East Midlands Food

East Midlands Food Blog

Christmas for the poor and needy…

It may be traditional now, but turkey was generally off the menu for working class families until at least the 1950s. A piece of beef, a goose or chicken, or even a rabbit were more likely to be on the table on Christmas Day, though in the days before butchers had fridges in which to store their meat, bargains could be had by waiting until they were about to close and happy to sell off what was left at a lower price.

Christmas Party at Cascelloid, Leicester in the 1950s

Christmas was also the time for charity, often in the form of coal, a joint of beef or a plum pudding, or a dinner on Christmas Day. ‘From at least the later 19th century ‘treats’ including tea, presents and entertainment were also provided by Sunday Schools or local employers for the children of their workforce . For children who attended the Ragged School Mission in Leicester, established in the 1860s to care for the ‘poor and needy’, the annual Robin Breakfast on Christmas Day was one of the highlights of the year. The  Leicester Journal reported in 1890 that ‘no less than 300 tickets were distributed but the youthful guests far exceeded that number and comprised not a few unassociated with the Ragged School’. The ‘breakfast’ consisted of bread and butter, meat patties, cake and coffee, ‘which the guests enjoyed to their hearts’ content’ before singing a Christmas carol and departing ‘highly gratified’ with a paper bag holding an orange and a mince pie.

The breakfast continued until the Mission was demolished in the 1950s, and it also provided boxes of food donated by well-wishers to elderly people in the city: ‘plum puddings, tinned goods, fruit and nuts… the Mission was overflowing with goodwill from every part of Leicester… In addition to this were the parties! Rows of trestle tables in the big hall, groaning with sandwiches, jellies, cakes, lemonade, tea, and of course… wonderful crackers’. Along with cardboard plum puddings, tinsel, stars, baubles and other decorations, the crackers were donated by Mr Bonner, a commercial traveller, and the arrival of his hamper was always eagerly awaited. Dorothy Rayson, the daughter of the Mission caretaker Will Pyne, remembered that: ‘I was too small to peep inside unless I stood on a stool, and once fell head first from my lofty perch into the basket, mortified at having shown my bloomers to all and sundry…’.

In the Workhouse, Christmas Day was also the occasion for the Poor Law Guardians to serve the inmates with their roast beef and plum pudding. If you’d like to read the ‘authorised version’ of George R. Sims’ famous poem In the Workhouse Christmas Day, you can find it at http://www.victorianweb.org/history/poorlaw/poem.html. You just have time to learn it ready for a recitation of your own on Christmas Day… You could also listen to a short parody of it on the British Library website at http://sounds.bl.uk/View.aspx?item=025M-C1023X0007XX-1400V0.xml#, or if you are a fan of The Archers, try Christmas Day in Grey Gables at http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/archers/listeners/parodies/grey_gables_christmas.shtml.

(Ragged School Mission quotes are extracted from C. Brown, Wharf Street Revisited (Leicester City Council, 1995) and reproduced by permission of Leicester City Libraries).

A Meryy Christmas to you all.


If you can’t afford a Baron of beef…

In my previous blog I was talking about the sort of Christmas fare enjoyed by Queen Victoria and her family at Christmas in the 1890s. Further down the social scale, as Punch magazine noted in December 1872 in its usual satirical manner, middle class families might like to imitate the royal Christmas but few had the incomes for such lavish feasts: so ‘if you cannot afford a Baron of beef, be content with a Sir-loin; if a boar’s head is beyond your purse, make your self happy with a pig’s cheek; and in the not improbable event of the absence of woodcock pie, substitute any other Christmas game you please’.

Simpkin & James, Leicester, in 1890

While the diet of many working class families remained very basic well into the twentieth century, the middle classes with their higher disposable incomes were an obvious market for food and drink, particularly at Christmas, and the range on offer became ever greater as it became possible to mass produce foodstuffs, preserve them by canning and other processes, and transport them all over the country through the extensive railway system of late Victorian Britain.

Changes in retailing in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also played an important part. As well as the local butchers’, bakers’ and confectioners’ shops -often promoting themselves as ‘High Class Purveyors’ - specialist food stores appeared on the High Street along with the ‘Food Halls’ of department stores. People in Leicester have particular memories of Simpkin and James, which also used to bottle its own wine. This ‘used to come to us in casks…’, one former employee recalled of the period after World War II: ‘When wine came in, one had to look at its clarity, and if the clarity was such that it needed treatment in the form of filings to clarify it, then one had to sort of try and associate the amount… Christmas was undoubtedly the busiest time of the year in the wine and spirit trade. I seem to think that one’s turnover would be about a third of the annual turnover, at least… in the month, six weeks, prior to Christmas… You’d begin to get a build-up from the beginning of November right through to Christmas Eve… [when] we used to have tremendous queues for wine’ (Interview with John Clarke, East Midlands Oral History Archive, 931, LO/286/237, 1986).

