The Victorian era can be viewed as a revolutionary period due to the industrial revolution, the first ever railway excursion and the reign of Queen Victoria from 1876-1901. As well as these monumental events, classic elements of English culture were cultivated among the extravagant reign of Queen Victoria. Afternoon tea became a staple for many who were rich enough to afford more than just basic bread, as desserts and sweets were recognised to be only consumed by those who had means to affording the delicacies. Giving a clear distinction of class through what you consumed on a daily basis, off cuts of meat, potatoes, bread and vegetables, a carbohydrate laden diet was what those of lower and working classes ate on a daily basis. Meal times were an opportunity for the wealthy and higher classes to display their wealth much like a scene within Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, where Pip enters Ms. Havisham’s house to find her still dressed in her wedding gown surrounded by a magnificent banquet that is unspoilt. This scene emphasizes how many rich Victorians used food as a way of showcasing their wealth. Charles Dickens’s novels illustrate all aspects of Victorian life, not just the life of the wealthy, for example Oliver Twist focusses on the life of a poor orphaned boy and his struggles of living in London. Here you can see the working classes struggle with nourishment, a classic scene within the novel whereby Oliver asks for more gruel accentuates the struggles that many working class families faced when attempting to feed their family.
Accessibility & General Knowledge
Through the industrial revolution and the advancement of the railway system this lead to the transportation of goods, resulting in a far wider choice in goods than before. As well as this the expansion of the British Empire saw new goods being introduced to the British diet, but only for those who could afford the new ‘exotic’ foods. The rich as I have mentioned before used food as a way of showcasing their wealth, they consumed and gorged themselves upon meats, preferably pork, and piles of fresh bread and cakes, which the majority of which went to waste. However, regardless of if you were rich or poor the main issue that was faced at the time concerning food was the lack of refrigeration. Although the majority of the waste made by the richer population was due to the overzealous attitude that they had, the inability to store foods for a small period of time without them spoiling only added to the already malnourished working classes.
If you were fortunate enough to be born into a middle class family you would have had a moderate diet, although it would have cost a vast amount of money to eat well at the time. However, this was not the case if you were born into a working class family your diet mainly consisted of bread, dripping, tea and cheap offcuts of meat. Due to the lack of refrigeration this limited how long produce was fresh for, therefore food was bought from many local producers such as the greengrocers or butcher and consumed within a short period of time in order to avoid the food becoming spoilt. The average shopping list consisted of bread, meat (the most favoured being pork), rice, cheese, milk, flour, potatoes and the most iconic good that represents Britain being tea.
Although being a staple part of our diet in today’s society, vegetables played a small part within the Victorian diet, favouring fatty, sugary and carbohydrate filled meals. When fruit and vegetables were bought and consumed they were mainly in season, unlike the manufactured and all seasonal availability of today. Victorians had to source all fruit and vegetables locally, the only year round vegetables that were widely available due to their affordability were, onions, leeks, cabbage and carrots. However, fruit and other vegetables were limited to specific months of the year, the harvesting of fruits such as plums, apples and cherries took place in the summer months of, July, August and September. When harvested many took to preserving the fruits in jams and conserves as a way of being able to enjoy them in the winter months. Many families took to growing their own produce, especially the year round products as stated before, this was in order to reduce costs of living and make eating far less expensive.
The Upper Class Diet
Much like the grand display of decadent food and drink on Ms. Havisham’s banquet table the daily diet of the upper class consisted of feasting upon an abundance of protein from meat, eggs and fish, which was now widely available due to the expansion of the railway and the production of ice. The upper class revelled in gorging upon delicacies such as cakes and scones, specifically due to the introduction of afternoon tea, which is now a classic within society nowadays within high end restaurants such as Claridges and many others favouring to keep this as an iconic part of their lunch menu, somewhat emulating the same views within the Victorian era. Below you can find a typical daily diet from the higher classes within the 19th Century.
Breakfast: To stat their day the upper classes found themselves choosing between classics such as bacon and eggs, or fish such as kippers served with grilled tomato. Other more exotic options were available such as smoked herring, however, it is evident that the upper classes enjoyed a extremely protein filled breakfast.
Lunch: Even though breakfast appeared to be filled with a vast amount of meat and protein, lunch for an upper class Victorian was packed with even more meat. However, with the introduction of afternoon tea lunch became far lighter in comparison to breakfast. Afternoon tea consisted of, sandwiches (mainly cucumber), cake (Victoria sponge), scones (both plain and with fruit if available) served with jam and clotted cream.
Dinner: Unlike the title suggests, dinner for the upper classes was even more extravagant than the meat laden breakfast. This was due to there being at least five courses, sometimes even going so far as nine, for those who were dining alone with their family. The number of dishes increased when company was over, fluctuating to numbers as high as sixty when a large party was taking place. However, averaging to around twenty dishes for an average sized party. Banquet tables much like Ms. Havisham’s were filled with many mouth-watering dishes such as roasted poultry, beef and pork, an assembly of various cheeses, fresh fish and soups. These were soon followed by puddings, fruit preserves, cake and on special occasion’s coffee.
Evidently, from the average diet of an upper class individual you can see there is a very strong relationship with meat. This was one of the key factors that distinguished the higher and lower classes, the higher consuming a far higher amount of meat daily than that of the sporadic and limited consumption from the lower classes. A joint of meat was considered a high luxury for a working class family and many probably could never afford a whole joint of meat, opting for cheaper offcuts of meat to create sausages. However, many lower class families rarely ever had meat on their table for their evening meal, as you will soon see a staple diet for the lower class families below.
The Lower Class Diet
A vast contrast to the decadent and glutton fest shown above was the diet of the average working class individual which was miserable compared to their higher class counterpart. The quality of the food consumed was low as even though preservation was an issue to all within the Victorian Era, having a low income made buying good produce extremely hard. Many poorer families had to survive on basic diets containing bread, dripping, and potatoes and if you were one of the luckier poorer folk you would also have vegetables but the freshness of the product being questionable.
Breakfast: Compared to their round and gluttonous upper classes, the lower class ran no risk of obesity. Unlike the heavily protein influenced breakfast of the upper class, individuals of the lower class had to survive on simply a few pieces of bread with dripping (if you were lucky) and tea. Which many people of today regard as a good breakfast!
Lunch: For the lower classes lunch was as simple as either hot or cold soup, sometimes accompanied by hard cheese which was favoured by the lower classes.
Dinner: Much like lunch, dinner was just as sparse, the only difference being that instead of soup it was broth, which contained a minimal amount of meat. Many attempted to make it go farther by adding grains such as barley or oats to thicken the soup and to stave of rumbling stomachs.
Overall, you can see that the Victorians had a very particular relationship with food. It is funny to think that they often used food in order to show their wealth and status, almost bragging about being wasteful. It’s a massive contrast to what we see in society today, of course a few things have carried over such as their love for sweets and desserts, but we can be assured that class is not as deeply rooted into our food as it was in the Victorian Era.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. [Waiheke Island]: Floating Press, 2008. Print.
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. Irvine: Saddleback Educational Pub., 2010. Print.
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