What Food was Commercially Available to Buy in East London between 1848 – 1913? – Introduction.

Introductory remarks and thanks

Dedicated to the loving memory of Anthony Bourdain, who taught us that food humanises us and brings the world together. And A.A. Gill, who taught us to have standards [. . .] Due to the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, I relied almost entirely on online resources. For that reason, I am utterly in debt and have constant gratitude for the British Newspaper Archives for an inexhaustible supply of online primary sources.


‘. . . Hunger was patched into them with straw and rag and wood and paper; Hunger was repeated in every fragment of the small modicum of firewood that the man sawed off; Hunger stared down from the smokeless chimneys, and started up from the filthy street that had no offal, among its refuse, of anything to eat. Hunger was the inscription on the baker’s shelves, written in every small loaf of his scanty stock of bad bread; at the sausage-shop, in every dead-dog preparation that was offered for sale. Hunger rattled its dry bones among the roasting chestnuts in the turned cylinder; Hunger was shred into atomics in every farthing porringer of husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil. . .’[2]


The commercial food of Victorian-era East London has been academically overlooked, and this dissertation wishes to shed some light on this often-unexplored part of history. While depictions of the poverty such as Jack London’s The People of the Abyss (1903) cannot be contradicted, there are, after all, a vast number of accounts from Victorian London that document it’s poverty. But there are also facts and accounts that prove that there was some mobility, an open viable food market, and cuisine that was commercially available. The significance of this has been unnoticed and is only starting to be studied and examined once again. The writing and documentation of the culinary scene of Victorian East London have not been discussed or examined thoroughly, while other food ‘scenes’ like French haute cuisine style have been.

By going through the accounts of journalists, newspapers archives as well as records, we can trace the ‘story’ of food in this era. This can tell us numerous things about migration and culinary culture, and by examining this, we ‘humanise the past’, add colour and voice to the social history. This dissertation focuses on an oft-neglected part of social and culinary history, shedding light on everyday occurrences and the collected voice of working classes. It also adds to the argument of what migrants have contributed to the nation.


The commercial food of Victorian-era East London is an oft-overlooked, unheard of subject. While academics have paid tribute more to the haute cuisine stylings of French-influenced West End restaurants, such as food historian Ken Alba stating in his lecture series; Food: a Culinary History: ‘. . . everyone in Europe [indisputably] imitates French cooking. . .’[3] Fewer have investigated the East End of London, derisively calling the British cuisine ‘beef fed prosperity.’[4] As a result, Alba argues that ‘British culinary history is really underappreciated and misunderstood today.’[5] Knowledge of what common people ate in this time and era has been understood as a limited choice, restricted by unrelenting poverty. Primarily, it is considered that most people ate a diet consisting of meat and potatoes, with bread, butter, bacon, and cheese as occasional rarities.[6] And while the reality of that scarcity cannot be ignored, this is not entirely strictly the whole truth.

As London historian Jerry White notes, that cities like London could simultaneously be so rich and yet unremittingly poor at the same time are a contradiction for historians on this era to note.[7] But while this has been remarked upon, other historians of this era, such as Marc Brodie, has argued that ‘superficial and unjustified assumptions regarding [Victorian East End’s] poverty, race and religion has clouded analysis on the subject.’[8] What Brodie is suggesting about the presumptions of Victorian-era living is that there is more nuance to the living situations of the working classes.

Written accounts of this era, such as Jack London’s The People of the Abyss (1903) or W.T Stead’s The Bitter Cry of Outcast London (1883) have led historians such as Matthew Green and Jerry White to write about the desperation of living in the Victorian slums of East London, it also cannot be overlooked that during this period, food commerce did appear in this area too.[9] This dissertation explores the multiple food outlets, businesses and sources that provided commercial food in the East End area of London, a lot of which have been unacknowledged or overlooked. This paper investigates the food shops, and commercial options that the working people of this area had. It contributes towards a growing ‘neo-Victorian’ trend in academia, partly spearheaded by Brodie’s efforts, that revaluates parts of Victorian London and questions the narrative that the East End was rife with relentless poverty that never progressed.[10]

And it does seem that there are academics who believe in this method of talking about the past, but this revaluation has only recently begun. Food writers and academics are only starting to study this critical re-examination, such as Alastair Jones and Nigel Owen’s work in questioning the challenge of immobility in East London in 2016.[11] Or specifically in the case of food, Victorian historian Brenda Assael, writing in 2018We also need to recognise the existence of [food] establishments that served the needs of [. . . ] even the working poor.[12] This is an important point, and the evidence is there that there was certainly business and trade; someone kept these businesses afloat. As East End resident from this time notes in his memoirs, there was even ‘. . . wealthy restaurants – there was a couple in Bishopsgate and another in Threadneedle Street.[13] John K. Walton, who wrote Fish & Chips and the Working Class, remarked more indignantly: this neglect of a national institution reflects historians’ priorities, expectations, and agenda-setting rather than any shortage of source material.[14] So, there is certainly light to be shed on this area. With a chronological structure, we can see a progression from sparse and embryonic business in the ‘Jewish ghetto’ and the ‘piemen’, to an increasingly complex set up in pie, mash, and eel shops with specialised equipment and indeed, a food ‘scene’ that thrived amongst the working class. By writing about this, we can illuminate the increasing sophistication in businesses, as well as culinary culture and social history.

