‘The labouring classes would have taken most of their meals in the streets.’
We think of the modern generation as one of ‘fast food’ fed by fast-food chains. The Victorians were also ‘fast food’ consumers, but what they consumed came mainly from individual businesses on the streets of London.Food was available at all hours of the day and night, bought from individual entrepreneurs.
The vendors sold fried fish, hot eels, pickled whelks, sheep trotters, pea soup, hot green peas, penny pies, baked potatoes, cakes, muffins and crumpets, and Chelsea buns. Drinks would have included tea, coffee, ginger beer, lemonade, hot wine, cow’s milk, asses’ milk and occasionally water. In addition, you may have found ‘sherbet’ and other coloured beverages that had no specific name but were introduced to the public as cooling drinks.
The labouring classes would have taken most of their meals in the streets. The primitive and overcrowded conditions under which so many city dwellers were forced to live during the Victorian era meant that for most, there was no facility available for cooking meals. Street food was varied, cheap and tasty, if not nutritious and full of dangerous additives or fouled by human or animal excrement.
Another popular dish sold on the streets was jellied eels. Inexpensive and nutritious, it was a staple in the diet of the Victorian poor. The eels were chopped and boiled in fish stock with assorted herbs and spices. Their naturally gelatinous texture set the stock, and they were ready to be marketed.
On wintry nights you would have seen shivering, emaciated-looking men eating their jellied eels and only parting with the spoon when even the tongue of a dog could not have removed another drop.
The variety of what was available was wide. Journalist Henry Mayhew (25 November 1812–25 July 1887) reported, ‘the coffee-stall supplies a warm breakfast; shell-fish of many kinds tempt to a luncheon; hot-eels or pea-soup, flanked by a potato all hot, serve for dinner; and cakes and tarts, or nuts and oranges, with many varieties of pastry, confectionery, and fruit, woo to indulgence in a dessert; while for supper there is a sandwich, a meat pudding, or a trotter.’
By the mid-nineteenth century, there were thousands of street sellers of food and drink. Mayhew estimated that there were over five hundred sellers of Pea-Soup and Hot Eels and three hundred sellers of Fried Fish. Prices were such that all but the very poorest might eat.
Many other goods were available at the kerbside, such as matches, farthing windmills, flowers, shirt-studs, animals, fruit, vegetables and paper flags. Not only were there goods to be bought to separate the shopper from his or her shillings and pence, but there were also games to be played and many amusements. George Sims, writing at the end of the Victorian era, commented ‘the weighing chair, the shooting gallery, and the try-your-strength machine are to be found by the pavement’s edge.’
For those who were up late or rose early, there were the coffee stalls. Some opened as early as midnight, while others did not start trading until three or four in the morning. The former appealed to ‘fast gentlemen and loose girls,’ while those that opened in the morning were more likely to be frequented by working men.
The street vendors of food and drink continued to be a frequent sight in London until the end of the Victorian Era, and for a good reason. If they served as a kind of outdoor café for the poorest of the poor, they served a substantial portion of London’s population. As late as 1889, Booth estimated that 30 percent of Londoners lived in poverty.
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