The Victorian age was a period of development and prosperity. Under Victoria’s sovereignty, London became one of the wealthiest and most successful cities in the entire world. As the population of England rose quickly, there was an upsurge in food, meaning many more shops were required. Because it was difficult to keep food fresh, shopping became part of the daily routine. Big supermarkets did not exist then, resulting in people acquiring commodities from numerous shops.
In those days, many of the goods were hidden away from customers. They were stored behind the counters, on shelves, in drawers and in storerooms. This was to stop thieves and shoplifters. Shops would normally open early and close late at night. Shopkeepers who were viewed as well-thought-of and skilled.
Bakers operated intensely long days. Charles Booth’s investigation in 1903 found eighty to one hundred hours per week was not uncommon. The bakers of that era suffered from poor health and a reduced life span. In 1862, a parliamentary report labelled their premises were labelled as being covered in flour dust and cobwebs. Loaves, a staple food of the working-class diet, were often contaminated with a chemical compound called alum, chalk or even potatoes to increase the whiteness and the size of the bread.
The nature of shopping altered noticeably in the Victorian era. As revenues and living standards rose across Britain. A new generation of businessmen geared up the retail industry to meet the ever-increasing need. In the early 19th century, most people purchased their goods daily from local shops such as grocers, butchers and haberdashers. Those who were not so affluent relied on the services of travelling salesmen for simple goods such as needles and cotton.
A well-known London street directory from 1890 catalogues the following shops on one street: grocer, confectioner, pub, tobacconist, dairyman, and cheesemonger. Shop workers would serve customers directly. The idea of people serving themselves was unheard of. Many products such as flour and butter needed to be weighed and bagged before being sold. Goods were also purchased ‘on tab’ and paid for each month.
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 per cent of Londoners lived in poverty.
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.
The vendors sold fried fish, hot eels, pickled whelks, pig’s 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.
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