Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/The baker: his health

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William Cobbett was gone before we heard the rising of the storm which has since raged so furiously against the adulteration of our food and drink; yet no one has written more strongly than Cobbett against baker’s bread. I own that my heart warms to his descriptions of the cottager’s wife at her bread-board and oven. He would have had everybody, even the day-labourer’s wife, brew at home also; and there is something fascinating in his eloquence on behalf of meals of home-made bread, fat bacon, and beer, in contrast with the potatoes he so abhorred, and wishy-washy tea. He declared that the consumption of fuel in boiling potatoes and making tea was more than a set-off against the bacon and beer. Though he was unjust to the potato, from being unaware of its eminently nutritious quality when properly used, he was no doubt right about the value of a more varied diet, and in his estimate of really good bread, beer, and bacon. Where he was wrong in his advice was in neglecting the economy of time and labour. He would have set fifty cottagers’ wives brewing, with their fifty sets of utensils, and at a cost of fifty days’ labour, when they might get their beer more cheaply as to money, and without any expenditure of time, at the brewery. If there is any question as to the quality, I should say that for one housewife who makes better beer than the brewery there are a score who make worse. The uncertainty is a great drawback on both beer and bread that are made at home. On the whole, the economy of division of employments is sure to prevail; so that there was little use in opposing it, even in Cobbett’s day; but yet we may be permitted to think it a pleasant sight, in town or country, when we enter a humble kitchen just as the steaming loaves are cooling on the clean dresser.

It is also pleasant to country housekeepers to see the relish with which London guests take to the home-made loaf,—cutting bit after bit, after they have done, and excusing themselves by the goodness of the bread. Even in the houses where this pleasant sight is seen, however, there is sometimes a reverse. The next cook that comes may not succeed well with her bread, either from want of practice or want of skill. Then there is the difficulty about yeast,—still recurring, after all the advice that has been shed abroad upon it. Then there is the varying quality of the flour, and of the weather. There are few houses in which a batch of bad bread is never seen. Considering this, and the defective education of girls in household matters, and the new modes of female industry among the working-classes, it is not surprising that the professional bakers do by far the greater part of the bread-making in all societies; and if they are more or less superseded, it will not be by a return to the old article of home-made bread, but by the increasing use of machinery. Meantime, the craft is an important one for numbers in other ways. There are twelve thousand bakers in London alone.

I can just remember the case of the bakers in the miserable days of bad bread after the harvests of the early years of the century. I will not nauseate my readers by telling them what some of the bread in those days was like, when the sound old wheat was all consumed, and the soft, sticky flour from the new crop was the only thing that could be had. The large towns were particularly afflicted, and none more so than Birmingham. Some monied men believed that, by forming themselves into a company, they could provide better bread, because they could command better wheat, and grind it themselves. They succeeded in supplying good bread at the same cost as the bad, and of course they were popular with the buyers; but the millers and bakers were furious. They organised a strong persecution against the company, and at last, in 1809, induced the authorities to prosecute the directors in the name of the crown.

The public were aware that it was a curious sign of the times, and they watched the result very anxiously. The charge was that the company—an illegal institution—was injuring the interests of the millers and bakers. The verdict of the jury was undeniably true, and highly offensive to both parties. They declared that the object of the company was good—that the town was much benefited by its operations—that it commanded resources which were out of the reach of the trade generally, and that the millers and bakers had suffered by the competition. The millers and bakers had the best of it for some years after this; but there are now some half-dozen great mills at Birmingham, in public and private hands, sending out flour and bread in a way too potential to be interfered with. We are not likely to hear of Queen Victoria prosecuting any bread-making association, on the ground of its injuring the bakers. It seems strange now that such a thing could have been done in the name of her grandfather.

We may well doubt whether there are fewer bakers employed in consequence of the introduction of larger capital and new machinery into the trade. There is not only the increased number of bread-eaters to be considered, but the diminution in the quantity of home-made bread. The new census will soon tell us how many millers and bakers there are in the United Kingdom; and meantime we are informed, as I have said, that there are twelve thousand bakers in London alone. The class is thus a large one, and their welfare is a matter of deep social concern.

