Tuesday 11 November 2014

The Food of the Poor

[note: my paragraph-isation, just to spread things out a bit, ed.]

It is a busy night in the market street. The street is in the midst of neighbourhood that boasts of a great many factories, a population of what might be termed "casual mechanics," poor labourers, and a large percentage of bad characters - these last, however, keeping "themselves to themselves" in their own particular courts and slums.

As we wedge our way though the stream of purchasers at the gutter stalls, we can see that the majority of the men are unskilled labourers, earning a somewhat precarious living, being occasionally out of work, and never being absolutely certain of getting the next week's pound to five-and-twenty-shillings. Most of those who are not eagerly making their way to the Blue Boar are busy marketing with their wives; and truly the market is a good market, with a plentiful supply of food sold at very moderate rates.

Watching a man who stands with his wife and little girl before a butcher's shop, let us see what they have to choose from in buying for the next day's dinner. On the shelves set out in front of the shop meat scraps are offered at 3½d the lb.; better scraps (or "block ornaments" as they are termed) at 4d.; somewhat shapeless small joints of beef from inferior parts at 5d.; one coarse shoulder of mutton at the same; tolerably good-looking meat at 6d.; mutton chops at 7d. and 8d., and rump steak at 10d. Our labourer is a decent and sober - well, not over-beery-looking fellow. In making up his mind at what he is going to buy he takes but little time - he instantly points to the rump steak, the dearest of all the food in the shop, and his wife asks for a pound and a half, producing her 1s. 3d. with a cheerful alacrity. 

Next, the family proceed to the greengrocer's. Potatoes there are sold at five, four, and three pounds for 2d. The good wife buys the best, at the same time taking, for a Sunday treat, a pound - at a penny the pound - of unpleasant-looking squashed-up dates. For her pound and a half of steak and three pounds of potatoes she gave then 1s. 5d., that is to say a possible third of her husband's daily earnings, presuming him to be at work. 

After the family have gone on their way, we ask the butcher what sort of meat men and women of that class generally buy. He answers promptly, and somewhat indignantly, "The best." And is a fact that a destitute man or woman who gets a shilling ticket for meat is hardly ever known to spend it on anything but prime steak. But let us look again at the butcher's shop and then at the gutter stalls, and see what sort of meal might be had for three people (father ,wife and one child, say), with something to leave over for the man to take with him to work the next day, the meal, of course, to cost less than 1s. 5d.

At any of the stalls onions are sold at a penny the pound, turnips and carrots at three pounds for twopence; mixed lots, too, of turnip, carrot and onion, weighing apparently over a pound, the lot for a penny. Now, with a pound and a half of meat at 5d.  for the block ornaments at 4d. and 3½d. it must be owned, do not look particularly tempting, and a penny lot of carrots and onions, a good haricot could be made for 8½d. This with 4lb. of potatoes at two pence, they being quite good at that price, would give the family a supply of food two pounds heavier in weight for 10½d. than with the rump steak and potatoes they paid 1s. 5d. for. 

But for what particular reason is it that stew is so little favoured? The answer is promptly given by the proprietor of a rough-and-tumble china and glass shop, who seems not to be on apparently good terms with the butchers. "For three reasons - first of all, the woman don't know anything at all about cooking; secondly, they're too lazy for it; and thirdly, they like to have everything to the last, and so haven't time to make stews." It is not, we are told that anyone has any objection to stews. On the contrary, cold Irish stew, if "oniony" and with lots of pepper, is always liked. Besides, there is no reason why the labourer should have his Irish stew cold. He works near by, and his wife or child could bring it to him in a basin hot. Our Saturnine shopman shakes his head somewhat mysteriously, and says that the wives can't abide the basin business - that is to say, they do not care to the take the trouble to warm up the cold food, and they do not care for the exertion of walking half a mile with it.

