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Feeding the Family

Daily diet

For many rural workers daily diet consisted of bread, butter, potatoes, onions and other vegetables, beer and tea, with some bacon or pork for those earning higher wages. Priority was given to the male household head, as principal bread winner, and after him to other male bread winners so whilst the husband might eat meat or bacon every day women and children might only eat it once a week. It was not until the last quarter of the nineteenth century that working class diets 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 thirty per cent, and it was in this period that the first really appreciable nutritional improvement occurred. The cheaper food products imported by refrigerator and later freezer ships, the development of inexpensive margarine and the fall in price of most consumer items increased the variety and quantity of the labourer’s diet. By the end of the century bread consumption had fallen and consumption of sugar, meat and milk had increased. Nevertheless in the 1890s many labourers were still reported to be living six days a week on vegetables, bacon and bread, with fresh meat (usually pork) only eaten on Sundays. Tinned food added variety to the diet, with most village stores now stocking canned meats, fish and fruit.

In July 1886 the Ashtead parish magazine began to feature recipes taken from a cookery book entitled ‘Supper dishes for people of small means’. These were evidently aimed at the parish’s working class population: they were straightforward, required few cooking utensils and little cooking expertise, and used the cheapest cuts of meat, offal or fish. Amongst the recipes were ‘ox liver stewed’, eel soup, ragout of neck of beef, as well as more appetising sounding dishes like salad of cold vegetables and fig cake. They presuppose that imported ingredients were readily available such as the ‘dried American apple rings’ that were required to make apple and bread jelly but also that not all households had an oven.

Simplicity in cooking methods was necessary because it was widely believed that the rural proletariat was unable to cook. Limited cooking facilities and utensils combined with an unvaried diet are likely to have been more of a factor in how such households prepared their food, however. At the end of the nineteenth century social workers endeavouring to teach working class women how to cook were surprised to discover that many families possessed only one pot, which might double up as the baby’s bath.

Allotments & cottage livestock

By the 1880s most cottagers in Ashtead would have had access to an allotment on which they could grow vegetables and some fruit. The parish magazine routinely offered advice on growing vegetables, including cabbages, peas, broad beans, French beans, kidney beans, cauliflowers, onions, turnips and salad crops such as endive, lettuce, radishes and spring onions. We know from the boys’ school log book that the boys had school allotments on which they grew a wide variety of vegetables including French dwarf beans, broad beans, peas, turnips, potatoes, onions, cabbages, brussel sprouts, broccoli and winter greens. In 1896 it was agreed that boys would each pay 1s for their allotment and in return be allowed to keep the produce. Whilst some of the produce grown on these allotments would have been sold to supplement the household income the dietary advice and recipes included in the parish magazine assume that vegetables were readily available to working class families.

As important as the allotment was the livestock that many cottagers kept – usually a pig and chickens. Where a pig was kept it was fed upon scraps – potato and other vegetable parings, hedgerow fodder such as thistles and dandelions and snails. Before it was killed it would have additional feeds of barley meal to fatten it further. Every part of the slaughtered pig was used and families would send small parcels of meat to their friends and neighbours as gifts, on the understanding that such a gesture would be returned in due course. In some areas chicken keeping was discouraged because farmers considered that it encouraged their workers to steal grain to feed them. They also had a tendency to get into their neighbours’ gardens and cause a nuisance. Some households also kept bees and rabbits.

Food adulteration

The mass production and marketing of foods in the late nineteenth century was accompanied by the increasing use of chemical additives. For example, strychnine, cocculus indicus and copperas were added to rum and beer; sulphate of copper to pickles, bottled fruit, wine and preserves; sulphate of iron to tea and beer and Venetian lead to sugar confectionary and chocolate. In 1877 the Local Government Board found that approximately a quarter of all milk examined contained excessive water or chalk and ten per cent of butter, over eight per cent of bread and over fifty per cent of gin had copper in them to heighten the colour. In 1860 the first of several food and drug acts was passed enabling local authorities to appoint analysts but since it was permissive rather than compulsory legislation it had little effect. In 1874 the Society of Public Analysts was formed and by 1882 there were fifty two county and 172 borough analysts. In December 1900 under the rather alarming heading ‘Arsenic in beer’ the clerk of the Epsom Rural District Council recorded that the council members had read a letter from the Local Government Board calling attention to the powers which the council possessed under the Sale of Food and Drugs Acts of purchasing and submitting samples of beer for analysis by the public analyst and suggesting that in addition to exercising these powers the council should also take samples of jams, syrups, sweets and similar articles of food.