Introductory Remarks
on Victorian Literature and Its Context 2

What People Ate in the Nineteenth-Century:

In nothing was the contrast between the wealthy and the poor clearer than in their supply of food. In 1850, a family's house, dress or manners might still be a misleading test of income, but a family's dinner table instantly announced their standard of living to the world.

The Diet of Agricultural laborers:

Farming had been an unstable occupation economically since the outbreak of the war with France in 1793. Then and thereafter the practice of enclosure and intensive farming eliminated the former practice of "boarding in" for farm servants. "Living in" servants had eaten relatively well during the previous century, generally on pork and pudding, with an occasional joint of beef. In the last decade of the century, however, laborers were put on board wages, and their standard of comfort fell. Even more important, the low prices of corn began in 1813 and continued for more than 20 years.With the fall of Napoleon prices fell further; in 1813 wheat fetched 120 s. a quarter, in 1817 76 s., and in 1822, 53 s.

The Speehamland Poor Law system also increased rural poverty by giving an allowance to the employed poor; which encouraged farmers to pay sub-subsistence wages. A survey of agricultural wages in 1824 found that wages could vary from 3 s. for a single man and 4 s. 6 d. for a married man to 5 s. or even 8 or 9 s. The wages were lowest in the south where the relief system prevailed, and highest in the north, where industrial labor provided an alternative to farming. As house-rent soared, house gardens became prohibitively expensive, thus eliminating another potential source of food.

In Rural Rides, compiled between 1822 and 1830, William Cobbett described the decline of the agrarian standard of living. He estimated the needs of a family of five in bread, meat, and beer at 62 pounds yearly, and even in a prosperous period they could only earn about half this amount. He describes an extreme case on a farm near Warminster, where farm workers earned 4 s. a week (36).

Advice manuals kept insisting that with discretion and management these wages would suffice. They condemned beer drinking and the use of tea as too expensive. It was already a common practice to mix wheat with cheaper grains (maize, barley, rye) in bread (37).

After the reform of the Poor Law in 1833 matters did not improve. The labor of wife and children in addition to the husband became increasingly necessary for a family to survive. The economic position of a family with several children over ten years of age was strengthened--the"gang system" of employment of women and children was, therefore, an important effect of the new Poor Law. Although day-laborers fared badly, the managers ("yearly men") were comparatively well fed with suppers of Norfolk dumplings, potatoes, and occasionally a little bacon. Milk was more frequently available in the northern counties, so that laborers could eat oatmeal and milk, and cow-pasture or accommodation for a pig or poultry was more frequently permitted. In Lincolnshire more meat was available, most of which went to men--women held out on tea and starches. In the north, eggs, butter, sugar and fruit pies were more commonly available.

A collection, The Hungry Forties, Life Under the Bread Tax, published in 1904 and contained testimonials of what agricultural laborers had eaten in the 1840's (40-41) and gave evidence of the widespread nature of undernourishment. Poaching laws prevented the taking of game, and of course enclosure claimed more and more previously wild territory as exclusively the property of the upper classes. The practice of giving an allowance of beer to laborers reduced the amount of wages and encouraged drunkenness. The result of this diminished diet was general weakness and malnutrition--debility, liability to fever, indigestion, and slow recovery from illness. Children were frequently scrofulous.

In conclusion, during the first half of the nineteenth century the agricultural population lived on the verge of starvation. Many reported that in their youth in the 1840s they could scarcely remember not feeling hungry. The infant mortality rate of 50% was related to undernourishment.

Diet of the Town Worker:

The standard-of-living controversy has been the battleground for opposing political beliefs--anti-capitalists have argued that the industrial revolution lowered the workers' standard of living (Engels, 48) and defenders of capitalism have argued the opposite. It seems fair to conclude that industrialization produced progress for some types of workers and deterioration in living standards for others.

The "working class" ranged from elite workers such as compositors, who earned 40 s. weekly, tailors, 36 s. and carpenters, 30 s., through shipwrights, bricklayers, masons, and plasterers. Skilled trades associated with the factory system were also relatively prosperous--a cotton spinner earned 27 s.,a railway mason 21 s., a navvy 16 s. or more. Engineers and boilermakers were also prosperous, at 23 s. weekly.

