History Facts: What Did People Eat to Survive During the Victorian Era? - The Comprehensive Minds

What Did People Eat to Survive During the Victorian Era?

What Did People Eat to Survive During the Victorian Era

Named after Queen Victoria, who reigned in the United Kingdom from 1837 until she passed in 1901, the Victorian era was a period filled with shifting trends, attitudes, and innovations. The food itself was part of these changes, and the Victorians displayed resourcefulness and creativity in the dishes they prepared. 

Victorian Britons were a diverse bunch with eclectic tastes and habits, and the food they consumed often reflected their disparate sensibilities. Today we're going to take a look at what people ate to survive in Victorian England.  

Royal Sovereign Strawberry

Among other things, Victorians were enthusiastic horticulturalists, and they loved to tinker with and create their own varieties of fruits and vegetables. One of the most successful fruits to emerge in the late Victorian period was the royal sovereign strawberry. Developed by ThomasLaxton in 1892, it was luscious and tasty. 

Botanists of the19th century were on something of a quest to develop a strawberry that was as large as the American variety, but as sweet as the European variety, Laxton's creation scored on both counts. His royal sovereign's strawberry was such a hit that Country LifeIllustrated declared in 1899 that it was, "One of the finest strawberries ever raised."  

Full English breakfast

McDonald's gave us the EggMcMuffin breakfast combo, IHOP gave us the Rooty TootyFresh and Fruity breakfast plate, and Victorian England gave us the full English breakfast. Typically encompassing a spread of fried eggs, bacon, baked beans, grilled tomatoes, and mushrooms, the full English breakfast remains to this day, a popular meal. 

However, prior to the Victorian era, only the wealthy could afford to eat eggs and meat for breakfast. That slowly changed throughout the 19th century, as the standard of living increased for the vast majority of the population. By the end of the era, even working-class Victorians had the time and money to enjoy a more elaborate breakfast.  

Also Read: Weird Foods People Ate to Get Through the Great Depression


It may be hard to believe now, but one of the most popular beverages of the Victorian era was beer.  It's actually not that hard to believe. In fact, by 1865, British brewers made 25 million barrels of beer annually. 

Though it was widely consumed, Victorian beer had a relatively low alcohol content, usually less than 3%. You might be wondering why beer was so popular if it did not get you drunk. Well, the truth is that the drinking water of the era, especially in crowded cities like London, could easily become contaminated with sewage. 

Consuming beer was therefore a safer and significantly less disgusting option for Victorians looking to quench their thirst.  

Bull's Eye

Bull's Eye

Since the climate in the UK made growing sugar pretty much impossible, it had to be imported. No one knows exactly when the importation of sugar began, but some believe it might have been as early as 1264 in the court of Henry III. It wouldn't be until the 14th century that sugar came into general use. 

But even then, it was incredibly expensive, commanding prices that in today's money would be about 50 English pounds, or $70 American dollars per pound. As you might expect, it remained a luxury for the ultra-rich. 

However, thanks in part to the end of taxes on imported sugar in 1874, candy quickly became popular and could be found virtually everywhere in the Victorian world. One of the most popular candies was the Bullseye. Named after the eyes of a bull, the sweet treat wasn't as unappetizing as its namesake. The red and white striped sugary candies were actually mint flavored.  


The 19th century saw the birth of what is arguably the most popular breakfast item of all time, cereal. American entrepreneurs like Sylvester Graham developed breakfast cereals to provide healthy food to the masses. Some took it even further. 

John Kellogg, for example, developed Cornflakes as a bland food to curb people's sexual impulses. Because, apparently, he thought that was something people wanted. Processed breakfast cereal gained traction in mid-century America and continued to gain popularity over time. 

Anyone who's been to a grocery store recently could testify to that, as virtually every supermarket in existence today has an entire aisle devoted to products like Frosted Flakes, Cheerios, Honeycombs, and dozens and dozens of others. 

Brittons, on the other hand, didn't really take to the stuff the way Americans did. Instead, BritishVictorians generally preferred to eat gruel, oats, and porridge. Once you've had Cap'NCrunch, you'll never go back. They wouldn't really start to enjoy prepared cereal until the beginning of the 20th century.  

Cheap Vegetables

Working and middle-class Victorians supplemented their diet with cheap vegetables. Cabbage in particular was affordable and a good source of nutrients. The famous housekeeping expert, Isabella Beeton, even recommended fried cabbage as a good option for economical meals that would feed a whole family.

 But there were a lot more options in this department than just cabbage. Onions were also a widely used staple, given their year-round availability and dirt-cheap price. Leeks, watercress, artichokes, carrots, turnips, broccoli, and peas were similarly common, although some of these were more subject to seasonal availability concerns.  

Cheap Meat

By the middle of the era, things were looking up, dietary speaking, and most Victorians were consuming some kind of meat at least once during the week. Not every cut or type of meat was the same though. 

