9.3. Consumption of Meat

According to Jonas Hanway and to Arthur Young, in the 1770’s the labouring class ate about 4 ounces of meat per family per week. We may suppose that the artisans and the skilled workers had the money to buy a little more. 

It seems, from a number of disperse data, that large parts of the manufacturing and agricultural classes in the period from 1775 to 1795, changed their diet from bread and cheese, to bread with some meat. The price per pound of cheese and of meat was about the same. However, it is not clear where the additional oxen and sheep came from. Probably a part was due to the increase in size and health of the animals in fields affected by the Enclosures. Another cause may have been that many oxen were “liberated”, as their work of hauling ploughs was taken over by horses, who were now heavier and stronger. There were also more oxen and sheep being imported from Scotland.

“The Trade of Wilmslow Parish, forty years ago [1745], was very trifling, …. The business of a Butcher at that time was also in as low a state: half a Cow, and two or three Calves were a sufficient Supply for the weekly Saturday’s Market. ….. But since that time there has been a gradual change of every thing….. The Butchers can now scarcely procure Meat enough for the the supply of the Market, the old useless Cow of the Farmer will no longer go down; they are obliged to fetch their Beef out of Yorkshire, for everybody eats Butchers’ Meat, which was formerly a food the Labourers, and even many of the lower Farmers tasted but at Wakes or at a Christening.”

“Survey of the Parish of Wilmslow” (MS), Samuel Finney, 1785, “Agriculture, Trade, and Manufactures of the Parish of Wilmslow”, Cheshire and Chester Historical Collector, edited by T. Worthington Barlow, Vol. 1, No. 2, W. Kent and Co., London, 1853, pp. 5-6,

[Wilmslow is near Styal]

Arthur Young, in 1771, wrote that “It may be said, that wheaten-bread, that beef, that mutton, that tea, that sugar, that butter, are dear; but do not, in the heat of the argument, jumble these and the necessaries of life together.” (The Farmer’s Letters to the People of England, Vol. 1, Letter V, The Present State of the Poor, p. 205). He also asked some labourers to tell him what they ate. In one case, a family of five, in a week eats half a pound of fat meat; in another case, the family eats no meat (op. cit. pp. 196-197, p. 202).

But in 1787, the situation appears to have improved: “In England, the consumption of meat by the labouring poor, is pretty considerable; …” (Arthur Young, Travels during the Years 1787, 1788, & 1789;… the Kingdom of France; vol. 1, p. 443)

“So greatly is the consumption of flesh meat increased, that, whereas in the memory of some persons now living, not more than one cow used to be killed weekly in Bolton, or, if two, the unsold beef used to be sent to Bury market,- before the beginning of the present war, a tanner in Anderton bought weekly thirty-five cow hides of the Bolton butchers, and yet was supposed not to take half the whole produce.”  [70 cattle / week, 300 lbs. edible weight, population 15,000; gives 70 pounds of meat per person per year, or 7 pounds per family per week]

(Aiken, 1795, Bolton, p. 261)

“… 4. Besides these, there are immense numbers of Scotch cattle brought into the country, which, after being fed for one year, and sometimes two, are sold to the butcher. Beef of this kind always sells higher in the market, than that of the native breed; and from the extent of population, there is a constant demand for all that can be fed.”

(General View of the Agriculture of the West Riding of Yorkshire, 1799, p. 179)

“Butcher’s meat is the next most important article of subsistence, and the demand for which throughout the kingdom has doubtless been greatly increasing. I calculate that the individual consumption of bread, per head or per family, is not greater now than it was a half a century ago, but that the demand per family of butcher’s meat has increased, in consequence of increased luxury, the effect of increased wealth, the consequence of extended commerce, increased manufacture, and improved agriculture.  

(Pitt, 1806, p. 286)

“… The consequence of which has been the entire change in their habits and modes of life; their former frugal manner of living is abandoned; they are no longer fed upon milk, cheese, and vegetables, with little or no animal food. Less than two acres and a half was then amply sufficient for the support of a labourer.    

