Patrick Colquhoun’s recipes for the poor – or how to keep them from boiling over

I have written previously about Patrick Colquhoun on policing, work and the establishment of the Thames Police. Increasingly I am becoming convinced that he is a major figure in what Mark Neocleous calls the fabrication of the capitalist social order during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. A prodigious author he set out his ideas of how the state and society should be shaped in the interests of capital in over twenty books.

In this short article I write about Colquhoun’s 1795 short pamphlet (with a long title) Useful Suggestions Favourable to the Comfort of the Labouring People and of Decent Housekeepers explaining how a small income may be made to go far in a family, so as to occasion a considerable saving in the article of BREAD. A circumstance of great importance to be known at the present juncture.

Reading it in 2022 it is difficult to not see similarities with the present cost of living crisis and how rather than addressing the fundamental issues – low wages and high prices – the blame, and solutions, are located with those suffering the impact and those ultimately responsible escape accountability. 

Cost of living crises are nothing new. Rising prices and stagnant wages have occurred repeatedly in Britain and elsewhere.  However, as this chart shows the current situation is the worst since the period around the Napoleonic wars


I was surprised that the longest real wage decline started in 1798 as there was considerable evidence of downward pressure on wages and inflationary increases in prices throughout the previous decade. Colquhoun’s Useful Suggestions Favourable to the Comfort of the Labouring Poor … actually predates this decline but its moralising tone and solutions based on poor people changing their lifestyles is consistent with subsequent responses later that decade and subsequently – indeed up to today.

In 1795 the price of bread (and to a lesser extent other basic foods) was increasing rapidly. This caused serious hardship and popular discontent was growing. It was in response to this that Colquhoun published Useful Suggestions … which sought firstly to redefine the problem. London’s poor suffering was blamed on ‘their ignorance in cookery’, failure to buy ‘the coarser pieces’ of meat and most significantly their preference for bread over potatoes.

Having firmly established that the hunger of the poor was the poor’s fault Colquhoun then offered a solution in the form of his recipes – potatoe soup; barley broth; hodge podge; beef soup (although he warned this was ‘neither so profitable nor useful to those who have large families’); veal broth; and, although ‘in many respects inferior … and more expensive’, pease soup.

The key ingredient in all Colquhoun’s recipes was potatoes, which, if only they were willing ‘to be less dependent on bread’, was the solution to the London poor’s hunger. As well as his soup recipes, potatoes he argued could ‘also be eaten with salt-fish and butter … and used in puddings, or with milk boiled … a most palatable, cheap, and nourishing food for both young and old.’ Not only has ‘the poor man nothing to fear’ about potatoes, but ‘he may rejoice at the present temporary scarcity of bread … if it shall be the means of leading the attention to a better, a more frugal, and a more wholesome mode of living’. 

Colquhoun reassures his reader the poor are better off in England than any other European country. He asks ‘where is the country in the world, where ever pressure upon the poor is so amply relieved by the rich as in England?’ But Colquhoun was no fan of the old Poor Laws, campaigning against them, a being instrumental to their subsequent replacement by the punitive New Poor Law. Colquhoun’s opposition was not only based on the cost of relief, but also its failure to adequately distinguish between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor and most significantly how, by being linked to the parish of a recipients’ birth, they impeded the mobility of labour that was becoming increasingly essential to expanding capitalist manufacturing industry.

So when Colquhoun assures the reader his suggestions are ‘instigated by no motive under Heaven but a desire to add to the comfort of the labouring people’ he is not being entirely frank. On the pamphlet’s final page Colquhoun, almost in passing, refers to the ‘spirit of discontent manifested by tumultuous meetings.’ Like many of his class Colquhoun’s concerns about the emerging working class was heightened by the ongoing French revolution. The 1790s cost of living crisis and falling real incomes threatened to break out into protest and riot, a real threat to the property owning class. This threat was understood by the government. In 1794 two acts proposed by prime minister William Pitt passed the House of Commons, one suspending habeas corpus and the other outlawing gatherings of over fifty people without prior authorisation (the similarities with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act given royal assent today is chilling). Colquhoun was not concerned at the poor’s poverty, but the threat they posed. He was, as he made explicit in a subsequent work, committed to maintain poverty, arguing that ‘without poverty there would be no labour, and without labour there would be no riches…’. For Colquhoun the challenge was to keep the labouring classes in sufficiently impoverished to ensure they would accept the disciplines of wage labour, whilst not being so poor that they starved or rioted. To this task, central to the capitalist state Colquhoun contributed to fabricating, meant that it was ‘reasonable and proper in every point of view, that the poor man should be instructed in every thing that can make his little earnings go as far as possible’. 

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