"When eating fruit, remember who planted the tree; when drinking water, remember who dug the well".
(Vietnamese Proverb)
British food has always been multicultural. From the influence of the Romans in ancient times, and the French during the Medieval period, the British have developed an eclectic mix of tastes and flavours. Trade with other continents enabled our ancestors to try new ingredients and recipes, and as Britain’s Empire flourished, so did knowledge of foodstuffs, as well as the accessibility of exotic spices and increased commodities.

With an empire made up of a series of colonies, protectorates, territories and dominions, Britain once ruled over 20 per cent of the planet before most of its colonies became independent during the twentieth century. From the 1500s, Britain conquered overseas lands desirable for agricultural or mineral wealth, or for strategic purposes. Merchants sent their ships to trade with the West Indies and North America, and shipped goods back to London in the form of sugar, bananas, cocoa, tobacco and a wide variety of items that could not be grown in Britain’s cold climate.

The British population had increased from 8.7 million in 1800 to 16.7 million in 1851, reaching just over 41 million by the end of Queen Victoria’s reign. The solution to the higher demand for food and agricultural products from this rapidly expanding nation was to import from abroad. The Industrial Revolution had seen the wealth of newly-constructed factories reduce the amount of arable land available for crop growing and cattle rearing, so now Britain turned to its colonies to trade livestock and other food commodities. Expanding shipping lines brought food stuffs from America, Australia and New Zealand, and when the Suez Canal opened in 1869, large amounts of cheap corned beef arrived from Argentina. Once the vessels docked in British ports, the growing rail network was used to transport these goods around the country.

At its peak of trade in the Victorian era, merchants would reload the ships with goods made in Britain’s factories, sailing back to different parts of the Empire and ferrying passengers to and from the colonies. British men settled in the colonies to work as administrators, overseers of trade operations or soldiers, but they also carried out lower status labour intensive jobs. Gradually, women began to accompany their husbands, to help them build a life in these far-flung outposts.

Each region’s cuisine varied enormously and new cookery techniques were absorbed into the British way of life. Trade routes had long ago introduced Britons to lemons, oranges and limes from Arabia, and cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg from Asia, but those who relocated to these new colonies now had cheap, easy access to these ingredients. When they returned to Britain, they brought the recipes for many of the dishes they had grown to enjoy back with them. Some of the most popular were tantalising curries, laced with spices and served with rice, and delicious chutneys which enlivened meals.

Colonially Creative

Although Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management concentrated on recipes and methods for the British cook, it also provided interpretations of recipes and cookery practices from other countries. As many Victorians were building new lives overseas at this time, homesick housewives would have found her advice invaluable. Mrs Beeton’s simple observations enable us to understand some of the challenges female immigrants may have had to experience in their new home country.

Mrs Beeton sympathised with the wives of American and colonial settlers, explaining that the mistress of the house not only had to have a thorough practical knowledge of cookery, but also of household and dairy work. She would need to acquire the skills to make soap, candles, sugar, and other ‘household requisites’, that their English equivalents with access to well-stocked shops would never dream of making themselves. Interestingly, she also pointed out that English domestic servants were being tempted by higher wages to leave Britain and try their hand at supporting those emigrants who were trying to seek their fortunes overseas.

Mrs Beeton’s comparison of the availability of produce in America is interesting. She states that meat in the rural communities is much cheaper and more plentiful than in England and therefore ‘wastefully treated’; that fish is a large part of the American diet and in abundant supply; and that ‘nearly all the vegetable products of the Earth are to be found in their immense extent of territory’. Bread-making is practised in every household, she claims and the diverse blended flours available enabled the colonists to create products that ‘vary the monotony of the household loaf or hot rolls of English breakfast tables’. To overcome the hurdles of acquiring the more expensive items, colonists grew their own rice, tea and coffee, cultivated their own grapes for wine-making, brewed their own beer, and made sugar and rum from sugar cane.

Although Isabella Beeton seems forward-thinking, some of her comments come across as comical today, such as her declaration that ‘the idea of sugar being detrimental to the teeth is an exploded one … it is known that the ice cream and ice cold drinks are very often injurious when partaken of too freely, as is sometimes the case in America’. As far as Australia’s culinary reputation went, Mrs Beeton explained that ‘to all intents and purposes it is the same as in England except that the same meals served in hotels in Australia would be at two thirds of the cost’.

Mrs Beeton’s comments could sway the beliefs of the general public. At this time, tinned meat was being imported from Australia and many Britons were prejudiced against it, but she strongly defended its quality, stating that only the best meat was used for this purpose and even comparing the tinned mutton from Queensland as being in equal condition to the cuts sold in Smithfield Market, London.

The Book of Household Management is likely to have travelled far and wide in the luggage of emigrating colonists and, although some of her recipes would not have been practical for British kitchens, the ingredients used in some examples would have been plentiful overseas. ‘Soup from Kangaroo Tails’ was apparently a hearty dish to serve during the Australian winters; ‘Parrot Pie’ requiring a dozen paraqueets was depicted in an engraving of the finished dish, garnished with the legs and feathers of the unsuspecting birds; ‘Roast Wallaby’ was stuffed and trussed in the same manner as a hare and served with the head still on. These dishes may still have raised a few eyebrows when first experienced by the British immigrant.

