The Poor Live off Bread, Jam and Tea

Maud Pember Reeves. Image from

Round About a Pound a Week by Maud Pember Reeves (1865-1953) was a landmark book. It described how the “respectable” working poor lived and, in doing so, provided evidence to support arguments for child benefit and school meals.

The book, first published in 1913, was based on four years of research by the Fabian Women’s Group.  This group set out to investigate the impact of nutrition on the health of mothers and their children because it was known that a greater proportion of the babies born in poor areas died compared to those born in wealthier areas.   Each week the Fabian women visited homes in Lambeth, a poor part of London, and interviewed working class mothers.  The notebooks recording these visits are held by the LSE library.

The research looked at families with a weekly wage of between 18 and 26 shillings and revealed how little money was left for food once the rent and other necessities had been covered.  Even in cases where the husband brought home his entire wage (rather than spending most it down the pub or elsewhere) and where the mother was deemed a “good manager” the meals provided inadequate nutrition.

“Bread…is their chief food.  It is cheap; they like it; it comes into the house ready cooked; it is always at hand, and needs no plate and spoon.” [1]

The book challenged some conventional views of poverty.  It rejected what Maud described as the “gospel of porridge”.  It explained to well-meaning middle-class philanthropists that although porridge might be the cheapest and most nutritious breakfast it is not a sensible option if you live in two rooms without a stove, the only saucepan you have is burnt and / or your children don’t like it.

Maud was brought up in New Zealand and moved to Britain with her husband when he became New Zealand’s Agent-General.  In London Maud was active in left-wing politics and the Fabian Women’s Group was started at a meeting in her home. During the First World War she worked in the Ministry of Food as the Director of the Education and Propaganda but she withdrew from public life after the death of her son on active duty in 1917.

A century after the book was published I think it is time to go back to Lambeth and re-do this research.

[1] Round About a Pound a Week, edition published by Virago Press in 1997,  p.97


Electrical Trailblazer

Col. Crompton

Colonel Rookes Evelyn Bell Crompton (1845–1940) helped to popularize the use of electricity in the home.  He set up a firm that made electrical products including the world’s first electric toaster.

After an early career in the army and bit of time working for an engineering firm Col. Crompton set up his own company in Chelmsford, Essex.  By the 1880s Crompton & Company was producing a variety of electrical items, including dynamos, switch gears and arc lamps, many of which Col. Crompton had helped to design.  This was very new technology.  Early electrical schemes tended to be limited to lighting large public buildings and Crompton worked on a number of these, for example at Kings Cross Station.

Col. Crompton had the imagination to recognize that electricity could transform the domestic environment, but only if electricity could be supplied in a reliable and safe way.  In 1887 Crompton built a power station at Kensington Court, an up-market housing development in London.   As with many new technological developments there were a few early adopters but most people took a while to catch on and it was decades before electricity became standard in ordinary homes.   The delay wasn’t simply down to the lack of infrastructure or the cost of electrical goods.   There were also anxieties to overcome.  During the early 20th century Col. Crompton helped to remove many of these obstacles, for instance he worked closely with the Electrical Association of Women, a group that explained the benefits of electricity in the home.

As for his toaster, it was called the Eclipse and produced in 1893.  It doesn’t sound like it was the most successful product.  It only toasted one side of the bread at a time and the heating elements tended to break, but you have to admire Col. Crompton’s vision.  To find out more about the history of toasters go to the on-line toaster museum.

Flash Freezing

This American food hero has had a significant impact on British shopping and eating habits but only since the 1950s when domestic freezers became more common.

Clarence Birdseye

Clarence Birdseye (1886-1956) was born New York and studied biology at Amherst College in Massachusetts.  For this story what is important is that between 1912 and 1916 he was working in Labrador, Newfoundland, a place at the top Eastern edge of Canada which gets extremely cold.His field journals from this period are held in the archives of Amherst College and reveal how he learnt about freezing food.  In Newfoundland he saw how the Inuit used the freezing conditions to preserve fresh fish and meat.  The arctic cold meant that things froze extremely fast and he concluded that it was the rapid freezing that meant the food tasted good months later.   Clarence thought he could make money out of this knowledge.

In the early 1920s he began experimenting with frozen fish.  At this time there were plenty of other people working on freezing technology but two things made Clarence’s efforts stand out.  First he developed a machine that could freeze food quickly, which gave the ice-crystals less time to grow and meant that the food was in better condition when it was defrosted.  Second, he packaged the frozen food into small waxed boxes, which were attractive to buyers.  This boosted the commercial success of Clarence’s frozen foods.  In 1929 he sold his firm and his patents, to organisations which later became the General Foods Corporation.  He continued to be involved, as a corporate executive until the late 1930s and his name lives on in the company brand.

The Rochdale Pioneers

The Rochdale Pioneers

In 1844 a group of 28 men kick started the co-operative movement by setting up the Rochdale Pioneers Equitable Society.

This society bought key essentials in bulk and sold them to members at reasonably prices.   The group rented a room at 31 Toad Lane (in Rochdale, obviously), made a counter out of planks and barrels and  sold butter, oats, sugar and candles.  Only members of the co-op could buy from this shop but anyone could join as long as he or she paid a small subscription.

