By Bill Bryson
Updated: 17:30 EST, 4 June 2010>
The fascinating final extract from BILL BRYSON'S new book on the history of our homes.
If we were to step into the kitchen of my home in 1851, a number of differences would strike us immediately.
For one thing, there would be no sink. Kitchens in the mid-19th century were for cooking only - at least in middle-class homes.
Washing-up was done in a separate scullery, which meant that every dish and pot had to be carried over to be scrubbed, dried and put away, then brought back to the kitchen the next time they were needed. That could entail many trips, for the Victorians did a lot of cooking and provided an awesome array of dishes.
Below stairs: The mid-19th century was an age of servants. Households had servants the way modern people have appliances
Still, this wouldn't have been a problem for the master and mistress of the house, for in all but the most modest homes, owners rarely set foot in the kitchen.
It was an age of servants. Households had servants the way modern people have appliances. Common labourers had servants; some servants even had servants.
They were much more than a help and convenience; they were a vital indicator of status. A bachelor such as the Reverend Thomas Marsham, the original owner of my Victorian rectory, had three, while most rectors kept at least four, and some had a dozen or more.
Even Karl Marx, the creator of communism - who lived in chronic indebtedness in London's Soho and was often barely able to put food on the table - employed a housekeeper and a personal secretary.
So, servitude was a big part of life for a great many people. By 1851, a third of young women in London - aged from about 15-25 - were servants. (Another one in three was a prostitute. For many, that was all the choice there was.)
It was very much a female world: women in service in 1851 outnumbered males by ten to one. Most left the profession by the age of 35, usually to get married, and very few stayed in a job for more than a year or so.
Which is little wonder, as being a servant was generally hard and thankless work. As the novelist George Moore wrote from experience, the lot of the servant was to spend 17 hours a day 'drudging in and out of the kitchen, running upstairs with coals and breakfasts and cans of hot water, or down on your knees before a grate... The lodgers sometimes threw you a kind word, but never one that recognised you as one of our kin; only the pity that might be extended to a dog.'
Staff sizes varied enormously, but at the upper end of the scale they were substantial. A large country house typically had 40 indoor staff. The bachelor Earl of Lonsdale lived alone, but had 49 people to look after him.
Lord Derby had two dozen just to wait at dinner. The first Duke of Chandos kept a private orchestra for his mealtimes, although he managed to get extra value out of some of his musicians by making them do servants' work as well; a violinist, for instance, was required to give his son a daily shave.
'It was common for mistresses to test servants' honesty by leaving some temptation - a coin on the floor, say - then punishing them if they pocketed it'
Everything in these houses tended to be on a grand scale. The kitchen at Saltram, a house in Devon, had 600 copper pots and pans.
To keep steel cutlery gleaming, it wasn't enough to wash and polish them; they had to be vigorously stropped against a piece of leather on which had been smeared a paste of emery powder, chalk, brick dust, crocus or hartshorn mixed with lard.
Before being put away, knives were greased with mutton fat (to defeat rusting) and wrapped in brown paper, and so had to be unwrapped, washed and dried before they could be used again.
It wasn't just a question of doing the work, either, but often of doing it to the kind of exacting standards that generally occur only to people who don't have to do the work themselves. In one household, the butler and his staff were required to put down spare stair-carpet around the dining-room table before setting it so as not to tread on good carpet.
By the Edwardian period, servants got half a day off per week and one full day per month - hardly munificent when you consider that was all the time they had to shop for personal items, visit family, court, relax or otherwise enjoy a few hours of precious liberty.
Many were treated appallingly. It was common for mistresses to test their honesty by leaving some temptation where they were bound to find it - a coin on the floor, say - then punishing them if they pocketed it. Servants were also suspected of abetting burglars, by leaving doors unlocked and providing inside information.
It was a perfect recipe for unhappiness on both sides. Servants, especially in smaller households, tended to think of their masters as unreasonable and demanding. Masters saw servants as slothful and untrustworthy.
Dismissal, especially for females, was the most dreaded calamity, for it meant loss of employment, shelter, prospects - everything.
Lavish: Guests at country houses were expected to be generous in their tips - even though most brought their own servants with them
Mrs Beeton, author of the vastly, lastingly, mystifyingly influential Book Of Household Management, was at particular pains to warn her readers not to allow sentiment or Christian charity to lead them to write a false or misleading recommendation for a dismissed employee.
But life for servants wasn't all bad by any means. The big country houses generally were lived in for only two or three months a year, so for some servants life was long periods of comparative ease punctuated by seasons of hard work. They were warm, well-fed, decently attired and had a place to sleep every night at a time when those things meant a good deal.
When all the comforts are factored in, it has been calculated that a senior servant enjoyed a salary equivalent to £50,000 in today's money. And servants often made pretty good money from tips, too. It was usual when departing from a dinner party to have to pass a line of five or six footmen, each expecting his shilling, making a dinner out a very expensive business for everyone but the servants.
Guests at country houses were expected to be lavish in their tips, too - even though most brought their own servants with them. Indeed, at weekends, it was not unusual for the number of people within a country house to swell by as many as 150.
Amid such a mass of bodies, confusion was inevitable. On one occasion in the 1890s, Lord Charles Beresford, a well-known rake, let himself into what he believed was his mistress's bedroom. With a lusty cry of 'Cock-a-doodle-doo!' he leapt into the bed - only to discover that it was occupied by the Bishop of Chester and his wife.
Food was a huge feature at such gatherings, with gargantuan portions the norm. A popular book of 1851, by a Lady Maria Clutterbuck - who was actually Mrs Charles Dickens - gives a flavour of the kind of cooking that went on in those days.
