Food in England Since 1066 -- A Vegetarian Evolution?

This series of articles looks at the trends in animal-based and plant-based diets in England over almost the last 1,000 years. There appears to have been a gradual increase in human sensitivity towards animals (at least in English humans), which has inevitably been reflected in the choice of food. For this reason there are also examples of the treatment of animals and other closely related topics.
All are extracts from The English: A Social History 1066-1945, by C. Hibbert, Grafton Books. Original sources are given.
· Part 1: The Middle Ages
· Part 2: The Ages of Shakespeare and Milton
· Part 3: From Defoe to Cobbett
· Part 4: From the Victorians to Modern Times
About This Article
This collection was compiled by John Davis, March 1992 -- and overdue for an update! Please send any comments or further material. I do not claim any copyright but if used elsewhere I would appreciate an acknowledgement of my humble efforts in putting it together.

Part 1: The Middle Ages

Vegetarianism was known in mediaeval England, particularly in the monasteries:
This was the period in which monasticism flourished most usefully and profitably in England, many monasteries were seats of learning and centres of art. In them noble chronicles were compiled and beautifully illuminated; charity and hospitality were dispensed; abbots were called upon to lend their wisdom to the rulers of the country; kings and nobles made gifts of land and money to respected houses and hoped in return to save their souls; schools and hospitals were established; lovely buildings were erected; the wool industry expanded as sheep, under the skillful care of the monks, cropped the grass of the dales.
Since then however, these earlier virtues of monasticism had been gradually eroded, as religious houses grew so wealthy that their income seems to have been at one time almost a fifth of the whole national income. The original strict rules imposed on the order began to be widely ignored. No longer did monks confine themselves to the cloister, observe the regulations about obedience and poverty, conscientiously say the Masses enjoined upon them by past benefactors, or pay too strict a regard to the rules framed to limit their diet.
Meat, once provided only for the sick, was now enjoyed by all in the infirmary; and when this was forbidden by papal statute, a "misericorde", "the chamber of mercy", between the infirmary and the refectory, where meat was freely allowed on the table. This, too, was prohibited by papal statute; but in 1339 the pope, recognizing that the prohibition was unenforceable, conceded that the monks might continue to relish their meat in the "misericorde" provided that only half their number did so at a time, the other half maintaining the vegetarian rule elsewhere.
[Thomas Wright, The Homes of Other Days: A History of Domestic Manners and Sentiments in England, 1871]
So the Pope was promoting vegetarianism! The monasteries had apparently been vegetarian during those earlier times of their greatest achievements, and the above seems to imply that the church saw meat eating as a somewhat sinful luxury rather than a necessity. The idea of giving meat to the sick being somewhat at odds with modern thinking on healthy eating! This abstinence from meat eating occurs in various branches of Christianity, particularly during Lent:
The food provided at most colleges at both Oxford and Cambridge was equally spare. There were two meals a day, one at about ten, the other at about five, although at New College, Oxford, only one meal was provided on Fridays and Saturdays and in Lent. No butter was served in Lent; and on Lenten Fridays there were raisins, almonds, honey and rice instead of fish.
[Norman Davis, Paston Papers and Letters of the Fifteenth Century, 1971/76]
Vegetarian students in the 15th century as well! The peasants were also largely vegetarian, though for rather different reasons:
Between each cottage and the village lane grew a few onions, cabbages, peas, beans, leeks or garlic; and, beside the path, there were perhaps a few rows of parsley and other herbs. Behind, in a small enclosed plot, grew more vegetables, a fruit tree or two, cherries, apples and pears. Some cottages had a pig snuffling about, fed on nothing but waste; several had hens, capable of providing, so Walter of Henley said in the middle of the 13th century, as many as 180 eggs a year each; several, also, had geese -- in some villages there were enough of these to warrant the employment of a gooseherd -- and a few, very few, had a cow. By the later middle ages, however, a man with a holding of more than eight or ten acres would probably have a cow, as well as other animals.
In most cottages, though, a bowl of milk was not as often seen on the peasant's table as an earthenware jug of ale; nor was a piece of beef as frequently to be found in the metal pot that hung over his fire as a mess of vegetables and oatmeal pottage which, with a hunk of dark coloured bread, had generally to serve for his evening meal. Sometimes there would be cheese and curds or on special occasions a chicken or a rabbit snared on a poaching expedition.
[Olive Cook, The English Country House, 1974]
It would seem that the peasants also saw meat as a luxury, to relieve the boredom of their diet, and to be obtained in any way they could. Meanwhile the church outside of the monasteries increasingly made a point of displaying its wealth and power, often with what seems like a drunken, flesh-eating orgy:
The amount of food consumed during these feasts, which might continue over a number of days, was enormous. When, in September 1465, the enthronement of George Neville as Archbishop of York was celebrated at Cawood Castle to demonstrate the riches and power of his family, 28 peers, 59 knights, 10 abbots, 7 bishops, numerous lawyers, clergy, esquires and ladies, together with their attendants and servants arrived at the castle. Counting the archbishop's own family and servants there were about 2500 to be fed at each meal. They consumed 4000 pigeons and 4000 crays, 2000 chickens, 204 cranes, 104 peacocks, 100 dozen quails, 400 swans, 400 herons, 113 oxen, 6 wild bulls, 608 pikes and bream, 12 porpoises and seals, 1000 sheep, 304 calves, 2000 pigs, 1000 capons, 400 plovers, 200 dozen of the birds called "rees", 4000 mallards and teals, 204 kids, 204 bitterns, 200 pheasants, 500 partridges, 400 woodcocks, 100 curlews, 1000 egrets, over 500 stags, bucks and roes, 4000 cold and 1500 hot venison pies, 4000 dishes of jelly, 4000 baked tarts, 2000 hot custards with a proportionate quantity of bread, sugared delicacies and cakes. 300 tuns of ale were drunk, and 100 tuns of wine, a tun containing 252 gallons according to the usual reckoning. There must have been well over 60 pints of wine for each person.
