Food by Dr Denise Amos and Mark Dawson

William Armstrong's fruit shop, 70 Sneinton Road, Nottingham, in the 1920s.

William Armstrong's fruit shop, 70 Sneinton Road, Nottingham, in the 1920s.

The revision of Jack Drummond’s The Englishman’s Food in 1957 by Dorothy Hollingsworth began a gradual process of opening up the study of the history of food. In the 1960s the Department of Nutrition at Queen Elizabeth College headed by Professor John Yudkin began a more multi-disciplinary approach to nutrition and together with people such as Professor Derek Oddy and Professor John Burnett, they have been influential in bringing the subject to the fore and scrutinising food and nutrition as more than just a component in the cost-of-living debate. More recently food scares over BSE, genetically modified foods and additives to food have brought the subject very much into the homes of everyone. The on-going problem of school dinners brought to the fore by Jamie Oliver has also made a wider audience take an interest in the food we eat. There is a greater knowledge and therefore interest in what is consumed either at home or dining out and with Britain having such a diverse culture we are now able to eat foods which our grandparents could only dream about. There is very little food that cannot be purchased in shops or supermarkets. The growth of the supermarkets in the last fifty years has increased the variety of foods available and has also increased the consumer’s awareness and interest as to what goes into our food, whether it be fresh, frozen or ready-prepared meals.

Food is such an important topic and has a history stretching back through time and is such a vast topic and can introduce areas such as the availability, production and distribution of food as well as its nutritional value and of course diets and eating habits. It would be impossible to cover all of this in such a short space, so what follows are just two areas of research which have taken place within Nottinghamshire recently, but will give a framework for anyone wishing to further study food in the County.

The first is the 16th and 17th century food of the large houses within Nottinghamshire.

Information on the food that was eaten in sixteenth and seventeenth century England can be gained from printed sources, such as recipe books, household and dietary advice books and general commentaries.  These sources provide a good introduction to the subject, but they don’t necessarily tell us what was actually being eaten nor do they provide much in the way of information on the types of food available and being eaten in a specific local area.

The preserved account books of many gentry families do, however, present a picture of day to day local life. These large households catered for a wide spectrum of people; tenant farmers, professional traders, casual labourers, servants from the lowest to the highest, as well as the family themselves and occasionally their guests.  To prevent peculation and also as an aid to managing household budgets these families kept accounts of their expenditure, even on small items of food such as penny’s worth of eggs.  Items produced on the estate itself are not always shown, but we can see the expenditure incurred in farming, gardening, fishing and fowling and so build up an idea of the types of food production taking place.

The account books of the Willoughby family, who lived at Wollaton Hall, give a detailed picture of day to day life in the sixteenth century and early seventeenth century. The patterns of provision and consumption of food associated with this household can be taken as a representation of similar patterns through the county and the Midlands as a whole.

Most of the household and its visitors drank beer, or ale, brewed within the household from the Willoughby’s own barley. There were few other choices available.  Milk was mainly the raw ingredient of butter and cheese rather than a food itself and water was generally considered to be too dangerous to drink.  Wine was purchased in comparatively small quantities intended for family members, important guests and perhaps some of the upper servants, but it was often eight times as expensive as beer.

When it came to bread the household consumed three main types.  Manchet loaves made from fine white wheat flour were for the family and their guests. Cheat bread made from wholemeal wheat flour was for the upper servants. Household bread made from a mixture of rye and wheat flour was for the majority of lower servants, traders and any tenants dining in the hall.  Cheat and household bread were usually baked within the household, again from the Willoughby’s own crops of rye and wheat, but manchets were often purchased.

As well as grain the Willoughby estates also produced cattle and sheep. Beef and mutton were the main two types of meat consumed within the household.  Most of the household would have had theirs boiled up in large pots that are mentioned in the accounts.  Roasting was largely reserved for more expensive cuts of meat and we can imagine that they were not intended for the majority.

The production of these staples was carried on throughout the year, but the accounts reveal that other foods were far more seasonal. Most game animals, for example, only appear in the accounts for a couple of months in the autumn and winter.  Freshwater fish on the other hand were more commonly eaten in the late spring and summer. Domestic animals too had their own season.  Lamb was only available in late spring and summer. Veal was tied in to the production of the dairy and was regularly consumed in the household from spring through to autumn as milk was being turned into butter and cheese.

