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Brown is Best: the Reform Bread League

Jamie Oliver is the latest in a long line of food reformers. John Burnett looks at the campaign of the Reform Bread League to improve the nation’s loaf.

The Bread Reform League was founded in 1880 by May (Mary Anne) Yates, an amateur artist and member of the Ladies’ Sanitary Association. On a visit to Sicily she had admired the fine physique of the peasants who lived principally on brown bread, and contrasted their vigour with the ill-health she saw in English towns, especially among poor children. Her conclusion that white bread, the staple food of the working classes, was a principal cause of malnutrition, led her to renounce her artistic career, sell her jewellery, and devote the next forty years to changing British tastes from white bread to brown.

The movement reflected some new concerns about the state of the nation in the late nineteenth century. Britain’s industrial supremacy was being challenged by the rise of competitors, especially Germany and the United States, and unemployment rates grew steeply, even among skilled workers. Poverty was suddenly on social and political agendas, its causes and extent carefully mapped by the researches of Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree. To many, it seemed incredible that around a third of the inhabitants of London, the capital of the wealthiest nation in the world, should have less than 21 shillings (£1.05p) a week to feed, house and clothe a family. The Bread Reform League’s response to these anxieties was a very traditional one – that the poor were, at least in part, the victims of their own errors by spending their meagre earnings in wasteful and harmful ways – but it gave the message a new direction by attacking, not luxuries, but the staff of life itself.

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