[R. Mitchell and M. Leys, A History of the English People, 1950]
Not a lot of fresh fruit or vegetables in that lot! Most modern meat eaters would think twice about eating swans, porpoises or seals, but the earlier lords in their castles were even less squeamish:
By the end of the fourteenth century it had become a common practice to commit recipes and suggested bills of fare to writing. One such, in the reign of Richard II, which has survived, lists three courses beginning with larded boar's head and a pottage made from slowly boiled pork liver and kidneys. The first course also included beef, mutton, pork, swan, roasted rabbit and "tart". The second course comprised duck, pheasant, chicken, and two other pottages. One of these pottages was made of ground almonds seethed with good meat broth, minced onions, small parboiled birds -- sparrows, thrushes, starlings and linnets were all consumed as well as magpies, rooks and jackdaws. The third and last course included rabbits, hares, teals, woodcocks and snipe.
This was a relatively modest dinner. For a more ambitious meal the recommended bill of fare, again arranged in three courses, included duck; teals; herons; roasted veal, pork and capon; small birds in an almond milk sauce and a mixed meat tart. Finally there came a "sarsed browet" into which, in a most complicated recipe, was stirred a wild mixture of herbs and spices, rabbits, squirrels, and partridges. That was the first course. With the second course came more ducks and rabbits; pheasant; venison and hedgehog. The third course provided more partridges and boar; roasted cranes, kids and curlews; a peacock served in the skin which was sown back on to the roast flesh complete with feathers, head and tail.
[W. Mead, The English Medieval Feast, 1931]
Admittedly the range of vegetables in England at that time was rather limited compared to the Mediterranean area, but they managed to import status items:
The variety of vegetables, though it became much wider from the 14th century onwards, was far narrower than it is today. Dried peas and beans were served often enough, so were onions, leeks, turnips and garlic; but the early medieval gardener was much more likely to concentrate on herbs, and the medieval cook on spices, than they were on the kinds of fresh green vegetables which were enjoyed in France. Sage, parsley, fennel and borage, were all widely grown in England; while the amounts of spices handed over to the cook from the wardrobe were immense. Both mustard and pepper were used lavishly in cooking; so was ginger which was valued for its medicinal properties as well as its culinary effects. Cummin, cloves, saffron, mace, nutmeg, cinnamon, coriander and galingale, an aromatic root from East Asia, were to be found in the wardrobes of all households which could afford them. So were such exotic spices as zedoary, a ginger-like substance made from the rootstock of an East Indian plant, and cubebs, the pungent and peppery berries of a Javanese shrub, though these had to be used more sparingly, being so costly. One 14th century recipe for a preserve containing nuts, carrots, turnips, pumpkins, peaches and pears required 1lb of mustard seed for every 500 nuts, half a pound each of anise and horseradish, as well as liberal measures of fennel, coriander, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, saffron, nutmeg, red cedar, grain of Paradise, caraways (pounded and soaked in vinegar), two pounds of mashed raisins, wine, and twelve pounds of honey.
Honey was frequently employed for sweetening and for the making of gingerbread; but sugar, expensive though it was at up to 2 shillings a pound, was as familiar to cooks as honey in all large households. The Countess of Leicester's household was getting through about eight pounds of sugar a month in 1265. Her accounts also reveal purchases of rice, another delicacy; and large amounts of almonds which were often eaten with rice and, when dried, were served with other dried fruits such as dates, raisins and figs, mostly imported from Spain.
[Margaret Labarge, A Baronial Household of the Thirteenth Century, 1965]
But the opportunities to "grow your own" were there for those that wanted them:
Beyond the walls of most manor houses were orchards, sheltered by the walls from the winds, there grew not only the herbs which were such essential ingredients of medieval cookery, but also flowers. Ideally, so Alexander Neckham wrote in his "De Naturis Rerum" towards the beginning of the thirteenth century: "The garden should be adorned with roses and lillies, the turnsole or heliotrope, violets, and mandrake, there you should have parsley, cost fennel, southernwood, coriander, sage, savery, hysop, mint, rue, ditanny, smallage, pellitory, lettuce, garden cress, and peonies. There should also be beds planted with onions, leeks, garlic, pumpkins, and shallots. The cucumber, the poppy, the daffodil, and brank-ursine ought to be in a good garden. There should also be pottage herbs, such as beets, herb mercury, orach, sorrel, and mallows."
There should also be, Neckham added, a good supply of medicinal herbs including borage, purslane, hazelwort, colewort, ragwort, valerian, myrtle, thyme and saffron. Recent archaeological work, has shown that a large variety of plants and fruits were, indeed grown in gardens. In addition to those already named, goosefoot and sorrel were grown, penny-cress and whortleberry, borage, black mustard and, for use as a laxative, corncockle, as well as strawberries and blackberries, sloes, plums and raspberries. In the nearby orchard grew apples, plums and pears, cherries and quinces.
[Thomas Wright, The Homes of Other Days, 1871]
There were even some thoughts about a health conscious diet though, like the monks, they seemed to see meat a cure for various ills rather than the cause that we now know it can be. But they understood that diet influenced health and, apart from a few strange ideas, were surprisingly close to current thinking:
Some more enlightened doctors emphasized the importance of diet and exercise. J. Mirfield of St. Bart's suggested that invalids should be encouraged to drink wine and barley water and to eat honey, river-crab and dried figs.
