Price of Commodities and Labour, pp.313-324.

[Old Glasgow Contents]

Few materials remain for ascertaining the comparative value of provisions and other articles in Glasgow in very early times. In the Chartulary of Glasgow there is preserved a deed of obligation granted by Richard de Cralein in 1304 in settlement of a claim for ten merks alleged to have been due by him to the chapter of Glasgow. The chapter had taken legal proceedings against him, and the claim was settled by compromise – Richard undertaking by the deed to deliver to the chapter ten chalders of corn – sex celdras frumenti boni mundi et pacabilis – in satisfaction of the debt.1 Scots money was at that time at par. Ten merks accordingly were equal to £6, 13s. 4d. of our money, and if that amount was paid for six chalders it would make the price of a boll of corn less than seventeenpence. But as the settlement was the result of a compromise we may assume that the grain accepted in satisfaction of the debt was, in marketable value, less than that sum.

In the thirteenth century Alexander III. had come under an obligation to the Friars Preachers in Glasgow to find them in food for one day in every week. In the year 1252 the king – for what reason or on what principle does not appear – transferred this obligation to the burgh of Dunbarton, and by letters-patent in that year he issued his commands, “prepositis suis de Dunbretan,” to pay ten pounds yearly to the friars from the rents of that burgh in lieu of the king’s provision.2 The money payment into which the king’s obligation was so commuted was thus equal to less than two shillings for one day in every week, which appears to have been sufficient to find the whole convent in a day’s food.

In 1301, when Edward I. was in Glasgow, the accounts of his wardrobe show that he paid to the Friars Preachers six shillings for three days’ entertainment of himself and his retinue. In the same reign – if we take as a criterion the commutation in money exigible in fines for certain crimes – the value of a cow was four shillings.

In the Fragmenta Collecta3 there is an old burgh law providing that no “browster wife” sell the gallon of ale, from Pasch to the feast of St. Michael, dearer than two pennies; nor from the feast of St. Michael to the feast of Pasch, dearer than one penny. The date of this law is not known, and therefore we do not know what was the value of a penny Scots at the time. If it was as early as the thirteenth century it was at par, but it deteriorated very rapidly after that.

There is a statute of the Church of Glasgow in the early part of the fifteenth century (c. 1425) which provides that the six deacons and archdeacons assisting in the office of the mass at the high altar on great festivals are to be entertained by the canon on duty, getting from him their esculenta et poculenta of the day, secundum hujus ecclesiæ veterem consuetudinem, or, in the option of the canon, he might pay them eighteenpence each – about eightpence of our money – for their daily expenses. About the same date (1430), when Bishop Cameron founded so many new prebends, the annual provision of the vicar in each of five churches was fixed at twenty merks – less than £6 sterling. In 1480 the stipends of the vicars of the choir, which had previously been five pounds, were augmented to ten pounds Scots, to be paid by the prebendary in whose stall he ministered – the increase being due no doubt to the depreciation in the value of money, as ten pounds Scots was then equal to less than £3. Besides this allowance, however, the vicars possessed certain “common goods,” with “houses, buildings, and lands.” These they surrendered to the sub-dean in 1507, on condition that he should pay to each of them ten merks yearly, either from the common good or from his own benefice, and apply the remainder of their common good to the building and repairing of their houses.4 Ten merks was at that time less than £2 of our money. In 1508 the price of a boll of oatmeal in Nithsdale and Annandale was fixed by the commissary of that district at 20s. Scots – at that time equal to about 5s. of our money.5

But till far on in the fifteenth century we have, from the absence of authentic records, few materials for ascertaining the genera prices of commodities and labour in Glasgow. In England the materials are more abundant, and it may be interesting to notice some of these, as we may obtain from them an approximation to prices in Scotland – the latter being probably in most cases lower.