Life in the British Raj could not have been more different than the conditions experienced by British colonists in Australia. The mistress of the household would have depended upon Indian servants for all her domestic and culinary tasks. Unfortunately, Mrs Beeton does not portray the servants in a particularly good light and advises getting on good terms with the Khansaman (cook), who would also be in charge of buying provisions from the bazaar.

Despite never having visited the country herself, Mrs Beeton judged the local beef ‘coarse, sinewy and tasteless’, stating that ‘the mutton is decidedly inferior quality’, while ‘pork is not eaten in India at all’. Of fruit, she declared that peaches are ‘poor’, grapes are ‘thick-skinned’ and comically, that mangoes have ‘a taste only acquired by those who have not a strong prejudice against turpentine’. Despite this, she admits that Indian cooks are clever and, ‘with very simple materials will turn out a good dinner’ and also confesses that their rabbits are ‘good in curries’, snipe are ‘well flavoured’ and ‘quails are better in India than almost anywhere else’.

She explains the need to boil and filter the drinking water, but adds that ‘something’ is needed to make it more pleasant to the taste, and that this ‘something’ often happened to be brandy – ‘of which a great deal is consumed in India, to the detriment of the health of the majority’. Consequently, she tries to steer her readers into consuming iced tea or adding lime juice to boiled water.

One particular dish ‘discovered’ during the days of the Raj and brought back to Britain to be enjoyed at many a country house breakfast, was kedgeree. The combination of smoked fish, rice and hard boiled eggs mixed with a delicately spiced curry powder was, at first, unusual to the British palate. But tastes developed from simple farm-produced dairy products to include more adventurous devilled kidneys and strong tasting kippers, and so kedgeree was soon offered alongside these dishes.

Another popular Anglo-Indian dish that has stood the test of time is mulligatawny soup. Coloured and flavoured with turmeric, then thickened with rice, it was known as ‘pepper water’ from the Tamil molegoo (pepper) and tunes (water) before the British added meat (chicken, beef or lamb) to make it a hearty dish for a typical British winter’s day.

The British Shopping Experience

For Victorian cooks, shopping could be an exciting affair. The burgeoning nineteenth century railway network meant that food could be transported quickly and enjoyed all over the country, bringing fresh fish from the coast to the rural communities and vegetables from the fields for the city dwellers. Trade brought new and enticing ingredients to stores and shopkeepers wasted no time in advertising the latest products and using them to create decorative displays. Supermarkets were still a long way off, but in the nineteenth century equivalents known as stores, dry goods such as tea and coffee were sold alongside butter, cheese and bacon.

In 1869, John James Sainsbury and his wife, Mary Ann, opened their first store at 173 Drury Lane, London. Initially selling fresh foods, they gradually expanded their range to include packaged goods, served to their customers by staff in white aprons over marble-topped counters. Their motto was ‘Quality perfect, prices lower’ and their emphasis on cleanliness and excellence attracted a loyal following of shoppers, who were drawn to the variety of products on display. Such was the success of their initial venture that, by the time of John’s death in 1928, 128 shops in carefully chosen locations bore the name J. Sainsbury Ltd.

In many Victorian stores, most items could be purchased by weight and individually wrapped at the end of the transaction, but as soon as tinned goods and processed products appeared on the shelves, they quickly became standard household store cupboard items. There were no health and safety or food hygiene restrictions for Victorian shopkeepers, and butchers would happily hang their joints of meat in the shop window, and even outside, making the most of the space they had to draw potential customers in.

For the thrifty Victorian shopper on a budget, markets were essential. In his 1851 book London Labour and the London Poor, journalist and social researcher Henry Mayhew wrote a vivid description of the street language which filled the air in the capital’s markets:

"The pavement and the road are crowded with purchasers and streetsellers. The tumult of the thousand different cries of the eager dealers, all shouting at the top of their voices, at one and the same time, is almost bewildering. “So-old again,” roars one. “Chestnuts all‘ot, a penny a score,” bawls another. “An ‘aypenny a skin, blacking,” squeaks a boy. “Buy, buy, buy, buy, buy- bu-u-uy!” cries the butcher. “Twopence a pound grapes.” “Three a penny Yarmouth bloaters.” “Who‘ll buy a bonnet for fourpence?” “Pick ‘em out cheap here! three pair for a halfpenny, bootlaces.” “Now‘s your time! beautiful whelks, a penny a lot.” “Here‘s ha‘p‘orths,” shouts the perambulating confectioner. “Come and look at ‘em! here‘s toasters!” bellows one with a Yarmouth bloater stuck on a toasting-fork. “Penny a lot, fine russets,” calls the apple woman: and so the Babel goes on".

Mayhew’s account not only gives us an insight into the noise, and hustle and bustle encountered in a Victorian street market, but also reveals the wealth of products available for sale. Watercress sellers set up their stalls next to shellfish vendors. Bushels of gooseberries and bundles of herbs were sold alongside cobnuts, baked potatoes, and cough drops. Turnips were piled high, walnuts stacked precariously; shrimps, sweetmeats and spice-cakes were all available to those with the wherewithal to purchase them.

