How war and weather combine to cause food crises throughout history

Wheat harvest in Eaton Ford, 1925

Wheat harvest in Eaton Ford, 1925 - Credit: St Neots Museum

Liz Davies from St Neots Museum on the bread riots in the town in 1795.

Watching the celebrations for Her Majesty the Queen's Platinum Jubilee was a wonderful tonic after the terrible two years of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The concert, street parties and parades celebrated the ‘Best of British’ and took everyone’s minds off the problems facing the country at the moment.

Away from the pleasures of the Jubilee celebrations many people are finding it hard to manage their money as fuel and food prices are rising alarmingly this year.

These rising food and fuel prices are being driven by two world crises. On the one hand, news now coming from Ukraine reveals that the war with Russia is preventing the export of the huge volume of wheat the country usually exports and which helps to feed the world.

On the other hand news about severe weather patterns, both droughts and floods are coming from many parts of the world. We seem to be facing a perfect storm of war and weather combining together to dramatically raise the price of fuel and food and hurt ordinary people.

However, this is not the first time that these two disasters have combined together to cause poverty and starvation.

St Neots Map, 1720

St Neots Map, 1720 - Credit: St Neots Museum

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It was just over 200 years ago in 1795 that Europe faced a similar storm. Weather extremes had been plaguing Europe and America from the 1780s and the wheat harvest of 1794 had failed due to a fierce drought. The following winter was the most severe for decades with snow and flooding preventing new crops from being planted.

Food prices began to rise. Added to these troubles the French Revolution had started in 1789 and by 1795 the British government was diverting funds into preparations for a war against France as the French rebels threatened to invade Britain.

The price of a loaf of bread rose. Working people believed that supplies of wheat, potatoes, cattle and sheep were being diverted to supply soldiers gathered at southern ports and street protests broke out from Cornwall to Yorkshire. And even in St Neots!

On the night of Thursday, July 30, 1795, a group of people from St Neots chased after a waggon loaded with wheat that was being sent from St Neots to Stamford, they stopped the waggon at Southoe and forced it to return to the market square.

The crowd guarded the waggon all night, hoping that the wheat would be given to local people and made into bread. By 11’oclock on the Friday morning with no sign of the wheat being distributed a riot broke out and the local Justices arrived and read the Riot Act over the mob.

However, they still refused to leave and the newspaper report reveals that ‘a great number of the inhabitants of St Neots, with mop steals (handles) and fork handles dispersed them about 11 o’clock in the morning’. Hopefully many years passed before there were any further riots in St Neots.

1795 Gillray cartoon ‘The British butcher supplying John Bull with a substitute for Bread’

1795 Gillray cartoon ‘The British butcher supplying John Bull with a substitute for Bread’ - Credit: St Neots Museum