Milk is of the greatest possible value (he also suggested for consumptives) especially if it be that of women; asses milk is next to be preferred, and then that of goats. The milk ought to be imbibed direct from the udder; but should this be impossible, the take a salver, which has been washed in hot water, and allow it to stand over another full of hot water; then let the animal be milked into the salver and the milk immediately proffered...
Moreover, wine should not be drunk during the whole period in which the milk remains in the stomach, for the wine causes the milk to coagulate, and this changes it into the nature of poison... The patient can also eat the flesh of all the usual kinds of fowl which fly, except those which live on the water; likewise the flesh of kids, lambs, unweaned calves, or the young rabbit; also the extremities of animals (such as the feet and legs of little pigs), hens and their chickens, and of all these only a little should be taken, and but rarely, except in the case of flying fowl, and even this should be taken only in such small quantity as to be digestible.
In the sixteenth century Andrew Boorde, the physician, whose "Dyetary of Health" and "Brevyary of Health" were both highly influential, emphasizes the importance of a balanced diet and of ensuring that patients were given food suited to their temperaments. The phlegmatic man, for instance, should avoid white meat and fruit, the choleric hot spices; while fried meat was bad for the melancholic man, and garlic for the sanguine.
A good cook is half physician (Boorde wrote). For the chief physic (the counsil of a physician excepted) doth come from the kitchen; wherefor the physician and the cook must consult together for the preparation of meat... For if the physician, without the cook, prepare any meat except he be very expert, he will make a worse dish of meat, that which the sick cannot take.
[Margaret Labarge, A Baronial Household of the Thirteenth Century, 1965]

Part 2: The Ages of Shakespeare and Milton

By the mid 16th century the corruption of the monasteries seemed to be complete:
Erasmus, while deploring what he took to be the excesses of Martin Luther, unfavourably compared "contemptible friars" with "itinerant mountebanks" and roundly condemned the greedy monks, "gorging the carcase to the point of bursting", while scrupulously observing "a lot of silly ceremonies and paltry traditional rules".
[G. M. Trevelyan, English Social History, 1946]
Presumably not the traditional rule about vegetarianism. On the estates of country houses there was progress in the supply of fresh fruit:
In orchards there were to be found nearly all the fruit trees which grow in England today, although there were far more cherry trees in the sixteenth century than there are now, cherries being a favourite fruit with all the classes at that time. Six hundred cherry trees, "at 6d the hundred", were once ordered for the great orchard at Hampton Court.
[Elizabeth Burton, The Early Tudors at Home, 1485-1558, 1976]
The consumption of meat by the rich and powerful had continued from early medieval times, but with a glimmer of improvement:
Meat and bread remained the principal foods, the "gentilitie" eating wheaten bread, in Rev. Harrison's words, though "their household or poor neighbours in some shires [were] forced to content themselves with rye or barley [and] in times of dearth many with bread made out of beans, peason or oats and some acorns among." Vegetables were still not often served with meat, although sometimes used in cooking it -- chickens were boiled with leeks -- and often used for making pottage. Salads, however, seem to have been popular; and dishes of cucumber, peas, olives and artichokes were more often seen than they had been in the past. The potato, encountered in America by the invading Spaniards -- there were at least 220 varieties in Peru -- was introduced into England during the second half of the century; but, while grown in private gardens, potatoes were not yet considered by farmers to be a worthwhile commercial crop. Cheese, except for soft or cream cheese which was frequently used in cooking, was now less often eaten by the rich than by the poor who seem to have enjoyed large quantities of both hard cheese, which was made of skimmed milk and became harder the longer it was kept, and of green cheese, a fresh curd cheese commonly flavoured with herbs.
[Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th century, 1981]
But there some odd ideas about healthy eating and drinking:
Ingateston was unusual in having both a drinking water tap in the yard and a piped supply of "sweet" spring water in the house. Yet, in compliance with Andrew Boorde's advice that water was "not wholesome by itself for an Englishman", the staff drank beer instead, consuming about eight pints of small beer each, at a cost of 1d the gallon.
[F. G. Emmison, Tudor Food and Pastimes, 1964]
The attitude towards animals still had a long way to go:
Dogs were still used to turn kitchen spits by running round in "dog wheels" and were trained to the task by having hot coals placed beneath their paws to keep them on the move. Cats were still cruelly used. They were hung up in baskets to be used as targets at country fairs; they were stuffed alive into effigies and placed on bonfires so that their cries could add to the horror of the scene; they were thrown out of garret windows with bladders fastened to them to see how far they could fly. At Ely Cathedral there was "a great noise and disturbance near the choir" one New Year's day when a man roasted a live cat on a spit before a large and noisy crowd.
Man's "charter of dominion over the creatures", as Thomas Fuller called it, was taken to provide an excuse for cruel sports. However bloodthirstily executed, hunting was "yet without guilt". In Henry VIII's day it was common practice to have several hundred deer rounded up and then to loose the hounds upon them in a wholesale massacre; and after the slaughter of a deer it was customary for ladies to wash their hands in the blood in the belief that it would make them white. James I was far from unusual in appearing insanely vindictive as he hunted down the quarry, riding after the hounds at a wild gallop and dismounting eagerly to cut the stag's throat as soon as it had been brought down. Then he would rip its belly open, put his hands and sometimes his feet inside and daub his companions with blood. Like so many of his contemporaries -- who according to Fynes Morrison, took more delight in hunting than the people of any other nation -- the king not only hunted stags with frenzied enthusiasm, not only killed hares and caught larks, pursued game with hawks and cormorants, he loved to see cocks fighting and bears and bulls being baited to death. To watch bears baited he had a special pit made and once matched a lion with a bear which was to be punished for killing a child, but the lion refused to fight and the bear had to be baited to death by dogs instead.
