9.4. Food in London

Mr. Jonas Hanway was a philanthropist, active in the second half of the 18thcentury, and also Commissioner for Victualling the Navy from 1762 to 1783. In this second position, he would have been very well informed about the production and consumption of foodstuffs. The food situation in London in 1767 was more than sufficient:

“What think you of 1400 oxen, rendering each 6 ½ C. [hundredweight] of the eatable part; 13,000 sheep, of 84 lb. each, the eatable part, with a quantity at least equal to the mutton, in pork, veal, poultry, and pigs, sold weekly at Smithfield and the shops, for the use of these cities [City of London and Westminster]? Supposing 700,000 inhabitants, men, women, and children, old and young, sickly and healthy, it comes to a fraction above seven ounces each per diem.

This is a quantity brought to one place, which one would imagine enough to impoverish the richest country on earth; and is, I suppose, more than thrice as much as is consumed by the same number of people on any spot on this globe; and it would not be credible, if it was not well known that the computation in a private family in affluence is 1 ¼ lb. or 20 oz. each, and that allthe people covet to eat meat.” 

 (Hanway, 1767, Letters on the Importance of the Rising Generation…. , Vol. II, pp. 191-192)

“Consumption of Provisions

There is one cause of the general salubrity of London that leads us to its consumption of food. Perhaps no city exists in the world, where the labouring people, and certainly where the middling classes, enjoy so large a share in the necessaries and inferior comforts of life, as in this metropolis; and that liberality of condition is no doubt a powerful agent in the health, as well in the happiness of a people. The great quantity of animal food consumed in London is proof of the liberal condition of the bulk of the inhabitants; for though there are wealthy persons who waste a great deal of animal food, in the composition of certain dishes, yet their number is so small, that the waste is not to be taken for much in comparison with the whole consumption.

Animal food

The number of bullocks annually consumed in London is 110,000; of sheep and lambs, 776,000; calves, 210,000; hogs 210,000; sucking pigs, 60,000; beside other animal food. 

It does not, however, give a perfect idea of the immense concentration of animal food in London, to speak only of the number of bullocks and other animals, brought to the London market; their size, and fine condition, should be seen by a stranger, to enable him to judge of its extent. Improvements in the breed and feeding of bullocks and sheep, have within the last 45 years, added, at least, one-half to the former average weight of these animals. The present average weight of bullocks, is 800 pounds each; sheep, 80; and lambs, 50.  


The quantity of milk consumed in London is the astonishment of foreigners; and yet few strangers have even a suspicion of the amount of that consumption, which is not less than 6,980,000 gallons annually. The number of cows kept for this supply, is 8,500; ….

Vegetables, and Fruit

There are 10,000 acres of ground, near the metropolis, cultivated wholly for vegetables; and about 4,000 acres for fruit, to supply the London consumption. The sum paid at market for vegetables, annually, is about £645,000; and for fruit, about £400,000. …..  

Wheat, Coals, Ale, and Porter, &c.

“The annual consumption of wheat in London, is 700,000 quarters, each containing eight Winchester bushels; of coals, 600,000 chaldrons, 26 bushels in each chaldron; of ale and porter, 1,113,500 barrels, each containing 34 gallons; spirituous liquors and compounds, 11,146,782 gallons; wine, 32,500 tons; butter, about 16,600,000 pounds; and of cheese, about 21,100,000 pounds. ……”

(R. Phillips, The Picture of London for 1802, Lewis & Co., London, pp. 16-18)

The 110,000 bullocks, at a carcass weight of 800 lb., and subtracting 20 % for skin, bones, and offal, and dividing by a population of 1,100,000, give 64 pounds per person per annum. The sheep and lambs are 40 pounds per person per annum; the calves 14 pounds, and the hogs 23 pounds. This gives a total of 77 pounds per person per annum. The milk is 1.0 pints per person per week. The wheat is 300 pounds (0.64 quarters) per person per year, equal to 6.7 quartern loaves per family per week. The ale and porter is 25 pints per family per week. Butter is 1.45 pounds per family per week (4.5 oz. per family member per week), and cheese 1.85 pounds (6 oz.).            

