Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In Strange Company, by James Greenwood, 1874 - Our Daily Bread

[... back to menu for this book]

[-262-]

OUR DAILY BREAD.

HE was neither a handsome nor a wholesome looking figure, as at five o'clock in the day he came slipshod over the sunny pavement, with a half-quartern loaf under his arm. He looked like what was once a spick-and-span lilywhite baker, fit to figure on a Twelfthcake, only in the prime of his youth he had fallen into a dusthole and grown old and grey there, and had that very afternoon made his escape; too much depressed just now by his protracted and dismal experiences to rejoice and be glad.
    "As tired as a dog," he said he was; and so by his very first utterance bespoke himself a modest man, whose word might be relied on. If appearances went for anything, my poor old journeyman baker was more tired than any dog that ever ran about on four legs. The only dog that could have matched him for jadedness and weariness of aspect must have been one of the ancient turnspit breed, who, in consequence of the indisposition of a mate, had fagged through many hours of "overtime" before a roaring kitchen fire. Either that dog or another I have seen about lately - an unhappy wretch of a half-shaved French poodle, whose companion and master is a bagpiping, drunken, dancing Scotchman. Through the livelong day the wretched beast, in a gay Glengarry cap, that mocks the eloquent sadness of its eyes, and of its mouth which droops so woefully at the corners, foots it mincingly on its hind [-263-] legs, the bagpiper himself dancing fiercely, and leading the steps. As the day advances, the bagpiper's nose glows under the influence of accumulated twopenn'orths of whiskey, and then, his steadiness failing to keep pace with his perspiring vigour, he has a habit of treading on the poodle's toes; causing the agonised animal to emit sounds that the thoughtless crowd applauds, mistaking it for the sagacious creature's imitation of the triumphant whoop the Scotchman occasionally indulges in.
    If the reader can picture that poodle at the close of a fatiguing day, and imagine the mire with which he is besmeared from head to foot to be dough-stains and flower-and-water splashes, he may form a tolerably correct idea as to the sort of tired dog my journeyman baker looked. He .had no regular service, but was an "odd man" - that is to say, an extra hand employed on the busiest day in the week, which is Saturday. There used to be a great deal of talk about slave-grown sugar being moistened with the tears of the poor enthralled black men who cultivated it. I should not be astonished if much of that saline flavour that is commonly found in cheap bread is due to the tears of the severely-worked and badly-paid odd men. "I've been at it, sir," said the old journeyman, with a yawn that caused the veneering of dough on his countenance to crackle like the glaze on an old white plate -  "I've been at it since eight o'clock last night, and now its five (twenty-one hours), for three-and-sixpence and a half-quartern. That isn't the regular pay - it's four shillings; but when a man gets to my age he can't stick out for sixpence." So we went a little further, until we came on a snuggery known to him as celebrated for the quality of its porter and favourable to uninterrupted [-264-] converse, and there we sat down, with the bat on the table.
    And here I may state that I was not altogether unprepared for the revelations my journeyman baker might make to me. I had already given some consideration to the poor man's loaf. Horrified as 1 was, and as thousands of fathers of families must have been, by the appalling rumour recently set floating - that the science of adulteration as regards bread had advanced a prodigious stride, and that, instead of comparatively simple alum, some deadly preparation of copper was now used by the murderous baker to give colour to bad flour - in order to test this alarming accusation, I caused to be obtained from six various poor neighbourhoods as many two-pound loaves, which were placed in the same able hands to which were entrusted for analysis the samples of gin and beer treated of in these columns some few weeks since. Before I sought my baker, who in forty years of his practical life must have made tens of thousands of loaves, I had in my possession Professor AttfieId's report. What I was desirous of ascertaining was, in what degree a working baker's statement would correspond with the inexorable verdict of the man of science,
    "I have been a journeyman baker over forty years, and I dare say that in regular service and as odd man I have worked in fifty shops in London at the very least, and I never knew anything but the regular alum to be used in the way of what you call adulteration. Never, except at -----'s, in the Kentish Town Road. There was something used there, but I don't know the name of it. It was kept locked up, and when we wanted to make a biling of it we had to go to the master, and he gave it us-about a pint of it. It was like fine salt, [-265-] only shinier. We used to stir it in a copper of water till the copper-stick would stand upright in it, then it was ready for use. It's all nonsense. What interest has the baker got in poisoning people? All that he wants to do is to eke out his flour and make as much out of it as he can, or, if his flour is rather dicky, to make it pass. Nothing's better than alum; it certainly do work wonders with flour that isn't up to the mark. Sometimes too much is used, I dare say; but that isn't always the baker's fault.