The ill-health of the class is a well-established fact. The miller’s cough is a too familiar sound is the neighbourhood of any old-fashioned mill, and in the family of almost every baker. If any of us remember what it was in childhood to play in or about a windmill, to sit on the steps, to watch the tremendous sails in a wind, and keep timidly away from them when not a breath was stirring,—to hear the whizz of the grain in the hopper, and sneeze in the mealy atmosphere, and play among the sacks, and laugh at the miller’s powdery appearance, we must remember the miller’s cough. He may well cough, for he is breathing dust all the time he is at work. The dust of flour is not so bad as that of needles and razor-blades, nor of the stone-cutter’s work; but it forms a paste in the lungs and air-passages, which brings on deadly disease at last. The miller early begins to wheeze: and too commonly he spits blood, after a few years, and dies consumptive. His skin is clogged in the same way; and unless he is extremely careful to relieve it by frequent washing, he is subject to the inflammatory complaints which are caused by a loaded skin. Nobody knows more of the symptoms of asthma and consumption than the widows of the millers of twenty or thirty years ago. One of the greatest facts in the history of steam-flour mills is that they have put a stop to this sickness and mortality. Such a draught is made, and it is so directed, as to carry up the meal dust, in covered ways, and to throw it out into the upper air.

This particular danger is shared by the bakers: and it is only one of many; so that, as a body, they must be very unhealthy. Are they not visibly so? If we think over the bakers we have known, or observe them in their shops, or when distributing the bread, we shall find that they are a pale-faced, flabby, anxious-looking race. They are a nervous set of men, too, owing to the irregularity and deficiency of their sleep, as well as to their uneasy condition of body. From the accounts given by themselves and their friends of their liabilities, it might seem wonderful that any bakers are to be hired, but that we know there is no occupation, however unwholesome or disgusting, that is not pursued, almost as eagerly as the most agreeable. In some crafts the pay is in proportion to the risk or the noisomeness. It is not so with the bakers; and this is clear evidence that there is no lack of hands, however serious are the disadvantages of the employment.

A dozen years ago these disadvantages engaged so much attention that efforts were made (which have since been renewed) to obtain legislative protection for the health of bakers. We should have had cause for shame if the attempt had succeeded; but we need not be sorry that it was made, because it has stimulated the master-bakers to do their best for the welfare of their journeymen; it has taught the men that they must not look to the legislature for a kind of protection which they ought not to need, and which could never be secured by Act of Parliament; and it has afforded assurance to all thoughtful persons that the time is at hand when improvements in art will cure many mischiefs not otherwise curable. As the millers are now relieved of the deadly evil of meal dust, the bakers will be relieved of the causes of their bad health and early death. As there are plenty of healthy bakers in bread mills at this moment, we may be sure that there will not long be in private establishments 31 per cent. of journeymen bakers spitting blood, or 80 percent. ailing in the chest in one way or another.

What, then, is the baker’s state of health? What is his chance of life? What ought he to do in his particular circumstances?

The tables of Friendly Societies tell us that the bakers stand fifth on their lists. There are four trades that are more sickly, and nineteen that are less so. During the period of relief in sickness, in other words, from 20 to 70 years of age, the bakers claim for 178 weeks of sickness; that is, nearly three years and a half of such illness as renders them unable to work. The very most burdensome class is that of the potters, who are ill for 333 weeks of the same period; and the best are the clerks and schoolmasters, who claim for 48 weeks, or less than a year. But these figures do not show the full strength of the case. The clerks and schoolmasters are, in large proportion, living at nearly or quite the end of the term; whereas the potters were, for the most part, dead in a few years from the outset, and the bakers disappear, on an average, before the middle of the term. Those who live for 10 years of the time have fewer weeks of chargeable sickness; and those who live 30 have more; and the computation made is the average; but if the term were not from 20 to 70, but from 20 to 50, the bad case of the potters and bakers would be seen to be very much worse than it now appears.