The whole body of manufacturers (as well as most of those employed in great towns), are since that period subsisted on butcher’s meat, with the constant use of malt liquor, and, I fear, the pernicious habit of using spirits is but too common amongst them.  ….. These combined causes have all contributed to increase the demand for animal food, and consequently to operate, with other causes, in lessening the growth of grain. The increase of butcher’s meat in country markets within fifty years is prodigious. Meat, that was provided only at particular seasons, is now weekly, if not daily, offered for sale. 

… Smithfield market has (taking the increased weight of the carcasses into calculation), doubled the weight of flesh sold within fifty years. If such has been the case in the capital, where luxury ever predominated, what must be the increased consumption of meat throughout the whole empire?”

(John Christian Curwen, Esq., M.P., Communications to the Board of Agriculture, on Subjects Relative to the Husbandry andInternal Improvement of the Country, Vol. V, Part I, On the Means of Supplying Milk to the Poor, Vol. V, Part I, Art. 1, 1806, p. 143, p. 144, pp. 148-149)

On the other hand, we know that the number of animals slaughtered increased continuouslyby a factor of 1.50x from 1782 to 1823. We can see this from the weight of hides, as declared for the Hides Tax (Tooke, 1823, Appendix to Part II, Table No. II, p. 3). It is not possible to separate the effects of a) more animals in the country, b) the average weight or girth of the animals.

As to the consumption of meat in the industrial towns, we have a calculation presented to a Parliamentary Committee in 1821, utilizing the reports of Excise on Hides and Skins collected on the use of skins by the leather workers.

Report from the Select Committtee to whom the Referral Petitions Complaining of the Distressed State of Agriculture, 1821, Mr. David Hodgson, dealer in corn, p. 267

The consumption of meat was 45,500,000 lbs. (gross weight, with bones, etc.) for 370,000 families of approx. 5 persons in each, gives 95 lbs. per person per annum. If we take the net edible weight to be 80 %, then the consumption of meat was 7.5 lbs. per family per week. The cost was 5 shillings per family per week. Pig meat and chicken not included.

Wheat was taken at one quarter per person per annum, corresponding to 11.5 quartern loaves per family per week. This would have cost 6 shillings per week.

Two pages earlier, we have reports of numbers of hides for Liverpool and for Manchester, yearly from 1801 to 1820.

Liverpool: Total whole weight 1801, 12,836,000 lb., Population 1801,   78,000, Edible weight per person 131 lb. Total whole weight 1820, 13,763,000 lb., Population 1820, 115,000, Edible weight per person, 95 lbs.

Manchester: Total whole weight 1801, 12,074,000 lb., Population 1801, 95,000, Edible weight per person, 102 lbs. Total whole weight 1820, 17,045,000 lb., Population 1820, 161,000, Edible weight per person, 85 lbs. (Population including Salford) 

We have also a report from the Manchester Statistical Society, that the consumption of meat in the Manchester conurbation in 1836 was 100 pounds per person per year (36,000,000 pounds divided by 343,000 persons). They calculated this figure using the reports of the toll offices at the entrances to Manchester, and checking this against the sales in the butchers’ shops:

            (Love, 1839, p. 159)

To these figures should be added the consumption of bacon, pork, fish and poultry.

The figures are an average per person, over men, women, children, babies, and destitute, and are for net edible weight. 100 pounds per person per year, if we calculate it per family with 5 members, is 10 pounds per week, or 1.5 pounds per day for the family. This is the quantity of meat in one McDonalds’ quarter pounder per day per person(although in the case of Manchester the meat is a total of beef, lamb, and mutton, not 100 % beef). 

At a price of meat of 8 pence per pound (maximum), this is 7 shillings per week. If we suppose that the family is spending 25 % of its income (sum of all the persons with work) on meat, then the average income per family in Manchester was 28 shillings.   

We may suppose that in all the medium-size towns the population ate sufficient meat, as there were a large number of butcher’s shops in each town. The average consumption (approximate estimate) would be from 5 to 7 pounds of meat per family per week.