In addition to market traders, costermongers sold their wares from barrows both in the markets and in the streets. ‘During the summer months and fruit season’, Mayhew explained, ‘the average number of costermongers attending the Covent Garden market is about 2,500 per market day. In the strawberry season there are nearly double as many’. Similar markets were held across the city throughout the week, with Saturday night markets proving extremely popular for the working class shoppers, who were paid late on a Saturday evening. A visit to a Sunday market ensured that the family would have food on their tables on the Sabbath day.

Immigration greatly influenced food choices and, as families of different cultural backgrounds settled in locations around the country during the nineteenth century, their customs, tastes and traditions seeped into the British way of life. Pockets of varying nationalities sprang up, many seeking refuge from religious persecution or simply hoping to carve out a better life. Jewish and Russian families appeared in cities throughout the era, alongside Italians and Irish families who had fled the famine in their homeland. This often resulted in new food-related businesses appearing, as immigrants fought to scrape together a living.

Mayhew interviewed a number of street sellers during his research. One man explained:

My missis is lame, she fell down a cellar when a child. Last October twelvemonth I was laid up with a cold, which settled on my lungs and laid me in bed for a month. My missis kept me all that time. She was “working” fresh herrings; and if it hadn’t been for her we must all have gone into the workhouse".

Similarly, a young girl of about 11, whom Mayhew described as ‘stunted and wretched’, explained that she was ‘sent out by her mother with six halfpenny worth of nuts, and she must carry back 6d or she would be beat’. She could neither read, nor write and, like many other children from the poorer classes, relied upon the sale of food items to provide money for her family.

Sadly, some immigrant streetsellers were looked down upon by the ‘regular’ costermongers, according to Mayhew:

"Thorough-bred costermongers repudiate those who sell only nuts or oranges in the streets, whether at a fixed stall or at any given locality. They repudiate also a number of Jews, who confine their street trading to the sale of ‘Coker-nuts’ on Sundays vended from large barrows. Nor do they rank with themselves the individuals who sell tea and coffee in the streets, or such condiments as pea soup, sweetmeats, and the like. I often heard all such classes called ‘the illegitimates’".

Despite this, the street sellers in towns and cities continued to peddle their culinary wares to passers-by. From hot eels and chestnuts to crumpets and penny pies, these stalls provided cheap and tasty food. Those living in cramped conditions in the city often had no cooking facilities available to them in their overcrowded dwellings or lodging houses. They relied upon street food for sustenance and could not be too fussy about where it may have originated or how it had been cooked.

To accompany street food, a selection of beverages – not only tea and coffee, but also lemonade, ginger beer, hot wine and milk – helped to keep the shivering customers warm in winter and refreshed in summer. ‘Of all elder-wine makers the Jews are the best as regards the street commodity’, wrote Henry Mayhew. ‘The elder wine urn is placed on a stand covered with an oil-cloth, six or eight glasses being ranged about it. It is sold at a halfpenny and a penny a glass’.

At all hours of the day and night, vendors would work the streets specialising in one particular victual, as Mayhew’s interviews with the traders revealed:

"I was told by one who spoke from a personal knowledge, “a pepperminter” had two little taps to his keg, which had a division in the interior. From one tap was extracted “peppermint-water;” from the other, “strong peppermint-water.” The one was at that time 1d a glass, the other from 2d to 4d, according to the size of the glass. With the “strong” beverage was mixed smuggled spirit, but so strongly impregnated with the odour of the mint, that a passer-by could not detect the presence of the illicit compound".

These street sellers kept the city poor fed, watered and temporarily warm, and enabled hundreds of others to eke out a living.

Colonial Commodities

One of the earliest references to sugar in Great Britain dates back to 1319, when 44 tons were being shipped to London by a merchant from Venice, in exchange for wool. Throughout Medieval Europe, sugar was a costly luxury. Initially sold by apothecaries and used in medicinal remedies for its healing and antibacterial properties, prices continued to remain high, even when it was fast becoming a food staple as a sweetener in tea and coffee.

The growth in British sugar consumption was rapid. In 1700, the amount used in Great Britain alone was 10,000 tons, rising to 150,000 tons by 1800, with a massive increase to almost 1,100,000 tons by the year 1885. By the Victorian period sugar had become affordable to the masses, but this was due to the use of a shameful source of labour. In 1655, Britain took control of Jamaica from the Spaniards and became heavily involved in the sugar industry. The plantations in the West Indies were booming and it was soon clear that more workers were needed to tend and harvest the cane. Slaves were brought in from Africa to prepare the sugar for export, and many were treated harshly, living and working in diabolical conditions.

The use of slave labour and increased production gradually caused the price of sugar to drop dramatically. The British used the ingredient to sweeten their tea, but at first it was purely a luxury for the wealthy and the equipment used to prepare it was of the best quality. Before, sugar was sold in granulated form it was transported in lumps known as sugar loaves. Conical in shape, these could be bought by weight or by the whole cone and broken off in lumps, depending upon the usage. A hammer and chisel would be needed to break the cone up, but for domestic use it was cut using sugar nippers. Similar to tongs, they could be gripped and squeezed, but the addition of blades meant that they could break the sugar lumps into more manageable pieces. The lumps would then be stored in a tin or wooden box to keep them dry. The sugar would have been locked away when not in use and only weighed out by the housekeeper, or mistress.