This approach relies largely on written documents and oral accounts, taking what they said about the cuisine and the shops then telling the story of commodified food, and through that, everyday life. It also utilises historical artefacts like posters or books written at this time that documented day to day life. Journalists like Henry Mayhew spent a lot of time in these areas, documenting everyday life, usually in serialised accounts like London’s The People of the Abyss, or Henry Mayhew’s Labour London and the Living Poor (1861). These writers spent their time around East London and documented day to day living, as a ‘how the other half live’ slices of life that exposed how much harder the working people had it, which is where the image of the squalidness comes from.[15] Or in the case of writer and journalist George Dowd, who recorded the commercial food ‘scene’ of the city in the Food of London (1852).[16] By using their own writing, we can reconstruct our understanding of the East End of London, contributing towards a clearer view of day-to-day life for the working people. This dissertation relies largely on journalists’ accounts of the day as well as freelance writers. These commercial trades also relied on publicity, as a result, there is also a record of newspapers, first-hand records, that tells us explicitly what was popular and sold, or from advertisements used in the daily papers that their target audience – the average person – could get a hold of. Newspapers like London Chronicle, or The Daily News have collections documenting what shops were in the area, how popular they were or what they sold.

By exploring parts of what the working people of East London ate, and how it was prepared, we can gain a clearer insight into the average diet, and what resources were available. Doing this provides details of culinary trade, this dissertation answers questions such as what ordinary working classes ate, what their living expenses were or what dietary preferences and what options they had. It also can show us a clearer demographic of who specifically was living in these areas, involving differing religious, cultural, and ethnic demographics. But most importantly, it tells us what was consumed. This gives us a clearer insight into who these people were and their day to day lives and contributes to their collective ‘voice’. Who were these people and why did they do this? This matters for historians as it puts a face to a name; a ‘humanisation of the past’, something that can be overlooked while writing about the history. Historical researcher Professor David G. Vanderstel argues: ‘. . .the historical past [. . .] may be somewhat static and simplistic, lifeless and meaningless. The past, however, can be made relevant to the present by emphasising the human actors on the stage of history. . .’[17] But to address this agenda, we must first turn our attention to the historical context of this period which provides the background story.

Victorian London during this time was the centre of the British Empire, and as such as a hotbed for growing industry, trade, and population. Historian Neil Evans wrote that: ‘London came to be a capital of the empire rather than as one for England or Britain, the natural focus of a growing expatriate community which spread around the world.’[18] Historian Eric Hobsbawm described London as ‘the world’s switching board’ in terms of its importance to the world’s economy at this time.[19] This was triggered predominantly by the boom of the industrial and second agricultural revolution.[20] This prosperity for workers was starting to pay off. From 1847 to 1854, the British Isles experienced a diaspora as masses of working-class people who had enough capital to move to gentrified, greener pastures, leaving a hole for work in a burgeoning empire.[21] The number that left has been estimated to be around 250,000 throughout the entire British Isles.[22]

Simultaneously, just before this period, international trading had been stultified by the Corn Laws, which created high tariffs for exporting goods such as wheat, oats, and barley. The high price tax was meant to act as insurance for British merchants but was considered a deterrent for many to trade.[23] These were repealed, before being totally abolished in 1846 by Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel.[24] This created a free trade situation for British goods. The prevailing mood for traders during the Corn Law repeals encouraged food in the burgeoning free market, and more traders were exporting from around the world, but primarily of colonies.[25] As a result, international trading could take off without a large financial limitation. From 1846 onwards, Britain, or more specifically, London’s trading would generate larger quantities for wholesalers. This meant that they could now buy and sell larger capacities of raw ingredients for cooking. By 1850, Britain’s dependence on food imports was viewed as something to be celebrated.[26] This environment initiated the first steps towards an active food industry for the country.

With the diaspora and the open food trade market, this created a “clean slate” situation in the capital, with greater prospects of jobs and living situations. Seeing their chance, several different migrant groups started to move into the cheapest areas of London. Places like Poplar and West Ham were rapidly filling up with the working masses, flocking to the city in search of work.[27] By 1870, the population of London was over one million, one of the first cities since antiquity to achieve this.[28] By 1884, the population had expanded to 4.5 million, and by 1911 that grew into 7 million.[29] Amongst them, as we shall see, bakers, chefs, and other food businesspeople. British Food historian Panikos Panayi identifies five distinct migrant groups that used this opportunity to open food commerce ventures in London.[30]

This dissertation opens with this as its background; the first wave of those migrants, the Jews, and their bakeries, then documenting the Jewish rise of fish and chips, before finishing with the rise of pie, mash, and eels. Using a chronological approach that will go right up to the beginning of the First World War, then switches to the story of the piemen that ran concurrently amongst the first three chapters. This is done relatively for the sake of simplicity, but we can see that it does provide a coherency. Through doing this we can explore the culinary habits of the working classes. Ultimately, this dissertation will cover four main chapters; Jewish bakeries, fish & chips, pie, mash, and eels, and piemen, but will also acknowledge that there were “mini-niches” along the way too. This discussion will flesh out a larger story about migration and social history in the capital city.


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