Tuesday, 11 January 2011

What did the Victorians have for breakfast?

A twitterer (is that a word?) asks me what the Victorians had for breakfast, and did they take lunches to work? Well, let's start with breakfast. The definitive passage, for the middle and upper-class breakfast is this one from George Sala's verbose but fascinating Twice Round the Clock (1859):-
It is nine o'clock, and London has breakfasted. Some unconsidered tens of thousands have, it is true, already enjoyed with what appetite they might their pre-prandial meal; the upper fifty thousand, again, have not yet left their luxurious couches, and will not breakfast till ten, eleven o'clock, noon; nay, there shall be sundry listless, languid members of fast military clubs, dwellers among the tents of Jermyn Street, and the high-priced second floors of Little Ryder Street, St. James's, upon whom one, two, and three o'clock in the afternoon shall be but as dawn, and whose broiled bones and devilled kidneys shall scarcely be laid on the damask breakfast-cloth before Sol is red in the western horizon.
    I wish that, in this age so enamoured of statistical information, when we must needs know how many loads of manure go to every acre of turnip-field, and how many jail-birds are thrust into the black hole per mensem for fracturing their pannikins, or tearing their convict jackets, that some M'Culloch or Caird would tabulate for me the amount of provisions, solid and liquid, consumed at the breakfasts of London every morning. I want to know how many thousand eggs are daily chipped, how many of those embryo chickens are poached, and how many fried; how many tons of quartern loaves are cut up to make bread-and-butter, thick and thin; how many porkers have been sacrificed to provide the bacon rashers, fat and streaky ; what rivers have been drained, what fuel consumed, what mounds of salt employed, what volumes of smoke emitted, to catch and cure the finny haddocks and the Yarmouth bloaters, that grace our morning repast. Say, too, Crosse and Blackwell, what multitudinous demands are matutinally made on thee for pots of anchovy paste and preserved tongue, covered with that circular layer - abominable disc! - of oleaginous nastiness, apparently composed of rancid pomatum, but technically known as clarified butter, and yet not so nasty as that adipose horror that surrounds the truffle bedecked pate  de  foie gras. Say, Elizabeth Lazenby, how many hundred bottles of thy sauce (none of which are genuine unless signed by thee) are in request to give a relish to cold meat, game, and fish. Mysteries upon mysteries are there connected with nine o'clock breakfasts.
You'll see that some things are unchanging - bread, bacon and eggs were staples of the Victorian breakfast (although Mrs. Beeton has her cooks 'in large establishments' making their own rolls each morning, rather than buying from a baker's). But how many of us indulge these days in devilled  kidneys, or have the 'cold meat, game and fish' left behind from the evening meal? Anchovy paste was also very popular (still popular in Portugal, I think, if memory serves) and note the brand name of Crosse and Blackwell already well-established!

The poor did not have the same choices, naturally. The working man - the clerk, the labourer - might visit a coffee-house (=café) instead of breakfasting at home, but these varied in quality. Sala continues in the same piece:
Are those eggs we see in the coffee-shop windows, by the side of the lean chop with a curly tail, the teapot with the broken spout, and the boulder~looking kidneys, ever eaten, and if so, what secret do the coffee-shop proprietors possess of keeping them from entire decomposition? For I have watched these eggs for weeks together, and known them by bits of straw and flecks of dirt mucilaginously adhering to their shells, to be the selfsame eggs; yet when I have entered the unpretending house of refreshment, and ordered "tea and an egg," I have seen the agile but dingy handmaiden swiftly approach the window, slide the glass panel back with nimble (though dusky) fingers, convey an egg to the mysterious kitchen in the background, and in a few minutes place the edible before me boiled, yet with sufficient marks of the straw upon it to enable me to discern my ancient friend.
But I think it's fair to say that most coffee-houses provided decent, affordable 'plain food' (bread, eggs, bacon, chops, fish &c) ("Coffee houses in which a man may breakfast well for from 1s. 6d. to 2s., and get a good dinner for 4s. 6d. exclusive of wine, are to be met with in almost every street; and dining-rooms with charges for a single dinner at from 1s. 6d. to 2s. are to be found in all parts of the town, but in the vicinity of the Mansion House literally abound." Mogg's Guide to London, 1844).