Handloom weavers, however, were now in competition with factory production, and wages declined from 30 s. in 1797 to 12 s. in 1816 and 5 s. 6 d. in 1830, yet in 1830 there werestill 200,000 handloom weavers in the cotton industry, and even more in wool. Other casualties of industrialism included framework knitters, silk-weavers, ribbon makers, lace-workers, shoe-makers and seamstresses. Seasonal occupations such as general laboring and portering brought even more poverty, and these groups greatly outnumbered the factory workers at the middle of the century. Thus workers's wages ranged downward from 40 s. to 5 s.

In the census of 1851 the ten largest occupation groups were, in order: agriculture, domestic service, cotton, building, laborers (unspecified), milliners and seamstresses, woollen workers, shoemakers, coal miners, and tailors, and only two of these were partly factory trades. As the century advanced, a wealthy minority grew and the poor majority dwindled, but in the first half of the century there were more who lost by industrialism than gained by it.

The price of bread fluctuated widely within short periods. Assuming six 4 lb. loaves to be the weekly ration for a family of five (i. e., about one 4 lb. loaf a day), London prices for this varied:
1830 5 s. 3 d.
1835 3 s. 6 d.
1840 5 s.
1845 3 s. 9 d.
1850 3 s. 5 d.
1855 5 s. 5 d.

Living conditions discouraged cooking and many wives worked--therefore they bought bread and boiled potatoes; bacon and tea became staples. Soups, stews and puddings were only possible on Sunday, the day of rest. In the face of this middle-class reformers stressed the need for economy by cooking, providing recipes for unrealistically elaborate dishes (Family Economist recipe, 54). Chandler's shops permitted purchases on credit, but in turn these adulterated foods, overcharged, and gave short weight. Also part of a worker's salary was sometimes given in the form of food tickets, especially in the coal-mining and railway trades, forcing reliance on the company store where overcharging was the norm.

Underfeeding of mill-apprenticed orphans was one of the saddest deprivations of the century--there are tales of their stealing food from animals (56). Fortunately, the practice of apprenticing pauper children did not continue after the Poor Law of 1834. In early factory days time was not always provided for meals and laborers had to eat standing up, and dust and dirt from the machines could contaminate the food. At a "good" mill breaks were provided, although part of these often had to be used in cleaning up the spindles.

Consumption of beer fell during the first half of the century but was still high, with an average of 15 pounds annually spent per family, though under the influence of the Temperance Movement or for other reasons some abstained. Public houses attracted because they were often warmer and friendlier than home.

Malnutrition and deficient food added to the mortality rate of the laboring poor. Almost half of the children born in towns died before they reached the age of 5, and a high proportion of those who did survive grew up rickety, deformed, and undernourished. The British were later shocked when in the Boer and First World Wars a high proportion of recruits were unable to pass elementary physical fitness tests.

Food adulteration:

To an unprecedented extent food adulteration prevailed in the early nineteenth century and had far-reaching social and medical consequencs. Food adulteration was essentially a phenomenon of urban life.

The first serious investigation of the matter was Frederick Accum's Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons in 1820. Accum found that almost all foods and drinks were heavily adulterated, and exposed the methods used. The book made many enemies and eventually its author was forced to leave the country! Among his findings were that London bakers used alum for whitening inferior grades of flour, and frequently added potatoes for cheapness, and subcarbonate of ammonia to produce a light loaf from spoiled flour.

Tea was manufactured from native ash, sloe, and elder bushes curled and artifically colored on copper plates; an official report estimated that 4 milllion pounds of this were sold annually compared with only 6 million pounds of genuine tea. Sometimes the colorings were poisonous, especially verdigris to produce a fine green bloom.

Other adulterations included poisonous pickles which owed their green color to copper;

a nutty flavor in wines produced by bitter almonds;
the rind of cheeses colored with vermillion and red lead;
and pepper adulterated with the sweepings of warehouse floors.

Later evidence revealed that large quantities of Derbyshire stone were used in place of flour; in 1818 a witness before the House of Commons testified that not a baker in Leicestershire had not been detected in using stone.

In 1848 John Mitchell's A Treatise on the Falsification of Food claimed that the situation had deteriorated greatly (106-107). Recipes were sold for dilution and "brewer's chemists" openly supervised adulteration, justified as improving the taste.

