Friday, April 30, 2010

A Fast Food Generation

We tend to think of our generation as being one of “fast food” people, but the reality is not that we eat fast food (which, of course, we do) but that we are fed by fast food chains.  The Victorians were “fast food” consumers, but what they ate came largely from individual purveyors on the streets of London and the other large cities.

Food and drink was readily available at all hours of the day and night, purchased from individual entrepreneurs. Henry Mayhew, in the middle years of the nineteenth century, listed “The Street-sellers of Eatables and Drinkables”  and included, in his list,

the vendors of fried fish, hot eels, pickled whelks, sheep's trotters, ham sandwiches, peas'-soup, hot green peas, penny pies, plum 'duff,' meat-puddings, baked potatoes, spice-cakes, muffins and crumpets, Chelsea buns, sweetmeats, [and] brandy-balls … constituting the principal eatables sold in the street; while under the head of street-drinkables may be specified tea and coffee, ginger-beer, lemonade, hot wine, new milk from the cow, asses milk, curds and whey and occasionally water. 

In addition, one might find “sherbet, and some highly-coloured beverages which have no specific name, but are introduced to the public as 'cooling' drinks …”

Men, women and children, especially those working the long hours common among the labouring classes, might take all of their meals in the streets.  The primitive and overcrowded conditions under which so many city dwellers were forced to live during the Victorian Era meant that for most there was no facility available for cooking meals. Street food was varied, cheap and tasty, if not nutritious and, at times full of dangerous additives or fouled by human or animal excrement.

The variety of what was available was extensive and, as Henry Mayhew tells us,

The coffee-stall supplies a warm breakfast; shell-fish of many kinds tempt to a luncheon; hot-eels or pea-soup, flanked by a potato 'all hot,' serve for a dinner; and cakes and tarts, or nuts and oranges, with many varieties of pastry, confectionery, and fruit, woo to indulgence in a dessert; while for supper there is a sandwich, a meat pudding, or a 'trotter.'

In the middle years of the century, there were literally thousands of street sellers of food and drink.  Mayhew estimated that there were 500 sellers of Pea-Soup and Hot Eels, alone and 300 sellers of Fried Fish.  Prices were such that all but the very poorest might eat.  For example, a half-penny  serve of hot eels might consist of 5 to 7 small pieces with ¾ of a cup of liquid while for the  same price, one might have a pint of pea soup.

Street sellers of food and drink provided refreshment, too, for those who were looking to buy the variety of other goods available at the kerbside.  There one might find the vendor of matches, farthing windmills, flowers, shirt-studs, animals, fruit, vegetables, paper flags and all the needs of the poor resident in a large metropolis. Not only were there goods to be bought to separate the consumer from his or her shillings and pence, there were games to be played and all sorts of amusements.  George Sims, writing at the end of the Victorian era, commented that “ the weighing chair, the shooting gallery, and the try-your-strength machine are to be found by the pavement's edge.”

One of the most popular dishes sold on the streets was jellied eel or, as it was sometimes called, eel jelly.  Cheap and nutritious it was a staple in the diet of the Victorian poor.  The eels were chopped and boiled in fish stock with various herbs and spices.  Their naturally gelatinous texture set the stock and they were ready to be marketed. For those who have never tasted them, the flavour is similar to rollmops. 

Here in all its glory the ell-jelly trade is carried on.  In great white basins you see a savoury mess.  Behind the stall mother and father, sometimes assisted by son and daughter, wash up cups and spoons, and ladle out the local luxury to a continuous stream of customers.  Many a time on a terribly cold night have I watched a shivering, emaciated-looking man eagerly consuming his cup of eel-jelly, and only parting with the spoon and crockery when even the tongue of a dog could not have extracted another drop from either.
For those who were either up late or rose early there were the coffee stalls.  Some opened as early as midnight, while others did not start trading until three or four in the morning.  The former appealed to "'night-walkers'" - fast gentlemen and loose girls" while those that opened in the morning were more likely to be patronized by working men.

 They usually sell coffee and tea, and some of them cocoa. They keep hot milk in one of the large cans, and coffee, tea, or cocoa in the others. They supply bread and butter, or currant cake, in slices - ham sandwiches, water-cresses, and boiled eggs. The price they charge is ld. per mug, or ½d. per half-mug, for the coffee, tea, or cocoa; and ½d. a slice the bread and butter or cake. The ham sandwiches are 2d. each, the boiled eggs ld., and the water-cresses a halfpenny a bunch.

The street vendors of food and drink continued to be a common sight in London until the end of the Victorian Era; and for good reason.  If they served as a kind of outdoor café for the poorest of the poor, they served a significant portion of London's population.  As late as 1889, Booth estimated that 30 percent of Londoners lived in poverty and to this must be added the more casual users of the street vendors; children seeking ice-creams, after-theatre crowds gathering around a coffee vendor and those who simply found it more convenient than going to a restaurant or café. 

While street vending  remained, for the individual purveyor, a precarious trade, for Londoners it was a popular and importaint institution.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Aboard the Hulks: A Voyage to Nowhere

By today's standards, the criminal justice system in Victorian times was hard and cruel. Although lip service had been paid to imprisonment as a reformative process, most people saw it as punishment; and the harder, the better. The hardest punishment was, of course, the death sentence but this was a punishment which was often commuted to “transportation beyond the seas.” Not all of those who were so sentenced were actually transported. Many were placed aboard ships which provided a voyage to nowhere; serving their full sentence aboard the “hulks.”

Lying in the Thames estuary, anchored along the banks of the river and in ports such as Portsmouth and Plymouth were old navy ships which had been converted into floating gaols. Generally a hulk was demasted, the rigging and rudders were removed as were any other features that might make the craft seaworthy. Inside, the decks were restructured to include cells for the convicts. Reforms in the first two decades of the nineteenth century led to a more standardized “prison” ship.

