A monster plum pudding at St Marylebone Workhouse

Archivist Jo Buddle explores the extraordinary story of a giant plum pudding and reveals the darker reality of life in Britain’s Victorian workhouses:

Members of the United Cooks' Society preparing a monster plum pudding at Marylebone Workhouse

Members of the United Cooks’ Society preparing a monster plum pudding at Marylebone Workhouse

This image from the Illustrated London News of 3 January 1863 records a ‘monster’ undertaking at Marylebone Workhouse.  It shows a plum pudding being made by the London United Cooks’ Society for cotton workers in Manchester, who were struggling with supply because of the American Civil War. The Marylebone Union lent their boiler and facilities for the job

This was no ordinary plum pudding. The finished pudding was over 10 ft in circumference and the list of ingredients was breathtaking. It contained 130 lb of currants, 130 lb of sultanas, 210 lb of flour, 130 lb of suet, 80 lb of peel, 80 lb of sugar, 1040 eggs, 8 gallons of ale, 4 lb of mixed spice and 1 lb of ground ginger. The final result weighed in at 900lb!

The kitchens at Marylebone Workhouse were well set up for mass catering. At its height, Marylebone workhouse had capacity for 1921 inmates. Its dining room was was 120ft long and the kitchen was equipped accordingly, with two 50 gallon beef-tea boilers and a 200 gallon tea infuser. The potato steamers had a total capacity of three quarters of a ton.

On occasion, at Christmas, inmates at Marylebone might be granted a special meal by the workhouse guardians, supplementing their regular meagre diet with a festive cake or pudding. The usual fare at Marylebone was much more simple, featuring cheap dishes such as pea soup, mutton broth and Irish stew. Food was simple and strictly rationed. 

This view of St Marylebone Workhouse was originally drawn by a pauper inmate of the institution in 1866.

This view of St Marylebone Workhouse was originally drawn by a pauper inmate of the institution in 1866.

Although the Marylebone workhouse did not rank amongst the severest of the poor house institutions, life within it was nevertheless hard and uncomfortable. Those who had lost the means to house and feed themselves turned to the shelter of the workhouse as a very last resort. Men, women and children were segregated and those who were able were expected to work for their living. All able inmates were employed in menial tasks, from stone-breaking to oakum-picking (unravelling old ropes, which would then be sold on to the Navy).

Plan of St Marylebone Workhouse in 1881, showing the separation of male and female dormitories (wards)

Plan of St Marylebone Workhouse in 1881, showing the separation of male and female dormitories (wards)

In some workhouses, the regime descended into cruelty. Rather than providing a living for inmates, the imbalance of exacting physical labour and a nutritionally-poor diet at these institutions was leading to starvation and death. In 1845 a scandal broke out at Andover, where workhouse inmates were found gnawing on animal bones due of a lack of food. 

The work of high-profile campaigners such as Charles Dickens, along with news stories such as the scandal at Andover, led to a growing unease about the workhouse system. By late 19th century it was recognised that the dietary regimes of the nation’s workhouses had to change. From 1900 onwards, workhouse unions were encouraged to provide a more varied and balanced diet for their inmates. In 1901, the distribution of an official workhouse recipe book by the National Training School of Domestic Cookery ensured that workhouse kitchens were producing better meals with greater nutritional value.

In 1930, the system of poor law administration changed and, with the abolition of the Board of Guardians, many workhouses closed or became public assistance institutions. However, many people consider that workhouses didn’t truly disappear until the establishment of a Welfare State and the foundation of our National Health Service in 1948.

[Jo]

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London and the sugar trade

Over the course of the 18th century, sugar became integral to the British diet, and our Cookbook of Unknown Ladies is crammed with recipes for sweet puddings, cakes, biscuits, syrupy drinks and sauces. Georgian kitchens burst forth with sugary delights, from cheese cakes and blancmanges to exotic beverages and that wildly popular treat, hot chocolate.

But there was a dark side to the nation’s sweet tooth, as it fuelled the intensification of sugar cultivation in the West Indies. With the growth of the plantations, more and more Africans were transported across the Atlantic to work the land.

Sugar cane farms had sprung up in the Caribbean in the mid 17th century.  A century later, much of the land in the West Indies was devoted to the culture and trade of sugar, and the business of growing, harvesting and transporting the produce of these extensive plantations  required veritable armies of labourers. The vast majority of these workers were acquired through an international trade in slaves.

Extract from the inventory of slaves owned by Godschall Johnson and employed on his estates in Antigua, 1789. Image property of Westminster City Archives

Extract from the inventory of slaves owned by Godschall Johnson and employed on his estates in Antigua, 1789. Image property of Westminster City Archives

An inventory of Mr Godschall Johnson’s estate in Antigua, taken in 1788, itemises each slave on the plantations along with their designated occupation. Carpenters, coopers, grooms, carters, seamstresses and cooks were needed to support the main work of the plantation: cultivating, harvesting and processing the crop. Those two young to work in the field were made to pick grass to feed the working horses and mules on the farm. In total, the workforce of slaves numbered 254.