This simple ingredient had a whole host of utensils for its preparation. Along with the nippers, were tongs for serving and compartmental caddies, which allowed powdered sugar to be stored alongside the lumps. A pestle and mortar was essential for the cook to grind the lumps to a fine powder, and castors to sift it. The tongs, nippers and castors were often made of silver, whilst the boxes used for storage were elaborately carved, or inlaid, decorative pieces of furniture in their own right.

In 1833, Parliament passed the Abolition of Slavery Act, giving all slaves within the British Empire their freedom and paying plantation owners compensation based on the number of slaves they had owned. Sugar production became increasingly mechanised and the once highly-prized commodity became part of the everyday British diet, incorporated into all sorts of confectionery items and increasingly available to the general public.


England’s first coffee house is thought to have been established in 1650, when a Jewish man named Jacob opened his premises in Oxford, moving to London two years later to repeat his successful venture. Women were initially banned from coffee houses, which were considered purely a male domain. By 1675, there were over 3,000 coffee houses in England and the public continued to flock to them, despite Charles II’s attempt to suppress the establishments as meeting places where scandals were born and trouble was brewed alongside the coffee.

Rapidly increasing in number throughout the nineteenth century, in 1867 John Timbs revealed just how popular the capital’s coffee houses had become with Londoners, in Curiosities of London:

"There are in the metropolis about 1000 Coffee-shops or Coffee-rooms; the establishment of the majority of which may be traced to the cheapening of coffee and sugar, and to the increase of newspapers and periodicals. About the year 1815, the London Coffee-shops did not amount to 20, and there was scarcely a Coffee-house where coffee could be had under 6d. a cup; it may now be had at Coffee-shops at from 1d. to 3d. Some of these shops have from 700 to 1600 customers daily; 40 copies of the daily newspapers are taken in, besides provincial and foreign papers, and magazines. Cooked meat is also to be had at Coffee-shops, at one of which three cwt. of ham and beef are sometimes sold weekly".

Timbs also described the atmosphere and regular customers who frequented some of London’s most fashionable ‘coffee drinking’ haunts. The Jamaica Coffee House in Cornhill ‘is noted for the accuracy and fullness of its West Indian intelligence. The subscribers are merchants trading with Madeira and the West Indies. It is the best place for information as to the mail-packets on the West India station, or the merchant vessels making these voyages’. Langbourn Coffee House in Lombard Street ‘has a broiling-stove in the coffee-room, whence chops and steaks are served hot from the gridiron; and here is a wine and cigar room, embellished in handsome old French taste’, and the Baltic Coffee House in Threadneedle Street ‘is the rendezvous of merchants and brokers connected with the Russian trade, or that in tallow, oil, hemp and seeds. The supply of news to the subscription-room is, with the exception of the chief London, Liverpool and Hull papers, confined to that from the north of Europe and the tallow-producing countries on the South American coast’.

During the Victorian era, the Temperance Movement set up coffee houses, intended as alcohol-free places where the working classes could relax and an alternative to the public house. Across the pond, the Union soldiers fighting in the American Civil War were issued with 8lbs of ground roasted coffee as part of their personal ration, to keep them awake and sustained. When supplies became scarce, chicory was substituted to eke out their quotas.


Initially, tea was marketed as an exotic medicinal drink and, as with sugar, only the aristocracy could afford it or the elaborate serving pieces that accompanied tea-drinking rituals. Tea parties became extremely popular amongst the upper classes, despite allegations by religious reformers that this dangerous brew would bring ruination upon families. Yet when Charles II married the tea-drinking Catherine Braganza of Portugal in 1662, opinions changed and the whole culture of tea-drinking became so fashionable that alcohol consumption went into decline. Tea importation rose from 40,000lbs in 1699 to over 240,000lbs by 1708, and as the craze swept the nation, tea began to be consumed by all levels of society.

There were still those who tried to warn of the recklessness of drinking tea. Irish Quaker and reformer Mary Leadbeater explained the frivolity of wasting money on a beverage that had no nutritional value in her 1811 pamphlet, ‘Cottage Dialogues’: ‘Now if you both take to drinking tea, (and sure you can’t sit down to one thing, and he to another,) you must have a quarter of an ounce of tea, that is three half pence at the lowest; and two ounces of sugar, that is three half pence more’.

Shipments of tea continued to be brought to Britain, sometimes taking up to 12 months to arrive from the Far East. When the East India Company gained the monopoly on the tea trade, they followed their American counterparts by designing clipper ships to replace their heavy English ‘tea wagons’. The clipper ships could travel at speeds of up to 18 knots, helping to reduce the journey time in bringing this precious cargo to British shores. From Europe, tea was re-exported to America and the colonies.

The Duchess of Bedford, one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting, is credited with starting the tradition of afternoon tea. Served after 3pm, it was not intended to be a substantial meal, but instead acted as a light refreshment to relieve hunger pangs, restore energy and revive the flagging feeling often experienced at this time of day. Rather than being prepared in the kitchen, afternoon tea served at a country house was usually organised within the still room. The housekeeper would supervise the maids and arrange the correct amount of tea to be added to the pot. Tea was an expensive commodity so, along with the many keys the housekeeper held she was also responsible for the tea caddy, which was always kept locked when not in use.