Official proscriptions against eating meat in Lent and on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays further added to the pattern of food consumption. These proscriptions were originally created by the Catholic Church, but for various reasons were continued by the Tudor State after the Reformation. Large quantities of pickled and salted herring were purchased for the household during Lent to become the staple food, the popularity of which is perhaps indicated by the fact that they were rarely purchased at any other time of the year. Various types of salted cod, ling and pollack were also consumed at Lent and formed the basic food of ‘fish days’ through the rest of the year since they kept well.

Preserved fish were often bought in bulk at fairs, held at Stourbridge in September and Lichfield in March, as well as being bought in smaller quantities in Nottingham.  It is perhaps a surprise to find that the Willoughbys were also able to buy a large variety of fresh sea fish in Nottingham.  Haddock, plaice, skate, turbot and fresh cod were all purchased, along with crabs and lobsters, cockles, mussels and oysters by the hundred.  Some of these fish were not cheap.  A haddock could cost as much as three chickens or two gallons of ale and a skate could be over twice as expensive as a young pig.  The size of these fish could well have been much greater than we are used to today, however, since they were fished much less intensively. Most types of shellfish, including oysters, were relatively inexpensive on the other hand and affordable by many families.

Dried fruit, sugar and spices were also purchased at fairs. The Willoughbys bought a lot of their dried fruit, sugar and spices at Lenton fair, which was held in November near to their house at Wollaton.  Some of the traders who the Willoughbys bought from at Lenton fair were described as London merchants and London was the hub for the import of these commodities into the country. These things were also purchased at other times of the year in Nottingham, however, albeit in smaller quantities.  The amount of sugar and spices consumed during the visit of an important guest could be prodigious, but consumption at other times was more modest.

It is often assumed that fresh fruit and vegetables formed little part of the diet in the sixteenth century, particularly amongst the wealthy. The Willoughbys certainly spent little money on buying fresh fruit and vegetables, but this was probably because they had a kitchen garden in which they grew enough for the household. By the later sixteenth century certain types of vegetables, such as cucumbers and artichokes were held in high esteem and we see them being received as presents alongside venison pies and pike, fitting gifts from one gentry household to another. For the poorer tenants and neighbours though there was the chance to gain a few pence and good favour by bringing apples, fresh peas in the pod, strawberries and nuts, either from their own gardens or elsewhere.  Cheap foods these may have been, but they were not without value or appreciation.

The second is working-class diets between 1850 and 1939 in Nottingham. By the end of the nineteenth century there was a noticeable improvement in the general standard of working class diets. This was due to a greater variety and improved quality of food available due to the falling prices of basic food stuffs. The process of discovering whether or not the people of Nottingham were able to experience a better diet is complex. It is necessary to examine the food that was on offer and what was actually eaten. The first part is simpler because there is evidence available on the supply of food to the town. The second part is more difficult since the working-classes left little evidence of what they ate so we have to rely on the few testimonies that have survived and use them in conjunction with diets from various institutions (eg. Workhouse and prisons) to understand what people ate. These testimonies are to be found in a variety of repositories including Cambridge University Library, Nottinghamshire Archives Office, newspapers, transcripts of oral history at Nottingham Local studies Library.  Dietary tables from institutions such as the workhouse and prison (NAO) can be used to corroborate the aforementioned as it was likely that many of the working-class would have found themselves in one or other of these institutions at some time during their lifetime. It is a case of lots of small pieces of information which build into a larger picture.

Researching the food supply and availability is slightly easier. This can be done by examining the retail outlets which were to be found in Nottingham in the period using Trade Directories and the Markets and Fairs Committees reports to be found in the NAO. By  examining the staple foods such as bread, meat, milk, fish, fruit and vegetables through a variety of sources including personal papers (NAO), Parliamentary Reports (Nottingham Library, Angel Row) and Nottingham Oral History (NLSL) and local newspapers, a picture begins to emerge of what was available to the working-class housewife.

For families food was a priority, second only importance to the rent but whereas rent was fixed the amount spent on food per week varied according to the income of the household. The problem of feeding a family was compounded by the extensive adulteration of food which took place and the poor quality of certain foods, such as bread, milk and meat. Before 1850 the food supply to English towns was limited in range but as transportation links were improved, a greater variety of food became available. Staple foods such as bread lost its monopoly as ready prepared foods such as fish and chips, hot pies, potatoes and vegetables became more available and popular.

Throughout the nineteenth century there had been widespread adulteration of food and the transmission of disease through meat and milk and the standard of hygiene attached to the processing and sale of these two foodstuffs. The Sale of Food and Drugs (Adulteration) Act 1875 went some way  to improving the food offered for sale and the work of the Medical Officer of Health and his department helped to improve the condition of the production and sale of  both milk and meat.

