The story behind a loaf of bread


E.Botham and Sons

The invention of the steam-engine changed the industries and the lives of the people in Britain, except, strangely enough, the milling of flour. One miller in London who used a steam-engine to drive his machinery, found the mill destroyed by fire one day; this apparently discouraged him from attempting to use the new steam machinery again.

Millers everywhere continued to use the ancient methods of wind and watermills, except for a few progressive men who strove to free themselves from the restraints of waiting on the wind and water to drive the mill machinery. In the middle of the nineteenth century, a Swiss engineer invented a new type of mill; abandoning the use of the stone mill-wheels, he designed rollers made of steel which operated one above the other. It was called the reduction roller-milling system, and these machines soon became accepted all over Europe and in Britain. They were driven by steam-engines, which had by now much improved, and the new method proved a great success. So popular did they become, that within about thirty years from their introduction into Britain in 1880, more than three-quarters of the windmills and watermills which had served so faithfully (if sometimes erratically) for hundreds of years, were demolished, or left to rot. Meanwhile, the development of the North American prairies, ideally suited to grow wheat, provided ample grain for the fast-growing population of Great Britain at the time of the Industrial Revolution (which in turn reduced the farm acreage here). This, together with the invention of the roller-milling system, meant that for the first time in history, whiter flour (and therefore bread) could be produced at a price which brought it within the reach of everyone - not just the rich.

As we have noted, during periods of famine or other calamities during history, the governments of the time were quick to protect the people's bread. For instance, in the First World War, many regulations were passed controlling the bread trade. Experiments began to solve problems, like keeping bread fresh for troops in the trenches, the conservation of supplies and the stoppage of waste. Substitutes for wheat, such as mixtures of peas, arrowroot, parsnips, beans, lentils, maize, rice, barley and oats were used in bread experiments. By 1917 food-ships were being sunk by submarines to such an extent that the nation was in dire peril of starvation. As well as using some of the substitutes mentioned, the government fixed a maximum price for bread and issued rules for reducing waste. Bakers were forbidden to sell bread until it was twelve hours old; no stale bread could be exchanged; only 'regulation' flour could be used, the millers preparing flour from such grains as the authorities provided, and under their control. Even the shape of loaves was controlled, and all fancy pastries were forbidden. Another order was made in 1918, that bakers should use a proportion of up to 20 per cent of potatoes in their bread. In the Second World War, regulations were again imposed on the baking industry. The 'standard' loaf was then a grey colour, not very appetising to look at, but not at all unpleasant to eat. When you see the beautiful loaves on sale today in all their variety of shape, texture, and flavour, still at a comparative low price, and available to all, think for a moment of the days, a few hundred years ago, when it was thought that 'poor and common people should eat poor and common bread', and only the rich should be able to enjoy the real white wheaten loaf.
Old baker's oven
An old bakers' oven