Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for September, 2012

Up until the Victorian era the population of Britain was widely spread throughout the country. Most people lived in rural settlements or small towns and villages. Food was prepared and preserved either by the family themselves or if they were wealthy by their domestic staff. The ingredients were for the most part grown and bought locally. Meat came from local farms or estates, and farmers and landowners had reputations to maintain, as did the local mill for flour, and the local shopkeepers for all that they sold. Richer households had their own ovens, while poorer people would pay a small sum to use the ovens of the local baker.

Yet as the Industrial Revolution took hold, so the population in towns and cities grew. Britain became more dependent on imported foods. People were also acquiring expensive tastes for tea, coffee, sugar, cocoa, and sauces and spices from around the world. To make them more affordable the “adulteration” of food and drink (additives) became increasingly commonplace. This “adulteration” might be to improve appearance or improve taste, but it’s usual aim was to decrease costs and increase profits. It became so common that books on housekeeping routinely carried warnings and tests for detecting added chemicals like plaster of Paris in flour. Mrs Beeton in prefacing a recipe for a popular anchovy paste warned against shop-bought pastes,

 “In six cases out of ten, the only portion of those preserved delicacies, that contains anything indicative of anchovies, is the paper label pasted on the bottle or pot, on which the word itself is printed.”

The wealthier residents of towns and cities could of course afford a “better” diet, but there was no refrigeration at the time and little concept of hygiene.  Meat was killed locally, but then it had to be stored, sold and transported to the home. As late as 1862 the government estimated that one-fifth of butcher’s meat in England and Wales came from animals which had died of disease or were carrying considerable disease – Meat that should never have been allowed to enter the food-chain. And at the start of the nineteenth century butcher’s boys would deliver meat to the wealthier homes, carried on their heads, in baskets or trays, open to the heat and dirt of the day.

If food was dangerous for the wealthy, it was positively deadly for the poor.  They bought mainly from itinerant  “costermongers” selling from barrows, and their reputation depended more on cheapness than it did on quality. Most of the poor lived in rented rooms, often shared and usually without access to cooking facilities. Any hot food they consumed was street-food, like baked potatoes or pies. Most though subsisted on a diet largely consisting of bread. They lived from hand-to-mouth and bought food in “pennyworths” or even “half-pennyworths.”  Buying in these smaller quantities (enough for the day) meant goods often cost four or five times more than they would have cost had they been bought in regular quantities. Bread itself could be bought as “quarter” or “half” loaves, but even then, bakers used chalk to make the bread whiter, and alum to enable the use of inferior flour, and while alum was not poisonous it inhibited the digestion and decreased the nutritional value of anything else their customers ate.

Producers, importers, merchants and sellers all began adding more and more ingredients to increase bulk or “improve” appearance or reduce costs. Of course none of them knew what had been added by the others in the chain, so they each had a cumulative effect. in the end, by the time products were bought, no one really knew what was in them. Milk was often watered down, sometimes by as much as 50%, and so too was beer. Indeed, the making of beer had more to do with chemistry than the brewing process.  As Dr Richard Wetherby says, in my novel, “Avon Street”:-

 “Have you any idea of how they adulterate the beer in the ale houses around Avon Street? It is full of foxglove, henbane, opium and God knows what other concoctions. They use chemicals so that they can water down the beer, keep its taste and appearance, but make it stronger, and still sell it cheaply.”

Indian Berry, Henbane, Nux Vomica and Opium were used to increase the intoxicating proper­ties of the watered down beer. Foxglove, Jalap and Potash were used to keep the bitter taste and to stop it from turning sour. Most of these ingredients were of course poisonous and carried severe side-effects.

In 1851 “The Lancet,” (medical journal) commissioned a doctor from the London Royal Free Hospital to examine the adulteration of thirty common foods in Britain. The study revealed that:-

Rat and mice droppings, insects and faecal contamination were found in many foods. Tea imported from China contained 45% sand and dirt together with traces of sulphate of iron; lard contained carbonate of soda and caustic lime; coffee included chicory, mangel wurzel, sawdust, and acorns; cocoa and chocolate were coloured with earth and included arrowroot and Venetian lead; sweets (candy) were found to contain chromate of lead, sulphate of mercury and various other noxious flavourings and colourings. Red lead and other chemical colourings were found to be routinely used in foodstuffs such as “Red Leicester Cheese.”