'Cherries could be made to glisten afresh by being gently rolled around in the vendor's mouth before being put on display'
One suggested menu, for a dinner for six people, comprises 'carrot soup, turbot with shrimp sauce, lobster patties, stewed kidneys, roast saddle of lamb, boiled turkey, knuckle of ham, mashed and brown potatoes, stewed onions, cabinet pudding, macaroni, and blancmange and cream'. Such a meal could generate up to 450 pieces of washing-up. The swing door leading from the kitchen to the scullery must have swung a lot.
In 1861, all cookery books were shouldered aside by Isabella Beeton's Book Of Household Management. There has never been another book quite like it.
Mrs Beeton made clear from the first line that running a household was a grave and cheerless business. 'As with the commander of an Army, or the leader of any enterprise, so it is with the mistress of a house,' she declared.
Its title notwithstanding, the book devotes nearly 900 pages to cooking. Despite this bias towards the kitchen, however, Mrs Beeton didn't like cooking and didn't go near her own kitchen if she could possibly help it.
You don't have to read far into the recipes to begin to suspect as much - when she suggests, for instance, boiling pasta for an hour and three-quarters before serving. Garlic, she thought, was 'offensive'. Cheese was fit only for sedentary people - she didn't say why - and then only 'in very small quantities'.
Looking back now, it is nearly impossible to get a fix on Victorians and their diet. For a start, the range of foods was dazzling. People, it seems, ate practically anything that stirred in the undergrowth or could be hauled from water. Ptarmigan, larks, hare, woodcock, gurnet, barbel, smelts, plover, snipe, gudgeon, dace, eels, tench, sprats, turkey poults and many more largely forgotten delicacies featured in Mrs Beeton's many recipes.
Fruits and vegetables seemed almost infinite in number. Of apples alone, there were, almost unbelievably, more than 2,000 varieties to choose from - Worcester pearmain, Beauty of Bath, Cox's orange pippin, and so on in long and poetic vein.
Foods we now think of as delicacies were plenteous. Lobsters bred in such abundance around Britain's coastline that they were fed to prisoners and orphans, or ground up for fertiliser. Servants sought written agreements from their employers that they wouldn't be served lobster more than twice a week.
A grave and cheerless business: Mrs Beeton's recipes make it clear that she didn't like cooking
If average consumption is any guide, then people ate quite a lot of healthy food: almost 8lb of pears per person in 1851, compared with just 3lb now; almost 9lb of grapes and other soft fruits, roughly double the amount eaten now; and just under 18lb of dried fruit, as against 3.5lb today.
For vegetables the figures are even more striking. The average Londoner in 1851 ate 31.8lb of onions, as against 13.2lb today; consumed over 40lb of turnips and swedes, compared with 2.3lb today; and put away almost 70lb of cabbages per year, as against 21lb now. Sugar consumption was about 30lb a head - less than a third the amount consumed today.
For many poorer people, however, meals were remarkably unvaried. In Scotland, farm labourers in the early 1800s received an average ration of 17.5lb of oatmeal a week, plus a little milk, and almost nothing else - though they generally considered themselves lucky, because at least they didn't have to eat potatoes. These were widely disdained because the edible parts grew below ground rather than reaching nobly for the sun.
Most people ate vast quantities of bread. It is hard to overemphasise just how important bread was to the English diet through the 19th century: for many, bread wasn't just an important accompaniment to a meal, it was the meal.
Up to 80 per cent of all household expenditure was spent on food - and up to 80 per cent of that went on bread. Even middle-class people spent as much as two-thirds of their income on food ( compared with about a quarter today), of which a fairly high proportion was bread.
Because bread was so important, the laws governing its purity were strict and the punishments severe. A baker who cheated his customers could be fined £10 per loaf sold, or made to do a month's hard labour in prison.
It was, however, fairly usual for people to be at least a little uncertain about the freshness or integrity of their food. If it wasn't rapidly decomposing from inadequate preservation, there was every chance that it was coloured or bulked out with dangerous substances.
Sugar was often stretched with gypsum, plaster of Paris, sand and dust. Butter was bulked out with tallow and lard. One closely inspected shipment of tea proved to be only slightly more than half tea; the rest was sand and dirt.
There was hardly a foodstuff, it seems, that couldn't be improved through a little deceptive manipulation. Cherries, the 18th-century novelist Tobias Smollett reported, could be made to glisten afresh by being gently rolled around in the vendor's mouth before being put on display. How many unsuspecting ladies of quality, he wondered, had enjoyed a plate of luscious cherries that had been 'rolled and moistened between the filthy and, perhaps, ulcerated chops of a St Giles's huckster'?
Meanwhile, getting food to distant markets in an edible condition was a constant challenge. In 1859, a ship laden with 300,000 oranges raced under full sail from Puerto Rico to New England to show that it could be done. By the time it arrived, however, more than two-thirds of the cargo had rotted.
True, about 40 years before that, a method for preserving food - namely canning - had been perfected in England. But the early cans were made of wrought iron and practically impossible to get into.
One brand bore instructions to open them with a hammer and chisel. Soldiers usually attacked them with bayonets or fired bullets into them.
But even if a Victorian household had possessed a practical can-opening device, the chances are the master and mistress would never have seen it, let alone used it. That would have been a job for the servants.
Adapted from At Home: A Short History Of Private Life by Bill Bryson, by Doubleday, £20. © Bill Bryson, 2010. To order a copy at £18 (p&p free), tel: 0845 155 0720.