I am teaching a food history day school for the WEA on Saturday 20th July in Leighton Buzzard. There are a few spaces left. £25 per person starting at 10am. If you are interested here are the booking details .
In this week’s class we looked at foreign influences on British food. My aim was to show that today’s British food is a result of our wider history.
If you deconstruct “traditional British” foods the foreign influence becomes evident. Today a mug of builders’ tea seems a very British thing but neither the tea nor the sugar is originally from Britain. Similarly ginger cake can hardly be considered foreign although McVitie’s recognise its origins by labelling their version “Jamaican Ginger Cake”. These examples illustrate how we have incorporated foreign ingredients and adapted food traditions from abroad.
In the class we touched, briefly, on the history of the East India Company and the spice trade. The East India Company was incredibly influential in establishing the British Empire. It also had an impact on British Food. To find out more about the history of the East India Company listen to this episode of In Our Time.
If you want to go further back in history and understand about what happened before Britain was British then I would recommend the book A Taste of History. This will tell you how the Romans introduced plums, cabbages, onions and much more, that citrus fruits were first imported during the late 13th century and tomatoes during the 16th century.
It is Remembrance Day and I want to honour all the men and women that kept the British population well fed during the Second World War.
First among many was Lord Woolton (1883-1964) who was the Minister of Food between April 1940 and November 1943. He helped to make rationing a success and must be one of the few politicians to have given his name to a pie, the Woolton Pie.
He is a food hero because he helped to apply the new scientific knowledge of nutrition to rationing, organised a system that worked and helped people to make the most of the ingredients that were available. The radio broadcasts, cookery demonstrations and leaflets produced during the War were particularly important. You can listen to a 1942 broadcast, the Buggins Family on the Kitchen Front on the BBC’s website.
Born in Salford, Frederick Marquis (he didn’t become Lord Woolton until 1939) was educated at the Manchester Grammar School and later the University of Manchester. He began his working life as a teacher then, in 1909, he took a job in Liverpool as the warden at the Liverpool University Settlement, a social welfare project. He stayed in Liverpool and went to work for Lewis’s, a big department store, becoming director in 1928 and chairman in 1936. By the time the Second World War broke out he had already been involved in a number of government committees.
Important lessons had been learnt from the First World War, when rationing was introduced but it had been too little and too late. By the time the Second World War broke out the government was much better prepared.
There were shortages during the War, the diet may have been dull and queuing common but people were fed. That in itself was an achievement. The fact that rationing helped improve the diet of so many people is downright impressive.
During the War Lord Woolton stayed out of party politics. His strong Unitarian Christian beliefs drew him towards social reform and a welfare sate but as businessman he was anxious about too much government intervention in the economy. After the War he joined the Conservatives and was the party chairman for many years.
Dorothy Hartley (1893- 1985) was a very interesting woman and her book Food in England qualifies her as a top-notch food heroine.
She was born in Skipton, Yorkshire where her father Rev. Hartley was the headmaster at the local grammar school. She went to Nottingham Art School but the First World War interrupted her training and she worked in a munitions factory for a while. After the War she worked as an art teacher. In 1933 she settled in Froncysyllte, North East Wales and lived there until her death at the age of 92.
Her interest in social history resulted in several books but the best (in my opinion) is Food in England, which was first published in 1954. It is a big book, packed full of information about food history and highly readable. It includes, for example, instructions on how to smoke and salt a ham, descriptions of various breeds of cattle, a text on Medieval table manners and a discussion of the causes of malnutrition during the Industrial Revolution. All the way through the book she includes recipes, illustrations and puts food into its historical and social context. Her definition of “English” is rather elastic and there are plenty of references to Irish, Scottish and Welsh food.
I bought my copy of Miss Hartley’s book this summer and it has taught me everything I need to know about blackberries. On page 427 is a drawing is of a blackberry cluster along with her useful observations about the fruit. She tells us that the fruit at the tip of the clusters ripen first. These are soft, juicy and best eaten raw. The next ones to ripen are better cooked in puddings or made into jams. As the season progresses the fruit at the rear of the cluster ripens and the proportion of pulp to seed reduces. These later berries should be cooked with apples, if eaten at all. I love her carefully researched practical guidance and I love that her last book was published when she was 86. There is time for me yet!