The rules of how the co-op would work were clearly set out.  These stated that;  all sales would be in cash, no credit would be given, the food sold would be pure, any profits would be shared amongst the members, that men and women would be equally entitled to participate and that members would have regular reports on how things were going.  These rules have evolved into the “Rochdale Principles of Co-operation” which underpin the modern co-operative movement.

The Rochdale Pioneers Museum , on the site of the original store, is due to re-open later this year and, if you can’t wait for that, the National Co-operative Archive in Manchester is a great source of information.

A poet who wrote a cook book

Eliza Acton (1799-1859) wrote some excellent cook books in the mid-19th century and she has a lot of fans amongst modern chefy types.   Unfortunately she must have been publicity shy because I can’t find a picture of her.

The daughter of a brewer she was born in Battle, Sussex but grew up in Ipswich, Suffolk.  As a young woman she was sent to France for her health, where she probably had an unhappy love affair.  Certainly her book of poems, published in 1826, contained a number about unrequited love.

Her publisher suggested that instead of more poetry she ought to write something more practical.  After years of work the book she produced, Modern Cookery for Private Families, first published in 1845, was immensely popular.  She wrote for people like herself, that is to say middle class but of modest means.   Her biggest innovation was to list the ingredients needed in a recipe, something that is standard practice today.  The recipes she gives are sensible and the instructions clear.  It is no coincidence that Delia Smith wrote the forward in a recent biography of Eliza Acton. 

Modern Cookery for Private Families gives recipes for all sorts of cooking and, despite Eliza’s warning of the health risks of eating too much rich food, she includes a chapter on cakes but in the introduction she vents her disapproval,

“Amongst those which have the worst effects are almond, and plum pound cakes, as they are called; all varieties of the brioche and such others as contain a large quantity of butter and eggs.   The least objectionable are simple buns, biscuits, yeast and sponge cakes, and meringues; these last being extremely light and delicate, and made of white of egg and sugar only, are really not unwholesome.”

Having earned a decent amount from her writing Eliza moved to Hampstead where she worked on her last book, The English Bread Book, which was published in 1857.  This was a more scholarly work in which she advocates making bread at home to avoid the adulterated loaves on sale.  It didn’t have the same popular appeal as her earlier work but it too has passed the test of time.  It is fairly easy to get copies of her books and they are definitely worth reading and cooking from.

Mr and Mrs Sainsbury

John James and Mary Ann Sainsbury in their older and wealthier days. Image from the Sainsbury Archive.

This London couple established a grocery chain which grew into, what is now, the UK’s third largest supermarket.

John James Sainsbury (1844-1928) and Mary Ann Staples (1849-1927) met when they were both working at Stutton Ground, which is near Victoria Station in London.   Mary Ann was working in a dairy at number 32 while John James was working at number 57.

The pair married in 1869 and opened their first shop, at 173 Drury Lane, Holborn, the same year.  It was a dairy selling milk, butter and eggs.  For the first few weeks Mary Ann was in charge while John worked out his notice at another shop.   She insisted on very high standards of cleanliness and was particularly proud of the butter they sold.  In 1873 they opened a second shop in Kentish Town.

John James was an astute businessman.   He expanded the business steadily, taking on existing shops, a number of which had been previously run by members of Mary Ann’s family.  In 1882 the Sainsburys opened a branch in Croydon, their first outside central London.  This shop had a rather more up market clientele and allowed them to extend the range of goods their shops sold.

As the business prospered and their family grew Mary Ann did less work in the shops.  In late 1880s the now wealthy Sainsbury family moved to fashionable Highgate.  All of their six sons worked in the family firm while, in keeping with the times and the family’s new status, none of their five daughters did.

For more information go to the Sainsbury Archive  held by the Museum of London.

Developing stainless steel cutlery

Harry Brearley who developed stainless steel.

The reason that so many of us use stainless steel cutlery has a lot to do with Harry Brearley (1871-1948).

Before  stainless steel was introduced knives were normally made of carbon steel, while spoons and forks tended to be silver plated or, from the 1840s, made of electroplated nickel silver (EPNS).  Steel made better knives than silver  because it kept a sharp cutting edge but it had disadvantages.  It made some foods taste strange, which is why silver, or silver plated, knives were preferred for eating fish.  Also, steel rusts unless it is carefully cleaned and polished.

Harry was born in Sheffield.   His family was not wealthy and, at the age of 12, he started working in the same steelworks as his father.  He was later apprenticed as a laboratory assistant and, in 1895, when married Helen Theresa Crank he described himself as a metallurgical chemist.  His big discovery came in 1912.  While trying to find a way to stop gun barrels corroding Harry developed a alloy of chrome and steel.  He was not the first to realise that this kind of alloy did not rust but he recognised its commercial potential.  Harry argued with his employers about who owned the commercial rights to develop this “rustless steel”.  He claimed that he was entitled to at least half and the Frith Company disagreed.  He resigned in 1915 and went to work at Brown Bayley’s steelworks, also in Sheffield.

When stainless steel cutlery first appeared in the shops it was more expensive than silver plated cutlery.  By the 1950s it had become the norm doing away with the tedious job of polishing the knives and making fish knives redundant.