The Bread Issue 1914-1918

Before the war started, Britain had imported a very high proportion of the wheat it used for bread making but, as the war took hold in Europe, northern France and Belgium had to turn their attention to defending their countries and went from wheat producers to wheat importers.

The British Government had known that this would happen and that there would be severe shortages, but there was very little they could do except wait for the rising prices to control the supply of bread. As early as the 1st of August 1914, the price of milling flour rose from 25s 9d to 31s per sack (£56 – £67), a rise of 5s 3d (roughly, £11.50 ) in just four days which obviously had a dramatic effect on the price of a loaf of bread.

As the shortage of white bread flour became more serious the Government had to stretch the country’s resources further. The white bread, loved by the population, was made from flour that had all the bran and wheat germ removed, and was then bleached white. The high pressure steam baking process also destroyed most of the vitamins and, with them, the goodness. This meant white bread was less healthy and customers got a lot less for their money. The old grey flour, with the bran and germ left in and baked in the traditional way, would produce much more bread and provided a much healthier loaf. The public however didn’t like the “new” grey bread and called it “pig food”!

On the 22nd of August 1914, a loaf of bread cost about 3 ½d. (60p) but by January 1915, this had risen to 4d (75p) in Bexhill. The rise was very unwelcome and very unpopular because the public ate a lot of bread with their meals and their wages were generally low. Just five months later, in March 1915, Bexhill bakers raised their prices further as flour became even more expensive.

By early 1916, the local Bexhill bakers were accused by an angry public of increasing their prices unnecessarily and putting the blame on the rising cost of high quality flour, when in fact they were buying a cheaper, inferior flour, in order to make more profit! The bakers of course denied this.

In December 1916, a Food Controller appointed by the Government, set up the Ministry of Food “to promote economy and to maintain the food supply of the country”. By April 1917, Britain only had six weeks’ supply of wheat left but the public were not made aware of this. It was made illegal to feed bread to dogs, chickens, and horses and the public were strongly encouraged to eat a quarter less bread and to avoid flour in pastry.

On 7th April 1917 – the Ministry of Food announced three new proposals to control the food supply. These were:

1. The price of bread was to be fixed on the basis of the price fixed for wheat.
2. The Government was to take entire control of all bread-stuffs in the country in every form.
3. The price of bread sold over the counter was to be made uniform.

By the 28th April 1917 prices generally had risen by 94%, and bread by 7%.

On 22nd April 1918, almost a year later, with the approval of the official “Food Control Committee” (from the Ministry of Food), local Bexhill bakeries formed a “Bread Pool” where they agreed among themselves to “pool” their businesses and work together to provide bread for the town. This was necessary because so many bakers had already gone to war and so many were still being called up. Under their agreement no credit what so ever would be given and all bread must be paid for on delivery.

Wherever possible the customer was to buy bread direct from the shops as it would be cheaper and save on manpower. The price over the counter was to be 4 ½d (about 79p) per loaf but 4 ¾d (about 85p) if delivered and would release more men for the war effort. The public were asked to support this scheme by having the exact money ready to save time in sorting out change when deliveries were made. All bread would be manufactured in the same way and delivered strictly on postal lines, one delivery per day to each street.

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