Let them eat stale bread. The diet of the poor in the Regency

James Hobson

Britain was running out of bread in 1800.The Napoleonic blockade was beginning to have an effect and British domestic production had not yet started to increase. Bread filled the bellies of the poor; children had dry bread for breakfast; workers had bread and cheese for their lunch; the workers wife’s had bread and lard ; drinkers had a salted herring and a slice of bread in the pub; everybody had  bread was the main accompaniment for scraps of bacon. Only on Sunday afternoon did bread not rule the house.

Something needed to be done, so in 1801 the government passed the Stale Bread Act. This did not, as the name may suggest, ban the sale of bread that was old and hard. Indeed it was the opposite; it was fresh bread that was banned. Bakers had to keep all loaves for 24 hours before selling them. This logic here was sound, but brutal. Stale bread did fill people up more, and added about 20% to the stomach filling capacity of the loaf. The government believed that up to 50% of all bread sold in the streets of London was hot, and eaten immediately as a snack. This indulgence by the poor could no longer be allowed

Bread consumption fell. Stale bread was also less pleasant to eat, so the government was also able to stop poor people being greedy. However, the Act lasted less than a year. Like many governmental panic measures through the ages, it turned out to be impossible to enforce. The government did try; they had draconian punishments for bakers and offered rewards to people offered fresh bread. They would receive half of the 5 shilling fine; the other half would be given to the poor. A second offence would mean that the bailiffs would take all   of the baker’ property. Many criminals made a living entrapping bakers into breaking the law.  

News of the arrest of bakers was always popular. People were very suspicious of them throughout the eighteenth century.  They were accused of   giving short weights (hence the bakers dozen being 13). Local city authorities, not usually ready to interfere in business, were more than happy to raid bakers and check their weights and measures. Some towns like Derby insisted that the bakers put their initials into each loaf so the bakers could be tracked down if necessary.

People did not, as a rule bake their own bread, so the bakers had a near monopoly. Most fireplaces in Britain were calamitously   inefficient   and it made no economic   sense to use fuel to bake at home. By 1800 poor people could no longer buy small amounts of flour at a reasonable price, as it was more profitable for millers, who were as unpopular as the bakers, to sell it to middlemen.

Bread consumption was reduced by people starving and living off other staples. The potato was unpopular; some people still believed that it was poisonous   and many resented the link with the Catholic Irish. It was regarded as watery and tasteless; outside of Lancashire, it was merely boiled to death. The North West had the advantage of a potato   industry in from the early eighteenth century, and then later on, am Irish diaspora which knew slight more about the tuber through regular and monotonous contact.

 By 1812, large numbers of farmers in Scotland were saved from death by the potato, and the working classes of Manchester were living off potatoes, bread, bacon, gruel, tea and beer- a similar diet to the Irish farmer, who had the same but probably a little more milk.

 Millers and bakers were still the scapegoats after 1815, when the government artificially maintained the price of wheat by banning imports until the price reached a level that could maintain aristocratic rents and profits. Most   rural riots in the period 1815-1817 would converge on the millers. Armed with sharpened agricultural implements, they would demand that prices returned to an earlier level. In towns, sellers in the markets would have their food stolen as a protest at the price. The normal cry was   “Bread or Blood” , often with a loaf on a stick as a symbol of the problem and a way of breaking windows.


My three books are above. 

Radical Victorians 

The Dark Days of Georgian Britain




What happens when you provide food banks to the Glasgow Poor, 1816


The Calton Riots of 1816

1816 was a year of massive distress for workers of all kinds. The standard response of the rich to economic hardship was first to make sure that it was not the result of moral failings of those involved, and then to organize a public subscription if that was found not to be the case. Many of the public subscriptions were made with great fuss in the newspapers. The Prince Regent had it reported in the press in 1816 that he was buying more silk in response to the distress of the Spitalfields weavers. Just like today, many of the elite believed that more consumption by themselves was a favour to the poor, allowing them to eat.

In the cases of Calton, a well established weaving community outside Glasgow, the local rich were outraged when the opening of a subscription food bank led to riots, not humble thanks. The military were “obliged” to come out and suppress the protests of the weavers just as they had done in 1787, when six people were killed. On this occasion two people were seriously injured.

The Oxford Chronicle reported that on the first day of the riot, August the 2nd, the mob began “in the usual way of throwing stones at the soup kitchen, breaking the windows”. The tone had a world-weariness about it, as it seemed to have been a popular method of protest for the poor in 1816. They were not match for the dragoons who had put down the riot by the end of the day, seriously injuring two and dragging the “ringleaders” to jail. The Oxford Mail somewhat sarcastically speculated that it was the quality of the broth that was the root cause, but then settled on the belief that it was a handful of mischievous people exploiting the economic distress for their own political ends. The diarist Thomas Lucas of Stirling received this report from his son on August 5th

“Walter, Arrived on a visit of eight days from Glasgow, reports that trade is very dull there, and that there was a very serious mob there on account of the distribution of some broth, in which the military aid was used whereby several people were dangerously wounded, the riot continued several days..
A truer cause of the anger can probably be seen in the fact that the rioters tried to burn down a factory that manufactured the type of power looms that was creating unemployment and depressing wages in the industry. The most serious wound was a young boy who, while jumping through the window of a factory, had a shard of class penetrate his eye and go into his brain. Dr Lucas commented that “the Riots in Glasgow terminated without any person being Killed but several have been wounded one of whom is since dead”.

The local Justices of the Peace announced at the end of the disturbances that they would still be providing relief for the poor weavers of Carlton, despite their goodwill being mightily tested.

More about the Calton riots, and the oppression of the new working classes, in my book. The Dark Days of Georgian Britain.

Please consider my three books on the Georgian and Victorian Era. All available on kindle.

The Dark Days of Georgian Britain– a political and social history of the Regency. More details here

Passengers – a social history of Britain 1780-1840 told through travel, transport, roads and hospitality. More details here

Radical Victorians– a history of the radical Victorian reform movement through the works of some famous and less famous individuals. More details here 

All my books, including the English Civil War