Even after the study by “The Lancet” was published, the merchants, tradespeople and government were slow to respond. Thankfully though, technology and innovation helped in the interim. In 1857 a process for the mass production of ice was patented allowing foods to be better preserved and transported. The availability of canned goods also increased. The army had been supplied with canned foods since 1820, but the cans had to be opened with a chisel or a bayonet, until the can-opener was invented in 1858. As technology improved, mass-produced processed foods like soups, sauces, biscuits, chocolate, pickles and egg-powder became more popular and were prepared to more rigorous standards. Finally, in 1860 that the Adulteration Act was passed, and though it was largely resisted, in 1872 official inspectors were created with the power to test food and impose substantial fines. Quality and safety of food “magically” began to  improve.

Read Full Post »

Bath – Guildhall and Entrance to Markets –by M. Gauci - Victoria Art Gallery Collection

Bath – Guildhall and Entrance to Markets –by M. Gauci – Victoria Art Gallery Collection

Beau Nash made the city of Bath into the most fashionable resort in 18th-century England. In his role as Master of Ceremonies he organised the premier social events in the city and chose who should, and should not be invited. He established a select list of people who he defined as the cream of Society, and more importantly he changed the social conventions of the city.

Nash broke down the old order dominated by the nobility and gentry, and promoted the nouveaux- riches. Whereas in other cities the growing number of wealthy industrialists and tradespeople were still looked down on because of their background, in Bath, Nash welcomed them as elite members of society.

The affluent tourists rented houses and apartments and all the trappings that went with them; crockery and cutlery, silver-ware and ornaments, horses and carriages, servants and attendants. For years the city thrived on the wealth of visitors who stayed for the Season. Prominent architects designed fine buildings and the city grew. Milsom Street became one of the most prestigious shopping areas in the country. The City also had a fine theatre and there were regular costume balls in the Assembly Rooms and the Guildhall. Visitors “took the waters” in the spa baths and the social elite met daily in The Pump Rooms.

By 1801, when Jane Austen moved to Bath, the city was the 9th largest in England, with a population of 33,000. Yet the city’s fortunes had already begun to decline. Bath had changed in character and atmosphere. It was becoming less fashionable and the wealthy were visiting less often, and their stays were becoming shorter. Built in a bowl of seven hills, Bath’s ever-growing population became increasingly crowded into a relatively small area. It’s little wonder that when Jane Austen moved to the city, she wrote to her sister, Cassandra saying,

“The first view of Bath in fine weather does not answer my expectations; … the appearance of the place from the top of Kingsdown was all vapour, shadow, smoke, and confusion.”

Perhaps it is unsurprising that it seemed, “all smoke” when every household depended on coal fires for warmth, that it was “all confusion” when its roads were congested with carts and carriages. And in Georgian cities, once you set foot on the streets there was no escaping the bad drainage and lack of decent sanitation and sewerage systems. As Austen said in another letter to her sister,

“We stopped in Paragon (a prestigious address where her wealthy uncle lived) as we came along, but it was too wet and dirty for us to get out.”

By the time “Persuasion” was published in 1817, the larger part of Bath’s population was working class. Industry was thriving in the city, supplying the shops in Milsom Street and drawing people from the countryside to fill the jobs created. Yet the servants and the people who worked in the factories and sweat-shops, the costermongers and shop-assistants, the building labourers and hotel staff were, for the most part, poorly paid – and the poor did not fit neatly into the City’s image.

The only housing they could afford was overcrowded and poorly maintained, and the slum areas around Avon Street were increasing in size, as quickly as they were deteriorating in quality and appearance. By 1850, the rookery of hovels and cheap boarding-houses in and around Avon Street were home to almost a quarter of the Bath’s population though the City and its visitors did their best to ignore the area.

In “Persuasion” Anne Elliot visits a friend in Westgate Buildings, despite Sir Walter’s warning of its unsuitableness –

“Everything that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations are inviting to you.”

In my novel, “Avon Street,” I set out to explore the two very different aspects of the City of Bath that co-existed uneasilly in the Victorian era. Since Westgate Buildings is on the border of the Avon Street area it seemed only fitting that I set the first chapter of my book in the same location where Austen hinted at the dual nature of the city.

Much of this piece was originally hosted on the Jane Austen’s World Blog on June 10, 2012.

Read Full Post »