Wealthier Victorians, as you might expect, enjoyed the best pieces of succulent meats, while their poor counterparts had to make do with the cheaper cuts. Butchers sold most parts of the animal, making everything from the head to the hoof available for purchase. 

A budget consciousVictorian could buy a sheep's head for three pennies, which would be just about two and 1/2 pounds today.  



Victorians were keen gardeners, and their enthusiasm meant that they often sampled the fruits of their labors. The medlar, an aggressively hard fruit, wouldn't be an obvious choice for a meal. But Victorians gave it a goby letting it rot slightly. 

This softened the fruit, thereby making it edible. Softened medlars could be eaten as is, but many Victoriansopted to turn them into medlar cheese or jelly. Medlar, it's worth noting, wasn't unique to the Victorians. 

They dated way back before Victoria's era and even merited mentions in the works of Chaucer, Dekker, and Middleton. No less than four mentions of Medlars can be found in the plays of William Shakespeare, including in Timon of Athens, As You Like It, Measure for Measure, and even, Romeo and Juliet.  

Marrow Toast

While it may sound strange to some in the modern era, bone marrow was a relatively popular treat in the Victorian era. Chefs and diners would use a tool called a marrow scoop to remove the yellow marrow from animal bones. 

And it was much sought after since as a fatty rich food, it gave Victorians savory calories. In fact, Queen Victoria herself is reputed to have eaten marrow every day. Her one-time chef, Charles Francatelli created marrow toast for her. His relatively simple recipe involves serving bone marrow, seasoned with ingredients like parsley and lemon juice on toast.  

Mock Turtle Soup

Turtle soup was one of the most beloved dishes of the 18th and early 19th centuries, on both sides of the Atlantic. But the essential ingredient, turtle meat, was relatively hard to come by and extremely expensive. Enterprising Victoria cooks thus made up their own version of the popular soup. 

It was just like the expensive kind, only it lacked one crucial thing, the turtle. Something else needed to be substituted for the eponymous ingredient, hence the "mock" in mock turtle soup. So what did they use? Well, among other things, mock turtle soup could be made with other types of meat like calf's head, brains, or organ meats.  

Pickled Oysters

Oysters were part of the Victorian diet, but many working-class folks didn't always have access to fresh batches of them. So as horrible as this might seem to people used to modern standards, they often had to weigh the risk of eating spoiled seafood. 

That being said, a much safer method of enjoying less than fresh seafood was by eating pickled oysters, which would keep longer. Street vendors even sold pickled oysters for the bargain price of four for a penny. Not a bad deal considering the only alternative for most folks was to eat rotten ones. 

Denby Dale Pie

Denby Dale Pie

Civic rituals and festivals punctuated life in the Victorian era, and food always played a role in such festivities. No one made celebratory food better than the community of DenbyDale in West Yorkshire. To mark national occasions, bakers in the town were known to create giant meat and potato pies. 

Some of the events that warranted a giant pie were Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815, the repeal of corn laws in1846, and the 50th anniversary of Queen Victoria'sreign in 1887. 

In the year 2000, the University of Huddersfield School of Engineering baked the millennium Pie, which, according to reports, measured 40 feet by eight feet, held two tons of potatoes, a ton of onions, five tons of beef, and nearly 200 pints of John Smith's bitter.   

Calf's Head

When it came to food, Victorians were nothing if not efficient, and they generally used most parts of an animal once it was butchered. This frugality meant that items like calf's head were a relatively popular and affordable cut of meat among all classes. And why wouldn't it be? Calf's head was a surprisingly versatile ingredient and could be prepared in a number of ways. 

Some recipes called for boiling the head, while others explained how to roast it. That being said, preparing a calf's head could be labor-intensive, and require the cook to remove the bones and skin. The brains and tongue, on the other hand, seldom went to waste.  


Calf's Foot Jelly

Victorians loved gelatins and jellies, even savory ones. To make calf's foot jelly, cooks would have to boil actual calves hooves in water. The boiled water would then be cooled to form rich gelatin. Incidentally, this is where it's worth noting that calf's foot jelly is an ancestor of today's gelatin, which is a chief ingredient in many foods, beverages, medications, and other products. 

Some examples include foods like gelatin desserts, puddings, gummy bears, candy corns, marshmallows, yogurts, cream cheeses, and margarine, as well as a host of other widely consumed products. It also turns up in non-food items like cosmetics, lighting equipment, blue match heads, and photographic films, just to name a few. 

That's right. In case you did 't already know, gelatin, which is in all of those foods and products, is mostly made from animal parts. Anyway, Victorians believe that calf's foot jelly was a nourishing food for the infirmed, and recipes for it often appeared in cookbooks for invalids. 

Modern science, for the record, verifies that gelatin may play some role in joint and brain function, as well as provide benefits to the skin and hair. But the jury is still out on exactly how useful it is in those departments. So what do you think? Which of these Victorian food sounds the most delicious to you? Let us know in the comments below. 

No comments:

Powered by Blogger.