[Elizabeth Burton, The Early Tudors at Home, 1976]
By the mid 17th century the idea of meat being a necessity, rather than a luxury seems to have spread to the lower classes:
A worker who had a little land around his cottage and rights on the common might live without fear of hunger. Indeed, Gregory King estimated that half the poor who were in work ate meat every day, the other half at least twice a week, and even the unemployed might do so once a week. But for those who had no land to help feed hungry children life was hard, particularly in years of dearth such as that of 1659 and in those years of rising prices between 1693 and 1699 when the cost of bread doubled. Soon afterwards prices began to fall again; and by 1701 a chicken could be bought for 2d in Yorkshire, but even thiswas a price beyond the reach of many.
Efforts were made to improve farming methods and so bring food prices down. The Royal Society, founded in 1662, established an agricultural committee to conduct experiments and carry out research; and this committee advocated the growing of potatoes and of crops to feed animals during the winter months, the use of clover and sainfoin to convert arable land temporarily into pasture, and more efficient watering, manuring and fertilizing. Experts visited Holland to see how the Dutch had converted waterlogged land into profitable farms. At the same time certain practising farmers were turning to new crops and new methods on their own land. Colonel Robert Walpole began growing turnips as cattle fodder on his estate in East Anglia in 1673."
Perhaps if they had grown food for people instead of cattle the price of bread might not have doubled! The influence of the puritans brought back some of the religious fervour which may have existed in the monasteries, but the "dominion over the creatures' now seemed to be taken for granted:
In 1654 cock-fighting was prohibited, not so much because it was cruel as because it was "commonly accompanied with gaming, drinking and swearing". For six months horse racing was abolished and it was even considered a crime, in certain circumstances to play football.
[L. O. Pike, A History of Crime in England, 1873]
Meals were still mainly of meat, with some fruit and vegetables creeping in:
At one of his dinner parties in 1663 Samuel Pepys and his guests sat down to "a great" dinner "most neatly dressed by [his] only mayde". "We had a Fricasse of rabbets and chicken," he recorded proudly, "a leg of mutton boiled -- three carps to a dish -- a great side dish of lamb -- a dish roasted pigeons -- a dish of four lobsters -- three tarts -- a lampry pie, a most rare pie -- a dish of anchovies -- good wine of several sorts; and all things mighty and noble to my great content." Some months later he had Lord Montagu's two daughters and niece to a dinner: "and very merry we were with our pasty, very well baked -- and a good dish of roasted chicken -- pease -- lobsters -- strawberries.
In grand house a meal might consist of three or more courses in the French manner with a final course of sweetmeats, tarts, pies and fruit; but the middle classes generally contented themselves with two courses, most if not all the dishes in each course being placed on the table at once, and sweet dishes and puddings sometimes being served with the first course as well as the second.
[The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Latham and Matthews, 1970-83]
Some of the limitations of a totally meat diet were also becoming apparent:
Meat remained the staple diet of all those who could afford it, joints being generally preferred to minced meat, offal and made dishes. The meat was not of high quality since it was not until the 18th century that improved strains of beef-cattle and sheep were developed; and since they had no means of refrigeration, butchers could not allow their carcases to hang long enough to make them tender. Also, for much of the year fresh meat was difficult to obtain, as cattle were slaughtered in the autumn, there being no means of feeding them during the winter months. So meat still had to be preserved in brine or powdered with salt; and huge amounts of salted beef were eaten. The daily allowance for common seamen was 2lbs. It was a diet that, with few or no fresh vegetables, often led to skin diseases. Housewives were instructed in cookery books how to get rid of the salty flavour of the meat, but many relished the taste, as they did of other strongly preserved foods. Strong Stilton cheese was served with a spoon for scooping up the maggots.
[The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Latham and Matthews, 1970-83]
Samuel Pepys was typical of some odd ideas about fruit and vegetables:
Vegetables are not so often mentioned by Pepys, yet he does make passing references to cabbage, peas, asparagus, onions and cucumber, and to salads in which, though he does not say so, flowers and herbs were tossed with the lettuce, radish and cucumber, though not tomatoes which Pepys never mentions: they had originated from Mexico, but, since they were considered chill to the stomach, and a possible cause of gout and cancer, they were not to become popular in England until the beginning of the twentieth century. Many vegetables were improved strains introduced from Holland, but the poor had little opportunity of eating these, confining themselves largely to the cheaper root vegetables which did not then include Virginian potatoes. Potatoes, in fact, were not often seen until the nineteenth century, despite the commendations of such advocates as Adam Smith who, as Fernand Braudel has noted, deplored the English disdain of a crop which had apparently proved its value as a food in Ireland. Usually grown for export, if grown at all, potatoes were widely suspected to be a cause of flatulence and even leprosy.
[Jane Grigson, The Vegetable Book, 1978; Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life, 1981]
Most fruits were too expensive for the poor, the growing season being short and several varieties, apricots, melons and peaches, for example, being very limited in supply since they were grown under glass or in the sheltered gardens of the well-to-do. Oranges, however, were imported in large quantities.