    "What do I mean by that? Why, that the baker is misled. The flour is very often doctored before he gets it. I won't say it of town millers, but I'll make bold to say of country millers that it is quite a common practice with them to alum the flour. Country millers, who have a lot of commission shops, go ahead with the alum worse than any of 'em. It's pretty much between some of the millers and some of the bakers as it is between the big brewers and the public-houses. There are hundreds of shops in London with the baker's name over the door, but it's no more his business than it's yours. That's where the mischief is. A baker gets into difficulties, and can't pay up ; and especially if it is in a good cutting neighbourhood, in comes the miller, and takes the business over his head, allowing, say, five shillings a sack for making, and the bit of extra profit he may be able to make on rolls, and them sort of small things. The baker doesn't have a chance. They're wide-awake, them country millers. They know to a grain almost how much alum their flour will stand, and if the baker ventures on a little bit more, so as to make an extra few shillings on his own hook, as the saying is, why, you see, he very often makes a mess of it."
    [-266-] "Alum makes the flour strong - strong to bear water, as well as whitening it. It 'binds;' and, when you use a lot of rice and 'taters, you wants a binder for 'em." "How much rice is used, say, to a sack of flour?" "It depends on the neighbourhood-if it's a 'cutting' or a 'fair price.' You might take a pound of rice as commonly used to a sack of flour. No, it don't seem much; but think of the lot of water a pound of biled rice sucks up if it's properly managed. Eight quarts it will suck up; and there's sixteen pounds' weight to begin with. There isn't any secret about bread-making - it's all a question of getting the article to stand as much water as possible. That's where the baker's profit is. He is a good baker who can get ninety-eight four-pound loaves out of a sack of flour with the other grievances" - he meant "ingredients," but he called them grievances most distinctly. "I'm speaking of country flour.
    "A sack of town flour will make a hundred-and-two four-pound loaves. Country flour is always two and three shillings a sack cheaper than town. In knocking up a cheap loaf the management of the oven has a lot to do with it. Good bread will bake in a brisk oven in an hour and a quarter, but the other sort wants nursing. If your oven was too fierce, it would draw all the profit out - the water, I mean, that you've been trying to get into it. It must be baked slow for two hours in a slack oven, and then you are able to 'draw it with the gravy in it,' as we say. We have to make a good allowance with this kind of bread for steaming off - an ounce to the pound. It will lose quite that, and perhaps a little more. It wouldn't do in poor neighbourhoods to make the bread full weight. They buy their bread out of the scale, and they would think they were cheated if they didn't get the bit over. People that deal at 'cutting [-267-] shops' will have a tall loaf and a white loaf and it is impossible to accommodate them at the price unless they will stand to the alum and the rest of the grievances.
    "The quantity of salt isn't always the same. Generally it's three pounds in six bushels; but new flour takes more. I can't speak exactly as to alum. Bakers have got their own ideas, and a set of customers that get used to the flavour of their bread. I should use about ten ounces to the sack if I had queer flour given me to make a showy loaf of; but I have used as much as a pound, and nobody has grumbled. Do I think it would be better if people made their own bread? I do; if they could depend on the flour they bought. If they bought it at a commission shop that was served by one of them country millers I was speaking of, they would be no more free from alum than if the baker made them bread. There's a awful lot of fiddling in the flour that the bakers sell. When they scale it into the bags there's an ounce weight always put in to pay for the paper bags, and then lots of em will work in a lot of rice-flour and bean meal."
    The six loaves that were to be tested were obtained from the localities here mentioned - Clerkenwell, Lambeth, Whitechapel, Islington, Westminster, and Bethnal Green. The shops selected were none of them noted for selling cheap bread, but were just the ordinary brisk trade-doing establishments, such as may be found in all populous districts. Each loaf was lettered and delivered to Mr Broad, of Hornsey Rise, and the following is his report:-

   " Sir,-All the samples of bread you sent to me on the 17th instant contain alum. " R," "O," "T," "A," and "P" have clearly been made by adding one ounce of [-268-] alum to one bushel of flour, equivalent to 28 grains of alum in a 4lb loaf, for in every 1000 grains of bread there is an amount of pure alumina (the characteristic constituent of alum) corresponding to three-quarters of a grain of alum. The specimen marked "S" contains just double this quantity of alum.
    The analysis has been confirmed by Professor Attfield.
                            JOHN BROAD.