The bakers do not suffer from fever so much as several other trades. Fever invariably proceeds from bad air; and bad air cannot therefore be the most prominent grievance of the bakers, though we hear much of the closeness and bad smells of the places in which they work. There was naturally a good deal of exaggeration and partiality in the reports made on behalf of the journeymen at first; and it is probable that the employers have been roused to do their best for their men. At all events, here is the fact that fever does not prevail among them: and we have the testimony of medical officers of health who have examined the London bakehouses, to the good ventilation of most of them, and the really admirable management of many in this respect, and to the readiness and anxiety of the master-bakers to consider the health of their men. If the men were equally wise, there would be such a contrast between healthy and unhealthy bakehouses, that no legislation would be demanded by the most superficial or ignorant friend of the bakers.

Their particular liability is to diseases of the chest. The men grow hoarse; they lose voice; they become short of breath; they spit blood, and die consumptive. They suffer extremes of temperature, and have ailments from that cause. They carry heavy weights when exhausted with labour; and they work at night, and have cruelly long hours; and hence the nervous diseases which attend protracted wakefulness. It was a striking fact to foreigners, as well as to many people at home, that while the London builders were striking for ten hours’ wages for nine hours’ work, the bakers were agitating for twelve hours’ work—which was a reduction very startling to the masters. Under the circumstances, nobody can be surprised that the chance of life is so low as it is. The average life of a journeyman baker ends at 42: some say at 40. They do not talk, as the steel-grinders do, of a short life and a merry one. It may be that they are apt to seek, like the needle-pointers and razor-grinders, a pernicious solace under the depression of ill-health; but they are a less reckless and audacious order of craftsmen; and one cannot but wonder why they choose that trade, if they are really convinced that it is the lot of the baker to die at 42.

Next—what can be done under the circumstances?

We may answer this question by looking at what has been done.

A dozen years ago, the main article of our food was made in the most disgusting places in London and other large towns, and in the most disgusting manner that could be conceived of in a civilised country. People keep away from shambles, lest what they would see there should come back upon their imaginations at dinner time: but it would have been worse to visit a bakehouse, because, while the state of things is no less disagreeable, it has always been unnecessary, and therefore more revolting than anything that occurs in the shambles. When I was a little child, the nursemaid made a call on some relations, on our return from a walk. It was not for the first time; and I always betook myself to a sawpit behind the house to watch the men at work, while the maid finished her gossip. On this occasion a gate was open, and I strayed into the next yard, which was a butcher’s; and there I saw the early part of the cutting up of a beast, only just killed, and still reeking. The sight made a deep impression; and I believe my mother was surprised to find me in possession of some anatomical facts not usually known to little children. I dared not tell what I had seen; for I was pulled roughly away from the gate, and desired never to speak of “the dead cow:” but even that terrible picture is less repulsive than a visit to a certain order of bakehouses would have been a dozen years ago. I will not describe nastiness which has disappeared. Let it suffice that the nuisances which belong to the basement of houses were to be found in the bakehouses, because the bakehouse was in the basement. There were foul smells and rats, as well as excessive heat and crickets. There was so little light that the men lived in flaring gaslight. There was so little air that they were heavy, sick, and stupid, and had to go up into the air before they could eat. If we consider what such places must have been like when crowded with men toiling at such work as kneading dough, we need look no further.

Except on the premises of the lower orders—the “cheap and nasty” order of bakers—matters are arranged very differently now. The officers of health tell us that the nuisances are turned away from the bakehouses; that every corner is clean, the walls whitened, the utensils in a proper state; and the food and sleeping places of the men such as ought to content them. We know something of the humility required of rich men’s servants in London, as to their bedrooms—how they are put among the black beetles in underground closets, in the height of the season, or all the year round; for, where there are kitchen fires, it is always the season for black beetles. In comparison with many a powdered footman’s bed-closet, the sleeping places of the journeymen bakers are desirable chambers. This is better than the feverish napping on the board, or in the troughs, which used to be the practice. Moreover, the employers are, generally speaking, anxious to learn how they can improve the condition of their men, and willing to act on the suggestions of competent advisers.