It is very easy to take fridges and freezers for granted but before the 1970s most British homes had neither. People have used natural ice to cool food for centuries, which was fine when it was available. An important breakthrough was the development of machines that could make ice artificially. After a lot of experimentation these machines began to be used in industry in the mid-19th century. I want to look at two of the many people who contributed to refrigeration technology.
James Harrison (1816-1893) was a Scot who went to Australia to set up a printing press. Apparently, while he was using ether to clean the blocks of type he noticed that the metal became cold. He must have had an inventive mind because in the 1850s he filed patents for an ice-making machine and an ether vapor-compression refrigeration system. Vapor-compression systems work because a refrigerant (in this case ether) is circulated around a series of pipes absorbing heat and then releasing that heat elsewhere.
His invention kick started the ice-making business but more work was needed before domestic refrigerators became common. It wasn’t just the unreliable and potentially dangerous nature of the early machines. The lack of electrical wiring in British homes was a major obstacle. The USA was a bit more advanced in this respect, which is where Mary Engle Pennington(1872–1952) lived.
Mary worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and conducted research on refrigeration. Not only did she do the research she also explained it to the public, publishing booklets about the correct storage of perishable foods and, in 1923, founding the Household Refrigeration Bureau, which promoted the safe use of domestic refrigeration. Later in her career she was involved in the design and construction of domestic refrigerators and refrigerated warehouses.
Back in Britain electrical fridges were pretty rare until later in the 20th century. As people gradually replaced larders, cellars and ice-boxes with consistently cold humming white boxes it changed not only how we stored food but also how we shop and what we eat.
I started writing this blog because I will be teaching a WEA course this autumn about food history in Britain. It will be running on Thursday mornings in Brookmans Park, Hertfordshire. And, while blogging is fine, it is more fun to learn with other people.
The WEA in the Eastern Region is moving towards doing things on-line, for example they have recently launched themselves on Facebook and Twitter but, to book a place you still need to contact the local organiser directly. You can do this by using email@example.com . A bit more information about the course can be found on page 10 of this PDF which is a booklet listing all the courses in Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire for 2012/13. The course I will be running is called Food Heroes and costs £60 for 10 sessions starting on 25th September 2012. I’d love to see you there.
The history of tinned food begins around 200 years ago. The discovery that food could be preserved in airtight containers is normally credited to the French confectioner, Nicolas-François Appert (1749-1841). He wrote a book about his experiments L’Art de Conserver Pendant Plusieur Années Toute les Substances Animales et Végétales (The Art of Preserving Animal and Vegetable Substances for Many Years) and, in January 1810, he won 12,000 Francs for his invention. A scientific understanding of bacteria didn’t come until the mid-19th century so Monsieur Appert’s method was based on knowledge of traditional preservation techniques and careful observation. Despite his cleverness, I think that, the real heroes of tinned food were the people who developed his idea.
First there was Peter Durand who suggested metal instead of Appert’s glass jars. He filed a patent for his tins in August 1810. Next there was Bryan Donkin (1768-1855) who, with two partners, John Hall and Mr. Gamble, acquired this British patent. In 1813 the firm Donkin, Hall and Gamble set up the world’s first tin can factory in Blue Anchor Lane, Bermondsey, London. The tins they made were large, heavy and sealed by hand soldering. There is a photo of one of their tins here. During the 19th century the process of making tin cans was mechanised and later automated. These changes meant that tinned food moved from being something bought only by polar explorers and the armed forces and became an everyday domestic staple.
Rather bizarrely the tin opener did not appear until 1855 when Robert Yates, a cutler and surgical instrument maker based in Middlesex and my final tin can hero, made a lever or claw tin opener. Before then tins were often opened with a hammer and chisel.
British school dinners do not have a good reputation but when they began they were a lifesaving initiative. Just over 100 years ago a number of people in Bradford played an important role in introducing and promoting school meals.
After 1870, when primary education became compulsory, it became clear that many poor children were attending school hungry. What was not clear was whether public money ought to be used to feed them. In Bradford two members of the School Board, Fred Jowett (1864-1944) and Margaret McMillan (1860-1931), argued that if the state required children to attend school it also had a duty to feed them because education on an empty stomach was a waste of money.