A whole range of pies and cakes were available by the later 19th century, either to eat at home over the festive season or to give as presents. An advertisement in 1881 for one such supplier, Viccars Collyer of Silver Street, Leicester, urged readers to give ‘sensible Christmas presents’ such as its small selection box ‘for those who cannot afford to pay 10s 6d’ for the larger version. This consisted of a 3lb pork pie, 1 lb sausages, 1lb iced cake, a dozen minced pies and a large Leicester cake (‘title registered’ and presumably one of Viccars Collier’s local specialities). This cost 5s 6d, the box itself being free and delivered at no charge anywhere in Leicester. The large selection included a 4lb pork pie as well as Genoa, Madeira and sponge cakes, and a 3lb ‘rich’ fruit cake.

By the 1870s the emphasis in newspapers and popular magazines on Christmas ‘traditions’, including food, was such that Punch was moved to send it up – so don’t take this advice too seriously:

‘Our Yule Log should be either of wood or some other description of timber, and ought to be well steeped in brandy, nutmeg, and ginger, before it is placed in the fire… The cloth in which the plum pudding is boiled ought to be kept, from year to year, in the plate-chest, or some other place of security, wrapped up in Carols, and covered with the holly that has been used in the Christmas decorations… [In the case of poultry] it is laid down in the cookery-books that it should be boiled in cream, and eaten in good feeling. If, however, it is a gift, you should baste it in butter, and lard your discourse at dinner with praises of the donor…’.  


Food fit for a Queen…

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a roast turkey for dinner – or so said 87% of people surveyed recently by the British Turkey Information Service, which spends much of its time around now fielding queries about how long a turkey will take to thaw (as two out of every three turkeys now sold in the shops are frozen) and how long to cook it. 

The Temple Magazine, December 1896

It is King Edward VII who is credited with making turkeys fashionable fare for Christmas dinner, just as his father Prince Albert is said to have introduced the Christmas tree to Britain from his native Germany. The Royal Christmas was widely reported in the press by the end of the 19th century, so we know that in 1896 Queen Victoria and her guests at Osborne on the Isle of Wight dined not on turkey but the traditional trio of a baron of beef, a boar’s head and a woodcock pie, albeit on a more modest scale than in the past. 

The Temple Magazine tells us that ‘the more modern arrangements’ of the kitchen at Osborne House ‘do not admit of such big roastings’ as were customary when the Queen spent Christmas at Windsor Castle, where the ‘famous baron of beef… cut from an ox bred and fed on the Queen’s own farm at Windsor… is roasted at an immense open fireplace, a relic of olden times before modern ranges and gas stoves came into use… when its capacious grate was filled with burning fuel it must look a veritable Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace. When the baron of beef and the boar’s head – which latter has for the last few years been sent by the Emperor of Germany – are in process of roasting, the cooks busy with their ladles and two men tending the huge fire, one might imagine oneself back in the days when the Norman kings hunted the red deer in Windsor Forest and the spoils of the chase found their way to the spirts before this same great fireplace’.

The kitchen at Ayscoughee Hall, Spalding

The woodcock pie was itself cooked at Windsor and sent to Osborne, ‘and there is some competition amongst the royal sportsmen as to who shall supply the finest birds for it’. This was said to be a successor to the peacock pie served to the Tudor monarchs, in which the peacock ‘with its tail spread out, its head elevated above the crust and its beak richly gilded, was brought into the feast upon a handsome dish’. Even this was rather modest by comparison with a recipe for a pie given in a newspaper in 1770. This was made from:

2 bushels of flour (1 bushel = 8 gallons) 

20 lb butter

4 geese

2 turkeys

2 rabbits

4 wild ducks

2 woodcocks

6 snipes

2 neats’ (calves) tongues

2 curlews

7 blackbirds

6 pigeons

When baked, the pie measured nine feet in circumference and weighed 12 stones (76.2 kilos). It was ‘fitted in a case upon wheels, and required two men to put it upon the table’. The occasion for which this particular pie was baked is not recorded, but at least Queen Victoria herself was not suspected of gluttony. Indeed, said The Temple of the beef, boar’s head and pie: ‘We do not suppose that Her Majesty takes more than a formal taste of these wonderful dishes…’.


Flintham Museum…


Flintham Museum

A week or so ago I paid a visit to Flintham in Nottinghamshire. The village shop was kept by Fred White for much of the 20th century, and is now Flintham Museum, with displays of some of the items that he sold across the years. I was interested to know how he supplied his customers with food, what their preferences were, and how these changed over time.