Still, as the health of bakers continues bad, in comparison with most other people’s, there must be much that is wrong. There certainly is.

It is an enormous evil that most bakehouses are under ground. The reason of this is, we are told, that the requisite space cannot be had above ground, except at a cost which the sale of bread will not repay. If this is true, we need not the ghosts of all the bakers who have died of bad air and heat to tell us that bread-making by machinery will drive out the old method. The Americans have told us the secret of how cheap bread may become when made by machinery on an extensive scale; and the steam-bakers can afford to have premises above ground if the old bakers cannot. Some bake-houses we have in yards, behind the dwellings; and there the lot of the journeymen is comparatively easy.

If there can be a worse evil than bad air, joined with extreme heat and perpetual gaslight, it is excessive work; and the long hours of the bakers are probably the worst known in the whole circuit of trades. •

London must be supplied with hot rolls and new bread by hundreds of cart-loads early every morning, and every noon, and every evening. The journeyman baker, who had gone home wearied and exhausted, at five in the afternoon, must be called from his bed when other people are going to theirs, before he has got half his sleep out. He must be at his work by eleven o’clock; and there he is, under the gas, and amidst the floating flour which makes the air thick. There he is to be till five the next evening—sometimes till six or seven—with only snatches of sleep and eating, from an hour and a half to three hours, in all that time. The work is all hard—the mixing, the kneading, the baking, and the carrying out—which some of the men have to do.

It may be thought that the air of the streets must be refreshing after the night among the ovens below ground; and so, no doubt, it often is: but there are the chances of wind and weather, dangerous to an over-heated man who has been at work all night: and there is the weight he has to carry,—sometimes amounting to 1 cwt. Then, back to the troughs and ovens, to make another batch for the evening demand; and another carrying round before he can go home to his tea and bed, for a mere four hours’ rest.

If this is overwork on Mondays and Tuesdays, what is it between Thursdays and Sundays! The complaint of the men is that, in a great number of cases, the interval is not allowed on Friday evenings, and sometimes not on Saturdays: that is, they work from eleven on Thursday nights to the Saturday night, or even Sunday morning. It is incomprehensible how they stand this. Nothing can justify such a demand being made on them, or their agreeing, on any terms, to such a demand. To save his country from an invasion, or to rescue fellow-beings from perishing under an avalanche, or in a coalpit, a man may meritoriously work at that rate when occasion arises; but not to provide hot and new bread to London tables, from week to week, for 17s. a-week. Not that there is any use in requesting London or any other town to go without fresh bread. No good comes of efforts to turn aside the regular stream of business. The remedy is of another kind. Machinery, and methods by which bread is made more rapidly, will put an end to overwork as destructive as the toil on a Louisiana sugar-plantation, where the overseer tells you it answers better to “use up” so many “hands” per season than to reduce the production.

These are the two main evils which too often subsist where all the rest have been got rid of. Not always; for there are master-bakers who have managed to reduce the hours of work without losing their custom. It is for the trade at large to consider whether they can do this, or whether they will retire from the contest with machinery. The most unlikely thing of all is that they can go on in their present way of conducting their business.

So much for the masters. Now, what can the men do?

It is for them to say whether they do the best they can for their health. When their turn comes for an hour or two’s sleep, do they go at once to their proper bed, and get into it undressed and washed? or do they fling themselves down on the nearest place that will hold them, among the fumes of yeast, and the heat or the draughts which are common in bakehouses? Do they give themselves the best chance for an appetite by taking nothing between meals, according to the practice of educated and well-mannered people; or do they drink between meals, to support their strength, as they say?

When work is over, do they go straight home, to a wholesome tea and bed? or do they turn into the public-house, and game and quarrel, and drink till the night hour comes round? If their order has not the best character for sobriety, and frugality, and good-temper, there is great excuse for them, from the irritated condition of brain which their mode of life establishes: but no degree of allowance can lessen the misfortune. There are such people as elderly bakers, and even healthy bakers; and this shows that the men, to a certain extent, hold their lot in their own hands. The masters are perfectly justified in pointing out a man, here and there, who has sense and prudence in the management of himself, and a good wife to make his home the pleasantest and most restful place he can go to, and in bidding us observe that the baker’s lot need not be a bad one; while, again, the men are perfectly justified in pointing to the bad health and the moral infirmities of their order, as an evidence that there must be something essentially wrong in the conditions of their occupation.