TownPopulation 1821Number Butchers 1828
Stamford6,000 15

(Pigot and Co., National Commercial Directory for 1828-9)

The weekly provisions for prisoners in the Manchester New Bailey in 1844 were as follows:

 s. d.
Seven loaves of twenty ounces each, costing1   1
Thirty-one ounces of flour0   4
Five pounds of potatoes0   1
One pint of pease0   1
Three ounces and a half of salt0   0
One pound of beef0   4
One quart of beer0   0
Total1 11

(Kohl, 1844, p. 111) 

These amounts would have been those that the police authorities thought were normal for a working man; since they were expenses of the public purse for the upkeep of lawbreakers, they may well have been kept on the low side.  

Mr. Porter apparently has an opinion that a normal amount of meat eaten in manufacturing regions should be considerably more than one half pound per person per week, since this amount consumed in Saxony, demonstrates that the workers live in a “wretched manner”. Thus we may suppose that the real amount in England was much higher. 

“The wretched manner in which the poorer classes in that country [Saxony] subsist may be inferred from the fact exhibited by official statistical returns, that the annual consumption of meat in the principal manufacturing districts, including the town of Chemnitz, does not average more than twenty-eight pounds for each individual of the population, and that at least one half of this quantity consists of pork. If this provision were equally divided among the entire number of inhabitants, it would amount to scarcely more than half a pound weekly for each individual; but as the actual distribution is of course very different from this, it is probable there are many among the labouring artisans who rarely, if ever, taste animal food.” 

(Porter, The Progress of the Nation, Vol. II, 1838, p. 199) 

Mr. Charles Mott, who was the Assistant Poor Law Commissioners for Middlesex and Surrey in 1836, and reported on the conditions in the workhouses, decided that it would be useful to know the real consumption of bread and meat by the agricultural workers, in order to compare this with the food amounts in the workhouses; he had a survey carried out, of which unfortunately we do not have the details. It was generally supposed – and the survey confirmed this – that the daily amounts in the workhouses were larger than those eaten by the agricultural labourers.            

“The agricultural labourers are unable to procure for themselves and families more than an average allowance per head of 122 ounces of food (principally bread) per week, of which we will suppose that the man consumes, as his proportion, 140 ounces per week, say 134 ounces of bread [8.3 pounds; 2.0 quartern loaves] and six ounces of meat. Bread contains in round numbers 800 parts in 1,000, or four-fifths of nutritive matter, whilst the meat will yield but 333 parts in 1,000, or about one-third; they will give together 109 ounces per week, about 15 ½ ounces of nutritive matter per day as the consumption of an able-bodied labourer. These results were obtained from returns from labourers in the southern agricultural counties, and as they were selected with care, they may be fairly relied upon; they may, nevertheless, be objected to as insufficient data upon which to ground any general conclusion, inasmuch they may be said to be confined to one class, whose income does not average for the family more than 2s. per head per week, and to show what labourers can obtain, and do not prove that labourers would not consume more if they could get it.”

An extension of the survey to industrial workers with decent incomes in towns, showed that although these people did eat more meat (no figures given) than the agricultural labourers, they then ate less bread, so that the medical calculation of the total of nutritive matter was about the same.

(Second Annual Report of the Poor Law Commissioners for England and Wales, 1836, Report by Mr. Mott, p. 336)

From another point of view, we also have data as to the number of live cattle and sheep entering Smithfield Market in London in a number of years. 

Cattle/PersonSheep/ Person

(To 1810: Tooke, 1823, Appendix XVI; from 1820: Porter, 1851, p. 581)

Note: the figures for 1840 and 1850 are less than the real amounts, as in these dates livestock was sold in other markets apart from Smithfield, and also country-killed meat was entering London by railway)

The edible weight of beef cattle was 500 lb. in 1800 and 700 lb. in 1850; for sheep it was 60 lb. in 1800 and 70 lb. in 1850.

Thus the average inhabitant of London ate 70 pounds of beef per year and 59 pounds of mutton in 1800, and at least 63 pounds of beef and 43 pounds of mutton in 1850. This corresponds to 12 pounds of meat weekly for a family of five in 1820, and 10 pounds of meat weekly in 1850.

