Pssst, Wanna Buy Some Honey?

The cottager beekeeper of the late nineteenth century was giving-up keeping bees. There were many reasons for this including the fact that making a living as an agricultural labour was becoming a precarious occupation and better prospects lay in the towns and cities working in the factories.

In addition to this, the cottager beekeeper was having difficulties selling their honey.  The Berkshire Beekeepers’ Association was trying to arrest the decline the cottage beekeeper, Mr Woodley describes the situation:-

Yet another reason for the decline is the difficulty in selling their honey.  They (at least, in this part) had been in the habit of putting their produce in large red-ware pots of, say, twenty to thirty pounds.  This sold well a few years back to the chemists, or to the ‘higgler,’ who used to come round and buy up all the honey and wax in the district; but since modern bee-keepers and honey depots and companies have bottled up in small quantities, and people can go to the nearest grocer and get a pound at a time as wanted, these old markets are closed to the cottage bee-keeper, and he is very slow to take to new methods, and put his honey up in, small quantities likely to meet with a sale in his immediate neighbourhood.

Then another salient point is the method of straining the honey, that places him at such a disadvantage unless he has embraced in some measure the modern method of ‘grading’ the honey by keeping different qualities apart as it is broken up in the sieve or strainer cloth.  The whole of the comb that contains honey, of whatever colour or quality, and altogether irrespective of patches of brood or comb heavily clogged with pollen, is broken up into one conglomerate mass, and the consequence is the honey is so impregnated with pollen grains that it is so strong as to be unsaleable for table use.  This applies to some bee-keepers; but others, who I may say are the older hands, are more careful, and the product of their apiary is nearly equal in flavour to honey extracted from combs by centrifugal force.

[NBTW 8 January 1891]

selling honey from barrels
Honey in France during the 19th Century was quite happily sold in barrels. This is not too dissimilar from Beekeeping Cottagers selling the honey in Britain in 20lb pots.

To assist marketing honey the Berkshire Beekeepers’ Association had a honey labeling scheme, Mr Woodley explains:-

Honey sales continue to engage the attention of the Bee-keepers’ Associations, and the most reasonable device to ensure to the British public that they are using or consuming British honey is by using an Association label; our Berkshire label is an effective one, distinct in design and of a good size for bottled honey, and the right size to affix to the top of a section of honey.  They are numbered consecutively, and when sold to members entry is made of the numbers sold to each member, so that a reference is easily made as to who sold the honey when the label order book is consulted.  At one end is a notice that honey crystallises in cold weather, and at the other that any complaint as to the quality should be made to the. Hon Sec. of the Berks Association.

[BBJ, Notes By The Way, 15 March 1894]

Berkshire Honey Label

Mr Woodley goes into a bit more detail:-

Disposal of Honey. — For some years past this has been a question which bee associations have been trying to solve.  The bee-tent has become a familiar fixture with most agricultural and horticultural societies at their annual exhibitions, where, year after year, the driving, transferring, and other manipulations with bees, are conducted by certificated experts, while, at the same time, a ‘patter’ is carried on either by the manipulator or by some prominent bee-master, giving full, though succinct, instructions how to keep bees on modern and profitable principles.  The result from the glowing account of the enormous yield from a few bar-frame hives, coupled with the enhanced prices such honey will make, is that a number of the younger members of middleclass society goes in for the fad, and in the course of a season or two has some honey that he or she, as the case may be, wishes to sell.  Now the difficulty of these producers is to find a market for their produce; to give it to friends they cannot afford, and to ‘hawk’ it they are ashamed; and it is to such bee-keepers that associations are of real benefit by finding a market through agents for the sale of members’ honey.  In our own ‘Royal County’ we have appointed agents in every town for the sale of ‘members’ honey with a county label attached to every bottle or section of honey’.  This is a double guarantee, first, to the agent that he is dealing with the Association through its members, and, secondly, to the purchaser of honey that he is buying pure Berkshire honey.  Then another provision is made by the label that each parcel of honey is genuine, i.e., by the registered consecutive number on each label.  Say, I, ‘Woodleigh,’ write to the Secretary of our Association for 500 labels, my 500 labels would run, say, from 1500 to 2000.  These numbers would be registered in a book styled Berks Label Book as sold to me, and every section of honey and bottle on which I placed one of these labels could be traced to me by reference to the Berks Label Book.  This proviso acts as a check on the members of our Association to place only the best honey they have in the hands of our agents for disposal to the public; and, if we can only engender an esprit du corps among our members to get their sections well tilled and neatly glazed in the  style adopted by some of our prominent county exhibitors, I have no doubt in a few years that we shall find ‘Pure Berkshire Honey’ on the counter of every grocer, confectioner, fruiterer, and chemist of note in the county: and what one county can do surely others can do also, and I think that we shall be able to show rapid progress in developing a taste for pure honey as an article of food.  Now, in many instances, the sections of comb honey retailed over the tradesman’s counter at 1s. each are apt to be looked on as a luxury, and often eaten extravagantly by the smaller fry at the breakfast or tea-table as a treat.  What, we want to do is to engender in the minds of the public that honey is a necessary article of food, that a pound of honey contains more nourishing qualities than an equal quantity of butter, especially in (first, and, many add, second) childhood.

[BBJ Notes By The Way 22 August 1889]

But alas, the decline in beekeeping cottagers was not arrested by this labelling scheme or by other initiatives by Beekeeping Associations.  The march to the towns and cities by the agricultural poor was not abated and beekeeping was largely abandoned by this class of people.



1 thought on “Pssst, Wanna Buy Some Honey?

  1. Fascinating – all the more so because we face similar issues today, yet the Berkshire Federation of Beekeepers is winding up.

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