Twice the Bible tells us that Man does not or should not live by bread alone, but four centuries ago, for many English people, there was very little else to eat, particularly during the meatless days of winter and spring. Most then existed on the margin of famine; nearly all suffered from inadequate nutrition; and everyone, rich and poor, depended on the supply and price of bread, which in turn was determined by the annual grain harvest. The well-to-do ate only wheaten white bread; the majority made do with “black bread” made from rye and in times of scarcity from beans, acorns, peas and oats mixed together.
Even quite small communities had corn mills, common bakehouses and full-time bakers. Of mills there were three kinds; water, wind and horse. Scarborough had all three. Ramsdale or Mill Beck, the stream that overflowed from “Le Mar” (Scarborough Mere) down Weaponness valley into South Bay, powered three mills, upper, middle and lower. Today’s Mill Lane in Falsgrave once ran down to the upper mill. The duck pond in the Valley was formerly the dam of the middle mill which in the 19th century was known as Plantation Mill. At different times, Scalby Beck had several active mills which served a wide area, not just the villages of Newby and Scalby. There is a 1645 reference to a corn mill at Cloughton.
For centuries, Scarborough’s only windmill stood above the town common overlooking Gallows Close. The hill on this site was known as “Wyndmylnelandes” from as early as 1414. Today, the Old Mill Hotel on Mill Street off Victoria Road is the last of its kind there, originally built in 1784-5. The three or four other Scarborough windmills, dating from the late 1700s, have all long since disappeared without trace. Finally, 400 years ago, Scarborough had a horse mill on St Thomas Gate near the upper conduit and the junction with Newborough,
In the late 1600s all three of the town’s watermills and horse mill were leased by the Corporation to leading burgesses. They were normally rented at a profit since the long leases were highly valued and sometimes auctioned at the Common Hall. In law, everyone was required to bring their corn to “the King’s Mills”, though the rates charged for grinding into flour were fixed by the bailiffs. Since bread was the staple food and the records suggest that a two-pound loaf was an average daily consumption, Scarborough’s rulers and bakers were concerned to control its quality and price.
Millers had a bad reputation for cheating customers, giving them short measure, overcharging and contaminating flour with dust and floor-sweepings. On the other had, householders who secretly ground their own flour with “handmills” could be heavily fined. In Scarborough, for the first offence they were made to pay five shillings, for the second, ten, and for the third, a massive twenty shillings.
Amongst the many borough officials appointed annually in the Common Hall on 30 September were breadweighers. Presumably, these men were themselves master bakers, but it was their duty to ensure that bread offered for sale in the town’s markets was wholesome and at the agreed price.
Scarborough has kept its Merchant Row and Cooks Row, but unlike Whitby, for instance, had lost its medieval Bakersgate or Baxtergate even by 1500. Nevertheless, a composition or rule book of the town’s “society company” of bakers has survived from 1615. The document was then signed by five master bakers, John Rosdale, Robert Salton, Mosy Nicholson, Bartholomew Oliver and William Clarke. Together they promised not to compete with one another, to take apprentices for seven years, to admit no other master baker unless he paid 20 shillings (double for an “alien”), to prevent any “victualler, innholder or tippler” in the town from baking bread or biscuit for sale, to grind their own corn only at the “common millers”, accept the agreed price “according to the statue” on condition that only their “good and holsome bread with dew weyght” was offered for sale in Scarborough’s markets. Each member agreed to pay sixpence a year for repair of the pavage and the conduit; not to bake on the Sabbath day “upon payne of vs [five shillings]”; and to accompany any deceased member or his wife “in decent manner to the plaice of buriall”.
The “statute” referred to in the bakers’ composition was the medieval assize of bread and ale which seems to have been still strictly enforced in Scarborough. The two breadweighers were provided with two sets of small scales, one of troy, the other of avoirdupois. The town’s standard penny loaf, either white or brown, had to be sold in the markets at the same weight which was fixed by the current price of local flour. At its cheapest, after a bumper harvest, a penny white loaf might weigh as much as a pound, but in time of dearth, such as October 1645, it was only 11 ounces. “Country bread”, baked outside the borough, was more expensive that “town bread”.
Whether town or country bread, all had to be sold openly in one of Scarborough’s street markets, on Thursdays in Newborough, or on Saturdays, in Low Conduit, now known as Princess Square. There “searchers”, acting on behalf of the bakers, ensured that market rules had been obeyed. In particular, they were on the look-out for offences called forestalling, buying goods before they reached the public market; re-grating, buying in order to re-sell later at a higher price; and engrossing, buying up large quantities to achieve a monopoly. Of the three, the first breach was the most commonly dealt with in the borough’s courts.
One final reference to bread comes from Sir Hugh Cholmley’s graphic description of the last days of the great Civil-War siege of Scarborough castle in 1645. Even in in such extreme circumstances, Sir Hugh’s memories were of bread or the lack of it: ... there dyed tenn in a night ... there was corn sufficient, but not hands to make the mills go ... most of the Garrison had not eaten a bitt of bread for divers dayes before the [sur]render, and the Governor had often in person turned the mills to get himselfe bread.