“The metropolis is the grand mart to which a considerable proportion of the fat cattle from every part of the kingdom is sent. In the year 1830, there were sold in Smithfield, 159,907 cattle, 1,287,071 sheep, 254,672 pigs, and 22,500 calves, for the supply of the metropolis, and the villages and towns within a circuit of eight or ten miles, and occasional contracts for the navy. Besides this there is a great quantity of dead meat sent up from the country, generally speaking perfectly wholesome, and fairly and honestly slaughtered, although it is said that the flesh of some animals that did not come to their death through the hands of man, has occasionally found its way to Newgate market. There are inspectors appointed, who very impartially look after this. This is called the dead market, and may fairly be set against the consumption of the places in the neighbourhood of London, and also the irregular demands for the navy, so that the numbers just stated may be considered as fairly representing the consumption of animal food in the metropolis, exclusive of fish, poultry, and salted provisions.”

“The improvement of cattle has progressed with unsuspected rapidity since the middle of the last century; in many important points, it could hardly be said to have commenced at that time. After consultation with several of the most intelligent butchers of the metropolis, we are induced to take 656 lbs. as the present average dead-weight of bullocks (some butchers stated 85 stones Smithfield weight, none less than 80 – we have taken 82 stones). The average weight of the calf is 144 lbs., of the pig 96 lbs., and of the sheep and lamb 90 lbs., approaching to double the weight of these animals in 1730. This renders the number of cattle slaughtered in the metropolis and the increasing number of the inhabitants a little more proportionate.

We may now form some not very inaccurate idea of the amount idea of the amount of this branch of the provision trade in London:-

                         Average weight          No. of lbs. consumed

Cattle                  159,907        656 lbs.                       104,898,992

Sheep, &c.      1,287,070          90 “                           115,836,300

Pigs                    254, 672          96 “                             24,448,512

Calves                 22,500         144 “                                3,240,000


         Number of pounds of meat consumed           248,423,804

This, estimated at the average price of 6d., would be 6,210,595 l. 2s. 0d. At 8d., it would produce 8,268,293 l. 9s. 4d., exclusive of bacon, hams, and all salted provisions brought from a distance (the importation of Irish bacon and hams into Great Britain is 500,000 cwt.), and also fish and poultry.

This calculation will enable us to determine another curious question,- what is the average quantity of meat consumed by each individual in the course of a year? If we divide the gross number of pounds 248,423,804 by 1,450,000, the estimated number of inhabitants in London and its environs, the quotient will be 170, or each individual consumes nearly half a pound of meat every day. This is a very high calculation compared with that of Paris, where each person is supposed to consume but 80 pounds in the year; and Brussels, where 89 pounds form the allotment of each; but ours is a meat-eating population, and composed chiefly of Protestants; and when we remember that this includes the bones as well as the meat, half a pound per day [0.4 pounds net edible weight] is not too much to allow to each person.”

(Youatt, William; Cattle: their Breeds, Management and Diseases, Baldwin and Cradock, London, 1834, p. 256, p. 257)    

We have the following general considerations about the amount of meat consumed, by the eminent Scottish economist, John Ramsay McCullogh, in 1837:

“The change that has taken place during the last half century in the consumption of butcher’s meat, is still more extraordinary than that which has taken place in the consumption of corn. The quantity made use of has been wonderfully increased, and its quality signally improved. From 1740 to about 1750, the population of the Metropolis fluctuated very little; amounting, during the whole of that period, to about 670,000 or 675,000. Now, during the ten years ending with 1750, there were at an average, about 74,000 head of cattle, and about 570,000 head of sheep sold annually in Smithfield Market. In 1831, the population increased to 1,472,000, or in the ratio of about 218 per cent. : and at an average of the three years ending with 1831, 156,000 head of cattle, and 1,238,000 head of sheep were sold annually at Smithfield; being an increase of 212 per cent. on the cattle, and 217 per cent. on the sheep, as compared with the numbers sold in 1740-50. It consequently appears that the number of cattle and sheep consumed in London has increased, since 1740, about in the same proportion as the population. The weight of animals has, however, a good deal more than doubled in the interval. In the earliest part of the last century, the gross weight of the cattle sold at Smithfield did not, at an average, exceed 370 lbs., and that of the sheep did not exceed 28 lbs.; whereas, at present, the average weight of the cattle is estimated at about 800 lbs., and that of the sheep at about 80 lbs. Hence, on the most moderate computation, it may be affirmed, that the consumption of butcher’s meat in the Metropolis, as compared with the population, is twice as great at this moment as in 1740 or 1750.