In London in 1850, the working classes bought a large variety of food on Saturday evenings:

“Whoever would know how the working classes spend their earnings on a Saturday evening in London, should pass an hour in any one of about half a dozen localities graphically described by Mr. Mayhew. One of these is Shoreditch, near the church; another is the New Cut in Lambeth; a third is Whitecross Street; a fourth is the line formed by Skinner and Brewer Streets, Somers Town; a fifth is Tottenham Court Road and the lower part of the Hampstead Road; a sixth is Leather Lane, Holborn. As the hour approaches when artisans receive their weekly wages, so do the itinerant dealers take their stand in these and similar busy localities. There is occasionally a battle of opinion with the police concerning the propriety or otherwise of this open-air trading; and in some cases where the higher classes of shopkeepers deem their dignity offended by the vicinage of the humbler traders, an explosion of feeling may perchance occur; but the retail shopkeepers and the kerb-stone stall-keepers generally agree pretty well; the influx of customers is so vast that there is trade for all.

It would be impossible to name all the wares exposed for sale at these places on a Saturday evening, say from six till twelve. The wife of the journeyman, as soon as a portion of the week’s earnings is placed in her hands, bethinks herself of the Sunday’s dinner; and the theory of these people’s bazaars is, that everything that may be wanted can be obtained near at hand. Certain of the commodities are not sold by the humble stall-keepers; butcher’s meat, bacon, and grocery are rarely seen on the stalls; nor do bread and flour make their appearance there; the shops occupied by butches, bakers, grocers, and cheese-mongers, experience very little rivalry from the stalls. Cheap poultry sometimes finds its way thither; but cheap fish much more largely. How many “fine fresh mackerel” we may obtain for a shilling; how many “fresh herrings” for a groat (a groat, curiously, is never mentioned by a London dealer except in connection with herrings); how many “pairs of live soles”, or platefuls of sprats, or pounds of eels, or quarts of mussels, or measures of periwinkles, for a few pence, would astonish housewives whose means enable them to make their marketings in other localities. True it is, that the odours are not quite satisfactory, revealing the fact that the fish have been out of water for rather a serious length of time. Vegetables are in unquestioned abundance. Potatoes in their dirty jackets, cabbages of monster size, greens in straggling bunches, onions in arm-length strings, peas and beans and scarlet runners, if they be in season and cheap enough; parsley and celery, mint and sage, carrots and turnips, rhubarb, broccoli, cauliflowers, asparagus (or, in Cockneydom, “sparrowgrass”), chickweed, groundsel (that the bird may have a Sunday dinner as well as his master), – all are sold so cheaply, that we may reasonably wonder how such articles, many of them bulky, can return any profit to those who have to trudge with them from Covent Garden or other markets. 

The cheaper kinds of fruits are sold by those stall keepers in immense quantity. Apples, pears, oranges, nuts, walnuts, chestnuts, cherries, plums, damsons, currants, gooseberries, disappear from the stalls with great rapidity. Nor is there any want of the humanizing influence of flowers, if the season be such as to bring flowers within the range of cheapness. 

Then, as provision is made for the Sunday meal, so are the means of cooking it not forgotten. The stall keepers, with candles in paper lanterns, candles on the end of sticks, links, torches, and a sort of self-generating gas lamp, display in a flickering light, all sorts of spits, ovens, roasting jacks, gridirons, frying-pans, bachelors’ kettles, toasting-racks, toasting-forks, footmen, trivets, saucepans, stew-pans, tea-kettles, crocks and pots, baking dishes, pie-dishes, pudding-basins, sugar-basins, plates, cups and saucers, salt cellars and pepper-casters, iron skewers, cabbage neat – all of these may be met with, or such of them, at least, as can possibly be made at a cheap price. A joint of meat, a huge cabbage, a quartern loaf, and a saucepan, sometimes march off in procession, under the care of different members of a working man’s family.

Not the least remarkable among these Saturday evening traders are those who deal in little savoury knick-knacks that may serve for a supper, or for a penny treat to the errand-boy who has just received his weekly wages. At one point is the “baked ‘tato” man, with his brightly polished, hot and steaming, tripedal or quadripedal apparatus, redolent of large potatoes and strong butter. Near him is the vendor of hot pies – mutton, eel, veal, beef, kidney, or fruit – all at a penny. A little further on is a table decked out with saucers, containing hot stewed eels, sold in pennyworths, or even in still smaller quantities. The periwinkle man is near at hand, with his half-pint measure of doubtful capacity. The stall of another dealer displays certain meat-like attractions, which prove to be pig’s chaps and pig’s trotters; and probably sheep’s trotters are there likewise. Baked chestnuts appear to have come somewhat into favour lately in London; and the oven or stove of the vendor of such comestibles may very likely be met with in these street bazaars. It is just possible that a coffee-room al fresco may present itself to notice. Innumerable varieties of confectionary and even “sweet stuff” are spread before the boys and girls, the chief customers for such things. The ginger-beer man, either with his penny bottles or his majestic apparatus on wheels, is ready to supply the wants of thirsty souls.” 

