Among northern British farmers, as it was with the Swedish, cold weather was thought to be the main reason for turkey chicks not surviving to maturity, (it was commonly known that turkeys originally came from the hotter Americas). However, Hannah Glasse also says there was another difficulty in rearing turkeys, “But it must be remembered, that this useful species of fowls are subject to one particular disorder when they are young, which often carries them off in a few days.”
Whilst still reiterating the difficult nature of rearing turkeys, some of Hannah Glasse’s recommendations are challenged (one hundred years later) In the very authoritative book, ‘Rural Life, In The Management Of Horses, Dogs, Cattle, Sheep, Pigs, Poultry Etc.’ by John Sherer (1860) he states, “The turkey, is one of the most difficult birds to rear of any that we have … many writers recommend a vast deal of what may well be denominated as quackery in the treatment of the young chicks; but they generally thrive much better when left to themselves.”
In 1861, Mrs Beeton also echoes these comments in her, ‘Book Of Household Management’. Namely that, “The turkey is one of the most difficult birds to rear … the turkey only became gradually acclimated, both on the continent and in England: in the middle of the 18th century, scarcely 10 out of 20 young turkeys lived; now, generally speaking, 15 out of the same number arrive at maturity.”
In 1888 ‘Gouldings Farmers Diary’, says of turkeys, “Breeding Turkeys has been much neglected in England … and English turkeys above a certain weight make a much higher price than those from any other country … but the farmer must in commencing with them use only the best blood [breeding stock] which money can buy … and he must devote considerable time and attention to them.”
In 1937, using statistics from the ‘Agricultural Returns for England and Wales’, (from holdings above one acre, as returned by occupiers on 4th June, 1937, and published in ‘The Farmer and Stock Breeder Year Book’, 1938) we can see that turkeys in England and Wales were numbered at 687,000 in 1937.
When you compare this to the data on Chickens as being 52,555,000 in 1937 you can see that even in the early twentieth century, (using the first reliable figures produced and published) turkeys had not made a significant impact in terms of numbers on farms compared to chickens – approximately 55 million chickens compared to only 0.68 million turkeys, confirming the ‘Goulding’s Farmer’s Diary’ statement that, “breeding turkeys in England has been much neglected”.
This historic neglect of farmers breeding turkeys must come from the risk factors of purchasing a very expensive, and labour intensive breeding stock, with the worry that the stock could easily be wiped out from disease, cold or predators.
Note: Even today there is a huge imbalance in the numbers of Turkeys to Chickens being bred in Britain. According to UK government statistics, (DEFRA) in 2009 over 15.5 million turkeys were slaughtered in the UK, (with an average weight 12.5kg) while over 779 million chickens (broilers) were slaughtered in the UK (with an average weight of 2.2kg).
What Problems Does A Turkey Face In Growing To Maturity?
John Sherer was right to dismiss the claims made in Hannah Glasse’s book, made a century before in 1740, turkeys do very well in the cold, even in the depths of winter, their feathers giving them fantastic insulation properties. What they suffer from are various ailments; being particularly susceptible to Fowl Cholera, and Acute Respiratory Disease. Both of which are contagious, widely distributed, and can affect domestic and wild birds; diseases which have a very high morbidity and mortality rate.
What is also known is that turkeys are more susceptible than chickens to disease, and that the young turkey poults are the most vulnerable, needing time to build up their immune systems before being exposed to the outdoors or to potential vectors of disease. Good management practices therefore are essential to prevention.
Also rodents, which are often carriers of P Multocida, must also be excluded from the poultry houses. Other possible conditions a turkey may suffer from, (among others) are, Bumble Foot, Enlarged Hock Disease, Marek’s Disease, Avian Flu, Mites and Avian Leucosis.
These ailments were probably the real cause of the problems faced by the 16th, 17th and 18th Century farmers trying to raise turkeys for profit, not the cold climate. Yet what this meant was, farmers had been put off commonly investing in turkeys, and thus the price of a turkey remained very high in comparison to other meats for over 400 years.
The Price Of A Turkey Down The Centuries
In Britain, since the 16th century, and until decimalisation in 1971, the pound was divided into 20 shillings, each of 12 (old) pence, and noted as £ s d. After 1971 each pound was divided into 100 (new) pence, and noted as £ p. Although something else to consider is, one (old) penny in 1750 would have had greater purchasing power than one (new) pound in 2003, due to very steady inflation rates in the Tudor and Georgian eras.
1526: Legend has it the first turkeys sold in Bristol were for tuppence, 2d (which is £3.16 a turkey: equivalent in today’s currency).