In most other parts of the country, the increase in the consumption of butcher’s meat has been even greater. In thinly peopled agricultural districts, very little is consumed, but in manufacturing and commercial towns it is quite the reverse; and their vast increase, during the last half century, more than justifies the inference, that there has been, at least, a corresponding increase in the consumption of butcher’s meat.”

(John Ramsay McCulloch, A Statistical Account  of the British Empire, Charles Knight, London, 1837; quoted in Love, 1839, note to page 159)

We can say that during all this period, the average inhabitant of Great Britain ate sufficient cereal and meat; the agricultural workers did not eat much meat. Obviously, there were many people who did not eat enough. Further, the amounts of cereal and meat per person remained practically the same from 1800 to 1850. The cases of large-scale hunger in certain regions or certain occupations were not due to insufficient production of cereals, but to extremely low incomes or extensive unemployment.

Herr Meidinger, who visited England in 1828, noted that the food consumed by the working classes varied considerably, depending on the income level:

“The main food of the local factory workers consists of potatoes, oatcakes and buttermilk and sometimes “bacon”. This is however only the case for the really poor. Those, who have a good enough employment, live at a better and more decent level, than the factory workers in France and Germany, as the wages in England are always in a good relation to the expenses.”

(Meidinger, 1828, p. 302)

Friedrich Engels observed the same situation:

“The habitual food of the individual working-man naturally varies according to his wages. The better-paid workers, especially those in whose families every member is able to earn something, have good food as long as this state of things lasts; meat daily and bacon and cheese for supper. Where wages are less, meat is used only two or three times a week, and the proportion of bread and potatoes increases. Descending gradually, we find the animal food reduced to a small piece of bacon cut up with the potatoes; lower still, even this disappears, and there remain only bread, cheese, porridge, and potatoes, until on the lowest round of the ladder, among the Irish, potatoes form the sole food. As an accompaniment, weak tea, with perhaps a little sugar, milk, or spirits, is universally drunk.”

(Engels, 1845, Ch. 4, The Great Towns)

The rapporteur to the Poor Law Commissioners in Lancashire in 1834, Mr. Tufnell, gave the following information as to the amount of food eaten:

“The mode of living of the factory workmen will be seen from the following extracts (page 130, First Report):-

“What do the factory operatives usually live on?” “They won’t take anything but the best of flour, potatoes, and mutton. I hardly go into one house but what I see they have beer; and they have five meals a day; breakfast at eight, lunch at eleven, dinner betwixt twelve and one, their bagging at four, and supper about seven.”

“For how many of these meals do they leave the mill?” “Breakfast, dinner, bagging, and supper; they only lunch in the mill, on beer, and bread and cheese.”

Do they eat meat every day for dinner?” “I think generally they do; they live full as well as most labouring people; better than farmers in general; they would not eat the same flour as is eaten in farm-houses.”

“Do they live better than the hatters and hand-loom weavers?” “Yes, they do; the hand-loom weavers are the most miserable part of the population; they scarcely eat meat once a week.”

Mr. Butcher, overseer [Poor Law administrator] of Salford, Hulme, and part of Manchester, says (page 62, First Report), that the factory operatives “in a general way have fresh meat about twice a week, fried bacon two days a week, and liver and a little bacon generally on a Friday, and the other two days bread and cheese, bread and butter, and water-gruel”. The overseer of the township of Heap, in answer to my question concerning the usual diet of the factory operatives, says, (page 142, First Report), they have either tea or coffee for breakfast, and fresh meat for dinner, and tea in the afternoon; and for supper, porridge, which some of the poorer classes have in the morning. The same witness also states, that the factory operatives are better off than any other class, except perhaps general mechanics, and that he has not had to relieve one spinner since he came into office.”” 

(Factories Enquiry Commission, Supplementary Report, Part I, D2 Lancashire District, 1834; Report by  Mr. Tufnell, pp. 203-4)

In the case of the mill owners who had to give food and lodging to their employees, which means those in the areas outside of the towns, these obviously had to feed their people well. The spinning mill at Caton, in the uplands near Lancaster, gave more than sufficient food (oatmeal eight pounds per week; beef nearly one pound per week; milk 7 quarts per week; potatoes 6 pounds a week):  

The mill had a schoolmaster for teaching the children, who lived in two houses (separate for boys and for girls).

