Stale Bread Act 1801

This entry is part [part not set] of 15 in the series Reformers and Radicals

What did the act say?

This was an Act imposed at a time of panicked desperation by a British Government trying to keep the lid on an explosive and fed up population. The bread shortage of the previous five years had not abated and so the Government, in its wisdom decided that the population would no longer be able to buy and eat the fresh bread that made up the staple of the British diet but that bakers had to keep bread for 24 hours before being allowed to sell it. Why would that improve the problem of a bread shortage? Stale bread fills you up more, up to 20% more. Hence you need less bread to eat than you did before. What the Government considered an indulgence by the poor, i.e eating fresh bread had to be stopped.

The background to the act.

Britain had been at war with Revolutionary France since 1793. In order to keep the army and navy fed, much of the wheat that was produced was bought by the government. In addition the war impeded the importation of grain into Britain. This led to an unbearable strain on communities for whom bread was a staple of their diet. The price of the grain started to soar and people were on the verge of famine. The harvests of the mid 1790’s had been very poor as well and severe weather either left crops rotting in the fields by freezing wet Winters or scorched by unbearably hot summers. The rural poor had the added pressure of enclosure to contend with. Where once they could enjoy some measure of self sufficiency now they bought much of their food.

The importance of bread.

Bread provided the poor with their basic nourishment. There was little meat in their diet. Cheese and fish such as oysters or pickled herring, where it could be had, might accompany a working mans bread ration. Women and children made do with lard. Bread was the main component of any meal. Without bread, people starved. Contrary to common belief, most people bought their food, they did not have the luxury of an indoor oven or fire to bake bread, they could not afford the wood and because of enclosure could no longer gather it from where they had in the past. Bakers baked bread and pies so they was no self sufficiency amongst the population.

Food Riots.

Local unrest due to high grain prices and thus high bread prices began to cause the Government concern. Millers who could make money out of the precarious grain supply issue were accused of holding back supplies to increase the price. They also sent their flour to London where it could fetch a higher price instead of selling it into the local markets.
The riots of 1795 – 1796, combined with unrest over the war, greatly concerned Pitt’s government who thought that such unrest might provide the exact conditions for a British revolution. The government panicked and took swift and harsh action. The leaders of radical and dissenting groups were arrested and meetings banned. They made sure that there was no corner for the radicals to hide and when they did unearth them, punishment was swift and harsh. The food riots spread around Britain but the peoples revolution was dampened but the unrest was not completely quelled and by 1800 the Government decided to take action to control the consumption of bread, hence the Stale Bread Act 1801.

How did it all end?

The Stale Bread Act lasted for only one year. It was impossible to enforce although the Government tried very hard to impose it. There were fines for bakers who broke the law and rewards for members of the community who snitched on them. It was a complete muddle and only pushed the poor towards even more likelihood of famine. The decades that followed saw people driven into more desperation as food shortages and unemployment caused dreadful suffering amongst the poor of Britain.

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