In a conveyance of land in Wallingford in the reign of Henry III. (circa 1220), part of the yearly reddendo is “one pair of white gloves, value one halfpenny, at Easter.”6 In a a taxation of the town of Bridport, in 1319,a cow is valued at seven shillings; a horse at twelve shillings, another horse ten shillings; and two hogs two shillings each.7 In the same accounts we find that “a pipe of wine” cost the corporation 2½ merks (£1, 13s. 4d.), and a gallon of wine fourpence.8 In the accounts of Merton College, Oxford, in 1315, the price paid for an ox for the plough is 13s. 6½d.; two sheep are sold for thirteen pence each, and two bacon hogs for a shilling each.9 In the proctor’s roll of the same college, a few years later (1346), there is paid for seven chickens fivepence farthing; for three geese, tenpence halfpenny; for two lbs. of figs, threepence; and for two lbs. of rice flour, twopence.10

In one of these old college accounts an item occurs of a different kind, sufficiently interesting to deserve notice. “A bad copy of Horace bought for the boys” cost a halfpenny. It was a manuscript of course, and would, no doubt, command a very different price in our day.

Of other articles we find from the same college accounts that a pair of shoes to the warden cost, in 1329, fourpence. In 1305 the price of a pair of shoes in Feversham was threepence. A new wheelbarrow cost sevenpence.11 In the following century (1149) the nuns of Radegunda paid for a horse bought at a fair nine shillings and sixpence – for another horse four shillings; for a cow, 6s. 8d.; for a lamb, sixpence; for a sheep, sixpence; and for thirty-two pullets, three shillings – little more than a penny each. For a pair of shoes they paid sevenpence; for a pair of boots to a shepherd, eightpence; for a dozen and a half of trenchers, fourpence; for a pair of bellows, sixpence halfpenny; for linen cloth, twopence the ell.12 In 1326 an acre of growing hay was bought in Oxfordshire for ten shillings; and the charge for reaping it, by the piece, is ninepence. In the accounts of Queen’s College, Oxford, in 1341, we find paid for twelve hens twopence each; and for 240 eggs, twelvepence – a penny for twenty.13 About the same period, in certain old accounts of the Manor of Monksleigh, in Devonshire, we find that, in 1363, twenty-nine shillings  was paid for a bull and three cows; 12d. for “one mutton,” 12d. for four geese, and 22½d. for fifteen hens. Thirty years later (1393) a stack of wheat is mentioned in the same accounts as sold for 22s. 4d.; and 43 sheep, 3 “hoggesters,” and 39 lambs cost 60s. for the whole lot.14

The prices paid for services and labour in these old times appear wonderfully small, when compared with those which prevail in our own day. In the accounts of Queen’s College, in the twenty-seventh year of Edward I. (1299), we find that the stipend of “Robert the priest” for half a year was 16s. 8d. Another priest received for the same period only ten shillings. The wages of a cook and brewer for six months was four shillings. The “Priest’s groom” for the same period received three shillings. A laundress for “washing the clothes of the house for that time” (six months) received only fourpence; and a carpenter for two days’ work had fourpence “and his victuals.” It is to be hoped that the laundress also received her victuals. A slater for three weeks’ work was paid sixpence a week and his food. Four years later (1303) a carter received for his yearly wage five shillings and a penny; a ploughman for the winter was paid two shillings; a shepherd for a year, five shillings; a cowherd for the same period, three shillings; and a swineherd for the whole year, one shilling. These were, no doubt, serfs, who were both housed and fed by their masters. There is a payment of 3s. 6d. to forty-two women for an entire days’ work cutting stubble – a penny each; and a barber for “shaving all the household for one year” is paid eightpence. A dairymaid gets one pair of shoes at the cost of sixpence, “because she had no wages,” but a woman brought to help her in the dairy and in “milking the ewes” during the summer and autumn, is paid by the piece, ad tasciam, two shillings.15 In the accounts of the Hospital of St. John at Winchester there is an entry, in 1315, of wages paid to Adam atte Corrsyre of “15s. 2d. for the year, at one halfpenny per day.”16 Even more than a century later the rate of wages was low. In the accounts at Radegunda, already referred to, we find in 1449 a payment to Simon Maydwell of ninepence for six days’ work; to Katherine Rolffe, to hoe the garden for four days, 4½d. For skilled labour the rates were higher. To a man making and mending horse collars for five days there is paid 1s. 10d., and to a man pruning the vines the nuns paid for two days’ work twelvepence.17

There are preserved in Scotland no such early records as those of the old English colleges and municipal corporations,* but in the accounts of the Lord High Treasurer, recently printed, we have some interesting information as to Scotland, which may enable us to form some estimate of what were prices in Glasgow towards the end of the fifteenth century. The price of horses varied very much, and some appear to have been sold at very low sums. For a horse to a trumpeter in 1489 the price – I give the amount in English money – was only twelve shillings. In 1491 another horse was bought at the same price. Horses bought for the king in 1489 cost from £1 to forty shillings each. Two horses, a black and a gray, of superior quality, cost for the two about £12; while in 1496 a horse bought for one of the royal grooms cost less than eight shillings.