When the drawing-room bell rang, the teapot would be dispatched with a footman, who would also leave food for the mistress to serve to her guests. Dainty cakes, thinly-sliced bread and butter, usually with the crusts cut off or toasted, were the order of the day. The intention was that the choice should be appetising and pleasing to the eye, but not too heavy. As many women wore gloves or expensive articles of clothing, each morsel would be easy to handle to avoid soiling their garments.

In his 1848 novel, The History of Pendennis, William Makepeace Thackeray notes the effects that the drinking of tea has had on polite Victorian society:

"What part of confidante has that poor teapot played ever since the kindly plant was introduced among us. Why myriads of women have cried over it, to be sure! What sickbeds it has smoked by! What fevered lips have received refreshment from it! Nature meant very kindly by women when she made the tea plant; and with a little thought, what a series of pictures and groups the fancy may conjure up and assemble round the teapot and cup".

As the years passed, the menu changed to include filled sandwiches of cucumber, smoked salmon, or egg mayonnaise and cress. Hot buttered scones were added, along with more elaborate cakes and sweet treats, but the emphasis was always on bite-size portions.

Outside the home, tea consumption was equally as popular. Coffee houses across the country flourished with the addition of tea on their menus and some even became known as ‘Penny Universities’, as any man could obtain a pot of tea, conversation and a copy of the newspaper for the price of a penny. The first official tea shop had emerged in 1717, when Tom’s Coffee House in London became a tea establishment called the Golden Lyon, where both men and women were welcome.

Today, the plaque outside the shop reveals more of its history:

"Thomas Twining (1675-1741) founded the House of Twining by purchasing the original Toms Coffee House at the back of this site in 1706, where he introduced tea. In 1717 he opened the Golden Lyon here as a shop to sell tea and coffee.

In 1787 his grandson Richard Twining (1749-1824) built the handsome doorway incorporating his grandfather’s Golden Lyon symbol and two Chinese figures. Twinings is believed to be the oldest company to have traded continuously on the same site with the same family since its foundation".

In fine weather, English tea gardens also provided the ideal place to while away a few hours. Inspired by the Dutch tavern gardens, where innkeepers would serve tea to their guests at their garden tables, the English equivalents became extremely fashionable throughout the nineteenth century and enabled women to socialise in mixed gatherings. Ladies and gentlemen gathered at these early outdoor cafés to consume their beverages in the open air; accompanied by musical entertainment and concerts, they enjoyed chatting to acquaintances, whilst taking a walk through the floral gardens or partaking of a game of lawn bowls. In the tea gardens the custom of tipping developed, when small wooden boxes were left on each table with the letters ‘T.I.P.S – ‘To Insure Prompt Service’ – inscribed on the side.


By the 1650s chocolate had arrived in England, but the huge import duties on cocoa beans of 10-15 shillings per pound, meant that, once again, only the rich could afford it. King Charles II’s chocolate-drinking court set the standard and soon speciality chocolate houses began to spring up in London, where people could go and chat, meet friends and drink this new beverage. Samuel Pepys recorded his morning visits to chocolate houses in his famous diary.

Rich and bitter chocolate drinks were sold at the chocolate houses, alongside coffee, snacks and alcoholic beverages and chocolate was also offered in a solid cake format, so that the drink could be made at home. One of the most significant changes to the way the chocolate was consumed occurred when an English doctor, Sir Hans Sloane, was travelling in Jamaica. He added milk to the Jamaican bitter chocolate draught and brought his recipe back to Britain, where he initially sold it as a medicine.

The Victorians enjoyed this discovery in all manner of sweet concoctions. Mrs Beeton explained how to make the popular chocolate drink in her Book of Household Management:

"Allow ½ oz. of chocolate to each person; to every oz. allow ½ pint of water, ½ pint of milk. Make the milk and water hot; scrape the chocolate into it, and stir the mixture constantly and quickly until the chocolate is dissolved; bring it to the boiling-point, stir it well, and serve directly with white sugar".

Not one to shy away from sweet concoctions, Isabella Beeton also included 3oz of grated chocolate, along with ½lb of sugar, 1½ pints of cream and six eggs in her rich and blancmange-like recipe for chocolate cream. She used it generously in soufflés, sauces, cakes and as a covering for almonds, pastries and other sweet treats, too.

It is the Quakers, however, who have the strongest ties to the chocolate manufacturing industry. As their passionate pacifist views encouraged hard work and strict ethics regarding the type of commerce they could be involved in, they successfully immersed themselves in food-related businesses. They began as bakers, and are recognised as the first to add chocolate to their cakes. From baking they branched out into making pure chocolate. Joseph Fry is credited with producing the first chocolate bar in 1848, by mixing together cocoa powder and the extracted cocoa butter. It wasn’t long before the Quaker Rowntree and Cadbury families were hot on his heels with their own variations; the Cadbury brothers adapting Sir Hans Sloane’s recipe to make their own milk chocolate products between 1849 and 1875.