(Board of Agriculture, General View of the Agriculture of Lancashire, 1815; Sect. VII, Price of Products and Expenses, pp. 626-628)

The inspectors working for the Poor Law Commissioners in their report of 1842 found that the industrial workers in Birmingham ate very well:

“Many of the workmen are supplied with their dinner from small cook-shops, cooked meat is sold to them at the rate of 1s. per pound; a workman will pay 3d. for a plate of meat and 1d. for potatoes or bread, and this constitutes his dinner, and he is well satisfied with it. Many publicans retail cooked meat at the above-mentioned price, and they remark that this quantity of meat quite satisfies the mechanic for his dinner, but it would require double the quantity to dine an agricultural labourer. The meat of the working man is more frequently roasted or fried than boiled, although one-half more fuel is expended in roasting a joint than would keep the pot boiling. The inferior joints of meat are sometimes cooked with vegetables, and made into a stew, and sold at the rate of 9d. per pound; but this is much less frequently purchased at the cook-shops by the working man, than the roasted meat. Soup is sold at these shops at 1d. per pint; a half-pint of soup and a piece of bread often comprises the dinner of an elder working man. There are as many as 95 of these cook-shops in this town. The wives and children dine principally on bacon and potatoes. The more careful housewife buys what are called bits of meat at 5d. a pound – these she stews with potatoes and onions, and forms a wholesome and nutritious meal for herself and her children.

The workmen in this town drink principally beer and ale, which, generally speaking, is very wholesome and well brewed. They drink large quantities of low-priced beer sold at 2d. or 3d. per quart. Spirits are not much drank [sic] by the working mechanic. The habit of drinking foreign wines is growing among the better class of workmen.”  

(Poor Law Commissioners, Local Reports, 1842, Birmingham, p. 212)

The most pessimistic report about the amount and the quality of food consumed in the industrial towns, is to be found in the short book “The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes employed in the Cotton Manufacture in Manchester”(1832) by Dr. Francis Kay. The book served as a source for Engels’ statements about the horrible conditions of the working classes. Dr. Kay worked as a doctor in Manchester for a few years, and was later a well-known politician of liberal leanings, and very interested in improving the education of the lower classes. He gives us a number of insulting descriptions about the life and habits of the workers in Manchester, particularly the Irish. The living and sanitary conditions are disgusting. According to his data, the operative works in the factory from 6 to 8 a.m., returns home for a breakfast of tea or coffee with a little bread, for lunch he has a mess of potatoes with melted lard or butter and sometimes pieces of fat bacon; for supper he has tea and a little bread sometimes with oatcakes. Those with better incomes may eat a little animal food, but no more than three times in the week. It seems to be impossible that a man could do hard physical labour on so little food.

But the explanation is in the preface.

This means that the very bad image that we have of Manchester in the early Industrial Revolution, comes from a list of descriptions which only refer to the worst part of the city.   

The population of Manchester Township (the sum of the 14 Police Districts) was 142,000 in 1831, and of the whole of Manchester plus Salford plus suburbs 270,000. In 1841 the population of the Township was 163,000, and of the conurbation, 354,000.

From the different chapters of this work, we can present a table of the weekly consumption per family of “butchers’ meat”, also the daily input of calories per average person.

1767                London                                   10 lb.  400 cals. 
1770’s             Labourers                                 2 lb.    80 cals.
1790’s             Agricultural labourers           2 lb.    80 cals.
1802                London                                      8 lb.  320 cals.
1808                Cotton mill (country)              4 lb.  160 cals.
1815-20          Industrial towns                     8 lb.  320 cals.
1830                Agricultural labourers            2 lb.    80 cals.
1833                Cotton spinners                       8 lb.  320 cals.
1834                London                                   14 lb.  560 cals.
1838                Manchester                             10 lb.  400 cals. 

But in 1840-60, the people in the London “sweated trades”, and in the domestic industries in the smaller towns, ate less than 2 lbs. of meat per family per week, i.e. less than 0.4 lbs. per person.

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