Like many of his contemporaries, Pepys distrusted fresh fruit, believing it to be bad for the stomach, and he usually ate it cooked. He was, however, persuaded one day in 1669 to drink some fresh orange juice at the house of his cousin, Thomas Strudwick, a confectioner and provision merchant. "Here," he recorded, "which I never did before, I drank a glass, of a pint I believe, at one draught, of the juice of Oranges of whose peel they make comfits; and here they drink the juice as wine, with sugar, and it is very fine drink; but it being new, I was doubtful whether it might not do me hurt." Apprehensive though he was, Pepys did occasionally eat fruit "off the tree" and in his diary mentions apricots and peaches, cherries, figs, grapes, melons, mulberries, pears, apples, strawberries, prunes as well as a barrel of lemons which he received as a present. Pepys, in common with most men of his time, distrusted water as a drink, believing that, even if fresh, it was bad for the health. Pepys drank wine and beer, sometimes mixed together. He frequently drank too much, complained of a hangover, was advised to drink less for the sake of his health and his memory."
[The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Latham and Matthews, 1970-83]

Part 3: From Defoe to Cobbett

In the Eighteenth century town house, breakfast seems to have become vegetarian:
Breakfast usually consisted of tea or chocolate and hot buttered bread, perhaps with cheese, or toast. The German Pastor, Carl Philip Moritz, was delighted by toast, an English invention. "There is a way of roasting slices of buttered bread before the fire which is incomparable," he wrote."One slice after another is taken and held to the fire with a fork till the butter soaks through the whole pile of slices. This is called toast".
[J. Hunt and P. Willis, The English Landscape Garden, 1979]
No bacon and eggs? However, breakfast in the country Inns, where country "sports" were a way of life, had not changed:
There was a low dark room hung with sporting prints; the hat-stand, with a whip or two standing up in it; the blazing fire, with the quaint old glass over the mantelpiece, in which is stuck a large card with the list of the meets for the week of the county hounds. The table bearing a pigeon-pie, ham, round of cold boiled beef cut from a mammoth ox, and the great loaf of household bread on a wooden trencher. And here comes in the stout head waiter, puffing under a tray of hot viands; kidneys and a steak, transparent rashers and poached eggs, buttered toast and muffins, coffee and tea, all smoking hot. The table can never hold it all; the cold meats are removed to the sideboard, they were only put on for show, and to give us an appetite.
[T. Hughes, Tom Brown's Schooldays, 1857]
But at least in the towns there were signs that the total dependence on flesh-eating was beginning to change:
An Irish gentleman travelling in England at the time [mid 18th century] paid only 6d at the Lion, Liverpool, for "a very good supper, consisting of veal cutlets, pigeons, asparagus, lamb and salad, apple-pie and tarts.
[An Irish Gentleman, Journey through England, 1752]
Not quite "meat and two veg", but at least the fruit and veg is now mentioned in the same list as the meat. Meanwhile the exploitation of animals was continuing:
Horses were used mercilessly. Runs of eighty miles and more were not uncommon; and at the end of one run, which lasted for six hours and in which George III took part, the stag dropped down dead before the hounds. Not twenty out of 150 horses were in at the death; several had died in the field; and tired ones were seen limping away to every village.
[Ingram Cobbin, Georgiana,1820]
However, there were some signs of change, particularly amongst the ladies:
By George III's day, however, deer were more often seen as ornamental animals in a gentleman's park than as quarry to be chased and slaughtered. Hare-hunting continued to be popular well into the nineteenth century, yet fox-hunting was gradually gaining ground. Many ladies hunted as enthusiastically as men, though others only dutifully.
[E. Hughes, North Country Life in the Eighteenth Century, 1965]
The conviction of the gentry that all wildlife was for the benefit of their "sport", and their indifference to growing food for the masses caused problems:
An act of 1770 made would-be nocturnal poachers liable to six months' imprisonment; another act of 1803 rendered them liable to hanging if they were armed and resisted arrest; and in 1816, a man, even unarmed, might be transported if caught with a net. By 1827 one seventh of all convicted criminals were poachers.
[R. Porter, English Society in the Eighteenth Century, 1982]
Meanwhile, the masses had their own "sports":
The public taste for violence was also indulged by bull- and bear-baiting. The scarred and battered animals were taken around the country by their leaders and, when a sufficient crowd had gathered, they were chained to a stake and the spectators paid a shilling each to set their dogs upon them. Badgers were also baited by being tied into holes in the ground by means of chains passed through their tails and then being set upon by dogs. As many as five or six dogs might be killed by a badger's strong jaws and sharp teeth before the tormented animal died itself.
But none of these so-called sports was as popular as cock fighting, the widespread practice of which is indicated by the number of words and phrases connected with the it, apart from cockpit itself, which have passed into the language, including "pit against", "cut out for", "scoot" and a "clean pair of heels". As soon as its sex had been determined the owner of a cock intended for fighting would cut off its comb and wattles as well as the tail as far as the rump, clip the neck feathers from head to shoulders, then trim the wings to points and sharpen the beak. The cock's spurs would also be sharpened with a knife, though richer owners equipped their birds with steel or silverspurs.
[W. Sydney, England and the English in the Eighteenth Century, 1892]
Again the women seem to have had different role:
One of the cocks is placed at either end of the small round stage; they immediately rush at each other and fight furiously...they rarely give up till one of them is dead. Ladies never assist at these sports.
[C. de Sausure, A Foreign View of England, 1902]
On the health front there were still some odd ideas:
Even those doctors who sensibly emphasized the importance of diet in the maintenance of good health often had strange ideas as to what constituted a proper diet. Derek Jarrett cites George Cheyne, author of "The Natural Method of Curing the Diseases of the Body (1742), as an advocate of the consumption of meat in the winter, of fruit and vegetables in the summer, or milk and turnips all year round for chronic distempers and, for acute distempers, "teasmmade of saponaceous or aromatic seeds".
