One hundred years ago today, the news was sinking in that we were at war with Germany.
But days before Britain’s official declaration of war on 4 August, growing hostilities elsewhere in Europe had already prompted retail food price hikes and panic buying.
And as The Grocer reported in its issue of 8 August 1914, swift action was being taken in an attempt to limit profiteering and panic.
In a letter published in that issue, the president of the Tea Buyers’ Association assured Brits their cuppa would be safe, and looked to answer “a great deal of unnecessary alarm as to the supply of tea”. The country had three months’ stock in hand, he said, while the closure of Continental ports as a result of the war was likely to lead to an increase in the amount of tea coming into Britain.
“The grocer is one of the first to fear the effect of any financial crisis”
The Home Office, meanwhile, assured consumers the nation had four months’ worth of wheat, a good supply of home-grown meat and an “exceptionally large supply of foreign meat in cold storage”.
“There is therefore no justification in the present position for any rise in the cost of bread or meat,” it added.
But despite such assurances, suppliers were already upping prices, according to the United Grocers’ Association, which reported “a leading biscuit firm… advancing prices by up to 15%”, while egg merchants were reported to be asking up to three times the usual price.
Little wonder, then, that a General Trade Committee – which included members of the Federation of Grocers’ Associations – was appointed to work with the Cabinet Committee on Food Supplies to set maximum retail prices for staple foods. Products covered by the new guidance – which would be regularly reviewed – included sugar, butter, cheese, lard and bacon.
The names of any tradesmen “charging exorbitant prices for foodstuffs” would be reported to the Commercial Committee of the Board of Trade – though it was unclear at that stage what the consequences of such profiteering might be.
It was a move welcomed in no uncertain terms by The Grocer itself, which congratulated the government for having “sought the aid of prominent men in the trade for the proper organisation of the food supply”.
The Grocer also had a thing or two to say about the “fevered minds” of wealthy panic buyers: “The General Trade Committee have consented to meet periodically in order to frame prices for the purpose of allaying the public anxiety and of preventing a recurrence of the selfish and unpatriotic action of many of the well-to-do class – to their lasting shame be it said – in attempting to lay in stores in excess of their immediate requirements.
“Repeated assurances from official sources that the food supply was in no way endangered had no good effect on the fevered minds of those whose wealth enabled them to get additional supplies at any cost, with the result that poor people were on the point of desperation.”
Meanwhile, one retailer suggested suppliers do their bit to help the war effort. “The grocer is one of the first to fear the effect of any financial crisis,” they wrote. “Is it not, therefore, reasonable for the trade to expect that the manufacturers and wholesale houses should render the retail trade some assistance by relaxing, for a while, the very stringent terms of payment that are generally insisted upon?”
Comments such as this are a reminder – as are most trips through The Grocer’s archive – that while our predecessors’ circumstances may have been very different from our own, their concerns were often remarkably similar.