Friday, September 17, 2010

Stealing Bread.

I found more than I was looking for when I went in search of an early recipe for rice bread the other day. Just below the recipe (which follows) in the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, of August 1, 1839, was this short, sad, tale.

DISTRESS: On Tuesday last a little boy of about seven years of age was committed to take his trial for stealing three loaves of bread from a shop. The boy stated that he was hungry, and his mother was in the watch-house on a charge of drunkenness.

A ‘little boy’ – not even worthy of his own name! It is hardly likely, given the era, that his name was withheld on account of his young age. And he was ‘about seven years of age’ – did someone ask, or did he not even know his own birthday?

Most of the early convicts transported to Australia in the late eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries were the urban poor, driven to crimes such as stealing a loaf of bread, by hunger. Supply problems were serious for the first decades in the new settlement, and convicts who stole food were severely punished – sometime actually executed. In the very first year of 1788, on February 11 - less than two weeks after the colony was declared - the first criminal court session was held. Three convicts were tried, and all were found guilty. One Thomas Hill was accused of stealing bread and was sentenced to a week in chains, on bread and water (and presumably not much of that), on a tiny, bare, rocky outcrop called ‘Pinchgut Island’ (now Fort Denison) in Sydney Harbour. The name may have reflected the nautical use of the term to mean the point where a channel becomes very narrow, but it certainly became apt as far as its temporary convict inhabitants were concerned.

I wonder what happened to the little Australian boy mentioned in the Sydney newspaper article in 1839? I don’t think there would be any doubt that he would have been convicted.

Rice and Wheat Bread.
Simmer 1 lb. Rice in 2 quarts of water till it becomes perfectly soft; when it is of a proper warmth mix it extremely well with 4 lbs. Flour and yeast and salt as for other bread; of yeast about 4 large spoonfuls. Knead it well, then set it to rise before the fire, some of the flour should be reserved to make up the loaves. If the rice should require more water it must be added, as some rice swells more than others. From this 8 ½ lbs of good bread will be produced.
(A gentleman of our acquaintance has requested us to give the above recipe publicly through our columns, and informs us that he has tried the experiment in his own family with perfect success. Now that wheaten flour is so dear, and rice so cheap, we cannot do better than to recommend our readers to go and do likewise.)

Quotation for the Day.

“There's a bread van outside Kathleen O'Connell's shop. The back door is open on shelves of steaming newly baked bread. The van driver is inside the shop having tea and a bun with Kathleen and it's no trouble for me to help myself to a loaf of bread. It's wrong to steal from Kathleen with the way she's always good to us but if I go in and ask her for bread she'll be annoyed and tell me I'm ruining her morning cup of tea, which she'd like to have in peace, ease and comfort thank you. It's easier to stick the bread up under my jersey… and promise to tell everything in confession.”
Frank McCourt,  Angela's Ashes (1996)


Keith said...

Good post. In my efforts to interpret life in the 18th century, their ways of thinking have often baffled me, as in arresting a lad for stealing bread. I would gladly give it to him.
After much research though, I came to the conclusion that it was really no different to today. Some people would see an item ans realise the benefit in using that item, and yet others would disguard it out of hand.

SharleneT said...

Les Miserables started in Australia... interesting rice and wheat bread... thanks for sharing...

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Old Foodie!

There was a rice bread that was made in West Africa at least from the 18th Century - used primarily as a travelling food; I'm in the process of putting up a blog on Rice in Colonial Africa and will include the recipe.

Lapinbizarre said...

Mrs David writes of rice bread that it is "excellent bread for keeping, since the rice remains moist, and the texture is beautifully light and honeycombed", adding that it "is also a loaf which is very easy to mix and to bake".

Lapinbizarre said...

Off topic, but may be of interest.

The Old Foodie said...

Hello everyone - thanks for your interesting and insightful comments. Sorry for the late response - life has been a bit hectic round here of late!

eric said...

Amazing to think of what kind of history of Sydney and Australia can be dug up. Thanks so much for sharing the snippets!