These small enterprises soon grew into highly successful companies employing hundreds of workers across the country. Based in Birmingham, the Cadbury brothers, John and Benjamin, moved their premises outside the restrictive city centre to a new location. Alongside their purpose-built factory, Bourneville, they decided to build a garden village, a small community of well-planned housing and green space – a world away from the slums and harsh conditions suffered in the overcrowded city. By 1895, Cadbury’s was a thriving family concern and 140 acres of land were purchased to create their new vision.

The first 143 cottages were built, providing healthy, spacious living conditions for industrious workers. John’s third son George explained, ‘Why should an industrial area be squalid and depressing? If the country is a good place to live in, why not to work in? No man ought to be condemned to live in a place where a rose cannot grow’. By 1900 the village had increased by a further 313 dwellings, stretching over 330 acres of land. The simple cocoa bean is not only responsible for providing us with one of the world’s best loved confectionery products, but it has also been instrumental in creating jobs and better standards of living for thousands of British workers.

Salt & Seasoning

All Victorian cooks were aware that a meal could be spoilt if it was not seasoned correctly. Although salt was used extensively in the preservation of Egyptian mummies, by 2000 BC its preservative qualities had been discovered and were being used to preserve meat, fish and vegetables. Salt rapidly became one of the most important trading commodities in the world, but due to the work needed to extract and transport it, salt was initially an expensive commodity. In Medieval England, salt was kept by wealthy households in a decorative container known as a ‘salt’.

Back in the eleventh century, the suffix of ‘wich’ or ‘wych’ in the name of an English town was used to denote brine wells or springs in an area. Salt towns in Cheshire, and Droitwich in Worcestershire were even recorded in the Domesday Book, giving a good indication of the significance of salt on the economy. Brine occurred naturally in the abundance of rock salt deposits that lay under the towns in the mid-Cheshire area, and by pumping it from the ground, then boiling it, the salt could be extracted.

Nantwich, Northwich and Middlewich were three of the main salt producing towns that thrived in this region during the nineteenth century. Salt works, brine shafts, new industrial developments and related chemical industries provided work for hundreds of local inhabitants. When the salt mines under Northwich began to collapse, a new source was established further along the River Weaver in Winsford, resulting in the town becoming the largest producer of salt in Britain by 1897.

Much of the success of the Cheshire salt towns can be attributed to their close proximity to the River Weaver and the Trent and Mersey Canal. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, these waterways provided an essential highway to ferry the salt to Britain’s market towns. By the 1850s the rail network offered a faster, more efficient service. When the Sandbach and Wheelock branch of the North Staffordshire Railway, known as the ‘Salt line’, opened in 1852 it enabled this important commodity to be transported to industrialised ports, such as Liverpool. This in turn, brought coal to the area to help power the machinery required to process the salt.

For the Victorians, salt was still used as a preservative as well as seasoning. Before the invention of the refrigerator, meat, fish and vegetables were stored in stone jars or containers, layered with salt to prolong their life.

A Taste for a Tipple

The Victorians were just as keen on alcoholic beverages as on their food. Different types of liquor were often thought to reflect a drinker’s social standing. For the upper classes, wine would be served during dinner and also, depending upon the occasion, champagne. Sherry was usually viewed as a ladies’ drink, whilst after a meal, when the women had withdrawn from the dining room, the gentlemen would take a glass of cognac, or brandy, to accompany their cigars.

During the nineteenth century, whiskey was still seen as an American drink, despite its Scottish origins. Originating from the Caribbean, rum had once been given to sailors as part of their daily rations, but, linked with the working classes, it would not have been the drink of choice for gentlemen. Gin too, was looked upon with derision, as in the past it had been the preferred spirit of the lower end of society. Cheap gin had been easily accessible during the eighteenth century and flowed freely through the brothels and poorer establishments of towns and cities.

Perhaps one of the best portrayals of the social problems caused by gin consumption was depicted in the picture entitled ‘Gin Lane’ by artist William Hogarth. Designed to be viewed as part of a series alongside ‘Beer Street’, the two pictures portrayed the evils of drinking gin in contrast to the merits of drinking beer. In an attempt to reduce the consumption of spirits and resulting criminal activity in England, the introduction of the Sale of Spirits Act, commonly known as the Gin Act, was applied to the liquor in 1751, ensuring that it was no longer a cheap tipple.

Tainted by its history, gin was looked down upon by the Victorian upper classes, who linked it with drunkenness, bad behaviour and loose morals. Yet, in the 1820s, London’s first ‘gin palaces’ emerged on the city streets. These establishments were lavishly decorated and fitted out with gas lighting, providing an alluring setting which attracted wealthy men and became a natural haunt for prostitutes. In an article published in The Evening Chronicle in 1835, Charles Dickens described how the décor of the gin shops contrasted violently with the surrounding slums of the St Giles area of London:

"The filthy and miserable appearance of this part of London can hardly be imagined by those (and there are many such) who have not witnessed it. Wretched houses with broken windows patched with rags and paper: every room let out to a different family, and in many instances to two or even three- fruit and ‘sweet-stuff ’ manufacturers in the cellars, barbers and red-herring vendors in the front parlours, cobblers in the back … filth everywhere- a gutter before the houses and a drain behind …

"You turn the corner. What a change! All is light and brilliancy. The hum of many voices issues from that splendid gin-shop which forms the commencement of the two streets opposite; and the gay building with the fantastically ornamented parapet, the illuminated clock, the plate-glass windows surrounded by stucco rosettes, and its profusion of gas-lights in richly-gilt burners, is perfectly dazzling when contrasted with the darkness and dirt we have just left. A bar of French-polished mahogany, elegantly carved, extends the whole width of the place; and there are two side-aisles of great casks, painted green and gold, enclosed within a light brass rail.