The museum’s records include invoices from around 1911 to the early 1980s. These show how customers’ preferences changed over time, along with changes in suppliers and the transition from handwritten to typed invoices. They also demonstrate the extent to which goods were available already packaged by the earlier 20th century. Cheese still came in large blocks, to be cut into portions to suit individual customers, but bacon (imported from Denmark) was already pre-packed. During the First World War the village Women’s Institute produced its own magazine with advice about home cooking – but as the century progressed even dried cake mixes made their appearance in the shop. Was this because Fred White’s customers asked for them, having seen them advertised, or because he was keeping an eye on the trend himself, or had been persuaded to stock them by one of the growing number commercial travellers who were selling to village shops well before World War II? As competition grew from large food retailers such as the Co-op, Home and Colonial and Maypole, manuals on how to run a village shop and advertise its products and services also became available.  

Stockpiling in advance of the war, prompted by anxieties after the Munich Crisis in 1938, was considered ‘unpatriotic’, but in the spring of 1939 shopkeepers were encouraged to lay in supplies of dried fruit, tinned food and other non-perishable items sufficient for up to three weeks. Rationing came into effect early in the war, and checking entitlements, collecting the coupons and accounting for them to the authorities all added to the usual work of the shopkeeper for the duration.

Flintham Community Shop

Like many other village shops, that at Flintham closed some years ago – but a Community Shop now operates from a building at the back of the Museum. This was established with European funding under a scheme run by Nottinghamshire Rural Community Council to provide a ‘Shop in a Box’ – a portable building that could be located on a suitable site. It is run entirely by volunteers – but just like its predeccessor it serves as a meeting place and information exchange as well as a place to buy food and other household provisions.

Normal opening hours at Flintham Museum are Bank Holiday Mondays, Easter to August 2.00-5.00pm; and Sundays after Easter to end of October 2.00-5.00pm, and other times by appointment. Admission is free, but donations are always welcome. Group visits to the Museum can be arranged by appointment, and usually include a visit to the parish church, a guided walk in the village conservation area, and tea and biscuits. There is a small charge for these which includes donations to the museum and church, the guided walk and refreshments.

Flintham  is located Flintham off the A46, midway between Newark and Bingham, approximately 20 miles from Nottingham, Lincoln and Grantham. See the website at www.flintham-museum.org.uk for more details, or contact Sue Clayton at the Museum at Inholms Road, Flintham, Nottinghamshire, NG23 5LF, 01636 525111, flintham.museum@googlemail.com.

Many thanks to Sue Clayton for showing me around the museum, allowing me to take photographs, and giving me an insight into the life of a village shopkeeper.


A Georgian Christmas at Belgrave Hall…

Definitely not Georgian...

On Sunday 12 December Belgrave Hall Museum in Leicester will be holding a Georgian Christmas event from 11 am – 3. 30 pm. Imagine Christmas without a Christmas tree, without presents for the children, and no ‘traditional’ Christmas dinner. How did the Georgians celebrate Christmas? What did they eat and what did they have instead of a tree? Admission costs £2 and refreshments will be available.

Belgrave Hall Museum & Gardens are at Church Road, Belgrave, Leicester, LE4 5PE, 0116 266 6590, museums@leicester.gov.uk, website http://www.leicester.gov.uk/your-council-services/lc/leicester-city-museums/museums/belgrave-hall/.  


December in the garden and hen house

You’ll be pleased to know that, according to the 1930 Tit-Bits Yearbook, you needn’t do any planting in the fruit garden this month ‘unless absolutely necessary’. I’m sure it won’t be – but do continue pruning, ‘at all costs completing the work on peaches and nectarines’, and place forcing strawberries on a shelf near the glass of a cool greenhouse.

A snowman from warmer climes

In the vegetable garden, start to force outdoor rhubarb by placing boxes or barrels over the crowns with a covering of leaves or hot manure. When the ground is hard with frost, take the chance to wheel manure to the plots where it will be used. Draw up ridges of soil to each side of any seedlings now through the ground to protect them against winter winds, and in very severe weather provide extra protection by sticking evergreen boughs into the ground on the north side of each row. Mint and asparagus can be forced in a frame with a mild hotbed; but in the event of very cold weather pack some leaves or litter around the sides of cold frames and those on hotbeads (yes, that advice would have been even more useful a week or so ago…).

In the hen house, make sure the hens’ green food and mash isn’t frozen. Frozen mash will ‘invariably set up internal troubles’. Place drinking bowls under cover to make sure the water doesn’t freeze. Make up breeding pens this month and introduce the male birds into the pens – and watch the pens to make sure that ‘none of the hens is neglected by the male bird’. Now is the time to clear out any stocks of eggs as ‘the demand for preserved eggs is usually at its best this month’.


About this Sponsor

A research project that looked at various aspects of food in the East Midlands, linking them with museum displays and objects in the region, and making the results available to as many people as possible in different formats.