In Aberdeen, in 1577, the magistrates fixed the hire of a horse for leading peats of other fuel at “xiid, ilk day” – being three halfpence of English money – “witht mannis meit and horss meit, and to haff four gang ilk day.”18

According to the accounts of the Lord High Treasurer, shoes, homemade, cost usually, towards the end of the fifteenth century, fourpence the pair. The price of a pair of French shoes was about one shilling and fourpence. Boots were expensive: they cost six shillings the pair. Of other items, we find that in 1473 there was paid “to a skynnare in Striveling for a dusane of gluffis (gloves) to the Quene” less than two shillings. A hundred haddocks cost tenpence. The price of a cow was seven shillings. The wages of labourers and seamen were less than fourpence a day. Indeed, fourpence a day was reckoned not bad wages in Scotland for a tradesman even towards the middle of the eighteenth century. So late as 1748 the magistrates of Dunbarton enacted that tailors working out of their own house should be allowed only fourpence a day (with diet), and if they decline to work when required, or asked a higher wage, they were subjected to heavy penalties.19

Writing in 1598 as to travelling charges, Fynes Moryson says a horse might be had for “two shillings the first day and eightpence the day till he be brought home, and the horse-letters used to send a footman to bring back the horse.” The traveller, he adds, “shall pay at the common table about sixpence for his supper or dinner and shall have his bed free.”20 These sums are stated in English money.

But prices varied very much in different places, and in Edinburgh, especially during the sitting of Parliament, they were comparatively high. In the account of the household expenses of Ludovick duke of Lennox, when commissioner to Parliament in 1607, one of the charges is thirteenpence halfpenny for a partridge.21 They were cheaper in Inverness at a later date. Captain Burt says he could buy a partridge there “for a penny or less.”22 This was in the early part of the eighteenth century.

In 1559 the magistrates of Ayr ordered that “guid and sufficient corne” be sold for “ten penneys the peck,” and hay to be sold at aucht pennys the stane.”23 According to the value of money at that time this would be about one-fifth of these sums of our money. In Renfrewshire the price of “the best hay” in 1722 was twopence the stone.24 Between 1710 and 1728 he price of horses in the same county averaged £3, 19s. 2d., the highest price being £8, which was considered exceptionally high. A leg of mutton was sold for ninepence, and a side of beef for 7s. 9d. In 1726 the average price of a cow in Renfrewshire was £1, 6s. 9d. and of a sheep five shillings.25 The prices in Glasgow would probably be higher, but not much.

When the laird of Macintosh attended parliament in 1681 he charged to the county as “depursements for the shire of Inverness”:- “for 52 sittings in Parliament and 16 days comeing and goeing at £5 scotts per day £340” – that is, 8s. 4d. a day of our money – a liberal allowance for these times. For “ane consultatioun with the Lord Advocat” he paid £3 sterling, showing that fees to counsel were at that date high in proportion to the price of provisions.26 It was not so in England in the latter part of the fifteenth century. In the church-warden’s accounts of St. Margaret’s, Westminster, in 1476, there is a payment “to Roger Fylpott learned in the law, for his counsel giving, 3s. 8d. with fourpence for his dinner.”27

Of prices in Glasgow early in the seventeenth century we have some examples in a list of the property or articles of executry given up, in 1632, on the death of Mrs. Hucheson, wife of one of the founders of the Hospital. Among other items there are “three kye ane stirk and ane calf to estimate to 44 pounds scots” – that is, £3, 13s. 4d. for the five animals. Fourteen bolls of bere “standing in the barne at Partick,” are valued “with the fodder” at £6, 13s. 4d. scots per boll – a trifle over eleven shillings. A quantity of “mashlock oats” are valued, with the straw, at £5, 6s. 8d. scots the boll – less than nine shillings.28

