Throughout the course of my farming the gloomy note of the machine was that which predominated, but in the spring of 1877, on the prospect of complications with Russia, when wheat rose to I think nearly 70s. a quarter, it was again a cheerful sound, for I had several ricks of the previous year’s crop on hand. I do not remember that bread rose to anything like the extent that occurred in the Great War. Forty years has marvellously widened the gap between the raw material and the finished product—that is, between producer and consumer; immense increases have taken place in the cost of labour employed by miller and baker, and rates and other expenses are much higher.
Farmers do not lose much in “bad debts”; they have to lay out their capital in cash payments so long before the return that they are not expected to give extended credit when sales take place, and for corn payment is made fourteen days after the sale is effected. I had one rather narrow escape. I had sold 150 sacks of wheat to a miller, and it had been delivered to the mill, but one evening I had a note from him to say that his credit was in question on the local markets. “A nod,” I thought, “was as good as a wink to a blind horse”; so next morning I sent all my teams and waggons, and by night had carted all the wheat away, except twenty sacks, which had already been ground. The miller paid eventually 10s. in the L, so my loss was only a matter of about L10.
A similar “chap money,” or return of a trifle in cash from seller to buyer, as that in vogue in horse-dealing, still exists in selling corn; it goes by the indefinite name of “custom,” and in Worcestershire it was a fixed sum of 1s. in every sixty bushels of wheat, and 1s. in every eighty bushels of barley; each of these quantities formed the ancient load. I think the payment of “custom” arose when tarpaulin sheets were first used instead of straw to cover the waggon loads. The straw never returned; it was the miller’s perquisite, and its value paid for the beer to which the carters were treated at the mill; but the tarpaulin comes back each time, so the miller gets his quid pro quo in the “custom.”
Barley was not an important crop at Aldington, the land was too stiff, but I had some fields which contained limestone, where good crops could be grown. Even there it was inclined to coarseness, but in dry seasons sometimes proved a very nice bright and thin-skinned sample. Before the repeal of the malt tax, which was accompanied by legislation that permitted the brewers to use sugar, raw grain and almost anything, including, as people said, “old boots and shoes” instead of barley malt, good prices, up to 42s. a quarter and over, could be made; but under the new conditions, the maltsters complained that my barley was too good for them, and they could buy foreign stuff at about 22s. or 24s., which, with the help of sugar, produced a class of beer quite good enough for the Black Country and Pottery consumers.