The staple foods such as bread, meat, fish, milk, butter and cheese, vegetables and fruit were eaten by the working class to a lesser or greater extent. Bread was the key component to most meals – increasingly it was purchased and could be eaten from the hand, thus eliminating the use of eating implements! Meat was not a major factor in the working class diet. Only cheap cuts could be afforded and then not on a regular basis. Pork was the largest quantity of meat consumed by the poor until about 1914, the reason for this was the abundant supply of pigs within towns. They were tolerated because they provided a cheap source of meat and of course the manure! Unfortunately the close proximity of so many animals to dwellings caused great problems for the health authorities (link to public health). Much of the pork consumed would have been in the form of sausages, polonies, savaloys or brawn – all tasty and easy or ready prepared. Pork pies also provided a hot an appetising meal from a small quantity of meat. Bacon was also very popular because it kept well, an important feature considering the lack of storage space in most homes, and it was tasty, which complemented the bland, monotonous diet.

Fish had had a mixed life in Nottingham, being so far from any ports. Although there is the suggestion from material in the NAO that in the eighteenth century fish from the Trent was on sale there is no evidence of such freshwater fish being sold in the nineteenth century – possibly because of the state of the Trent by this time. Part of the increase in fish consumption was the partiality to fish and chips. The filleting and frying of fish camouflages any decay and the use of unpalatable fish. However, with the introduction of transport by railways more and more fish became a popular source of food. Shellfish, particularly oysters and mussels were often on sale in Nottingham and were implicated in outbreaks of typhoid fever in the town.

Milk had always been included in the diet of families to a greater or lesser extent but the poor condition of it made it a health risk, particularly to young children. The increase in the more lucrative dairy farming towards the end of the nineteenth century saw an upsurge in liquid milk consumption. Once again the quantity of milk available had been restricted until the introduction of railways, when larger quantities could be transported. There were town dairies in Nottingham into the twentieth century, but their health risk saw the increasingly closed down by the Health Department. By the beginning of the twentieth century ice-cream became very popular with people and this too was always under scrutiny because of its links with the dissemination of diarrhoea and tuberculosis. Butter and cheese were always on sale in Nottingham and there was a regular market held at the butter cross on High Pavement. Both products were brought in from the surrounding locality especially the Vale of Belvoir.

Fruit and vegetables were on sale in the markets of Nottingham throughout the nineteenth century but they were seasonal and fruits such as bush fruits were restricted because of their shelf life. The area around Nottingham had always produced vegetables such as turnips, potatoes, peas and beans for the town’s consumption and there are records of Allotment gardens around the town, on coppice Road and Hunger Hill. Summer fruits could be a source of illness because of its early putrefaction. A change in attitude towards its consumption could be witnessed by the end of the nineteenth century influenced from Europe. With the abolition of the sugar tax in 1874 the growth of the jam market saw an outlet for gluts of soft fruit. As the twentieth century progressed more varieties of fruit and vegetables became available and more popular with the working class.

One area where we are in a position to know more about is the diet in relation to schoolchildren, after the introduction of the Education (Provision of Meals) Act 1906 where local authorities were obliged to provide meals and later milk, to poor children attending school. Material for this will be found in NAO CACM/ED/1/4 and Annual report of the School Medical Officer for Nottingham 1911 onwards. (NLSL).

It was fortuitous that positive developments were also being achieved in what constituted an adequate diet. With the discovery of  Vitamins, in 1912, came the recognition that protein, carbohydrates and fats did not provide al the essentials for an adequate diet.

Some initial areas to look would be:

For a good overview of the subject (not specific to Nottingham) J C Drummond and A Wilbraham The Englishman’s food. A history of five centuries of English diet (New Revised edition, 1958) and John Burnett’s Plenty and want. A Social History of food in England from 1815 to the present day (Third Edition, 1989). Maggie Black, A Taste of History, (English Heritage, 1993). Alison Sim, Food and Feast in Tudor England, (Stroud 1997). Derek Oddy, From Plain Fayre to Fusion Food. British Diet from the 1890s to the 1990s. (Woodbridge, 2004).

Also proceedings of Leeds Symposium on Food History and the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.

D M Amos ‘Food and Health in nineteenth century Nottingham (MA. 1994) (University Nottingham.)

D Amos ‘Working-class diet and health in Nottingham, 1850-1939’ (unpublished thesis, University of Nottingham, 2000).

Philip Lyth, A History of Nottinghamshire Farming (1989)

[Nottinghamshire Food and Farming Year Committee], Aspects of Nottinghamshire’s agricultural history (1989).