On each of the decks which housed the convicts a passage ran down the middle with cells on either side containing from ten to sixteen prisoners. The cells opened onto the passage by means of barred doors in order to insure that the activities of the convicts were always visible from the passageway. By the 1830s, when Charles Cozens, a military prisoner, was incarcerated in one of these floating prisons, the Justitia, he tells us that this former man of war was

drawn up close adjacent to the arsenal, with which a platform communicates from the ship’s gangway. It is subdivided into so many different apartments termed “wards,” varying in size according to the number and nature of their occupants, and forming three distinct stories or tiers, called the upper, middle, and lower decks, altogether capable of containing from eight to ten hundred men. Hammocks supply place of berths, which, from the facility of slinging, accommodate a much greater number of men.

In 1776, Parliament had authorized the use of these decommissioned and converted warships for a two year period as temporary holding pens for transportees. Like most government measures the hulk system seemed to take on a life of its own and they were still in use more than eighty years later. Sir Samuel Romilly, speaking in the House of Commons in May of 1809 commented on "the extreme depravity" and the "wretchedness they were condemned to suffer on board the hulks," describing them as " miserable receptacles, where so many met a melancholy death."
Indeed,  Charles Cozens may well have been right when he described other prisons as,  “delightful suburban retreat[s]” when compared to the hulks.  
Because those either too ill or too old to make the trip to Australia were not transported, the hulks were always at risk of becoming human dumping grounds. “We lament,” investigators noted, “the great proportion of persons on board the hulks generally who from age, infirmity, accident or incurable disease are wholly incapable of work.” Among the criticism directed at the hulks was that the overcrowding aboard the vessels was such as to create an environment in which criminals of all types and ages were co-mingled, “and by that constant intercourse, they corrupt and confirm each other in every practice of villainy.” The hulks became schools for criminals where they were “confirmed in every vicious habit.”  Nor was it uncommon for there to be boys among the men.  Aboard the Justitia, Cozens found  two brothers whose ages were estimated at eleven and twelve years.

Charles Cozens was aboard the Justitia, a hulk which was not noted for its cleanliness.  Even so, attempts were made, no matter how unsuccessful they might prove to be, to maintain some minimal degree of hygiene. After all, cleanliness was next to Godliness, and so convicts were required to wash and shave on Saturday evenings to prepare for the Lord’s Day, Sunday.
Cozens was a “laundress,” whose job, in his words, was “washing the shirts or linen of the remainder of the family, amounting at the time … to about five hundred.” The first four days of the week were spent in scrubbing the thick smock-frocks or shirts inside and out with a brush and they were then hung from lines between the yards. They were finally ironed and folded. Charles Cozen supported existing views on cleanliness aboard the hulks, noting that
the greatest inconvenience experienced in this … was occasioned by the filthy state of the shirts from vermin, which, on some, literally swarmed, and every place in the wash-house, from long usage, was in the same state.
Life aboard the hulks followed a relatively tight routine; at least during the daylight hours. The ordinary working day started with the cooks rising at 3.00 a.m. to prepare breakfast for the convicts who arose at 5.30. They were then mustered on the deck fifteen minutes later and as soon as they finished breakfast one of the three decks on the ship was washed. The decks were washed alternately thus meaning that one was cleaned every three days. This was completed by 6.45 at which time the convicts stowed their hammocks and left the ship to work on shore in the dockyards or on the banks of the Thames. As they left the ship, in irons, the restraints were checked by the guards who also made sure that the convicts had nothing hidden about their persons and it is likely that the guards were fastidious in their searches since, if anything was found on the prisoners later, the guard was held responsible.

The work gangs, usually consisting of ten men, were set up although the numbers might vary depending upon the particular assignment for the day. They were under the supervision of a free overseer and while they worked, they were, of course, closely guarded to make sure that they didn’t slack off or attempt to escape. Among the jobs undertaken by convicts were

cleaning shot in the arsenal, or erecting mounds and scarps, under the direction of sappers and miners, for artillery practice. Others loaded and unloaded barges in the mud, or attended the different tradesmen and mechanics employed in the dockyard.
There were frequent musters and the prisoners were closely guarded. On their return to the ship,  their irons were examined and they were searched. In the evening there might be school, chapel and a final muster before the prisoners were locked into their wards for the night. Finally at 9.30, it was lights out. Violence aboard the hulks was not uncommon. What might appear at first glance to be small issues could blow up and cause major disruption. In the history of the hulks, attempts were made to burn or scuttle the ships and the thin line between discipline and riot was not always easy to maintain.
Although descriptions from visitors might suggest a well run organization, this was often far from the truth. At one of the Hulks at Sheerness, a visitor found that the prisoners were largely in control. They commonly stole from the dockyards where they worked and used what they stole for purchasing beer which, as he noted, “was sold in the hulks by night, as well as by day … with the sanction and the authority of the captain.” And he went on to suggest that the authorities allowed this since they profited from the sale of the beer.

In 1835, witnesses before the House of Lords Committee on Gaols, including some former prisoners, testified that after lights out the intensely crowded lower decks became places where the convicts robbed one another, quarrelled, fought, swore and apparently did pretty much as they pleased. As Branch-Johnson has noted, “from almost whatever hulk witnesses came, the phrase ‘hell upon earth’,: or something very like it, finds its way into the evidence.” So bad was life aboard the hulks that one of the Convicts in one of these floating prisons freely admitted “that if it should be his son’s fate to be placed in confinement, he prays to God that he may never be put into a hulk.”
Click here to download Charles Cozen's Adventures of a Guardsman.