Kieran’s Our City, Our Town Article,
Cork Independent, 7 June 2018
Stories from 1918: Conundrums of the Butter Market
At the beginning of 1918 the Irish butter industry was subjected to many restrictions of control by the Ministry of Food, which was linked to keeping supply to English markets throughout wartime. The grading of Irish butter by appointed English graders was decided upon as a necessity. Reluctantly the Irish traders complied. However, they unanimously opposed the grading being carried out in England, claiming that it would act very unfairly in Irish interests, and lead to abuses and heavy losses.
Cork butter had been locally inspected and graded for over 150 years. Compared to one hundred years previously, the Cork butter trade was on a slow decline. In 1858, 428,000 firkins of butter were been exported per annum and by 1891, this was reduced to 170,000 firkins. Competitive European prices out-competed the prices set by the butter market at Cork. In addition, the city’s best consumer, the British citizen favoured neater packaging, smaller more exact weights, improved colour, texture and taste; qualities that Cork butter did not possess. The quantity of butter exported decreased and decreased. In 1918, Further regulations or even controls of the market were not welcome. Despite the protestations of Irish producers and dealers, a new grading system was put into force, with the grading work being carried out in England.
At the Cork Butter Market on Saturday 8 June 1918, several merchants gave testimony of the problems of the new grading system to the Cork Examiner. A leading member of the Cork Butter Market Trustees stated that the Government system was causing a great economic loss to Ireland. The price of fresh lump butter had fallen from 217s to 211s per cwt. Irish butter was going into the “Pool” or Government centre of distribution, from where it was sold to English dealers at a flat rate, comparatively high. He also highlighted that shipping and rail facilities of transit caused the longest delays, and in bad weather the butter lost very considerably its weight and deteriorated in quality. As the quantities to be graded were large, delays were encountered. In nearly all cases it took at least ten days before grading was completed.
The market trustee argued that whilst the graders were undoubtedly qualified to deal with butter as for show purposes, the judging of Irish butter in war time should not be done, as if it were in a show competition. He noted; “It should be pursued along the best commercial lines; the present system of grading was lacking in initiative, and common sense…butter is very perishable, and it is when it has thus suffered, the graders in England deliver judgment on it. The whole thing was monstrously unfair and the only remedy for it was that the grading be done in Ireland. Nine-tenths of the butter could be graded here”.
Another export merchant highlighted that the grading system was done out of awarding of points for flavour, texture, packing, and colour. There were four grades, the lowest being known as non-table butter, and which was in fact a butter for use in cooking or confectionery. The highest grade was that which was awarded from 90 to 100 points. The prices for the different grades differed by about 5s so that if a butter did not achieve 89 points it went into grade two and so on down to non-table butter. There had been instances of butter that had left Ireland of the highest grade and was then a grade returned by the graders to the merchant as non-table butter.
Many merchants complained of the way returns were made. They shipped their butter to England, hoping that it would be graded within a week. However. it was often three weeks to a month before they got the return showing them the grade their butter had received. In one instance it was five weeks before the return reached one merchant. When the payment of sums amounting in some individual cases to £20,000 was delayed in this way for weeks and months the losses to trading were heavy and business was upset.
Another leading Cork trader said there was no reason why the grading should not be carried out in Ireland. A small efficient staff in Cork could deal quickly with the great exports that leave the south of Ireland, while in Limerick and Tralee, as in Dublin and the North, the thing, could be pursued with fairness and dispatch. He was apprehensive noting of the entire grading scheme; “it acted unfairly to the creamery interests, there were also certain differentiation in treatment between the creameries and the farmers’ dairy and factory butter. If it led to the killing of the butter industry among the farmers themselves it would mean the wiping-out of a dozen other subsidiary industries. Sufficient cold storage could be found in Ireland”.
949a. Former Cork Butter Exchange, Shandon, present day (picture: Kieran McCarthy)
Kieran’s June Historical Walking Tours:
Saturday 9 June 2018, Cork City & its Bridges (new tour), learn about the early history of the city’s most historic bridges; meet at the National Monument, Grand Parade, 2.30pm (free, duration: two hours, finishes in City Centre) in association with Meitheal Mara’s Cork Harbour Festival.
Saturday 23 June 2018, The Cork City Workhouse; learn about the workhouse created for 2,000 impoverished people in 1841; meet at the gates of St Finbarr’s Hospital, Douglas Road, 12noon (free, duration: two hours, on site tour), in association with the Friends of St Finbarr’s Hospital Garden Fete.
Saturday 30 June 2018, The Lough & its Curiosities; explore the local history from the Legend of the Lough to suburban development; meet at green area at northern end of The Lough, entrance of Lough Road to The Lough; 12noon (free, duration: two hours, on site tour)