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History of Vegetarianism
Food in England Since 1066 -- A Vegetarian Evolution?
Part 4: From the Victorians to Modern Times

The gluttony of the rich began to reach astonishing heights:

At Blenheim Palace, guests of the Duke of Marlborough sat down to dinners of alarming richness. First two soups, one hot and one cold were served simultaneously; then two kinds of fish followed, again one hot and one cold. Then came an entree, then a meat dish, followed by a sorbet. This was followed by game -- grouse or partridge, pheasant, duck, woodcock or snipe. In the summer, when there was no game, there were quails from Egypt, fattened in Europe, and Ortolans from France "which cost a fortune". "An elaborate sweet followed, succeeded by a hot savoury with which was drunk the port so comforting to English palates," the ninth duke's American wife recalled. "The dinner ended with a succulent array of peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines, raspberries, pears and grapes, all grouped in generous pyramids among the flowers that adorned the table."
[C. V. Balsan, The Glitter and the Gold, 1958]


The Prince of Wales was a celebrated, though not apparently uniquely exceptional, trencherman whose great appetite was not in the least affected by the huge cigars and the Egyptian cigarettes he smoked in such quantities. After drinking a glass of milk in bed, he would fortify himself for a morning's shooting with platefuls of bacon and eggs, haddock and chicken, toast and butter. Soon after breakfast an hour or two in the fresh air would sharpen the Prince's appetite for hot turtle soup. Yet this would in no way impair his appetite for luncheon at half past two, just as a hearty luncheon would not prevent his appearing in the hall at Sandringham where, as his band played appropriate tunes, he would help himself to poached eggs, petit fours, preserved ginger, rolls, scones, hot cakes, cold cakes, sweet cakes and that particular species of Scotch shortcake of which he was especially fond.

The dinner which followed at half past eight consisted usually of at least twelve courses; and it was not unknown for him to take a liberal sample of every one. He had as evident a relish for rich as for simple food, and would tuck into Scotch broth, Irish stew and plum pudding with as much zest as into caviar, plover's eggs and Ortolans. He was once noticed to frown upon a bowl of boiled ham and beans, but this, he hastened to explain, was not because he despised such fare but "because it should have been bacon". He would enjoy several dozen oysters in a matter of minutes, setting the fashion for swallowing them between mouthfuls of bread and butter; and then would go on to more solid fare, to sole poached in Chablis and garnished with oysters and prawns, or to chicken and turkey in aspic, quails and pigeon pie, grouse and partridge; and the thicker the dressing, the richer the stuffing, the creamier the sauce, the more deeply did he seem to enjoy each mouthful. No dish was too rich for him. He liked his pheasant stuffed with truffles and smothered in oleaginous sauce; he delighted in quails packed with foie gras and served with oysters, truffles, mushrooms, prawns, tomatoes and croquettes. He never grew tired of boned snipe, filled with forcemeat as well as foie gras and covered with truffles and Madeira sauce. And after eating all this food for dinner, he would advise his guests to have a good supper before going to bed, strongly recommending grilled oysters which were his own favourite refreshment at that time of night. On his bedside table was placed a cold chicken in case he became hungry during the night.
[P. Magnus, King Edward VII, 1964; C. Hibbert, Edward VII, 1976; Sir S. Lee, King Edward VII, 1925-7]

Even amongst all that there are occasional mentions of fruit, vegetables, salads, and even beans. More so than in earlier times but still strictly an accompaniment or sauce. The idea of vegetables as pauper's food was still very strong, equally so among the paupers:

The agricultural labourer lived a hard life which few looked back upon with contentment and satisfaction. Admittedly, some farm labourers remembered being happy and well fed with "any amount of bread and bacon, and plenty of home-brewed beer. Most, however, recalled less happy times, rising at dawn to work until sunset for their paltry wages, eating bread and potatoes with an occasional piece of bacon and an apple dumpling, often going to bed hungry. One, no doubt characteristic, family in Yorkshire, had bread and treacle for breakfast, and sometimes a little tea made from used leaves collected from local inn; for dinner there was broth obtained from a nearby farm three days a week, potatoes and possibly dumplings; supper was like breakfast with the occasional addition of an apple pie. It was estimated that by now about 2 million people in Britain lived largely on potatoes. In Ireland 4 million -- nearly half the population in 1841 -- did so; and when the Irish crop failed hardship and famine were inevitable.
[J. Harrison, The Early Victorians, 1971]