In the old Town’s Hospital accounts of 1737, to which I have already referred, shoes for the inmates are charged a fraction over two shillings the pair. For fresh beef the price paid was less than twopence the pound; for eggs less than twopence the dozen; for barley seven-eighths of a penny the pound; for pease, 7½d. the peck; for butter, 4s. 10d. the stone; for sweet milk, a fraction less than twopence the scots pint; for sour milk, a halfpenny the pint. Candles were dearer; they were nearly fivepence the pound. Oatmeal was in old times almost always disproportionately dear. In 1737 it was upwards of ten shillings the boll.29 And it was higher in the preceding century. In 1645, at the time when the magistrates were employing the town’s people “to caste up the trinche about the citie,” the price of a boll of meal was 13s. 4d. of our money.

Of the expense of living of the students in the College in the beginning of the eighteenth century, we get some information from a minute of agreement between the principal and professors and Alexander Eagle, a cook. It would appear that the English students required a provision to be made for their diet of a better kind than the Scotsmen were contented with. Accordingly by this agreement, which is dated in 1711, Eagle undertakes “to furnish with dyet all Englishmen that shall desyre to dyet within the Colledge during the continuance of this session, three tymes a day with meat and drink, and with such changes of dyet as is mentioned in a paper apart – the said Englishmen, and each of them to be dyeted, paying to the said Alexander three pounds sterling for each three months dyet, and so proportionally.” The cook was also to be allowed “the benefite of the Colledge kitchen brewhouse and ovens and whole outincills therein.”30 This is eightpence a day for three meals.

The articles in which there appear to have been the greatest fluctuations in prices in Glasgow are oatmeal and wheat, and the price there often differed considerably from that in neighbouring counties. This, however, may, to some extent, be accounted for by the difference in the measure, for there appears to have been no fixed standard. In 1692 the College of Glasgow had under consideration “the diverse debates between the Colledge and severall of the gentry who pay their tithes to the colledge, anent the measure of the boll,” and it ended by the university resolving that a measure be made for itself, and that in all leases of the college lands it should be stipulated that grain payments be made according to that measure.31 The same practice was followed by many of the neighbouring landowners. For example. in a lease of the lands of Woodhead by Sir James Hamilton of Rosehall to Mr. Baird, an ancestor of the Gartsherrie family, in 1745, a portion of the rent is made payable “in good and sufficient oatmeal with the weight and measure of Woodhall.”32 It was the same in England from a very early period. In a lease of lands in Rye, in the twenty-fifth year of King Henry VI. (1447), mention is made of certain quantities of grain “mesuride by the mesure of Rye.”33 And the same absence of a fixed standard prevailed in other measures than those of grain. There is a curious illustration of this in the contract between Mr. George Hucheson and the builder of his house at Partick. It provides that a certain part of the house is to be made of the measure of “three futtis and ane half, of the said Georges awin fute.”34

Of the wages paid to masons in Glasgow in the beginning of the seventeenth century we have an example from the same contract. Mr. Hucheson was to provide the stone and lime, and the wood for the scaffolding: all the rest of the mason work was to be executed by the contractor. The house was of considerable size, yet the whole sum to be paid to the contractor, “himself, his servands and borrowmen,” was only 530 merks scots, “to wit 430 merkis yrof for ye work, and 100 merkis in satisfactioun of all morning and eftirnoines drinks, disjoynes, sondayes meitt at onlaying of lyntalls, or ony othir thing can be cravit fra the said george in any sorte.” Five hundred and thirty merkis scots in 1611, when the contract was made, was less than £30.