[D. Jarrett, England in the Age of Hogarth, 1974]
The food at the universities seemed to be more plentiful than in earlier times, but the flesh-eating orgy continued:
At Christ's College, Cambridge, in 1748 Humphrey Senhouse was "very well pleas'd with [his] situation in every particular". Senhouse's meals were "very good and always well done". Those of the Fellows were even better. Dining with the Warden of New College in 1774, James Woodforde had "a most elegant dinner indeed": The first course was Cod & Oysters, Ham, Fowls, boiled Beef, Rabbits smothered with onions, Harroco of mutton, Pork Griskins, Veal Collops, Puddings, Mince Pies, Roots etc. The second course was a very fine roast Turkey, Haunch of Venison, a brace of Woodcocks, some Snipes, Veal Olive, Trifle, Jelly, Blomonge, Stewed Pippins, Quinces preserved etc...Madeira, Old Hocke and Port wines to drink etc. A desert of Fruit after Dinner -- we stayed till near 8.
[E. Hughes, North Country Life in the Eighteenth Century, 1965]
At least there were some non-meat items in there which was a slight improvement on earlier feasts. The attitude towards animals was perhaps not surprising, considering the way people were treated:
Liverpool, where Fuesli the painter, thought that he could "everywhere smell the blood of slaves" -- in 1771, 107 slave ships sailed from Liverpool -- was now one of the largest towns in the kingdom.
[M. Ashley, The People of England, 1982]
Some children began their working life when they were five. They were taken over by mill-owners who lodged them in crowded sheds near the factory gates and kept them at work for as long as they could stay awake. Bishop Thetford, in a sermon, declared that the poor were "necessary for the establishment of Superiority, where there must be Members of Dishonour, as well as Honour, and some to serve and obey, as well as others to command. The poor are the Hands and Feet of the Body Politick... who hew the wood, and draw the water of the rich. They plow our lands, and dig our quarries, and cleanse our streets. Arthur Young concluded that "everyone but an idiot" knew that "the lower classes must be kept poor" or they would "never be industrious". When food prices rose this was not a reason for higher wages but for stricter economy on the part of those who were required to pay the prices demanded.
[R. Malcolmson, Life and Labour in England 1700-1780, 1981]
What chance did mere animals have? The poverty was then exacerbated by the Enclosure Laws at the end of the eighteenth century:
This decline in wages was accompanied by ... hardship occasioned by the continuing enclosure of common lands which, so it was complained, utterly ruined families who for centuries had enjoyed the rights of pasturage, of feeding pigs, of collecting fuel, nuts and berries and of materials for thatching. The diet of the poor consequently became more meagre and for the first time the bread which formed so large a part of it was as likely to be bought in a shop as baked at home.
Some did better, but they were already being persuaded to spend what little they had on processed foods, which naturally made more money for the factory owners:
There was compensation for the vigourous workmen in full employment who might earn as much as 3 pounds per week. On an income like this a man could afford to eat meat fairly regularly, to have white rather than brown rye or barley bread on their tables, to drink tea -- and to indulge in a growing taste for sugar, 5 million pounds of which were consumed in 1760.
[R. Porter, English Society in the Eighteenth Century, 1982]
The historian writing this seemed to see it as progress! Whilst the aristocracy was gorging itself on huge quantities of meat, they did not, apparently consider such a diet necessary for mere servants:
In large eighteenth-century houses, according to the duc de La Rochefoucauld, there was "a supply of cold meat, tea and punch" on the servants' tables "from morning to night". Another observer considered that "servants in great families wantonly" ate five times as much meat as nature really required.
[J. Hecht, The Domestic Servant Class in Eighteenth Century England 1956]
Strange that nature required the rich to eat more meat.... Elsewhere the balance was beginning to improve considerably:
Servants in smaller households also ate well. Mrs. Prinsep's footman described dinners of roast beef and vegetables, dumplings and damson pie, and "very good table ale" of which everyone could have as much as they liked.
[Arnold Bennett, Riceyman Steps, 1923]
This seems to be the first record of someone not complaining about eating a meal with more vegetables than meat!

Part 4: From the Victorians to Modern Times

The gluttony of the rich began to reach astonishing heights:
At Blenheim Palace, guests of the Duke of Marlborough sat down to dinners of alarming richness. First two soups, one hot and one cold were served simultaneously; then two kinds of fish followed, again one hot and one cold. Then came an entree, then a meat dish, followed by a sorbet. This was followed by game -- grouse or partridge, pheasant, duck, woodcock or snipe. In the summer, when there was no game, there were quails from Egypt, fattened in Europe, and Ortolans from France "which cost a fortune". "An elaborate sweet followed, succeeded by a hot savoury with which was drunk the port so comforting to English palates," the ninth duke's American wife recalled. "The dinner ended with a succulent array of peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines, raspberries, pears and grapes, all grouped in generous pyramids among the flowers that adorned the table."
[C. V. Balsan, The Glitter and the Gold, 1958]
The Prince of Wales was a celebrated, though not apparently uniquely exceptional, trencherman whose great appetite was not in the least affected by the huge cigars and the Egyptian cigarettes he smoked in such quantities. After drinking a glass of milk in bed, he would fortify himself for a morning's shooting with platefuls of bacon and eggs, haddock and chicken, toast and butter. Soon after breakfast an hour or two in the fresh air would sharpen the Prince's appetite for hot turtle soup. Yet this would in no way impair his appetite for luncheon at half past two, just as a hearty luncheon would not prevent his appearing in the hall at Sandringham where, as his band played appropriate tunes, he would help himself to poached eggs, petit fours, preserved ginger, rolls, scones, hot cakes, cold cakes, sweet cakes and that particular species of Scotch shortcake of which he was especially fond.
