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   Chapter 15 No.15

The History of London By Walter Besant Characters: 5969

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Suppose that all the ocean traffic were stopped; that there was no communication, or exchange of commodities, between our country and another; suppose that the people of this island depended entirely on their own harvests and their own cattle for their support. You would then easily understand how a single bad year might produce scarcity of food, and a very bad year might produce a famine. That was our condition down to the fifteenth century. Some corn may have been brought over from Prussia or from Hamburg; but there was no regular supply; the country depended on its own harvests. Therefore, the fear of a famine-or of scarcity-was ever present to the people.

Many of these famines are on record. In the year 990 a famine raged over the whole of England; in 1126 there was a terrible scarcity. Wheat was sold at 6s. a horseload. Now, in the twelfth century a shilling meant more than a pound of our money, in purchasing power. It is not stated how much constituted a horseload. It would probably mean the filling of the two baskets hanging on either side of the packhorse. In 1257, after a wet season and a bad harvest, wheat rose to 24s. a quarter, a price which prohibited all but the richest from eating wheaten bread. It is said that 20,000 perished of starvation. In 1316, after the same cause, wheat became so scarce that its price rose to 4l. a quarter. So great was the distress this year, that great nobles had to dismiss their retainers; the roads in the country were crowded with robbers. Robberies were openly committed in the streets for the sake of food: in the prisons the unfortunate criminals, left to starve, murdered and devoured each other. The people ate carrion and dead dogs. In 1335 there was another time of scarcity and suffering; in 1439, the distress was so great that the people made bread of fern roots and ivy berries. Then, for the first time, we read of the famine being assuaged by the arrival of rye from Prussia. In 1527 a threatened famine was checked by the Hanseatic merchants who gave, or sold, a hundred quarters of wheat to the City and sent three ships to Dantzig for more. In 1593 and in 1597 wheat rose to an enormous price. The last time of scarcity was during the long war with France, which lasted, from 1792 to 1815, nearly a quarter of a century. We were then compelled to depend almost entirely upon our own harvests. Wheat went up as high as 103s. a quarter.

At no time did the poorer classes depend much upon wheat. Rye and oats made the bread of the working people. But bad harvests affected rye and oats as much as wheat.

The famine prices of wheat may be explained by the following facts. In the reign of Henry I., at ordinary prices, bread enough for one meal for 100 men could be bought for a shilling and a whole sheep cost fourpence. In the next century, when wheat was at 6s. a quarter, a farthing loaf was to weigh 24 oz. whole meal and 16 oz. white. When it was at 1s. 6d. a quarter the farthing loaf was

to weigh 96 oz. whole grain and 64 oz. white. The quartern loaf of 4 lb. or 64 oz. now costs 5d., wheat being very cheap. So that prices in time of plenty being supposed the same, money was worth twenty times in that century as much as it is worth now. In the reign of Edward I. wheat went down to 1s. a quarter.

The food of the craftsmen in London was, in ordinary times, plentiful and cheap. The City, as we have seen, was always remarkable for the great abundance of provision which was brought there. And there is every reason to believe that while the rustic fared poorly and was underfed, the craftsman of the towns always enjoyed good food and enough of it. This made a time of scarcity hard to bear for one who habitually lived well.

Once or twice an attempt was made to provide the City with granaries in case of famine. Thus the origin of Leadenhall, the great City market, was the erecting of a public granary here by Sir Simon Eyre in 1419. Attached to the Hall, after the manner of the time, was a chapel dedicated to the Holy Trinity, which the founder endowed for 60 priests who were to prepare service every day for those who frequented the market.

Another public granary was established in 1610 at Bridewell Palace. This was built to contain 6,000 quarters of wheat.

Nothing more is heard about these public granaries. Probably the public mind grew more assured on the subject of famine as it became better understood that the loss of one country might be made up from the superfluous harvests of another. The lesson taught by the Hanseatic merchants in sending to Prussia for corn was not likely to be lost.

At the present moment, with means of transport always in readiness and the electric wire joining the most distant countries, it might seem that famine was a thing no longer to be feared. There cannot be bad harvests all over the world. Not only can we every year import so much wheat that we need grow little in this country, but we import frozen meat in vast quantities: we bring fruit of all kinds from the most distant countries, insomuch that there are some fruits, such as apples, oranges, grapes, bananas, which we can enjoy the whole year round. But famine may yet play a great and a disastrous part in our history. We must not forget that we enjoy our present abundance of all things on one of two conditions; first, that we are strong enough to protect the waterway and keep it open, or, secondly, that we remain at peace. The latter we cannot hope to do always. Therefore it is of vital importance that we maintain a strong fleet, well equipped, ready to fight, at all times and at the shortest notice, superior to any likely combination that may be brought against us. Therefore, again, it behoves every man in these Isles to be jealous of the fleet, for a time may come when the way of the ocean may be closed and when Great Britain, through the neglect of her rulers, may be starved into a shameful and ruinous surrender.

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