On the subject of the laziness of women, which he evidently considers the key to the position, our informant waxes eloquent, and subsequent investigations go a long way to sustain his facts. It is a curious thing, he observes: but women seem to grow lazier and lazier with regard to cooking. In the corner of the china shop is one of those brown earthenware double baking dishes that are used for baking a joint, a batter pudding, and potatoes at the same time. The sale of these dishes has fallen off considerably. The batter took time to make, and the journey with it to the baker's was "too much of a good thing." Yet this was once almost the Sunday national meal with the London labouring classes. Lying about us here are a number of blocked tin articles of various sizes and uses. There cannot be possibly any objection to cooking at home on the score of the expense of the utensils. A quart saucepan can be had for fivepence, a two-quart for tenpence. It is mentioned, too, as an odd proof of the laziness of wives, that our informant sells a hundred teapots to one coffee-pot, and yet coffee is more drunk for breakfast than tea. The reason for this is that ready-made coffee of good quality with sugar and milk can be got from the coffee-houses, while ready-made tea loses its flavour by being kept boiling. In fact, the women buy the good ready-made coffee always, of course, at a profit to the maker, only to save the trouble of making good tea at home, although most of them prefer the taste of tea to coffee, as most women have done ever since tea has been brought into the country. Yet tea can be bought for 1s. 4d. a pound in the market and loaf sugar at 2½d. Looking in a grocer's shop window to take note of prices, we see that calico bags of table-salt are sold at 1½d. It occurs to us to ask the grocer's assistant whether the ready-ground table-salt is ever bought by the wives of labouring people. He answers, of course it is, and that it saves them the trouble of grinding and scraping at home, although of course it is dearer than buying in the lump.

One's attention is also directed to the great increase in the sale of cooked food. Brawn can be bought for 6d. a pound, and brisket is ever so much cheaper than it used to be. It is only laziness that makes the demand. An experienced police inspector, with whom we have some talk, tells us that he knows the case of a woman who often gives her children tinned lobster (7½d. the tin) and bread and butter for dinner because she does not care about the bother of cooking. Another thing noticeable is the great demand for, and supply of, cheap and certainly not always wholesome luxuries. Thousands of pots of jam at 3lb. for 7½d., sardines at 3½d., dried sprats a halfpenny a bundle, dates a penny the pound, chocolate (so-called) three ounces a penny, gill-and-a-half bottles of sauces at 1½d., mixed sweets four ounces a penny.

It is not always the fault of the wives that labourers feed extravagantly. Their husbands insist upon having the most expensive rump steak. In fact, from a sort of ludicrous spirit of snobbery, a labourer will term a fellow he dislikes a "beggar who eats a chuck," chuck being a low-priced part of the carcase. Still, this is by no means the general rule. Indeed, the wives are going from bad to worse from having less to do. Even the School Board, by taking their children from them, leaves more time on their hands than in the old days when the children hung round about the house and wanted more looking after, And the children do suffer terribly from being fed on so-called "handy snacks". The grocers shops are crammed with jars of pickles, sold at a sixth of the price they were twenty-five years ago. And no child dislikes a meal of saveloys and pickles, or coarse German sausage or brisket. Of course, such food must and does have an injurious effect. It trains their stomachs so that they care only for sweetstuff and savories. And the grocers seem specially to lay themselves out for children's caterers. At a grocer's shop near by, sweet rich cake can be had for 2½d. a pound, and damaged cake for 2d. and less, yet but a few years back it was thought quite a wonder when cake was offered for 4d. What will the future of the London poor be, as far as their digestions are concerned, is, indeed, a problem - fed on makeshift meals of prepared salted meats, cheap pickles, cheap sweetstuffs, and abominable cakes and pastry. 

On all sides the story is that "It's all the fault of the mothers and the cooked-food shops only encourage them in their laziness. What with the penn'orths of stewed eels and ha'porths of fried fish, and saveloys and brawn and sausage, it will be a miracle to make them go in for honest food."

Doubtless the drink has a good deal to do with all this. Bad drink and bad food are alternately cause and effect in a dozen ways. A man gives his wife, say, ten pence to find food for the day. The woman has four pennyworth of gin out of it; she has lost her time gossiping in the public-house, and then, meal times coming on before she notices them, she dashes to the cookshop with the money that she has left.