To ale and porter were added cocculus indicus (a dangerous poison containing picrotoxin), multum, capsicum, copperas, quassia, mixed drugs, harts-horn shavings, orange powder, caraway seeds, ginger and coriander--all cheaper substitutes for malt and hops. Sometimes sulphuric acid was used to "harden" and age new beer. If beer had been stored too long, preparations of oyster shell were available to "recover" it. Public institutions suffered most from these practices, for contracts went to the lowest bidder (as in the Droseith's Institution deaths).

Competition in the food trades was acute; by 1850 50,000 bakers were struggling to exist under conditions of extreme competition. In general the attitude of the Excise Department towards adulteration was friendly: in 1851 a patent was granted for a machine which compressed chicory into the shape of coffee beans, the whole object of which was to defraud.

Children reared on a diet of adulterated bread and diluted milk were unable to resist infectious disease, and their diet had a great effect on the death rate. The result of many poisons was cumulative as they built up in the system. In 1850s a significant demand for purer food began, and in 1860 the first Adulteration of Foods Act was passed, an utter failure beause it was never enforced.

In 1872 the Adulteration of Food, Drinks, and Drugs Act required that the composition of foods be declared to the purchaser, and under this law there were thousands of convictions. The Sale of Food and Drugs Act, 1875, with numerous amendments, set up legal machinery for the suppression of adulteration. The Society of Public Analysts was formed in 1874, and gradually statutory standards for spirits, milk and butter were legislated before the First World War (263). Adulteration was gradually reduced to simple dilution (263).


The average tea consumption in Britain was 1.4 pounds annually per person in 1801-1810 and 1.6 pounds per person in 1841-50, but by 1891-1900 had risen to 5.7 pounds per head. At the beginning of the century, the duty was about 100%, and after 1840 all grades paid 2 s. 2 1/4 d. per pound. The toll was reduced to 1 s. 10 d. in 1853, 6 d. in 1865, and 4 d. in 1890.

Tea progressed from being the occasional luxury of the urban rich in the early nineteenth century to being the national beverage of all classes by 1850. By the 1840s tea had taken its place alongside white bread in poverty-line dietaries. By the 1860s tea was a staple of the agricultural worker, and over 2 ounces per family were consumed weekly.

Up to 1870 90% of tea was imported from China, but during the century attempts to cultivate it in India and Ceylon became successful. One million pounds were exported from India in 1860; but 100 million pounds were exported from India by 1900--and accounted for 50% of British requirements. Chinese green tea lost favor to black Indian teas. The green kind had been easily adulterated, but the black was pure.

To ensure pure teas, John Harriman began to seal tea in packets in 1826, and by the 1870s his was the largest firm in the trade. Lipton also made packaged tea; and in 1889 his firm started to offer "The Finest Tea the World Can Produce" at 1 s. 7 d. a pound when the current price was 2 s. 6 d. or more. Lipton achieved enormous success, and founded a grocery empire to market his teas which had more than 500 shops by 1914.

A 1936-37 social survey indicated that of the social classes:
of those whose income was over 500 pounds a year, 87% drank tea;
of those whose income was 250-499 pounds a year, 93% drank tea;
and of the lowest two classes, under 250 pounds a year, 98% drank tea!
A 1958 survey called "The People's Food" found that 42% of men and 48% of women began the day with tea, and the average number of cups each drank per day was six.


Early in the century the duty varied from 6 d. to 1 s. 6 d. a pound; in 1842 it was lowered to 4 d., and by 1852 to 3 d. In 1853 the Free Trade Budget lowered duties. Coffee was frequently adulterated, and duties encouraged the adulteration of coffee as well as tea. The average consumption grew from one ounce per head in 1801 to one and a half pounds per head in 1841, but most of this represents an increase in middle class use. Consumption doubled again between 1850 and 1880, but subsequently fell as tea asserted its position as the national drink (i. e., as better teas became more cheaply available).

Coffee was however served at breakfast and dessert in upper class houses. Although coffee consumption (along with that of jam, margarine and cocoa) increased in the second half of the century, coffee was less popular becuase it needed more preparation and because it was less palatable without the addition of sugar or milk.

Analysis of food and drink habits in 1936-37 reveals that 43.5% of those whose income was over 1000 pounds a year drank coffee, especially after dinner, and 18% of the second wealthiest class, and 8% of the next, but only 2% and 1% respectively of the lowest two classes. The same survey showed that the poorest classes frequently drank cocoa. Bewteen 1947 and 62, the demand for coffee in the perfect meal grew from 42 to 55%. So coffee consumption was a manifestation of social class.