Of the prices of labour in the neighbourhood of Glasgow, fifty years later, we have some information from the records of the town council of Rutherglen, which contain various statutes on the subject. One of these, in the year 1660, bears to have been passed to provide a remedy “to those abuses and grievances concerning the excessive pryces of fies and waidges introduced of late in tymes of plentie by the covetousness, idleness, and other corrupt practices of some evil affected servands and workmen.” For this purpose it orders that “dureing the scarsnes of money and cheapnes of victwall” no more than certain fees and wages be taken. Among these are the following:- “A commone able man servand for all sort of husbandrie is to have termly for fie and bounteth ten punds scots (16s. 8d.) with a paire of dowable solled shooes and a pair of hoise and no more. A able woman servand for all necessarie worke ten merks (11s. 1½d.) with a pair of shooes, ane ell of lining in winter, and ane ell of playding in Sommer; A lass or young made fowr punds scots (6s. 8d.)with a paire of shooes termly and no more; The harvest fee of an able man shierer is not to exceed eight punds (13s. 4d.) and a peck of meill with meit and drink; and if he be hired by days, half a merk (about 6¾d.) and twa mailles for ilk dayes work; And the able woman shierer is not to exceed sex punds (10s.) and a peck of meill with meit and drink, or fyve schilling (5d.) and twa mailles for ilk day.” “Commone workmen or laborers,” and tailors, are to have 3½d. a day “and their dyet,” and no more.35

Throughout the Highlands prices were much less than in the Low country. Even in Inverness, although it was a garrison town, Captain Burt, who was stationed there about a hundred and sixty years ago [1760], says: “Mutton and beef are about a penny a pound. Salmon, which was at the same price, is by a late legislation of the magistrates, raised to two pence a pound, which is thought by many to be an exorbitant price. A fowl may be had at market for two pence or two pence halfpenny.” But these last were “so lean they are good for little.”36 As regards the salmon, prices in Glasgow were as low as in Inverness. They were sometimes sold, as I have already mentioned, at a penny the pound. We are familiar with the story told of the domestic servants in Glasgow, who stipulated that they should not be obliged to eat this now costly fish on more than a certain number of days in the week, and it was the same in Inverness. Captain Burt writes that in his time “the menial servants who are not at board wages will not make a meal upon salmon is they can get any thing else to eat.”37 The same writer, referring to the still lower price of provisions in Inverness at an earlier date, says: “I have been told by some old people that at the time of the Revolution Genera Mackay was accustomed to dine at one of the public houses, where he was served with great variety, and paid only two shillings and six pence scots, that is two pence halfpenny for his ordinary.”38 Wages were low in proportion. In Burt’s time many servant girls, he tells us, had for wages only “three half crowns a year each, and a peck of oatmeal for a week’s diet, and happy she that can get the skimming of a pot to mix with her oatmeal for better commons. To this allowance is added a pair of shoes or two, for sundays when they go to the kirk.”39

In looking at these old accounts, in England as well as in Scotland, we cannot fail to be struck in particular with the very low prices at which horses and cattle could be purchased, but this is in a great measure to be accounted for by the wretched state of the breeds and the difficulty of finding proper provender for them. Captain Burt refers to this. The horses in Inverness, he says, were very poor and small, and it was difficult to find the means of feeding them. He mentions that in one year he knew of nearly two hundred horses dying of mere want. He tells of an officer, newly arrived in Inverness, who observing the miserable state of the horses there, and that his own would cost him more for their keep than his pay would afford, had them shot – preferring, as he said, to do this rather than by selling them “to let them fall into the hands of such keepers.”40 This prepares us to accept a statement by Major which otherwise it would be difficult to believe. Writing of a period about the beginning of the sixteenth century, he describes some of the Highlanders as possessing many cattle and horses, of which last, he says, two or three hundred, wild and unbroken, would be brought by one Highlander to Perth or Dundee and sold for two francs each.

Again, in regard to what appears to us as the very low wages paid in early times, we are too apt to overlook the relative value of commodities. Mr. Hallam, speaking of his own time (1784), observes that “the labouring classes, especially those engaged in agriculture, were better provided with the means of subsistence in the reign of Edward III. or of Henry VI. than they are at present. In the fourteenth century a harvest man had fourpence a day, which enabled him in a week to buy a comb of wheat; but to buy a comb of wheat now, a man must work ten or twelve days. So under Henry VI., if meat was at a farthing and a half the pound, which I suppose was about the truth, a labourer earning threepence a day, or eighteenpence in the week, could buy a bushel of wheat at six shillings the quarter, and twenty-four pounds of meat for his family. A labourer at present, earning twelve shillings a week, can only buy half a bushel of wheat at eighty shillings the quarter, and twelve pounds of meat at sevenpence.”41 A still greater contrast is presented in the prices of the necessaries of life in our own day.