The West Indian sugar that graced British tables in the Georgian era was almost exclusively the product of this kind of slave labour, but even with rising calls for abolition in the 1780s, consumers were reluctant to recognise the human suffering caused by their sweet tooth. In his poem Pity for Poor Africans (1788), William Cowper satirises how the British allowed their passion for sugar to quashed their moral qualms about slavery:

I own I am shock’d at the purchase of slaves
And fear those who buy them and sell them are knaves;
What I hear of thcir hardships, their tortures, and groans
Is almost enough to draw pity from stones.

I pity them greatly, but I must be mum,
For how could we do without sugar and rum?
Especially sugar, so needful we see?
What? give up our desserts, our coffee, and tea!

Devonshire Place and Wimpole Street, as seen from Marylebone Road in 1799. Image property of Westminster City Archives.

Devonshire Place and Wimpole Street, as seen from Marylebone Road in 1799. Image property of Westminster City Archives.

There was also the wealth that this triangular trade in sugar and slaves brought to London. Godschall Johnson was just one of a large network of slave-owners who lived in Marylebone. Considered ‘new money’, the sugar magnates of the Caribbean had difficulty integrating into wealthy Mayfair society, and so set up their households in the new areas of Harley Street, Wimpole Street and Portland Place.

Even after the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, there was little official recognition of the damage that had been caused to the lives of those enslaved, and the plantation owners of Marylebone were heavily compensated by the government for the loss of their human property.

It is a sobering thought that many of the most prestigious addresses in Marylebone were built on money made through the use of slave labour.

You can find out more about Westminster and the transatlantic slave trade by taking a look at our online exhibition.

 

Lessons in cheesemaking with Mrs Lewis and Mrs Hayne

Have you ever made your own cheese? Cheesemaking seems to have been a common activity in the 18th century kitchen, as our Cookbook of Unknown Ladies provides us with a multitude of recipes for preparing soft cheeses. Today we’ll explore two recipes handed down from ‘Mrs Lewis’ and ‘Mrs Hayne’.

Recipe for Mrs Lewis's Cream Cheese (18th century) from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Recipe for Mrs Lewis’s Cream Cheese (18th century) from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Mrs Lewis’s Cream Cheese (modernised spelling)

Take 3 pints of water and set it on the fire, and when it is scalding hot take [off] half of the water and let the rest boil. Then take 3 pints of cream, and do with it as you did with the water, and mix them together. Then, take 3 quarts of milk and mix it with the cream and water, and when milk warm, put to it a spoonful of rennet and stir it well. When it is come, take up the curd without breaking it and lay it in the fat with a cloth over it, with a weight of half a pound at first, adding, till it comes to 2 pounds. Turn it every hour. Rub a little salt on it then lay nettles on it. Turn it every morning and night, and clean it as you turn it and put fresh nettles [on] it. It will be ripe in ten days if the weather is hot

The nettles in this recipe are used to aid the ripening process, but this natural covering would also lend its delicate flavour to the cheese.

Mrs Lewis’s recipe is thorough, and offers an insight into the time, knowledge and skill required to make good home-made soft cheese. Our second recipe today, attributed to a ‘Mrs Hayne’, is sketchier but no less fascinating.

Mrs Hayne's recipe for dried cream cheese (18th century)

Mrs Hayne’s recipe for dried cream cheese (18th century)

Mrs Hayne’s Dried Cream Cheese  (modernised spelling)

Take 12 quarts of strippings, 2 quarts of cream, 2 spoonfuls of the juice of marigolds and about a teaspoonful of rennet. So whey it and press it as you do other cheese, shifting it every half hour with dry cloths.

Mrs Hayne’s recipe asks for milk ‘strippings’, the last milk drawn from the udder, which has a high cream content.  This suggests that the recipe was written for a household keeping its own cow, or ‘neat’.

The area north of Oxford Street was barely developed in the mid 18th century. (Section of John Rocque map, 1746)

The area north of Oxford Street was barely developed in the mid 18th century. (Section of John Rocque map, 1746)

It is quite likely that the ‘unknown ladies’ who compiled our cookbook lived in households that kept a number of domestic animals, or even managed a small farm. But even with this land and rustic lifestyle, they could quite easily have been living in and around London. By the mid 18th century, much of the Parish of St Marylebone still consisted of fields, common land and small rural settlements. London’s urban development petered out half-way along Tottenham Court Road, as shown in John Rocque’s map of 1746.

For flavouring and colouring, Mrs Hayne’s dried cream cheese adds marigold juice. Another key ingredient is rennet, an essential ingredient for separating curds from whey in the cheesemaking process. Tomorrow we’ll take a look at how this rennet would have been made…