If this legend is reliable, then in real terms, these have been the cheapest turkeys to be sold commercially in Britain for the last 450 years.
1570s: The price of a large turkey was 3s 4d while 2s 9d was the average weekly wage of a labourer (£28.98 a turkey and £23.91 a week: equivalent in today’s currency). So a turkey would have been well over one week’s wages for the poorest sections of society.
Buying a whole turkey to eat was just not feasible for any working class member of society in the sixteenth century, and this section made up the vast bulk of British society. A chicken (hen) by comparison only fetched an average of 6d in London at this time; for the price of one turkey you could buy at least 7 hens.
1740s: The price of a large turkey was 6s 3d while 8s 2d was the average weekly wage of a labourer (£26.97 a turkey and £35.24 a week: equivalent in today’s currency). So the price of a turkey dropped to just under one week’s wages for the poorest sections of society.
This was the period Hannah Glasse complains about the difficulty in raising turkeys to maturity (and for profit) in her cook book. By comparison a pig was 2s 6d.
1860s: The price of a large Turkey was 12s while 17s was the average weekly wage of an urban labourer (£25.90 a turkey and £36.29 a week: equivalent in today’s currency). If you take into considerations an entire week’s expenditure on meat was normally only 4s you can see how expensive a whole turkey was to buy. So three hundred years later a turkey would still have been almost one week’s wages for the poorest sections of society. To us today it would be like spending £450 on a turkey. Hence only the middle to upper classes could afford it, (although it must be noted that the middle classes by now were an expanding section of industrialised British society).
Mrs Beeton stated in 1861 that raising turkeys had become easier than in the previous centuries, and correspondingly the price of turkeys had dropped (in real terms) but it had not dropped by much; the wages of the poor in the new industrial cities had not risen very much (and in many cases had fallen – a report by Fred Scott for the Manchester Statistical Society in 1889 found that many unskilled labourers sometimes only took home 4s a week). So the working classes in an urban Victorian Britain maintained the rural traditions of having the cheaper roast goose, chicken, pork, beef or rabbit at Christmas (if they could afford it).
1907: The price of a Large Turkey was 16s while £1 7s 5d was the average weekly wage of a labourer (£45.88 a turkey and £78.62 a week: equivalent in today’s currency). So the cost of a turkey was now half a week’s wages for the poorest sections of society.
1950s: The price of a large turkey was 19s while £7 5s 6d was the average weekly wage of a labourer (£21.64 a turkey and £165.72 a week: equivalent in today’s currency). So now a turkey was only one day’s wages for many of the poorest families. What had altered was the increase in the weekly wage of a worker, bringing the cost of a turkey down in real terms, similar to the prices of other meats; making it now an affordable Christmas treat.
The cost of a Turkey had dropped to affordable levels because of the more modern intensive farming practices, which were now being used after the Second World War, which increased supply whilst not significantly increasing production costs.
2000s: In this decade the average price of a supermarket, (intensively bred) large turkey was £15 while £400 was the average weekly wage. So a turkey now cost around two hours of wages (and within this decade around 10 million of them were being bought each Christmas).
However, buying a large, traditional free-range and rare-breed Norfolk Bronze cost on average £50, which was well over half a day’s wage for the poorest sections of society.
General Modern Trends: In 1950 British households bought 10g of poultry per person per week. That quintupled by 1960 to 50g. And by 2000, it had quintupled again to 253g. Today we are eating 25 times more poultry a week then was the case in the mid twentieth century, much of it intensively farmed, at prices, in real terms, cheaper than at any point in modern history.
Note on sources: The prices of turkeys and the average weekly wages of people were taken and calculated from various independent sources, extant historical records, government records, and primary sourced knowledge. However, calculating and converting historical currency into today’s currency should only be taken as a guide; these calculations rely upon many factors.
Examples of sources range from the recorded fixed price of poultry in London 1572, from ‘Food & Drink In Britain’, By C. Anne Wilson. Mrs. Beeton who recorded the cost of turkeys to be 12s in 1861, and an updated later edition of Mrs Beeton, with updated prices, from 1907. Modern weekly wages came from Government statistics while later turkey prices can be found in extant archived newspaper articles. Also useful for calculating labourer wages from the 1500s was Brown and Hopkins ‘Seven Centuries of Building Wages’. Economica, Vol 22 – ‘The Economic History of Britain Since 1700’ By Roderick Floud, Deirdre N. McCloskey and A.L.Bowley, “Wages in the UK in the Nineteenth Century”.