Fred Jowett explained that “ In September, 1904, such distress existed in Bradford that the teachers under the education authority were called together to give advice and impart knowledge as far as they were able, as to the extent of under-feeding among the school children, and they reported to the education committee that in their opinion some 3,000 children in the Bradford schools were insufficiently fed…Such was the feeling of the education committee, on the facts being stated, that they immediately passed a resolution to the effect that they would feed such children as needed to be fed out of public funds, and run any risks that they might be running thereby…”. 
The risk was that Bradford City Council was not entitled to use public funds for this purpose. This changed with the 1906 Provision of School Meals Act. This Act allowed, but did not require, local authorities to use taxpayer’s money to provide food for school children. In Bradford they got stuck in. Not only did they feed the children breakfast and a mid-day meal, they also ran an experiment to show the effect of doing so. Extracts from the report can be read on the National Archives website and there are some evocative photos from the early days of school meals in Bradford here.
 Hansard 7th December 1906.
Abram Lyle (1820–1891) was responsible for producing and selling an awful lot of golden syrup.
Abram was born in Greenock, a Scottish port near Glasgow, which was heavily dependent on the sugar trade. He attended a good local school until he was apprenticed to a lawyer at the age of 12. Later Abram joined his father’s cooperage firm. In addition to barrel making Abram developed a shipping business with his friend, John Kerr, which grew to be one of the largest in Greenock and made both men rich. Abram and John expanded into sugar refining in the mid 1860s. It was probably at the Glebe Sugar Refinery that a syrup by-product of the refining process, originally known as “Goldie” was first made and sold to staff and locals.
In 1881, Abram bought land in Plaistow, East London and began building a sugar refinery. His sons managed this refinery on the banks of the Thames while Abram remained in Scotland. In 1883, as the Plaistow refinery was getting established, Lyle’s and Sons suffered large losses due to a dramatic fall in the price of raw sugar. The value of the sugar they were importing collapsed while en-route to Britain. The Lyles’ businesses looked shaky. Abram sold the cooperage business, his only steam ship and persuaded the bank to extend their credit.
Golden syrup was their salvation. Abram insisted that the refinery pushed ahead with production and Golden Syrup was profitable. Part of the Plaistow refinery was devoted to making this partially inverted sugar syrup. The Plaistow refinery became part of Tate & Lyle in 1921 and continued to produce Golden Syrup. In 2010 it was sold to American Sugar Refining.
For more about the worker’s lives at Plaistow in the 20th century see the recently published book The Sugar Girls.
Hannah Glasse (1708-1770) was responsible for producing one of the most popular 18th century cook books, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. It remained in print for nearly a century and it is back in print today thanks to Prospect Books, which publishes a facsimile of the 1747 edition.The Art of Cookery covered everything an 18thcentury cook ought to know, from roasting and boiling to pies, puddings and preserves. The book also contains some surprising recipes such as how to “Make curry the Indian Way” and ketchup that will last 20 years!
This is one of her recipe for parsnips,
“They should be boiled in a great deal of water, and when you find that they are soft (which you will know by running a fork into them) take them up, and carefully scrape all the dirt off them, and then with a knife scrape them all fine, throwing away the sticky parts; then put them into a saucepan with some milk, and stir them over the fire till they are thick. Take great care they don’t burn, and add a good piece of butter and a little salt, and when the butter is melted sent them to table.”
When Hannah was born in London her mother and father were not married, at least not to each other. Nevertheless Hannah was given her father’s name, Allgood, and was absorbed into his Northumberland family. At the age of 16 she moved to London and promptly married an Irishman called John Glasse.
If her husband had been a better provider it is possible that Hannah would never have written The Art of Cookery. She had some money from her father but this was not enough to avoid financial worries, especially as her family grew. She gave birth to ten (or possibly eleven) children, although only five survived into adulthood. Selling subscriptions for the cook book was just one of Hannah’s money making ventures.
For a while it was looking good. Hannah and one of her daughters were running a shop in a smart part of London but Hannah had borrowed heavily and, in 1754, she went bankrupt with a debt of over £10,000 pounds. To help sort things out she sold the copyright of The Art of Cookery. A few years later Hannah was in financial trouble again and this time she ended up in debtors’ prison. First the Marshalsea Prison and later the Fleet Prison. There is some uncertainty over what exactly happened to Hannah after that. We know that she went on to produce two more books, The Servants Directory and The Compleat Confectioner, but it isn’t clear whether she wrote these while in prison or having got out of jail.