Wednesday, 11 December 2013

A Victorian Food Tour

The Victorians were obsessed with food, among many other things. The lack of it, how to serve it, when to eat it, where to eat it...and so on. From Oliver Twist's "Please sir, may I have some more?" to Queen Victoria's daily egg in a golden cup for breakfast, food has been well documented in this time period and played a large role in the literature of the times as well. Many Victorian heros and heroines have experienced conflicts involving food. Many times it is the lack of food that captures the imagination, as the reader's sympathies are engaged with the poor starving orphan boy. While there is no question that the poor lived horribly in the Victorian era, if one had money, there were plenty of places for you and some are still around today.

There have been a few blogs already focusing on what the Victorians ate, and so my blog aims to show where and how they ate. I’ve found that the Victorians as a culture sometimes feel so alien to us, what with their love of taxidermy and hair jewelry. One of the best ways to make them seem more “real” is by looking at shared interests. 

Food is most definitely a shared interest. So let’s eat our way around Victorian London, shall we?

First stop: The wonderfully bustling Borough Market. Borough Market supposedly opened way back in the 13th century, but rose in prominence during the Victorian era, due to its strategic location near the Thames and the original part of the Port of London. This made it perhaps the biggest food market in London. 

How it looked in the 1860s.

How it looks today. It's aged quite well!

What was on sale at Borough Market? The usual suspects- fruit, grain, vegetables, and livestock. Today, one doesn't usually find the livestock or grain, but everything else, including exotic foods from around the world.

Borough Market was usually for the lower classes- those who had to shop for their own food instead of having it delivered to their houses.

Fun fact: During Victorian times, one could get shellfish such as oysters and clams for incredibly cheap as these foods were the hardest to preserve and spoiled easily. In Oliver Twist, one of the less savory characters, Noah Claypole, eats oysters as fast as Charlotte the maid can shuck them- “He was in a slight degree intoxicated; and these symptoms were confirmed by the intense relish with which he took his oysters, for which nothing but a strong appreciation of their cooling properties in cases of internal fever could have sufficiently accounted.” 

Additional in-joke because oysters are well-known for their supposed aphrodisiacal properties- Charlotte is feeding Noah. Saucy!

No oysters for me today, but I did grab a roast duck sandwich. Duck was an easily accessible food in the Victorian era- you’d find them swimming along the Thames just as you’d do today. Hopefully my lunch didn’t come from there.

Next stop: The Trafalgar Tavern

Taverns and eating houses were primarily for the middle classes- those that did not have their own kitchens at home, so the only option was to buy food ready-made. However, the Trafalgar Tavern is special because it seems to have been more for the upper middle classes. Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Samuel Pepys and even Benjamin Disraeli ate here. The Hawke Room, upstairs, served as the setting for the wedding breakfast scene in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend.

The tavern is known for its whitebait dinners: Shoals of tiny fish were caught daily from the Thames, deep fried in lard, then dressed in lemon juice and pepper. The recurring theme in these two locations is that food often came from the Thames. That’s right, the same foul river that served as sewer and washbasin was also a food source!
I wasn't a fan. My food kept staring at me.

Third stop- Let’s move up a social class and explore what the fashionable ladies of the Victorian era did. In the 1870s tea and confectionary shops became popular places for women to socialize. They would eat, shop, and gossip over sweets such as petit fours and biscuits. These types of places with their women-only clientele were important because they allowed women to leave the home, yet still partake in socially-approved activities.

Tea in this period has become so important that it crosses all class barriers. If one was not a fashionable upper-class lady, one would probably have their tea similar to the situation described in the opening chapters of Mary Barton. Mr. And Mrs. Barton are preparing for a tea with their friends the Wilsons.

“Run, Mary dear, just round the corner, and get some fresh eggs at Tipping’s (you may get one a-piece, that will be fivepence), and see if he has any nice ham cut, that he would let us have a pound of.”

“Say two pounds, missis, and don’t be stingy,” chimed in the husband. 

“Well, a pound and a half, Mary. And get it Cumberland ham, for Wilson comes from there-away, and it will have some sort of relish of home with it he’ll like- and Mary, you must get a pennyworth of milk and a loaf of bread- mind you get it fresh and new- and, and- that’s all, Mary.” Mary Barton, 1848.

The Bartons’ tea will be served at their home. Elizabeth Gaskell makes a point to let the reader know the prices of foodstuffs- she is establishing authenticity about her subject as well as indicating that the Bartons must be savvy about their expenses. 

