9.5. Northern Culinary Culture

The “culinary culture” of the six Northern counties (Lancashire, Yorkshire, Durham, Northumberland, Cumberland, and Westmoreland) was different from the rest of England, as it used primarily oats; as these were considerably (30 % to 40 %) cheaper than wheat, the labourers were able to consume a larger variety of cereal dishes. 

“This species of bread is provincially termed Haver Cake, which must undoubtedly be a corruption of the German haber, or hafer, and not derived, according to Johnson, from the Latin avena. With perhaps the exception of some parts of Lancashire, it is almost exclusively made in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and constitutes the principal food of the labouring classes in that district. It is a very thin cake composed of oatmeal and water only, and by no means unpalatable, particularly while it is new. The mixture is made of a proper consistence in a large bowl, and measured out for each cake by a ladle. As the price of an oat cake is invariarably one penny, the size of the ladle of course depends on the rate of meal in the market. The process of making these cakes will readily be understood by referring to the Plate. Some dry meal is sifted upon a flat board, and a ladle-full of the mixture poured over it. The cake is formed and brought to a proper size and thickness by a horizontal movement of the board, as here represented. It is then laid upon what is termed the Backstone, or hot hearth, to bake, which does not require many seconds of time and afterwards placed upon a cloth to cool. An inverted chair, as seen in the plate, frequently serves this purpose. The cakes are then hung upon a frame, called a “Bread Creel”, suspended from the ceiling of almost every cottage in the district. The people in the neighbourhood of Huddersfield are fond of what they term “Browiss”, which is oat cake in broth or gravy.”

(Illustration and text from: George Walker, The Costume of Yorkshire, 1814; Plate IX, Woman Making Oat Cakes, pp. 26-28, https://www.calderdale.gov.uk/wtw/search/controlservlet?PageId=Detail&DocId=100868)

“…. Now labourers generally breakfast on that very ancient food pottage, with the help of a little cheese and bread; they dine on butcher-meat and potatoes, or pudding; and sup on potatoes, or pottage, or bread and cheese. 

……… The bread generally eaten in the county is made from oatmeal. Water and oatmeal are kneaded together into a paste without any leaven; this paste is rolled into a circular cake of about twenty inches in diameter, and is placed upon a thin plate of iron, called a girdle, under which a fire is put, and the cake thus baked goes by the name of clap-bread, and is to be seen at almost every table in the county. …..  The meal is mostly ground to such a degree of fineness, that a measure of sixteen quarts will weigh sixteen pounds. Farmers, labourers, and manufacturers, usually have fifteen cakes made from sixteen pounds of meal, and as many baked in a day as will serve their families for a month. Such of the gentry as eat this sort of bread, most of them now eating bread made from wheat, have it baked much more frequently, and also much thinner. A labouring man will eat sixteen pounds of meal made into bread in a fortnight; the price of sixteen pounds of meal is variable from 1s. 6d. to 2s. 6d.; the medium is 2s. which gives 1s. a week for each labourer for bread; his cottage and his fuel cost at least as much more. His wages for three-quarters of a year are 9s. a week, and 8s. a week for the other quarter; but making allowance for broken days, 8s. a week may be considered as the full amount of the price of his labour; and indeed a good labourer may be hired by the year at that rate. Hence there will remain 6s. a week for the labour of the man, for the remainder of his own sustenance, the maintenance of his family, and the clothing of them all.” 

(Board of Agriculture / J. Bailey and G. Culley, General View of the Agriculture of the County ofWestmoreland, 1805; pp. 337-338)  

“The labourers, who supply food for themselves and their families, live also comfortably in general compared with those of many of the southern counties. Their bread comprehends the whole of the wheat, except the coarse bran, and is home-made; this they eat with butter, or bacon and potatoes, and they have commonly one meal in the day of fresh meat, or meat-pie. Barley-cake, or a mixture of barley and wheat, is sometimes adopted when wheat is very dear; this is a wholesome, nutritive, and not unpleasant food. Those, who can keep a cow, derive from it a considerable share of the support of themselves and their families; ….”

