The price of corn

9th October 2014


A line in the Oxford University Gazette announces the nomination by the Chancellor of Jeffrey Hackney, Emeritus Fellow of St Edmund Hall and Wadham as one of the two Clerks of the Market. The Clerks have no statutory duties but succumb to an invitation from the Estates Bursars’ Committee each year at their Corn Rent Dinner to sing for their supper and report on the price of wheat, malt and barley to the assembled Bursars. 

As Jeffrey takes up his fourth year in the role, we print the (censored) notes for the talk he delivered to the Bursars in 2013 on the historical significance of this justifiably very little known but once very important office.

“Each year (so far) the Clerks of the Market have been honoured by an invitation from Estates Bursars to attend their annual Corn Rent dinner.  Unlike the Bursars they have to sing for their supper and in 2013 it was my turn.  M’learned friend Ralph Walker of Magdalen, who had spoken grippingly in 2012, gave an admirable impersonation of an attentive listener.  These are parts of my notes for the talk and I hope readers will have sufficient continuo skills to make them comprehensible.  We are courteously obliged to give the Bursars the prices of wheat, malt and barley.

Ralph’s talk in 2012 set me off on asking how this obligation had originated and why colleges in particular were so interested in that ruling.  My conclusion is that the Clerks of the Market may have been a lynchpin in the prosperity of colleges in the 17th century.  The outline of this story is well known amongst the half dozen people who know about it, and what follow are a few footnotes/appendices to the chapter on the finances of the colleges in the 16th and 17th centuries by the late revered Gerald Aylmer, Master of St Peter’s College, in volume 3 of the History of the University, and linking it with the role of the Clerks.  Today’s story begins with the period following Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.

What is therefore quite clear but not stressed in the History of the University is that since the Clerks of the Market were charged with fixing the price at which grain could be traded in Oxford they were not only generally important in the town, but crucial in securing the prosperity of the colleges

Jeffrey Hackney

Oxford Colleges in the sixteenth century do not figure as examples of good management in any account of charity law, and it is said that it was only due to some effective parliamentary lobbying that Oxford had escaped the worst collateral damage from the aftermath of the Dissolution.   Oxford and Cambridge were only exempted from the operation of Henry’s Abolition of Colleges and Chantries Acts of 1545 and 1547, because, as gossip has it, he was persuaded that on the whole they gave good value for money.  But there is evidence that neglect of duty was nonetheless noted.  It is very hard getting back into the mindset of members of college governing bodies of that time, but negligence looks like the LCD.

It appears that the system of customary rents in the leases granted to tenants of colleges, which was inherited from the middle ages, was no longer working. Although there had been some spectacular variations in the Middle Ages in the cost of living in the short term due to harvest fluctuations, there had been only a very slight underlying trend of rising inflation from the middle of the thirteenth century onwards.  But from the early sixteenth century this pattern became very dramatically a thing of the past and by the end of Henry’s reign had begun to look like Britain during the mid-1970s and the early 1980s, with soaring underlying inflation compounding the variations from year to year due to bad harvests.  A similar phenomenon had occurred in the late 12th and early 13th century and the cause in these two periods was the same – a massive influx of silver into the economy of Western Europe.  In the earlier period it had been the discovery of new silver mines in Eastern Europe and now it was silver from the New World.   This made the estate management of college properties a new game and it would appear that colleges were rather falling down on the job.  

The problem was a combination of customary rents and traditionally long leases, which was capable of creating a disastrous fall in yield.   The inflationary damage could to some extent be countered by taking a premium or fine at the beginning of a long lease but this was unsatisfactory for two reasons. The first is that predicting how long rampant inflation would last was not a skill which anyone had (in fact, again alongside short term ‘bad harvest’ variations, it continued way into the Civil War period) and secondly there seems to be some evidence, not only in Oxford, that fines/premiums did not always find their way into the colleges’ accounts in the way that one might expect.  These appropriations were regarded as ‘dividends’ by the Heads and Fellows and pocketed, and it is hard to know how to read that.  
So in 1571 Parliament intervened.  In a statute Against Frauds and Defeating Remedies for Dilapidations, College leases were to be for 21 years or three lives only with an ingenious anti-avoidance clause for surrenders and renewals.  It was evidently quickly realised that this was not a practicable solution for college properties in towns being no greater than ten acres, (4 hectares) and they were by a statute of the following year exempted.  But just to rub in the bit about poor long term management it was provided that if any money received to cover dilapidations were not spent inside two years, those who received it were to pay double the amount (to the Queen, not to the college...).  A follow-up statute put a maximum limit of 40 years on leases and required them to reserve the customary rent (possibly to prevent nominal rents and large premiums).   College Bursars were not however to be pushed about in this way and they reacted by taking surrenders of existing leases in a way which defeated the aims of the statute. But Parliament had not given up either, for which we will see more evidence in a moment,  and late in 1576  a further statute was enacted forbidding surrenders and renewals made to defeat the purposes of the earlier statutes.  The College of St John the Baptist in Oxford was however as well connected then as it is today, and was partially exempted from the operation of this last statute, as it was from the operation of the next one, where Maudlin College (sic), evidently a slow but diligent learner in those days, had also wangled its way into securing a similar exemption.