(indebted to John Burnett, Plenty and Want; page numbers are to Burnett)


These painful facts reinforce the political significance of nineteenth-century food taxes, such as the Corn Laws. The inequity in nutrition throughout the century also casts a grim light on the claim of evolutionists and heredicists that the greater intelligence and strength of the prosperous derived from a natural process of the selection of the genetically fittest.

Food of the Better-Off:

Those who could make some choice in their selection of food ranged from peers with 10,000 pounds yearly to shopkeepers with 150 pounds per annum. New dietary habits were formed in the first half of the nineteenth century, as differences in food and even times of eating became a matter for class demarcation--e. g., the eighteenth-century social breakfast gave way to the dinner party as a sign of social importance. Such breakfasts had included cold roast beef, cheese, ale, fish, eggs, and steaks, but by the 1830s these had given way to a meal of mostly tea, hot toasts and fancy breads, butter, and preserves.

"Luncheon" became an important meal; businessmen might eat at their club or a chophouse, while their wives had a light cooked meal of meat or fish. Children were permitted up from the nursery or schoolroom to visit their mother. Coffee was not generally offered after luncheon until the 1870s. The fashion of serving "tea" began to spread in polite society from the 1840s onwards. As the dinner hour became postponed, tea-time refreshment became more necessary.

Queen Victoria dined as late as 8 p. m., which influenced the fashion; by the 1850s 7:30 p. m. became common for aristocratic families though 6 p. m. remained the middle-class pattern. Coffeee was now served at dinner immediately after dessert.

A wide variety of meat dishes was favored by the upper classes--the Complete Art of Cookery in 1848 contained recipes for neats' tongues, boiled haunch of venison, roasted pig whole, and so forth.

However French food was becoming fashionable, with a series of dishes served in succession, divided into two great courses, entrees in the first course and entremets in the second. More emphasis was placed on sweet dishes, dessert, flavoring, sauces, and appearance, with a variety of wines to accompany the different parts of the meal. For some time intermediate compromises between the two styles were attempted. The first cookery book of the new type was Richard Dolby's Cook's Dictionary, 1830, a great success which sold many editions.

A society hostess might have given a weekly dinner, and a middle-class family a monthly one. Such a meal required an entire day's preparation, the services of outside caterers, and a great outlay of time, energy and money.

A sample middle-class diet for a family of five plus maidservant with 250 pounds yearly probably cost about 135 pounds, including 10 s. butchers meat a week and 6 d. daily of fish. The maidservant would be paid 16 pounds, clothes cost about 36 pounds, and rent and taxes consumed 25 pounds. During the mid-century the prices of luxuries (meat, tea, sugar, oysters) fell more than that of necessities, thus contributing to higher standards of living for the middle-classes.

Inns and eating houses were of a low quality, and were used for necessity rather than pleasure.

Britain abroad:

Though the sole major British war fought during this period was the Crimean War of 1853-56, Britain maintained and expanded a colonial empire throughout the century, with varying degrees of public support at home. Members of the middle-class, at least, whose members filled civil service and military officer positions, felt patriotism about most colonial enterprises in the mid-century; for example, they generally approved of Britain's presence in the Crimean as a means to limit Russian expansion, and supported the government's repression of the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

Britain's policies became more expansionist after 1875 and led to an intensified series of "small wars," opposed by domestic reformists and others, for control of northern and southern Africa, Afghanistan and the Middle-East. Among these were Anglo-Afghan Wars (1838-42; 1878-79), Anglo-Sudan Wars (1885-86; 1896-99), and a Zulu War of 1879.

The Boer Wars in South Africa were especially controversial because of the reported brutalities they engendered. A first Anglo-Boer War was fought in 1880-81; and in 1895-96 Cecil Rhodes conducted the Jameson Raid into Boer territory but failed to overthrow the Transvaal Government. In retaliation the Boers invaded British Natal in1899. Led by General Kitchener (leader of British forces in the Sudanese wars of 1896-99) and outnumbering the Boers twenty to one, the British adopted a scorched earth policy, erecting miles of barbed wire with corner blockhouses and herding Boer women and children into these concentration camps. It was estimated that as many as 20,000 Boer women and children died of disease in these camps, and the British government faced criticism abroad and opposition at home.