Tea’s capacity to cross classes is still apparent today- anyone, even two American students from Hawaii, can still enjoy a proper afternoon tea at Harrods. It was delicious!

Our next stop on the Victorian food tour is a place where the most important men ate and still do today: the opulent Mansion House. This is the official residence of the Lord Mayor of London, and it has a grand dining hall known as the “Egyptian Hall” (which isn’t accurate because all of the decorations of the hall are Roman). It is used for official functions and state dinners, usually involving foreign dignitaries. 

Plough Monday, an important annual event: “On the Monday evening the Lord Mayor gives the grandest dinner of the year in the Egyptian Hall, at the Mansion House, to 400 persons, at which some of the Royal Family often attend, a ball taking place in the evening.” Old and New London, 1878.

Unfortunately I am not a person of political importance, and so did not eat here.

Final stop: Still hungry? Let’s go look for some Victorian street food! The lower classes sometimes didn’t have time to sit down and enjoy a meal- they were always working. A common practice was to buy something ready-made and eat it while tending one’s stall, begging, or even “working the corners.”

Donkey’s milk
Want really really fresh milk? Sometimes vendors would have the animals alongside them on the street, udder at the ready. Other vendors would simply have the milk available in pails- bring your own cup or tankard. Sometimes the “milk” could be just a mixture of chalk and water.

Hot eels
Eels were chopped, boiled, seasoned with pepper, and kept hot. Pieces of the meat were served in a cup, and one could add vinegar if wanted. Eat quickly though- the vendor needed the cup returned, and more often than not didn’t bother washing the cup before passing it on to the next customer.

Sheep’s trotters
You could eat these lovely things cold or hot. Just buy the trotter already skinned and parboiled, then bring it with you as you walk the streets of London, sucking at the bone. Extra flavor from the bits of mud or worse between the sheep’s toes. Yum.

On second thought, I’m not hungry anymore. Let's end here.

Food and where to get it is so prevalent (or non-prevalent) in Victorian literature that sometimes it even drives the plot. In Mary Barton: it is what forces Esther to prostitution. “I sold my goods any how to get money to buy her food and medicine...and it was winter, cold bleak winter; and my child was so ill, so ill, and I was starving.” Mary Barton, 1848.

In Great Expectations, it is the act of giving food to a starving convict that seals our hero Pip’s fate. Pip is threatened and nearly strangled by the convict, who is clearly willing to kill for food. Pip steals food from his own house to give to the man. When that convict comes into a lot of money, he gives much of it to Pip because he is so grateful.

Victorian literature likes to dwell on the lack of food because it makes for better dramatic tension. If the hero is hungry, that automatically gives him or her a goal to strive toward. However, as we’ve seen from our tour today, not all Victorians were starving. If one had money, one could actually dine quite well in Victorian London. I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of places where the Victorians used to eat and that it has painted a more realistic portrait of the times. Let us end with a quote from The Popular Guide to London and its Suburbs, 1862:

“...if you want anything very cheap, and not particularly nice, you may find it in almost every bye-street, where hot joints smoke and steam in the windows, and you may get your appetite appeased by the scent of the dishes before you have put a morsel in your mouth. Remember Mr. Punch's advice to diners—What to eat, drink, and avoid: Turtle, Champagne, and Ham Sandwiches for a penny!”


A Social History of Tea, Jane Pettigrew [The National Trust:London] 2001(p. 110-112)

'The Mansion House', Old and New London: Volume 1 (1878), pp. 435-447. URL:

"History of the Mansion House." City of London. N.p., 10 Apr. 2012. Web. 25 Oct. 2013.

"The Trafalgar Tavern." Greenwich Guide -. N.p., 17 Apr. 2013. Web. 24 Oct. 2013.

"The History of Borough Market." Borough Market. N.p., 2009. Web. 24 Oct. 2013.

Bentley, Nicolas. The Victorian Scene: 1837-1901. London: Spring Books, 1971

Dickens, Charles. Dickens' Dictionary of London: An Unconventional Handbook.London: E.J. Larby, 1908. Print.

Pardon, George Frederick. The Popular Guide to London and Its Suburbs: Comprising Descriptions of All Its Points of Interest, with Historical, Literary, Statistical and Useful Information. London: Routledge, Warne and Routledge, 1862. Print.

Pictures are mine except for ones with link provided.

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