There are other considerations which we must bear in mind, when we read of prices in the olden time. In the reign of Edward I. £20 would be the rental of a considerable estate. An income of £10 or £20 was reckoned in England a competence for a gentleman; and a knight who possessed £150 per annum was considered extremely rich. Even so late as the reign of Henry VIII. the rent of a considerable farm was no more than £3 or £4 a year. Latimer, preaching before the king, said in his homely style, “My father was a yeoman and had no lands of his own; only he had a farm of three or four pounds a year at the utmost, and thereupon he held so much land as kept half a dozen men. He had a walk for a hundred sheep, and my mother milked thirty kine.” This would be towards the middle of the fifteenth century.

In Glasgow, as throughout Scotland, such incomes would, in those days, go still farther. Of course, it must also be kept in mind that in the early times the people were comparatively free from taxation, and that the expenditure of those in the position of gentlemen and knights was lessened by the service of the villains or serfs. It must likewise be remembered that the soil had fewer persons to support. So late as 1377 the entire population of England did no exceed two million three hundred thousand.42

1  Reg. Episc. Glasg, p. 217.
2  Lib. Col. N. D., p. 150.
3  No. 42.
4  Lib. Protocollorum, No. 234.
5  Ibid., No. 361.
6  Sixth Report on Historical Documents, p. 582.
7  Second Report on Hist. Doc., p. 492.
8  Ibid., p. 490.
9  Ibid., p. 563.
10  Ibid., p. 547.
11  Ibid., p. 549.
12  Ibid., p. 119.
13  A Second Report on Hist. Doc., p. 568.
14  Fifth Report on Hist. Doc., p. 370.
15  Accounts of Queen’s College, Sixth Report on Hist. Doc., pp. 558, 559.
16  Sixth Report on Hist. Doc., p. 597.
17  Second Report on Hist. Mss., pp. 119, 120.
18  Records of Burgh of Aberdeen, 10th July, 1577.
19  Irving’s History of Dunbartonshire, p. 249.
20  Itinerary, 1617.
21  Miscellany of Maitland Club, vol. i. p. 159.
22  Letters, vol. i. p. 146.
23  Memorabilia, p. 6.
24  Judicial Records of Renfrewshire, p. 332.
25  Ibid., p. 338.
26  Scottish Legal Antiquities, p. 152.
27  Hallam’s Middle Ages, 2d edit., vol. iii. p. 452.
28  Huchesoniana, by Laurence Hill, Esq., p. 19.
29  Report of Town’s Hospital of Glasgow, 1742.
30  Munimenta, vol. iii. p. 550.
31  Ibid, vol. ii. p. 364.
32  The Bairds of Gartsherrie: their Origin and History. Glasgow: Privately printed, 1875.
33  Fifth Report on Historical Records, p. 500.
34  The Story of Partick Castle, by Laurence Hill, Esq., p. 34.
35  Burgh Records of Rutherglen quoted in Ure’s History, p. 65.
36  Burt’s Letters, vol. i. p. 126.
37  Ibid., p. 126.
38  Ibid, p. 133.
39  Burt’s Letters, vol. i. p. 96.
40  Ibid., p. 82.
41  Middle Ages, vol. iii. p. 453.
42  Ibid., p. 456.
*  Donald MacLeod gives us the reason, MacGeorge fails to, as to why early Scottish records are so rare in the Prologue to his ‘Gloomy Memories‘:
“Columba burned many of these Celtic records, yet many survived his ravages. St. Patrick burned one hundred and eighty-nine of those works at Tara, Ireland, all written in the Gaelic language, with a little mixture of Latin. Edward the First, of England, destroyed many of them, and after the ignoble union with England, what portion of them were preserved extant from these ravages, are now suppressed so as to deprive Scotland of their Celtic record and of the history of their grandfathers.”

2 thoughts on “Price of Commodities and Labour, pp.313-324.

Leave a Reply