From his observations, Dickens admitted that ‘gin drinking was a great vice in England’ and inextricably linked to poverty. He suggested that the Temperance Societies had better find ‘an antidote against hunger, filth, and foul air’, than seek to dissuade the poor from drinking. He also warned that, ‘until you improve the homes of the poor, or persuade a half-famished wretch not to seek relief in the temporary oblivion of his own misery … gin-shops will increase in number and splendour’.

Charles Dickens’s tales have their fair share of references to alcohol and his characters are depicted enjoying some Victorian favourites with gusto. Scrooge and Bob Cratchit become friends over a bowl of ‘Smoking Bishop’, a mulled punch made from Seville oranges, spices, red wine and port, and a known favourite of Dickens himself. Attorneys Stryver and Carton enjoy a glass of punch whilst working on a case in the novel A Tale of Two Cities, and David Copperfield’s good friend Mr Micawber is partial to a gin concoction of his own. In Martin Chuzzlewit, there is a description of ‘a very large tumbler, piled up to the brim with little blocks of clear transparent ice, through which one or two thin slices of lemon, and a golden liquid of delicious appearance, appealed from the still depths below, to the loving eye of the spectator’. This tempting beverage is revealed as the ‘sherry cobbler’.

Dickens also portrayed the consequences for those who became addicted to drink. Krook, a rag and bottle merchant and collector of papers from the novel Bleak House, is a regular gin drinker, but his taste for the liquor results in his demise from spontaneous combustion, accelerated by his excessive alcohol consumption. Informed by his observations of the lives of the working classes, Dickens was opposed to the mantra of the Temperance Movement. He believed that everyone deserved the opportunity to have an innocent alcoholic drink, especially the poor, who at times needed something to get through the struggles of their everyday lives. Moderation was the key rather than complete teetotalism.

In the Victorian era, most ordinary families had very little money, their choice of where to spend their income was nearly always governed by the man of the house. Lack of money due to unemployment could see lives spiral out of control, as some men – and women – turned to drink in an attempt to obliterate financial problems and the hardships faced in their difficult lives. In the mid-1800s, temperance campaigners claimed that, ‘more was spent every year on drink than on rent’. By the 1870s, the Illustrated London News reported that ‘people were drinking more than ever – about 10 pints of spirits, 4 pints of wine, and 275 pints of beer each year for every man, woman and child’.

Angus Bethune Reach provided a vivid picture of the beer houses and gin shops of Manchester in an article published in The Morning Chronicle in 1849:

"On Saturday night the gin shops are in full feather- their swinging doors never hang a moment still … In a beer-house in Charter Street a number of barefooted boys were drinking. The rattle of dominoes were heard on every side: the yellow dips which lighted the room burned with a sickly flicker amid the drafts and the thick tobacco smoke".

This scene was emphasised in George Sims’s book, Horrible London, published in 1889:

"More than one-fourth of the daily earnings of the citizens of the slums goes over the bars of the public-houses and gin-places. On a Saturday night, butchers, bakers, greengrocers, clothiers, furniture dealers, all the caterers for the wants of the populace, are open till a late hour; there are hundreds of them trading around and about, but the whole lot do not take as much money as three publicans – that is a fact ghastly enough in all conscience. Enter the public-houses, and you will see them crammed. Here are artisans and labourers drinking away the wages that ought to clothe their little ones. Here are the women squandering the money that would purchase food, for the lack of which the children are dying".

Eager to react to such scenes witnessed in towns and cities across Britain, Joseph Livesey spent his life crusading against the evils of drink and the devastation it could cause to individuals and their families. Believing that drinking, even in moderation, only led to drunkenness and addiction, in 1832 Livesey set up the Temperance Movement in Preston, Lancashire, requiring his followers to sign a pledge of total abstinence from alcohol. Livesey’s ideals were embraced by several non-conformist churches and paved the way for the development of this mass movement throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Despite this, alcoholism amongst the poorer classes was still a huge problem. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence witnessed the effects that alcohol continued to have upon the poor in London, when she took up the role of social worker in 1891. Emmeline later wrote in her book, My Part in a Changing World, ‘Drunkenness was extremely common … It seemed for many the only refuge from depression and misery’. She added, ‘The effect of drunkenness upon the ordinary relationship of husband and wife, parents and children, was disastrous’.

When Liverpool merchant Charles Booth made a detailed study of the labouring classes in London during the 1890s, he sent out investigators to interview people from all walks of life. One vicar in a poor parish revealed:

"A decent man earning 25 shillings a week will give 20 shillings to his wife. She ought to be able to – because in many cases she does – feed four children, dress herself, and pay the rent out of this. The five shillings left is kept by the man for his beer and tobacco".

At this time, three shillings would buy a quart of milk, 2lbs of bacon, one dozen eggs, and 1lb of cheese.

