Eating and drinking in 1850’s London  - by Robert Wilde

A writer called Henry Mayhew, who was an indefatigable chronicler of London's poor toured the city in the 1850s, interviewing what were then called the lower classes, seeing and noting down their customs and carefully listening to the language they used.

Costermongers, for example, used back slang where a word was turned round - you still get this in English in the word `yob' which is simply `boy' backwards.

A costermonger Mayhew interviewed said "I likes a `top o' reeb' " - turn it round and you get a `pot o' beer.'

Most of all I like to look at Mayhew's descriptions of what people ate in those days.

Potatoes were very popular, but they were baked or roasted, not fried. Chips came to England from France and Belgium much later. The baked potato man had a stall on which stood a little oven, with a small chimney to allow smoke to escape. In other words he sold proper baked potatoes, not those pallid, steamed, micro-waved spuds we get now, encased in silver paper. The skin was scrubbed and then salted whilst the potato was still wet. The result was a `murphy' which had a delicious baked skin, but was yet soft and tasty in the middle, ready for the application of butter, salt and pepper to make a filling and appetising meal.

Not all the food the poor consumed was appetising - a workman's daily menu in the 1850s features in one section, and it is:

for breakfast - bread and butter and coffee

for lunch - a saveloy and potatoes, or cabbage, or a `fagot'

for `tea' - the same as breakfast.

A saveloy - from French `cervelas' - could still be bought in a fish-and-chip shop as late as the 1960s - it is a large sausage, glaring red in colour, and probably very bad for you; that's almost certainly why they tasted so good. `Faggot' from French `fagot', has changed its meaning twice - it meant at one time both kindling wood and meatball but is now a derogatory word for a homosexual man.

As you see, our 1850s working man did not eat very well, but he fared better on Sundays when he got a bit of `prime fat mutton with `taturs' to bake along with it, or `a fry of liver if the `old woman' was in a good humour.'

In his description of his wife you see only too well that political correctness had not yet struck home in the middle of the last century.

Fried fish had become popular in the 1840s, and it was sold round the pubs. The vendor's tray was secured by a small cord placed round his neck. You chose your piece of fish and used the condiments he supplied - vinegar, salt and pepper - as liberally as you wished. But you ate bread with it - chips were still to come. It is interesting that a vendor's best sales were made in pubs - in today's England, on a Friday night after 6 pints of bitter, a man still feels drawn towards the `chippie' to allay the pangs of hunger caused by good British ale. Curries had yet to come on stage at the time, although soldiers returning from India were to popularise it by the time the 1890s came round.

Great favourites were `pea soup' and `hot eels'. Pea soup sold well only in winter - it was seen as a `stomach-liner' against the cruel elements - but hot eels and cockles and whelks sold very well in summer. I remember having for `tea' in the late 1940s (only fathers ate dinner in those days - kids had `tea') a `pint' of prawns and some cockles and whelks. The prawns were weighed out by the fishmonger from a white pint-sized container with a blue rim and they were delicious, tasting as good as lobster. They were cold-water crustaceans, taking a long time to grow to size and all the better for it.

Eels were served hot then - it was only later that jellied eels became the fashion, when the eels were allowed to cool in their own `liquor' which allowed a light and tasty aspic to form around them. You could still buy jellied eels at Tubby Isaac's stall in Cambridge circus in London as late as the 1970s.

Pickled jellied meat was popular; cooked pig's cheek was allowed to cool in its own juices, with a little vinegar and pepper added. It was known as `brawn' and had come over to England from North Germany, where it was known as `Labskaus' (which is now a different dish - a type of stew). Germans shipped it to America, and most of the shipping was done from Liverpool - and from `Labskaus' come the words `Scouse' and Scouser'.

Mayhew spoke to an ice-cream seller, who said,

`Ices in the streets!! It'll be champagne a penny the glass next!!!' How wrong he was. Ice-cream was to become extraordinarily popular not many years later when a greater and more delicious variety of this confectionery was brought to England by Italian immigrants a great number of whom settled in Bedford, joining the brick-making trade, and introducing to us insular and xenophobic English the joys of properly made `gelati'.

What did people drink in those days? Mayhew mentions a seller of fly-paper who wore - to encourage trade - a top hat wound round with sticky paper on which there struggled innumerable flies in their death throes. The seller says about his dress:

“ I felt so ashamed I could have cried so I spent my last 2d in some gin and milk to give me courage.”

`Gin and milk?' This is the second most loathsome drink I've ever heard of. The first is what the proprietor of a 1970s bar called `The Other Office' not that far from the British Club drank in the mornings to kick-start himself back into some semblance of life. A glass of Singha beer with a tomato juice in it.

Would you excuse me for a moment? I feel rather ill.

Happily, not all mid-century Victorians drank such hateful concoctions. Sherbet, lemonade and ginger beer were very popular, as was beer. Gin was the spirit of choice, mixed with water or some sweet drink. `Purl' was popular with river workers; this was beer mixed with `wormwood' or untreated absinthe, to give it a more bitter flavour. But untreated absinthe caused the condition known as `wall-eye' when all vision in an eye is destroyed. As late as the 1960s, Frenchmen in Algeria drank the untreated variety, and it was common to see a man with `white-eye', as the French call it, from the fact that the eye takes on a milky appearance.

It's time to leave the 1850s and return to 1999. I've just seen a section in the book called “ On the Filth, Dishonesty and Lewd Immorality in Low Lodging Houses'.

Bob Wilde.

Notes on Vocabulary

a costermonger = someone who sells mainly fruit and vegetables from a cart in the street. The word is rarely used nowadays.


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