charles Smith’s Three Tracts on the Corn Trade and Corn Laws, which although not published till 1766, may be regarded as referring rather to a date a few years earlier, when the inquiries upon which the calculation is founded were made.


To obtain all the certainty possible in the matter, inquiries were made in every direction; the supply of several sorts of grain to the London market was taken into consideration; communications were opened with persons living in or travelling into each county; and in particular conversations were held with the labouring people themselves of various districts, as being best acquainted with their own circumstances and the food they lived upon. By combining the results of all these modes of investigation Mr. Smith and his coadjutors arrived at the following conclusions:- 1. That in Wales, the number of inhabitants being calculated from the number of houses at 270,450, of these 29,344 eat wheat, 127,585 barley, and 113,521 rye; ….. . On the whole, then, according to this calculation, the entire population of England and Wales being taken, in round numbers, at 6,000,000, the eaters of wheat about the end of the present period [1760] would be 3,750,000, of barley 739,000, of rye 888,000, and of oats 623,000. In other words, fully five-eighths of the people of England at this time lived upon wheat; and of the remainder, rather more than an eighth on rye, about an eighth on barley, and rather less than an eighth on oats. …… Wheat, it appears, already constituted the food of the great majority of the people in all the southern and midland counties; barley was consumed by the majority of the people only in Wales; rye was not eaten at all in the five south-western counties, but in the five northern counties was the ordinary food of about a third of the people; oats were the food of another third of the people in the northern counties, and of considerably more than a third of those of Lancashire and the rest of that group, but were only used to a very small extent in the midland counties, and not at all in any other part of the kingdom.   

George Lillie Craik, Charles MacFarlane; A Pictorial History of England, 1688-1760, Vol. IV, Chap. VII History of the Condition of the People; Charles Knight & Co., London, 1841; p. 850

In order to take measures to reduce the suffering due to the scarcity of wheat in 1800, the House of Lords requested an investigation into the consumption of wheat, which gave information which leads to percentages which could be used for 1780 to 1799:

Wheat 60 %, rye 10 %, barley 15 %, oats 15 %.

“With a view to bring more particularly before your lordships the consideration of the different resources to which recourse may be had on this occasion, to economize the consumption of wheat, the Lords’ Committees have entered very extensively into this branch of the subject referred to them. The most natural and obvious substitutes for wheat are the other grains of the growth in this kingdom, barley, oats and rye. With respect to these, the Lords’ Committees have been informed, that a much larger proportion than is perhaps generally understood, of the northern parts of England, has always continued in the habit of consuming oaten bread, and that in the midland and western counties, barley enters largely into the food of the labouring classes; and they trust that these facts, strongly urged and impressed upon the public mind, will tend to remove an ill-founded prejudice which your Committee are informed still exists in this metropolis, and in its neighbourhood, against the use of any other bread other than that made from the finest wheaten flour.

The Lords’ Committee have found, that, in most parts of the kingdom where the inhabitants had formerly been accustomed to the use of bread made with a mixture of barley, or with barley alone, and where, within a few years, that diet had been partially changed for wheaten bread, recourse had almost universally been had to their former food; and that, in some parts of the kingdom, where mixed bread had not before brought into general use, this mode (which your Committee, conceive to be far the best) of economizing wheat, has recently been adopted.

Barley– The testimonies of all the persons from the different counties, who have been examined on this point, are uniformly in favour of barley, as the most nourishing and cheapest article of food, whether as an entire substitute for the use of wheaten bread, or in mixtures with wheaten or other flour.

It is stated to your Committee, that in a considerable part of Devonshire little else is used among the poorer classes than bread made entirely of barley; that in ordinary years one-eighth part of the consumption of the county of Dorset is in barley, and that in this year it has been one-fourth; that on the hills, in Gloucestershire, it has been used with wheat, in the proportion of one-half, and in the vale part of the same county, in that of one third. That in some parishes of Nottinghamshire and Huntingdonshire, and other of the midland counties, they use bread made entirely of barley; that the use of mixed bread has become general in parts of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire; that in Lincolnshire the poorer classes who (within the memory from whom this testimony was received) had exchanged the use of barley bread for wheaten, returned last year to barley bread; that in Yorkshire and Lancashire the use of it has been much extended; and that in Scotland a considerable quantity of barley meal was substituted for oats during the last season, and has given satisfaction.  