The dinner which followed at half past eight consisted usually of at least twelve courses; and it was not unknown for him to take a liberal sample of every one. He had as evident a relish for rich as for simple food, and would tuck into Scotch broth, Irish stew and plum pudding with as much zest as into caviar, plover's eggs and Ortolans. He was once noticed to frown upon a bowl of boiled ham and beans, but this, he hastened to explain, was not because he despised such fare but "because it should have been bacon". He would enjoy several dozen oysters in a matter of minutes, setting the fashion for swallowing them between mouthfuls of bread and butter; and then would go on to more solid fare, to sole poached in Chablis and garnished with oysters and prawns, or to chicken and turkey in aspic, quails and pigeon pie, grouse and partridge; and the thicker the dressing, the richer the stuffing, the creamier the sauce, the more deeply did he seem to enjoy each mouthful. No dish was too rich for him. He liked his pheasant stuffed with truffles and smothered in oleaginous sauce; he delighted in quails packed with foie gras and served with oysters, truffles, mushrooms, prawns, tomatoes and croquettes. He never grew tired of boned snipe, filled with forcemeat as well as foie gras and covered with truffles and Madeira sauce. And after eating all this food for dinner, he would advise his guests to have a good supper before going to bed, strongly recommending grilled oysters which were his own favourite refreshment at that time of night. On his bedside table was placed a cold chicken in case he became hungry during the night.
[P. Magnus, King Edward VII, 1964; C. Hibbert, Edward VII, 1976; Sir S. Lee, King Edward VII, 1925-7]
Even amongst all that there are occasional mentions of fruit, vegetables, salads, and even beans. More so than in earlier times but still strictly an accompaniment or sauce. The idea of vegetables as pauper's food was still very strong, equally so among the paupers:
The agricultural labourer lived a hard life which few looked back upon with contentment and satisfaction. Admittedly, some farm labourers remembered being happy and well fed with "any amount of bread and bacon, and plenty of home-brewed beer. Most, however, recalled less happy times, rising at dawn to work until sunset for their paltry wages, eating bread and potatoes with an occasional piece of bacon and an apple dumpling, often going to bed hungry. One, no doubt characteristic, family in Yorkshire, had bread and treacle for breakfast, and sometimes a little tea made from used leaves collected from local inn; for dinner there was broth obtained from a nearby farm three days a week, potatoes and possibly dumplings; supper was like breakfast with the occasional addition of an apple pie. It was estimated that by now about 2 million people in Britain lived largely on potatoes. In Ireland 4 million -- nearly half the population in 1841 -- did so; and when the Irish crop failed hardship and famine were inevitable.
[J. Harrison, The Early Victorians, 1971]
The tragedy, of course, was that everyone could have eaten well if the land had been used to grow vegetables, grains and pulses. But the landowners were obsessed with producing meat for the wealthy, indifferent to the fact that most of the people could obviously not afford it. Change began to come from across the Atlantic:
During these years the growth of railways in the U.S.A, the rapid spread of farm machinery and the increasing cheapness of ocean-going steamer transport combined to make it possible for American farmers to export great quantities of prairie-wheat. The price of English wheat plummeted and soon almost half the country's grain, nearly all of which had previously been supplied at home, was coming from abroad.
[G. Best, Mid-Victorian Britain, 1971]
But new technology also brought new forms of animal exploitation, as well as other mixed blessings:
After the wheat came imports of frozen meat, of live cattle, and of a cheap substitute for butter. Farm wages fell sharply once more; many farmers went bankrupt; whole tracts of land were abandoned; almost 100,000 labourers left the land to find work find work in the towns; and over a million people emigrated. Yet by the end of the century it was generally agreed that life for poor country people was less harsh than it had been. There was more variety in their diet; wages, so one of them said, seemed to "go a bit further".
[G. Best, Mid-Victorian Britain, 1971]
By "more variety" does the historian really mean "more meat"? But for the majority the quality of the diet was dubious to say the least:
One labourer with his wife and five children living in the Wiltshire village of Corsley in 1906, had no more than 15s a week. One typical week in January he and his wife were able to purchase 3lbs of sugar, half a pound of tea, one and a half pounds of butter, 2oz tobacco, 1/2lb of lard, 1/4lb of suet, 1/2lb currants, 1 pint of beer, 1lb of soap, and a pair of stockings. Other purchases were small quantities of bacon, oranges, Quaker oats, cheese, baking powder, papers, coal, milk, oil and bread. When clothes had to be bought or the parents were ill, the amount spent on food had to be severely reduced. It was estimated that a third of all the families living in the village were existing below the poverty line.
[M. Davies, Life in an English Village, 1909]
It seems strange that such a limited income was squandered on such unhealthy food, but maybe the poor still do that today? Alternatives were possible, but still frustrated by the greed and selfishness of the rich:
There were certain compensations. Various Allotment Acts, for instance, had enabled many labourers to provide their families with fresh vegetables, though farmers did not like their men having these plots of land which, so they felt, took up too much of their time and energy, and the men themselves often found them scarcely worth the trouble of maintaining, because of the depredations of the protected game of the landlord.
[J. Bishop, Social History of Edwardian Britain, 1977]
The diet in the industrialised nineteenth century towns was even worse:
Booth provided the example of a casual dock labourer of 38, Michael H. who was "in poor health and straight from the infirmary": His wife of 43 is consumptive. A son of 18 who earns 8 shillings regular wages as a car man's boy, and two girls of 8 and 6, complete the family. Their house has four rooms but they let two. Father and son dine from home; the son takes 2d a day for this. The neighbouring clergy send soup two or three times a week, and practically no meat is bought. Beyond dinners out, and the soup at home, the food consists principally of bread, margarine, tea and sugar. No rice is used nor any oatmeal; there is no sign of any but the most primitive cookery.