The tragedy, of course, was that everyone could have eaten well if the land had been used to grow vegetables, grains and pulses. But the landowners were obsessed with producing meat for the wealthy, indifferent to the fact that most of the people could obviously not afford it. Change began to come from across the Atlantic:

During these years the growth of railways in the U.S.A, the rapid spread of farm machinery and the increasing cheapness of ocean-going steamer transport combined to make it possible for American farmers to export great quantities of prairie-wheat. The price of English wheat plummeted and soon almost half the country's grain, nearly all of which had previously been supplied at home, was coming from abroad.
[G. Best, Mid-Victorian Britain, 1971]

But new technology also brought new forms of animal exploitation, as well as other mixed blessings:

After the wheat came imports of frozen meat, of live cattle, and of a cheap substitute for butter. Farm wages fell sharply once more; many farmers went bankrupt; whole tracts of land were abandoned; almost 100,000 labourers left the land to find work find work in the towns; and over a million people emigrated. Yet by the end of the century it was generally agreed that life for poor country people was less harsh than it had been. There was more variety in their diet; wages, so one of them said, seemed to "go a bit further".
[G. Best, Mid-Victorian Britain, 1971]

By "more variety" does the historian really mean "more meat"? But for the majority the quality of the diet was dubious to say the least:

One labourer with his wife and five children living in the Wiltshire village of Corsley in 1906, had no more than 15s a week. One typical week in January he and his wife were able to purchase 3lbs of sugar, half a pound of tea, one and a half pounds of butter, 2oz tobacco, 1/2lb of lard, 1/4lb of suet, 1/2lb currants, 1 pint of beer, 1lb of soap, and a pair of stockings. Other purchases were small quantities of bacon, oranges, Quaker oats, cheese, baking powder, papers, coal, milk, oil and bread. When clothes had to be bought or the parents were ill, the amount spent on food had to be severely reduced. It was estimated that a third of all the families living in the village were existing below the poverty line.
[M. Davies, Life in an English Village, 1909]

It seems strange that such a limited income was squandered on such unhealthy food, but maybe the poor still do that today? Alternatives were possible, but still frustrated by the greed and selfishness of the rich:

There were certain compensations. Various Allotment Acts, for instance, had enabled many labourers to provide their families with fresh vegetables, though farmers did not like their men having these plots of land which, so they felt, took up too much of their time and energy, and the men themselves often found them scarcely worth the trouble of maintaining, because of the depredations of the protected game of the landlord.
[J. Bishop, Social History of Edwardian Britain, 1977]

The diet in the industrialised nineteenth century towns was even worse:

Booth provided the example of a casual dock labourer of 38, Michael H. who was "in poor health and straight from the infirmary": His wife of 43 is consumptive. A son of 18 who earns 8 shillings regular wages as a car man's boy, and two girls of 8 and 6, complete the family. Their house has four rooms but they let two. Father and son dine from home; the son takes 2d a day for this. The neighbouring clergy send soup two or three times a week, and practically no meat is bought. Beyond dinners out, and the soup at home, the food consists principally of bread, margarine, tea and sugar. No rice is used nor any oatmeal; there is no sign of any but the most primitive cookery.
[C. Booth, Life and Labour of the People of London, 1889]

Those slightly better off bought an extraordinary quantity of certain foods:

The dock labourer earned 21s a week, his wife a little extra, sometimes 3s 6d, by needlework; and although he had five children under ten at home and a girl out at service who still received both money and clothes from her parents, he was able to live quite comfortably, thanks to "steadiness on his part and good management on the part of the wife". He had all his meals at home with the family for whom, in an average week, he was able to supply 8lbs of meat, 5lbs of fish, 30lbs of potatoes, 34lbs of bread, 3lbs of flour, one and a quarter pounds of butter and 7lbs of sugar.
[C. Booth, Life and Labour of the People of London, 1889)]

The meat and fish seems meagre compared to that consumed by the wealthy of the day, but how many omnivorous families today get through 13lbs of meat and fish a week? Details of middle class diets are provided by cookery books:

In 1861, the first one-volume edition of the celebrated "Household Management" by Mrs. Beeton, a publisher's wife who died before she was thirty, having given birth to her fourth son. Mrs. Beeton and Alexis Soyer both offered suggestions for quite simple meals as well as for dinner parties. Here, for example, are Mrs. Beeton's recommendations for a week's "plain family dinners" for a comfortably off middle class household: "Sunday. Clear gravy soup, roast haunch of mutton, sea kale, potatoes, rhubarb tart, custard in glasses. Monday. Crimped skate and caper sauce, boiled knuckle of veal and rice, cold mutton, stewed rhubarb and baked custard pudding. Tuesday. Vegetable soup, toad in the hole, from remains of cold mutton, stewed rhubarb and baked plum pudding. Wednesday. Fried soles, Dutch sauce, boiled beef, carrots, suet dumplings, lemon pudding. Thursday. Pea soup, from boiled beef liquor, cold beef, mashed potatoes, mutton cutlets and tomato sauce, macaroni. Friday. Bubble and squeak, made with remains of cold beef, roast shoulder of veal, stuffed, and spinach and potatoes, boiled batter pudding and sweet sauce. Saturday. Stewed veal and vegetables, from remains of shoulder, boiled rumpsteaks and oyster sauce, dumplings."

When guests were to be entertained and impressed, less simple fare was naturally recommended, although Mrs. Beeton did not favour the extravagance of 18th century menus. One of her recommendations for a dinner party for twelve, begins with a soup "a la reine" and Julienne soup, followed by turbot with lobster sauce and slices of salmon "a la genevese". As entrees she suggests croquettes of leveret, fricandeau of veal, and "vol au vent" with stewed mushrooms. Then come guinea fowls and forequarter of lamb; and -- after charlotte "a la Parisienne", orange jelly, meringues, ratafia ice pudding and lobster salad with sea kale -- dessert and ices.
[Household Management, 1861]

The everyday meals reflect the gradual increase in the use of vegetables over the centuries, but still a higher proportion of meat than most meat-eating families would expect today. The dinner party fares even worse -- obviously guests had to be given exotic flesh to be impressed. Meanwhile, the establishments which should have been setting healthier trends were a long way behind:

Patients in hospitals were liable to be denied food or to be discharged for breaking such rules as those established by the governor of Guy's Hospital, who ran it "despotically" for half a century, and provided by Rule V that "if any patient curse or swear or use any prophane or lewd talking, and it was proved upon them by two witnesses, such patient shall, for the first offence, lose their next day's diet, for the second offence lose two days diet, and the third be discharged. The loss of diet, however, was considered no great punishment. In most large London hospitals the food provided consisted of a pint of water gruel or porridge for breakfast, 8 ounces of meat or 6 ounces of cheese for dinner, and broth for supper. Patients might also receive up to a pound of bread a day and two to three pints of beer, but no vegetables or fruit.
[B. Abel-Smith, The Hospitals 1800-1948, 1964]

By the 1930 there were further signs of change:

As families became smaller in size and as earnings grew, those in regular employment found that their standard of living continued to improve. Prices were low enough for most working class families in receipt of regular wages to live without hardship, spending far more on fresh food -- almost twice as much on fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, butter and eggs -- than they had done in the past, but also filling their shopping baskets with tinned soup and cornflakes, cocoa and granulated coffee, custard powders and all manner of sweets and chocolates.
[C. Hibbert, The English, 1978]

This seems to suggest a significantly lower proportion of meat, but a bigger change was to come. World War II, and the rationing of meat, made us the nearest we have been yet to a vegetarian nation:

The war, by submitting men and women, rich and poor to many of the same dangers and deprivations, had forged a national unity which had seemed unattainable. "Hitler," the London correspondent of the New York Herald reported, "is doing what centuries of English history have not accomplished -- he is breaking down the class structure of England." At the same time the government's measures to keep down the cost of living by food subsidies, rent controls and other means proved successful. Most foods, except bread and potatoes, remained rationed, yet vegetables, grown everywhere, including Hyde Park and Windsor Castle, were usually in ready supply. The Ministry of Food was highly effective; the meals supplied in schools, works canteens and the so-called British Restaurants were high in nutritional value. Babies were provided with concentrated orange juice.
[C. Hibbert, The English, 1978]

The war proved that a healthy, virtually meat-free diet was possible, but old habits die hard and meat consumption naturally rose again after the war. But the vegetarian movement, although small, was now well established -- 100,000 claimed the special vegetarian ration coupons during the war, providing extra cheese instead of meat. But England was about to face the worst form of animal abuse and cheap meat yet invented -- factory farming was on the way.