By the second half of the nineteenth century the Temperance Movement was at its strongest, trying to instil the virtues of abstaining from alcoholic beverages into the working classes and preaching that these lethal concoctions would be the ruin of the nation. But alcohol consumption was a hard habit to break, especially when people had been encouraged to drink alcohol in favour of potentially infected water during the cholera epidemic. Even the political leaders of the time were no strangers to a healthy quantity of alcohol. It was reported William Gladstone, the leader of the Temperance-minded Liberal Party, would occasionally partake of the odd tipple.

In 1854 an outbreak of cholera gave British physician John Snow the opportunity to identify the source of a disease which regularly devastated London’s unsanitary and overcrowded streets. By recording the locations of those who died from cholera, he was able to confirm that the infection was spread via contaminated water and finally connected the majority of deaths to the use of one public water pump in Broad Street, Soho. Snow campaigned hard to convince officials that sewage had leaked into the water supply and finally persuaded them to remove the handle of the pump, making it impossible to draw water. As a result, the number of reported cholera cases rapidly decreased, proving Snow’s theory that cholera was not spread from person to person but by unsanitary water or food sources.

The introduction of piped, clean drinking water later on in the period would bring about great changes for public health. Once water was safe to drink, the need for daily alcoholic alternatives dwindled.

Ice Cream

Ice cream has become one of our most loved desserts, greatly influenced by the techniques used around the globe, and later by immigrants who brought their culinary secrets with them to Britain. The histories of India, Turkey and other Asiatic countries are littered with references to combinations of fruit juices and sugar poured over snow, then packed into cups to make a refreshing sweet dish. By introducing milk to the ice mixture, the Chinese invented a product which would be recognisable to us today, and Marco Polo is credited with bringing its secrets back to Europe in the early 1300s. Gradually, milk ices, sherbets and ice concoctions became popular in the fashionable eateries of Italy and France. Royal courts served elaborate dishes created from this versatile confection, with King Charles II becoming the first recorded British monarch to experience the delights of ice cream in 1672.

Before refrigeration, a reliable method had to be found to freeze the liquid. A process first documented in the thirteenth century worked by immersing a container of the mixture into a combination of ice and salt, which reacted together to lower the temperature of the ice cream to below freezing point. But the Victorians would make the production of ice cream easy enough for the home cook. By 1853, William Fuller had devised a hand-cranked ice cream-making machine and, teamed with his Manual Containing Numerous Original Recipes for Preparing Neapolitan Ices, his invention was widely used by professional caterers, and in the kitchens of the wealthy. It was not until the latter part of the century, that similar machines were made for domestic use, for the housewife becoming more experimental with her menus and eager to mimic the dishes created by the upper classes.

The domestic ice cream-making device was simple in design and consisted of a rotating chamber inserted inside a coppered wooden bucket. The chamber was surrounded by ice and salt to enable the temperature to fall low enough to allow the ingredients within to freeze. A hand crank rotated the chamber so that the contents were evenly cooled.

At this time, an influx of Italian immigrants to the United Kingdom also brought with them the skills and knowledge of some of the best ice cream makers in the world, when they settled in areas such as Manchester and Wales, as well as the capital. Italian vendors would travel the streets with brightly-coloured carts pulled by a pony or pushed by hand, to sell their ice cream from their own pitch, or round. The creamy concoction was served from a ‘licking glass’ or ‘penny lick’, which was used as a container then quickly wiped clean ready for the next customer. But when people became aware that this was a health hazard, an alternative had to be found. Paper and metal cones were trialled, with the first edible cones used in the 1890s.

Agnes Marshall recorded these experiments in her book, Fancy Ices, published in 1894. With her husband, Agnes had opened the Marshall School of Cookery in Mortimer Street, London a decade earlier, and as well as selling cookery supplies, she was granted a patent for an improved ice cream machine, which enabled a pint of ice cream to be frozen in five minutes.

As the popularity of ice cream continued to grow in Europe, America was developing a taste for it. The first American ice cream parlour opened in New York City in 1776, but it was the introduction of the edible biscuit cone that marked a turning point in the way people all over the world ate their ices. At the 1904 Saint Louis World Fair, ice cream sales were so good during the sweltering heat that George Bang of the Banner Creamery soon ran out of dishes. A nearby stall holder was selling thin wafer waffles, so George came up with the idea of rolling the wafer into a cone and serving the ice cream on top.

By 1923, London saw the first purpose-built ice cream bicycles on their city streets. Cecil Rodd of the ice cream manufacturer Walls developed the motto ‘Stop Me and Buy One’ and this improved method of transporting their goods saw the business rapidly expand. Numerous Italian cafés began to spring up all over the country, becoming the meeting places for courting couples, who could enjoy each other’s company as well as the desserts.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Britain’s successful overseas trade brought a plethora of goods to our shores. Passenger travel greatly improved to all areas of the globe and as immigrants arrived in Britain they shared their own culinary knowledge. Scepticism of different and unusual products was gradually overcome and the spread of new exciting dishes enabled us to integrate once ‘foreign’ ingredients firmly into the British menu.

Written by Karen Foy in "Life in the Victorian Kitchen", Pen & Sword History, UK, 2014, chapter 8. Digitized, adapted and illustrated to be posted by Leopoldo Costa.