The big event, and where the Clerks come in, was in 1576 when a statute was enacted, it is said as the result of lobbying by Sir William Lord Burghley, Chancellor of Cambridge and Sir Thomas Smith.   It provided that henceforth colleges in Oxford and Cambridge may grant no leases unless ⅓ at least of the old or existing rent was in corn or, at the election of the lessee, in money to value of the corn, and it gave a starting price for wheat at the rate of 10d. a bushel and malt at 7 ½d.  a bushel, on which to base the rent.  There is no mention of barley.  Nor is there any mention of leases made by the University itself.   In future the value of the corn for Oxford colleges was to be fixed in the market of Oxford.  (At this point I pause to say that the certificate Ralph and I will give to the Chairman at the end of this speech, requires the price not just of wheat and malt, but also of barley.  I leave it to another occasion to solve that riddle.)  In an extraordinary pro-student gesture, the statute went on to provide that the portion of the rent attributable to the price of corn was to be expended only upon the provision of the Commons and Diet of the Colleges on pain of deprivation of office for the Governors and Chief Rulers of the colleges (very good early echo of modern definition of charity trustees as those with the ‘general control and management’ of the administration of the charity).
The effect was that if the price of wheat and malt were to double, a 10/- rent would be increased to 13/4d. – an increase of 33%.  This increase of 3/4d on the old rent would be known as ‘the increment of corn rent’ or simply as ‘the corn rent’.   So this may not just be a corn rent dinner as an economic indication of how part of a rent was made up, it may be an explicit reference to this effects of this statute.   In the period from 1590 to 1660 the price of wheat never fell below 250% of its 1576 value and the price of malt was never below 215%.  So the cost of commons was effectively inflation proofed. Writing in the early seventeenth century, Andrew Willett DD was of the view that new leases were now bringing in double what they would have brought in before the Act and estimated that there was an annual rent augmentation of £12,000 p.a. in both universities. Certainly, college accounts show that from the 1580s onwards there was a striking increase in gross college receipts (though it may not all be attributable to this Act).
There would of course be all sorts of fluctuations in the price of grain, depending on harvests, some of them very great, and Gerald Aylmer says a good deal must have rested on the skill and cool nerves of college bursars.   There were other ways of looking at this of course, and there is some heated rumouring in the early nineteenth century (Gentleman’s Magazine vol. 88, 1818) that outright fraud in manipulating supplies and therefore prices just before the appointed day for fixing the price was prevalent, such as hoarding or even simple destruction by pouring grain into rivers.  In evidence to a Parliamentary Committee in 1834 a surveyor and corn factor from Derby was more circumspect but urged Parliament to abandon prices fixed on a particular day in favour of a general average.  He said he knew fixed day pricing was the custom in Oxford and Cambridge, but noted that his suggestion would eliminate fraud.  Very discreet.

What is therefore quite clear but not stressed in the History of the University is that since the Clerks of the Market were charged with fixing the price at which grain could be traded in Oxford they were not only generally important in the town, but crucial in securing the prosperity of the colleges.
I have picked up the story again some two centuries later when it is mentioned in two great works published within ten years of each other early in the reign of George III.  They demonstrate that far from having worked its way out, the statute of 1576 remained at that time critical to the finances of the colleges.  The importance of the Clerks even in this period of relatively low inflation was undiminished.    The two works are William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.  Blackstone’s Commentaries were the first comprehensive work on English law for some 500 years.  Blackstone himself was the first English law professor ever (anywhere) and a Fellow of All Souls, so would have some insider knowledge of the workings of the system, and his work in Oxford may explain why he found this statute important enough to mention in his general account of the law.  The Wealth of Nations appeared a decade later.  Smith might have picked up the tab from Blackstone, though his unhappy time as a student at Balliol in the early 1740s might have given him some insights.  While Blackstone’s account is not surprisingly that of a lawyer, Smith is more interested in the economic theory of the effects of different ways of calculating rents.
Blackstone is the only source I have seen that says the price to be fixed for the purposes of the statute is the market day before rent became due, in the Oxford case, the Feast of the Annunciation of the BVM – Lady Day.  This is such common sense that it must be good law.  He is full of praise for the foresight and penetration of Burghley and points out that the money arising from corn rents was now, one year taken with another, almost double the rent reserved in money.  Adam Smith agrees with this analysis pointing out that the amount fixed in cash was now therefore a quarter of its original value in the rent.  He provides an interesting analysis of the comparative functions of corn and silver as the items of measure in a rent.  He points out that although there may be wild variations in the value of rent paid in corn from year to year, over a century it bore a much closer correlation to the costs of labour, while the opposite was true of silver.  In the 1826 edition of Blackstone the Editor adopts the Adam Smith analysis but (perhaps as the result of the rampant inflation attributable to the Napoleonic wars – the third and last such uprising before the modern period), he noted that this was still not providing what colleges needed and so the practice of taking a fine, or premium, on the renewal of leases was seemingly more important than ever.  So the Clerks continued to be crucial to the prosperity of the Colleges until the Universities and Colleges Estates Act, 1925 broke the link.

So if your predecessors also invited the Clerks to their Corn Rent dinner when this legislation was still in force, the relationship will have been very different and conflicts of interest must have been in everyone’s mind.

Finding the prices of the three commodities which, for all I know, the Bursars quite unlawfully demand, has been its usual total nightmare.  But so too has finding Lady Day this year.  I learned at my mother’s knee that Lady Day is always 25 March but the University Calendar gives the Feast of the Annunciation of the BVM as 8 April.  The reason for this is that March 25, 2013 is the Monday of Holy week so the feast is transferred to the day after Divine Sunday (the octave of Easter). This is Monday April 8 and if so the critical date would be Friday April 5.  (There is a lot to be said for Xmas day, I always think: at least you know where you are).   I leave you to guess which date I chose for this year.”

Jeffrey Hackney