[C. Booth, Life and Labour of the People of London, 1889]
Those slightly better off bought an extraordinary quantity of certain foods:
The dock labourer earned 21s a week, his wife a little extra, sometimes 3s 6d, by needlework; and although he had five children under ten at home and a girl out at service who still received both money and clothes from her parents, he was able to live quite comfortably, thanks to "steadiness on his part and good management on the part of the wife". He had all his meals at home with the family for whom, in an average week, he was able to supply 8lbs of meat, 5lbs of fish, 30lbs of potatoes, 34lbs of bread, 3lbs of flour, one and a quarter pounds of butter and 7lbs of sugar.
[C. Booth, Life and Labour of the People of London, 1889)]
The meat and fish seems meagre compared to that consumed by the wealthy of the day, but how many omnivorous families today get through 13lbs of meat and fish a week? Details of middle class diets are provided by cookery books:
In 1861, the first one-volume edition of the celebrated "Household Management" by Mrs. Beeton, a publisher's wife who died before she was thirty, having given birth to her fourth son. Mrs. Beeton and Alexis Soyer both offered suggestions for quite simple meals as well as for dinner parties. Here, for example, are Mrs. Beeton's recommendations for a week's "plain family dinners" for a comfortably off middle class household: "Sunday. Clear gravy soup, roast haunch of mutton, sea kale, potatoes, rhubarb tart, custard in glasses. Monday. Crimped skate and caper sauce, boiled knuckle of veal and rice, cold mutton, stewed rhubarb and baked custard pudding. Tuesday. Vegetable soup, toad in the hole, from remains of cold mutton, stewed rhubarb and baked plum pudding. Wednesday. Fried soles, Dutch sauce, boiled beef, carrots, suet dumplings, lemon pudding. Thursday. Pea soup, from boiled beef liquor, cold beef, mashed potatoes, mutton cutlets and tomato sauce, macaroni. Friday. Bubble and squeak, made with remains of cold beef, roast shoulder of veal, stuffed, and spinach and potatoes, boiled batter pudding and sweet sauce. Saturday. Stewed veal and vegetables, from remains of shoulder, boiled rumpsteaks and oyster sauce, dumplings."
When guests were to be entertained and impressed, less simple fare was naturally recommended, although Mrs. Beeton did not favour the extravagance of 18th century menus. One of her recommendations for a dinner party for twelve, begins with a soup "a la reine" and Julienne soup, followed by turbot with lobster sauce and slices of salmon "a la genevese". As entrees she suggests croquettes of leveret, fricandeau of veal, and "vol au vent" with stewed mushrooms. Then come guinea fowls and forequarter of lamb; and -- after charlotte "a la Parisienne", orange jelly, meringues, ratafia ice pudding and lobster salad with sea kale -- dessert and ices.
[Household Management, 1861]
The everyday meals reflect the gradual increase in the use of vegetables over the centuries, but still a higher proportion of meat than most meat-eating families would expect today. The dinner party fares even worse -- obviously guests had to be given exotic flesh to be impressed. Meanwhile, the establishments which should have been setting healthier trends were a long way behind:
Patients in hospitals were liable to be denied food or to be discharged for breaking such rules as those established by the governor of Guy's Hospital, who ran it "despotically" for half a century, and provided by Rule V that "if any patient curse or swear or use any prophane or lewd talking, and it was proved upon them by two witnesses, such patient shall, for the first offence, lose their next day's diet, for the second offence lose two days diet, and the third be discharged. The loss of diet, however, was considered no great punishment. In most large London hospitals the food provided consisted of a pint of water gruel or porridge for breakfast, 8 ounces of meat or 6 ounces of cheese for dinner, and broth for supper. Patients might also receive up to a pound of bread a day and two to three pints of beer, but no vegetables or fruit.
[B. Abel-Smith, The Hospitals 1800-1948, 1964]
By the 1930 there were further signs of change:
As families became smaller in size and as earnings grew, those in regular employment found that their standard of living continued to improve. Prices were low enough for most working class families in receipt of regular wages to live without hardship, spending far more on fresh food -- almost twice as much on fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, butter and eggs -- than they had done in the past, but also filling their shopping baskets with tinned soup and cornflakes, cocoa and granulated coffee, custard powders and all manner of sweets and chocolates.
[C. Hibbert, The English, 1978]
This seems to suggest a significantly lower proportion of meat, but a bigger change was to come. World War II, and the rationing of meat, made us the nearest we have been yet to a vegetarian nation:
The war, by submitting men and women, rich and poor to many of the same dangers and deprivations, had forged a national unity which had seemed unattainable. "Hitler," the London correspondent of the New York Herald reported, "is doing what centuries of English history have not accomplished -- he is breaking down the class structure of England." At the same time the government's measures to keep down the cost of living by food subsidies, rent controls and other means proved successful. Most foods, except bread and potatoes, remained rationed, yet vegetables, grown everywhere, including Hyde Park and Windsor Castle, were usually in ready supply. The Ministry of Food was highly effective; the meals supplied in schools, works canteens and the so-called British Restaurants were high in nutritional value. Babies were provided with concentrated orange juice.
[C. Hibbert, The English, 1978]
The war proved that a healthy, virtually meat-free diet was possible, but old habits die hard and meat consumption naturally rose again after the war. But the vegetarian movement, although small, was now well established -- 100,000 claimed the special vegetarian ration coupons during the war, providing extra cheese instead of meat. But England was about to face the worst form of animal abuse and cheap meat yet invented -- factory farming was on the way.