How about the truly poor? Henry Mayhew describes sweatshop workers in 1849, who lodged with their employer and were obliged to take meals at their lodgings - and they didn't get much, either. Here's the quote:
The tea or breakfast is mostly a pint of tea or coffee, and three to four slices of bread and butter. I worked for one sweater who almost starved the men; the smallest eater there would not have had enough if he had got three times as much. They had only three thin slices of bread and butter, not sufficient for a child, and the tea was both weak and bad.
The poor, of course, would have no cooking facility beyond an open fire-place. They could fry/toast small things, or buy street food (anything from muffins to fried fish) or take things home from the baker's.

Now what about lunch?

Well, the coffee-house was definitely an option for the working-man, and various peripatetic food-sellers. The City 'chop-house' was perhaps a cut above these, more middle-class, with smart wooden booths partitioned by curtains, proper waiters  and reliable chops and steaks; but I'm not sure there's any great differential between a chop-house and a coffee-house, except the former was more likely to be in the square mile and serve a better cut of meat. Here's a sample menu:
Chop or Steak . . . 8d.
Roast Beef . . . 6d.
Roast Leg Mutton . . . 7d.
Roast Pork and Apple Sauce . . . 7d.
Steak Puddings . . . 4d.
Vegetables . . . 1d. and 2d.
Pastry and Puddings . . . 1d. and 2d.
Tea . . .  per cup - 1½d. per pot 2d.
Coffee or Cocoa . . . 1d. and  1½d
Sausage and Mashed Potatoes .... 2½d.
Bacon . . . 2d.     Egg . . .  1½d
Stewed Tripe & Onions from 6 to 12 p.m. 4d. & 6d.
from The North London Restaurant, Islington, advertising in 1884. And here's Alfred Rosling Bennett on the atmosphere in a more upmarket 'chop-house' of the 1850s:
I once or twice in the 1850s had experience of a City chop-house, with its sanded floor, straight-backed wooden seats, and primitive arrangements. Pewter plates and dishes were said to have been discarded quite recently by some of them. The things supplied were excellent - chops and steaks, of English meat of course - and an air of good-fellowship prevailed, room being made for a stranger with the greatest readiness. The Head Waiter was always addressed by his Christian name, and was often a man of parts and character - wealth also sometimes - apt at repartee and free from the servility to which in later years the German waiter accustomed us.
Now, what about packed lunches? Well, yes - of course. Take this young worker from James Greenwood's Seven Curses of London (1869):
As need not be repeated here, a boy’s estimate of earthy bliss might be conveniently contained in a dinner-plate of goodly dimensions. When he first goes out to work, his pride and glory is the parcel of food his mother makes up for the day’s consumption. There he has it—breakfast, dinner, tea! Possibly he might get as much, or very nearly, in the ordinary course of events at home, but in a piecemeal and ignoble way. He never in his life possessed such a wealth of food, all his own, to do as he pleases with. Eight—ten slices of bread and butter, and may be—especially if it happen to be Monday—a slice of meat and a lump of cold pudding, relics of that dinner of dinners, Sunday’s dinner!

Cold pudding for lunch - yum!


  1. brilliantly answered, such a pleasure! thank you sir! x

  2. In the 1901 census my great grandfather Grenville Fairclough Lloyd was a coffee house keeper in 147 Devons Rd, Bromley, and I've never really looked into what this involved, so after your 'taster' I shall now begin investigating !

  3. Thank you, Lee, for this very informative post. I love the tone of the excerpt from Sala.

  4. Sala's a great writer, albeit too keen to impress with obscure words and confusing grammar ... read all his "Twice Round the Clock" if you get the chance.

  5. There are so many references in Victorian literature to "broiled bones." What exactly is this?