Oats.- With respect to oats, the crop of which, in England, appears to have been equal to an average crop, the committee find, that the consumption of this article which, is used almost universally in Scotland, and in some of the bordering counties of England, has also been extended in Lancashire and in other parts of the kingdom; …


Rye.- Rye is an article less generally consumed in this kingdom than either of the preceding grains; but it is used alone in bread amongst the pitmen and other labourers of the county of Durham and Northumberland. It is mixed with wheat in some parts of the North, and experiments have been made by mixing it with other grain for bread.”

Lords’ Committees on the Dearth of Provisions;  Second Report, Dec. 15, 1800; Cobbett’s Parliamentary History of England, Vol. 3

But taking into account the information above, that “where, within a few years, that diet had been partially changed for wheaten bread, recourse had almost universally been had to their former food”, and also from the note below, that there was a large change to barley in the years after 1800, in order to economize the cost of food in the family budget, the percentages for England should be changed to:

Wheat 40 %, rye 10 %, barley 30 %, oats 20 %.

The change in food choices is commented by E. J. T. Collins:

“That choice of cereal was price and income elastic, and that pre-industrial patterns endured until at least the early nineteenth century is verified by the government inquiries of 1796 and 1800, which show not only a marked decline in per capita cereal consumption, but also a widespread substitution of barley, and to lesser extents, of oats, pulse, and rye, for wheat, and of browner for whiter flours. 

Positive aversion to the use of wheat substitutes was more apparent in 1796 than in 1800, but was in both years confined to a few southern and eastern counties, in particular, London and Middlesex, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Essex, Hampshire, Hertfordshire, Kent, Oxfordshire, Surrey, Sussex, and Wiltshire. Here it was probably true, as at Wootton Bassett, that the “lower orders” preferred “half a loaf of fine Wheaten Bread, to a pound of mixed with any substitute.” The only important concession was a switch from first- to second- and third-quality flours.

Elsewhere in Britain, and even in parts of the above-mentioned counties, substitution was the general rule. In 1796 one-third of the population of Calne (Wiltshire) ate barley bread alone, and another third a two-to-one mixture of wheat and barley. In 1800, partly because cereal prices were higher and partly because the backbone of resistance was already broken by the earlier crisis, coarser grains were more extensively resorted to than in 1796. Of the almost 500 towns and villages replying to the government circular, most claimed a reduction in wheat consumption of between 30 and 50 per cent. The greater part of the “labouring population” of southern Britain then subsisted, largely if not completely, on barley, while in the north wheat lost most of the ground it had gained there since the mid-eighteenth century. Large quantities of rye were imported to help bridge the gap. In Barkway (Hertfordshire) a “wholesome nutricious [sic] Bread made of Half Wheat and Half Rye” was employed by the “poor People, many Farmers and the little Tradesmen””

(Dietary Change and Cereal Consumption in Britain in the Nineteenth Century, 1975, pp. 104-105)

For the period 1816 to 1825, the same proportions as for 1780 to 1800 should be used, as the price of wheat returned to normal levels.

Wheat 60 %, rye 10 %, barley 15 %, oats 15 %.

The use of these parameters impacts strongly on the ratio of earnings to expenses in the period 1800 to 1815. If we use the numbers above, we have a situation in which the farm worker population can buy enough to eat, but if we continue with wheat at 60 %, there is a large negative gap. The labourers could buy enough to eat, but at a cost of reducing their “food standard of living”, eating barley bread instead of wheaten bread, and (the poorest segment) eating large quantities of potatoes.

Equivalent Proportions of the Population of Great Britain consuming the different Quantities of Grain (per cent)

and Wales
ScotlandGreat Britain
Wheat180066 1058

 (Collins, 1975, p. 114)

The increase required in wheat production, in order to compensate for the difference in proportions between the cereals, would be about 15,000,000 persons times 25 % change in preferences times 1.0 quarters / person, equals 3,750,000 quarters per year.  

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