As to any talk as to the expense of fuel for cooking purposes, that is altogether absurd. Loose wood can be bought at the shed for 3 lb. a penny, coke at 5d. the bushel, and coal at 1s. a cwt. And a woman if she cooked properly, even if she had but a few pence in hand, could still have plenty of variety. Rice can be got at 1d. a pound, oatmeal at 2d., fish is to be bought at less than 4d. a pound, and surely out of all this there need be no lack of change. It is worth noticing also that although rice is so cheap, the London poor do not seem to take to curries, despite their taste for savoury foods. As to a woman thinking of making fish curry at a time when there is a glut of fish in the market, such a thing has never been dreamt of. Even, too, when fresh herrings are sold from the barrel for five a penny, as they were during the season last year, it was quite common to see working men's wives buying the soused herrings from low-class fish shops. The trouble of pickling herrings in the Dutch fashion, so as to have a cheap relish for the Winter would be looked upon as gratuitous martyrdom.

The idea of taking advantage of a glut of anything in the market seems to be beyond the comprehension of the London poor. Even the increased popularity of tomatoes arises a great deal from idleness. Last year tomatoes could be bought at twopence a pound; yet they were very rarely cooked, being nearly always eaten as a "handy" relish, sliced, with vinegar. If they had required cooking of the simplest kind the run on them would have been ever so much less. Still, the number of tasty dishes that could be made from the "love apple," at a very low price indeed, is well known to everyone having the least knowledge of cookery.

When we inquire where the thriftless wives come from, a little more light is let on the matter. But few of the mothers, we are told, have ever been in any domestic service. They have been bookbinders, boot closers, label pasters, and such like. In fact, they have been girls who have been used to "their liberty," and flimsy finery. They are deep readers of novelettes and cheap penny awful literature. That is, they are as unfitted as they well can be, to be frugal wives and careful mothers. They never had any home training before they were married.and they are not any more likely to learn it afterwards. And, of course they have never had the chance of knowing how to cook. They have not oven got so far as to know that it would be of any advantage to them. It is only the rich who go to schools of cookery, whereas it is a great deal more important that the poor should.

Walking further down the market our ears are greeted with "Observe the price before going elsewhere. Now, buyers, come along, do. Don't be down-hearted, observe the prices! " And really the prices are very low. But how as to cheap drinks? We walk into a gin palace of the latest fashion: that is to say, of the fashion which England has been so busily importing from Scotland during the last few years. The bar is divided into a number of small compartments, so that the good wives can do their drinking on the sly much more conveniently. This compartment fashion, one need not be told, is helping on drunkenness admirably, especially among many women who like drink, but are afraid of drinking openly. Overhearing the talk outside the gin palace, we catch one woman saving to another, "Have a drink; I've got four soup tickets." In this case the economy of the household is evidently very little affected by outside charity. While the mother may have a little more money for drink, the children will in all probability have only soup and bread for dinner instead of cold brisket or saveloys and bread.

And now as to the quality of the drink. Being in Rome, we do as Rome does, and try it. The glass of stout is comparatively harmless, but a "nip" of Scotch whisky is apparently compounded of  "silent" spirit and paraffin. Zeal in the good cause of inquiry should tempt to a trial of the gin beloved by slattern wives, but there are limits to self-sacrifice even in the public service. Seated on a table in the open space at the end of the passage, into which the drink-boxes open, is a young fellow of about twenty. He is singing, "If I were in a colony I'd live like a lord." Looking at him admiringly is a decent-looking girl of seventeen. In the next compartment a pair of ladies are engaged in a noisy quarrel over a social quartern. That quartern will cost a husband an unwholesome dinner, and dyspepsia probably send him here for Scotch whisky, which will send him home mad to beat his wife, who will console herself with more gin tomorrow. Such is the merry-go-round.

"The Poor at Market", The Standard, 20 January 1888


  1. I read this years ago, as I read a lot of your content, being a history junkie, and it stuck in the back of my mind somewhere. Today people on Facebook were complaining about people on foodstamps buying steak, as I've heard people say a lot and this post came to mind and I pointed out that in the 1800s, people said the same things about poor people buying steak, only the poor people were using their own money and that it was almost as if people don't actually care that it's government money, they just don't think poor people should have nice things. And then I went to find this post since I like to have my sources handy. I'm glad I found it because your search option for your Dictionary and this blog is broken. Anyway, I was just going to say thank you, sir, I've been viciously copy-pasting pieces of the article at people on Facebook.

  2. cheers - nice to know people can still find relevant information on here :-)