    Thus it appears, as regards the adulteration of bread, that the testimony of the journeyman baker of forty years' experience remains unimpeached. Only the "regular" alum is used; and though it has elsewhere been shown that sulphate of copper has been detected in the bread which we eat, and on which we mainly feed our children, it does not possess qualities that justify its universal use in preference to the milder poison. There can be no doubt as to the "regular use" of alum, no doubt that it is a terribly pernicious substance to take into the stomach. "A few grains taken now and then might not do any harm," says Mr Broad; "but there can be no question that its constant use is extremely hurtful, especially in the case of young and delicate children." Its effects on the digestive organs are pretty much the same as its effects on dough. It "binds," and consequently induces very mischievous symptoms. Of its reckless use we have ample proof in the fact that one worthy tradesman of the selected six did not scruple to double what appears to be the quantity commonly regarded as sufficient; nor is his iniquity palliated by the strong probability that he was driven to the excessive use of alumina to cover a quality of flour so vile that it would not pass muster without this amount of doctoring.
    [-269-] This is the ugliest feature of the case. In the manufacture of wholesome bread there is not the slightest reason why an atom of alum should be used. It is not found in what is known as full-priced bread; it is banished from the premises of the wholesome bread factor. It is only patronised by such bakers as constantly buy and use inferior or damaged flour; and those men, so long as they can conjure into existence something bearing the semblance of good wheaten bread, and therefore able to be sold as such, are troubled with no qualms of conscience about the mode of accomplishing that feat of legerdemain. Unfortunately, as events have proved, this class of baker forms the large majority of those whose daily business it is to feed the three millions of our great city.
    It is impossible to conceive a more important matter than this mild poisoning of the staff of our existence. There is no avoiding the evil while it is suffered to exist. Aware that tea is covered with poison, either mineral or vegetable, we may avoid tea, and resign ourselves to the simple swindle of chicory and coffee, or we may fall back on the pump, and defy the whole race of cheats who cater for our beverages. We may take alarm at the tricks of the butter trade, and banish the suspected substance from the breakfast table. But we are helpless in the matter of bread. It is the "regular thing" to use alum; and to avoid Mr Smith's shop and transfer your patronage to Mr Jones on the other side of the street, is only to embark in a blind speculation of alum more or less. To eat "household bread," as it is commonly called, is to be condemned to take into the system at every mouthful a certain quantity of an article which is antagonistic to the health of the strongest, and which, in the case of the young [-270-] and delicate, will assuredly tend to weaken the slender threads that hold life together. Such pave the way for the coming, at dusky evening, of that dreadful man who bears a little coffin on his shoulder. You can't, if the journeyman baker is to be believed, escape the machinations of the man of dough. The health-destroyer is in the flour. The jolly miller, the emblem of all that is hearty and honest-the hale, bluff~ manly miller, who has so often been eulogised in song-turns out to be but a so-so character, after all. In future there will be no more romance in the clink of the mill than in the clatter of an underground Whitecross sausage-machine. Unless the journeyman baker is a malicious slanderer, the country miller puts alum in the flour even before it is consigned to the sack that is to convey it to the ordinary place of sophistication - the cellar of the baker. He is Giant Blundabore amongst a wretched race of impecunious bakers. He gobbles up all their profits, legitimate and illegitimate. He will be first robber. He adulterates the flour ready to their hands. He- alums it to. such a nice extreme, that should the desperate bread-kneader essay to catch a sly shilling or two by the use of a pinch or so more of the precious commodity, the jolly miller is sure to bowl him out in less than a week, and his shop is, handed over to a more faithful servant..

source: James Greenwood, In Strange Company, 1874