All the food that we ate when I was a child in the early 1900s had to be
fresh and freshly prepared because there were no fridges; and all the cooking
had to be done on a coal fired cooking range.
If you bear this in mind, you will understand why our menus for the week were
more or less fixed, although of course there were always the slight variations
Breakfast and tea were the same every day.
I strongly suspect that there
was cocoa and probably bread and cheese or dripping at bedtime, but my mother
does not record this in her written recollections.
Pat Cryer, webmaster and daughter of the author
Breakfast. My father went to work very early and came home to breakfast
which was usually bacon for him and porridge for us children. The porridge was
not at all refined but coarse with a good many husks which I used to line up
round the edge of my plate. It was made with water and sweetened with brown
sugar. We did have milk on it but not very much and it was always cold, poured
on once the porridge was on the plate. It made me think of a moat from my history
Tea. When we children came home from school at the end of the afternoon,
tea was simple: bread and jam or bread and dripping (from the Sunday roast)
and a slice of cake if any was left from the Sunday baking.
The Sunday Roast
Sunday was the day of the main cooking which prepared
the framework of meals for the rest of the week. So we always had a roast dinner
at mid-day with a joint of meat that was large enough to last during the week,
served with Yorkshire pudding or suet dumplings and of course vegetables. The
meat was mostly beef because everything other than lamb was expensive, and lamb
did not produce a particularly pleasant tasting dripping. (Bread and dripping
was a regular meal after school during the week.) Dripping was the fat that
came out of the meat when it was roasted and beef dripping was always considered
to be the best. If women felt that the roast would not produce enough dripping
to last the week, they would buy extra beef fat to put with the meat as it roasted.
The process was called 'rendering the fat down'. When the meal was ready, the
dripping was poured off into a basin. Sometimes hot water was poured in too:
any bits would sink to the bottom, leaving the actual dripping clean. This was
called 'clarifying' the fat. One week's dripping was often poured onto the remainder
of the previous week's. No-one thought anything about germs.
Poor families' food
Meals were very different for the
families who lived in the old city slums.
The following information comes from the book
Round About a Pound a Week which records the findings of a group of women
who interviewed families of manual workers in a poor part of London in 1909-1913 under the auspices of the Fabian
From their incomes of around a pound a week, there was little money left over
for food, after the deductions for rent, funeral insurance,
clothing, coal and other
The book gives precise menus for a range of families
with different numbers of children. Essentially the mothers and children had to
exist for much of the time on sweetened tea with no milk and hunks of bread spread with
margarine. The man of the house additionally had what was referred to as his
'relish' which was something additional for his supper - perhaps an egg, a
rasher of bacon or a small piece of cheese or fish. It was essential to keep him fed
well enough to continue working to earn the weekly income for the family. There
was no state support other than the terrible stigma of pauperisation,
which, in its worst form meant being admitted to the
Death and disease was rife among the poorer
families, as a result of poor nutrition and insanitary damp living
It was noted in the book that:
Children fostered out by certain parishes
were budgeted at 4 shillings a week for food, which was much more
than poor mothers could afford for each child. Children in
workhouses were fed
better than children in the slums. Women in the slums had to manage on
between 6 -8 shillings a week to feed the entire family.
London teachers were instructed to teach household management to girls on the basis of £3, 35/- or 28/- for a family of 6 persons. It
was accepted that adequate living standards could not or should not be done for less.
Also of note:
Judging by the food that my mother describes
on this page, living as she did in the newly built
a housing estate, and
comparing it with the food of desperately poor families with incomes of around a
pound a week, it is reasonable to assume that weekly incomes on the new
estates were around 30 shillings a week.
The subsistence diet of weak sweetened tea
with bread and margarine was comparable to that on which tramps and vagrants existed.
The practice of feeding the husband more than
his wife continued well into the 20th century. My mother who married
just before the outbreak of World War Two told me that on her honeymoon
my father was given two eggs for breakfast whereas she was only given
Pat Cryer, webmaster
and daughter of the
author of this page
Progress - if it is progress - has taken a lot out of the roast Sunday dinner
of my childhood. In the summer, the children would have to shell the peas and
help with the other vegetables where we could. The knives were sharp, so we
were limited in what we could do until our mothers thought we were old enough
to handle sharp knives without hurting ourselves. There were always lots of
vegetables because it was important that enough would be left over for meals
during the week. An unforgettable noise was the chopping of mint for mint sauce.
We children also had to top and tail the gooseberries and blackcurrants for
the fruit pie. There was always a fruit pie with lashings of fruit to follow
the roast. People seemed to eat more in those days.
As well as preparing the roast dinner, my mother always baked a cake for
the week. It always seems strange to me, looking back, that people were so fanatical
about not doing work on Sunday afternoons, when they worked so hard on Sunday
It wasn't uncommon on a Sunday evening to have cold meat and left-over vegetables
for supper, followed by cold fruit pie.
Monday: cold meat and bubble and squeak
Monday was washday and my mother had no
time to do any significant cooking. For dinner [lunch] when we came home from
school, we always had cold meat from the previous day's Sunday roast, served
with bubble and squeak which was fried mashed-up cold vegetables, again from
Sunday's lunch. We ate these with mustard pickle that one of us children had
to go and buy from the shop at the shop at the end of the road. We had to take
our own basin. It was sold from large jars and cost 1 or 2
Tuesday: more cold meat and bubble and squeak
Tuesday for ironing day which was was still
busy for my mother. So our dinner was the same as Monday's. This usually saw
the last of the meat that could be sliced and eaten cold.
Wednesday: stew and dumplings
The remainder of the Sunday joint was made into a stew for Wednesday. For
me, the best part of this meal was the suet dumplings that went with it.
Thursday, Friday and Saturday: variety
The Sunday roast was finished by Thursday, but we still had a good dinner
during the rest of the week. What we had varied. Sometimes, for example, it
was meat rissoles; sometimes it was meat pudding. I often had to go out before
school to buy the meat for the dinner and it was always ¾ lb of leg of beef and a
½ of beef suet. I used to really enjoy these meals. Other
everyday meals that I particularly remember
are on a separate page.
This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in early to mid 20th century Britain, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times. It is © Pat Cryer.