(Dodd, 1856, Ch. XII Remarkable Aspects of Food-Retailing in London, Saturday Evening Dealings, pp. 515-518)

A very complete report of the food quantities available in London in 1851 is given  by: “London Commissariat”, Quarterly Review, July-September 1854, Vol. 95, pp. 271-308. It includes 322,000 oxen, 1,639,000 sheep, 101,000 calves, 127,000 pigs brought in live (driven in by road, transported by rail, and imported from Holland). Further, the equivalent in animal numbers, of the country-killed meat, brought by rail: 161,000 oxen, 510,000 sheep, 31,000 calves, 159,000 pigs.

The above data show that the people in general ate enough cereals in the period from 1815 to 1860, and they ate considerably more meat in 1860 than in 1770.

But it is better than this. The people in 1860 did not need so many calories as in 1770 or 1820. The proportion of people in agriculture decreased, the number in small industry and services increased, and the majority of men and women in industry did not work physically very hard. That is, they did work long hours and in bad conditions, but their daily requirement of calories and of protein for their bodily movements was not excessive.  In the textile factories, once the power loom was introduced, the only “muscular” work was that of moving the larger hand mules, unpacking the fibres and packing the cloth for sale. The workers in the mines had easier working conditions than before, and the coal was not brought to the surface on the backs of the women. Starting in 1840, certain sections of the people took railway transport, and did not expend energy in walking long distances. The persons with the hardest physical work were the “navvies”, the miners, and the washerwomen.

(see Clark, Huberman, Lindert, 1995, Section IV, pp. 225-229)

If we are worried about the arithmetical possibility that the food consumed by the workers was not sufficient to give the calories to carry out their daily work, we can refer to visual descriptions.

The workers transported to Tasmania as punishment for their part in the Swing Riots were strongly built:

“Scattered among the letters of commendation and petitions for mercy lodged with the Home Office in respect of many of the rioters were references to their impressive physical attributes. James Martin, a Hampshire ploughman transported on the Proteus, for example, was described in a letter from the Reverend Harvey Ashworth as “a man of great bodily strength.”  Equally, in his surgeon’s report of the voyage of the Proteus, Dr Logan makes it clear they were sturdy stock. He described the 35 year old Huntingdonshire ploughman William Hughes as “a tall, broad-shouldered heavy country man .., always gifted, according to his account, with perfect health.” And Thomas Gregory, the 33 year old Hampshireman was described as “a short but well made man. He was a carpenter by trade and had always been employed in the country. He had never been subject to chest disorders before.” Even a truly ill machine breaker like John Simon Clark was described as “of a slender but not delicate frame of body. Previously to joining the Rioters he had always dwelt in the country. He had been brought up to farm labour.. and previously had excellent health.” A Port Phillip settler a few years later described the Hampshireman John Hopgood as Big Jack, “… a big burly Englishman sent out to Tasmania as a convict about the year 1831 for machine breaking.” Finally, John Capper, the superintendent of convicts at London Docks is reported, after having inspected the Eliza before she sailed, to have claimed “he never saw a finer set of men”».

(Bruce W. Brown, The Machine Breaker Convicts from the Proteus and the Eliza, 2004, p. 74)

There are few physical descriptions of working men which mention the fact that they are small or thin. In general, these are due to the extreme physical exertion or long hours of work. Thus we may suppose that the great majority of the men had normal physiques. The exceptions found by your author are: adult cotton workers in the Manchester area from 1815 to 1830, silk workers in Spitalfields from 1825, hosiery workers from 1820, dressmakers and seamstresses in London from 1840, nail and chain workers in the Black Country. For all the nineteenth century, the men cotton workers in the Manchester were about 2 inches shorter than the normal, were thin, had the skin tight over their bones, and had a sallow colour of the skin; but they were not ill or weak.

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