[Those curious about the history of the Victorian Web (which began before the WWW in another hypermedia environment) might be interested to learn that this document was one of the very first contributed by someone outside Brown University.]

Decorative Initial T he consequences of poverty are most apparent in the diets of the poor. It takes a considerable leap of the imagination to recapture the Victorian working-class diet, for we have preconceived notions of the 'good old days' before the onslaught of pre-packaged, processed, artificially coloured, 'convenience' foods, and we have, perhaps, an image of John Bull, contentedly overweight from all the benefits of free trade and the beef and ale diet which distinguished the English from unfortunate foreigners. But to enter the world of the Victorian working man's diet is to enter the world of the savage — it was uncertain in supply, primitive in content, and unhealthy in effect. Few of the poor had ovens and had to rely either on open-fire pan cooking, buy their hot food out, or make do with cold meals. Even at the turn of the century social workers entering the homes of the poor to teach wives how to cook were aghast to discover that the family possessed only one pot, and that before their lesson in economy stews and soups could begin the pot would have to be cleaned of the baby's bath water, or worse. As late as 1904 an official committee of inquiry was distressed to learn how few of the poor had sufficient utensils and appliances to cook at home. Primitive or non-existent cooking facilities, lack of cheap fuel, poverty, ignorance, and adulterated foods combined to produce a nation, not of John Bulls but, by today's standards, of pygmies, who were undernourished, anaemic, feeble and literally rickety.

. . . Esther Copley's Cottage Cookery (1849) suggests the poverty of the rural diet, for her recipes were for potato pie, stirabout, stewed ox-cheek, and mutton chitterlings. In Wiltshire, admittedly one of the poorer counties, the Poor Law Commission found that the standard fare consisted of bread, butter, potatoes, beer, and tea, with some bacon for those earning higher wages. . . .If the rural poor ate birds then the urban poor ate pairings of tripe, slink (prematurely born calves), or broxy (diseased sheep). Edgar Wallace recollects working-class families along the Old Kent Road shopping for 'tainted' pieces of meat and 'those odds and ends of meat, the by-products of the butchering business.' Sheep's heads at 3d each and American bacon at between 4d and 6d a pound (half the price of the native product) were too expensive for the irregularly-employed casual labourer to have frequently. In Macclesfield 23 per cent of the silk workers and in Coventry 17 per cent of the labourers had never tasted meat. Stocking weavers, shoe makers, needle women and silk weavers ate less than one pound of meat a week and less than eight ounces of fats. . . .

It was not until the last quarter of the century that the working man's diet improved significantly. Between 1877 and 1889 the cost of the average national weekly food basket of butter, bread, tea, milk and meat fell by some 30 per cent, and it was in this period that the first really appreciable nutritional improvement (aided by a greater variety of foods and new methods of retailing), occurred. The cheaper food products which came in with the refrigerator- and then freezer-ships, the development of inexpensive margarine, the fall in price of most consumer items, all served to increase both the variety and quantity of the workmen's diet in this period.

Suggested Readings from Recent Publications

Hilana Linton kindly shared her contribution to the Victoria discussion list:

With regard to food content, dinner and tea, Mary Carpenter's recommendation of Andrea Broomfield's Food and Cooking in Victorian England is indeed very good--there's a chapter titled "'The Chief Meal of the Day': The Victorian Working-Class Tea" that even breaks down rural tea meals vs. urban ones.

Another resource is Eating with the Victorians, edited by C. Anne Wilson. In a chapter titled "Luncheon, Nuncheon and Related Meals," Wilson states the word "bever," a synonym (roughly) for luncheon, was still in use in the Victorian era so it might be worthwhile to search under that as well. She also adds that Cassel's Dictionary of Cookery in the 1880s quotes a medical authority as saying "The English labourer has his "lunch" between breakfast and dinner and again between the latter meal and supper" and then adds that "beer or cider with bread and cheese or pieces of fairly plain cake where the usual components.'

In the chapter on breakfasts within Eating with the Victorians, Eileen White states that B. Seebohm Rowntree used notes kept for a survey to record the diet range of people of different classes in his 1902 book, Poverty: A Study of Town Life, and that Rowntree distinguishes people with earnings under 26 shillings a week, earnings over 26 shillings a week, and "the servant-keeping class." She quotes from the breakfast menus from 1900 that he listed, but it's very possible that Rowntree's book would contain information about luncheons and teas as well.

Links to Related Material


Broomfield, Andrea. Food and Cooking in Victorian England: A History. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007.

Eating with the Victorians. Ed. C. Anne Wilson. Sutton, 2004.

Spencer, Colin. British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History. New Yoek: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Wohl, Anthony S. Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983. pp. 48-49, 50-51.

Created before 1994

Last Modified 1 July 2022