We shall all come round to machinery, I doubt not. Surely the journeymen bakers, who have appealed to parliament and the public for protection, will not quarrel with redress because it is brought by machinery. By doing so, they would forfeit the sympathy which has caused already much improvement in their lot. They will not, indeed, have any choice in the matter, now that the fact has become known that the “steam bakeries” in the American cities afford prime bread at 6d. which is here 7d. or 7½d., though, supposing flour to be at the same price, every other requisite is cheaper in London than at New York. Dear as labour is there, and all tools and materials, the cheapness of machinery and steam, in comparison with the long labour of the human arm and the oven-fires, enables the American bakers to sell cheaper bread.

It appears that the tax paid by London alone in the form of the needless penny on the sixpence, is above five millions of not dollars, but pounds, sterling per annum. Why should London go on paying this,—not to do anybody any good, but to send hundreds of poor men to the grave every year? We must remember that, including the men’s families, 25,000 persons have their lot bound up with that of the journeymen bakers of London.

There would be a very small reduction of numbers in the trade, and little or no reduction of wages. The machinery is of a kind which does not supersede human attendance, while doing the most laborious part of the work. The most important circumstance is the saving of time. If the most laborious processes are got through in one-fifth of the time at present required, there is an end of the long hours. If the baking is still done in the night, the men are not toiling all the day too.

It is a mistake to suppose that bread made by machinery must be of a kind that the public does not like. Because the bread made at the Dockhead mills has no yeast in it, it does not follow that American and Birmingham bread cannot be fermented. The Birmingham people like what Londoners call bitter bread, and consider London bread insipid: yet both kinds are made in “steam bakeries,” as the Americans call the mills. Neither is it true that such machinery must be on a large scale, so as to drive all but wealthy capitalists out of the trade. The bread-making on board the Great Eastern may be considered to be on a large scale: and so may that in such institutions as Greenwich Hospital, Aldershot Camp, and our prisons and workhouses and hospitals: but in much smaller establishments than these the mixing and kneading is done by mechanical means; and, as the newspapers have lately told us, there are small bakehouses in London where it answers as well in proportion to make a dozen loaves in this way as a thousand. Putting all these things together, can there be a doubt that the journeyman baker’s grievances are coming to an end, by a better means than an Act of Parliament, which would be turned into ridicule by events as soon as it was passed? There will not be a speedy end—if an end at all—to home-made bread; but the kneading will not long be done by the cook’s stout arm. There will not probably be a speedy end to fermented bread; but men will not be wanted to work twenty or forty hours at a stretch to produce it. There will not be a speedy end to private bakehouses, unless the masters show themselves to be less sensible than they are supposed to be. If they were to attempt to go on causing their men to die at forty-two, they must be pushed aside by companies or individuals more fit to be employers of labour: but there is no reason for supposing them to be, as a class, either so foolish or so heartless. As soon as they see how, they will be doing what is best for everybody, in the great work of supplying the staff of life.

In the interval, the men may do much for themselves by cleanliness, prudence, and self-control. Pure and orderly habits of body and of life, a good home, and an attachment to it rather than to excitements elsewhere, are the best precaution against the worst evils of the baker’s craft, and the only remedy for such ills as have not yet been got rid of. Let us hope that some bakers of the existing generation—some, perhaps, whom we know—may live to make us such bread as at present without the present sacrifice of health and comfort. Their best friends are much mistaken if a baker of threescore years and ten will be a stranger spectacle to the next generation than a greyheaded clerk or wheelwright—those very durable members of Friendly Societies! When that happens, the image of men kneading for hours together in an underground hothouse will be regarded as a barbaric picture of the customs of the antique world.

Harriet Martineau.