(Board of Agriculture / H. E. Strickland, General View of the Agriculture of the East-Riding of Yorkshire, 1812; p. 261)

Further, Sir Frederick Eden comments upon the variety of food in the North:

  • “hasty pudding”, made of oatmeal, water and salt, about 13 oz. of meal to a quart of water, which was sufficient for a meal for two labourers, a good meal for one person cost one penny;
  • “crowdie” was boiling water and oatmeal, in same proportions as in the “hasty pudding”, but eaten with milk or butter;
  • “furmenty” or “barley milk” was barley with the husks taken off, boiled in water for two hours, and mixed with skimmed milk;
  • potatoes were eaten roasted or boiled, with butter, or cut into small pieces and eaten with butter, or fried with bacon;
  • “lobscouse” was a hash made from potatoes, finely cut meat, with pepper, salt, and onions.

 He further gives some information about different types of bread:

  • in Cumberland they ate barley bread, in unleavened cakes of half an inch thick and twelve inches in diameter, or leavened in loaves weighing 12 lb.;
  • “thar-cakes”, which were the same as bannocks;
  • “clapbread”, thin hard cakes, baked on a “girdle” over a fire (16 lbs. of meal were enough for a labourer for a fortnight, costing one shilling per week);
  • “kitcheness bread”, thin oat cakes;
  • “riddle cakes”, thick sour cakes;
  • “hand-hoven bread”, as described above;
  • “jannock oaten bread”.

The consumption data from Sir Fredrick Eden’s table show that in the North the people took a lot of milk, but in the South practically zero. This is due to the fact that with the Enclosures, the labourers in the South lost their area of pasturage, and thus could not have a cow. 

To illustrate the financial effects of the low cost of the inferior cereals, we give cases from David Davies’ correspondents in the county of Durham:

Consumption of bread and meat per family per week:

 No. 1,
7 pers.
No. 2,
7 pers.
No. 3,
6 pers.
No. 4,
5 pers.
No. 5,
5 pers.
Rye flour units 4 lb. (*)77533
Wheat flour units 4 lb. (*)2 ½ 2 ½ 2 ½ 2 ½ 2 ½ 
Oatmeal units 4 lb. (**)31333
Potatoes lbs.10101077
Meat or bacon lb.1 ½ 1 ½ 1 ½ 2 ½ 2 ½

(*) 4 lb. of flour gives 5 lb. of baked bread

(**) 4 lb. of oatmeal gives 8 lb. of thick porridge

The calculations exhibited are too conservative:

  • they do not include income for the man for task-work, hay season, or harvest season (at least 10 Pounds a year);
  • they show the annual outgoings (rent of house, fuel, clothing, lying-in) with the same figure as Barkham, Berkshire, but we know that “fuel cannot be got cheaper in this county, as coals only are used” (text of the other example from Durham), which was due to the nearness of the Durham Coalfield;
  • equally, the clothing figures should probably be lower than in Barkham, as the families in the North, according to Sir Frederick, usually bought second-hand or sewed the clothes themselves.

Thus all the families have in fact yearly “exceedings” of from 5 to 15 Pounds a year. Note the comment on the second page, that “I know many families who are industrious, pay their credit, and live comfortably on seven shillings per week”.

Sir Frederick further feels that the labouring families in the North have economic advantages from their style of life, because:

  • they can use more fuel for cooking food, as the fuel (coal) is cheaper;
  • they eat more and richer soups;
  • they use more milk, for their oatmeal dishes;
  • for liquid refreshment, they do not take much tea, but rather water, whey, milk, or milk with water;
  • the wives of the workers make the clothing themselves, that is, they spin, weave, and cut to size, instead of (in the South and Midlands) buying the clothes ready-made in the village shops.

We see that even if the cost of oats doubles (as it did in the years of scarcity), this labourer and his family, will still be able to eat sufficiently. In general, in the agricultural parts of the North, there were a few years in which the farm workers suffered from lack of food, but this was not due to the excessive cost of cereals in comparison to the wages, but rather to the fact that there really was not enough cereal food.

This inspection of the data from County Durham gives us two important arithmetical lessons:

  1. The comparative level of sufficiency or poverty between counties at a given date, is not given by the figures for weekly wages, but by the weekly wages minus the weekly cost of consumption of bread or cereal, taking into account the types of ceral in each county;
  2. The effect of the extreme percentage increases in cereal costs in the years of scarcity, is considerably less, where the population has been used to – and continues to – eat one of the “inferior cereals”. 

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