What The Poor Eat

The problem of feeding the poor in the large cities across Victorian Britain was a constant problem, to the 19th-century authorities and all manner of solutions were put forward that might ease the blight of hunger and starvation that were both rife at the time.

Indeed, starvation was a major killer that it didn’t go unobserved claimed the lives of more victims than Jack the Ripper ever did, but which remained a largely silent – or, at least, unremarked upon assassin


In its edition of Wednesday the 26th of December, 1900, The Dundee Evening Telegraph published an article that confronted its readers with the diet that the poor of Dundee were existing upon:-

The festive season upon which we have now entered is not perhaps the best time to begin the discussion of the great question of the feeding of the poor, yet the time is not without its appropriateness.

About New Year time it is a common saying that folk have shortbread at the beginning of the week, and are short o’ bread at the end of it.

The truth of the saying comes home with special force in the homes of the poor.

If shortbread is a rarity in them, seen only at the New Year, shortness of bread is a condition with which they are only too well acquainted at all seasons.

What foods are principally eaten by the poor?

Illustrations of children enjoying their food.
Children Enjoying Their Food. From The Illustrated London News, 17th April 1886. Copyright, The British Library Board.


So far as my observations have gone the diet which most frequently recurs among the poor of Dundee is one made up of tea, bread and margarine.

A little inquiry and consideration show that the reason for this dietary is largely connected with the industrial conditions of life.

If employed in the mill the workers begin at six o’clock in the morning, and work till six o’clock in the evening, with intervals of one hour each for breakfast and dinner.

Now, these intervals are not sufficient for the workers to go to their homes and prepare a proper diet, and unless there is someone home to look after the cooking the diet too frequently degenerates into a cup of tea, with bread and margarine as accompaniments.

Furthermore, these items, of food are all to be had.

The price of margarine ranges from fourpence to one shilling per pound. Bread is a fairly cheap commodity, and is in almost universal use.


In some houses, however, economies have to be made upon even the ordinary loaf.

For instance, in one house which I visited recently I found that the only food that they had had that day for the woman and a number of children was a  pennyworth of old scones which they had purchased from a baker near at hand.

The woman supported herself and the children by sack-sewing – a precarious means of livelihood, for sacks are often not to be had.

In desperation, she had sat up all one night and sewed three bundles, but that, she added, only brought in one shilling and three pence.

The rent of the house was 1s and 6d per week. It was a low-roofed place, with the floor several feet below the level of the street.

The woman did not appear to be much concerned over her own hardships, but she was very eager that her children should get boots.

A boy was unable to go to school for the want of boots.


In houses where a tea diet is used three or four times a day, the changes are rung, when funds allow, upon certain additions of  a tasty order, which are known generally “kitchen.”

Sausages and mince are the most common forms of butcher meat to be found in this category, and of both the butchers supply a cheap quality for the benefit of those with poorly-filled purses.

Potted head is another dainty largely in request. At 3d per pound it is a cheap and tasty addition to the tea and bread diet.


Fish is used to a fair extent. Fresh herring, when in season, are largely used. As red herring, salted herring, kippers, and bloaters, this fish also makes a frequent appearance on the tables of the poor.

Salted cod fish cut up into pieces and boiled also meets with a fair sale amongst those who are prevented by circumstances from cooking for themselves.


Among the class who are able to do their own cooking the bill of fare is rather better than among the tea, bread, and margarine brigade.

Yet even here the food falls far short in nutritive power of that which one finds supplied in respectable working-class homes for the same or a slightly additional cost.


As a breakfast dish oatmeal porridge is not used nearly as extensively as it ought.

Nor is the broth pot so frequently in evidence at dinner time as it should be.

Broth and potatoes are the most common viands on the dinner tables of the working class, and it would be well if they were more frequently used by the dwellers in the slums.


Where a big family has to be provided with dinner there is nothing of better value than a big pot of broth.

The poorer families make the broth with a bone instead of beef; but with plenty of vegetables in the composition, and accompanied by a plentiful supply of potatoes, the dish is one not to be despised.

Pea soup is another nourishing and appetising dish which can be prepared at a small cost.


The charge has frequently been made against the poor that they are extravagant and improvident, and, in many cases, it is well-founded.

When they do have money it is often quickly and recklessly spent on items which more thrifty housewives use most sparingly.

I remember a consultation among the teachers of a Sunday School in one of the poorest districts of the town regarding the providing of clothes for a family which appeared in sore need.

The questioning elicited the fact that that day these children had breakfasted off steak and eggs, certainly a more expensive breakfast than had been partaken of by those who were seeking to benefit them.

This example is typical of much.


Next to the tea-kettle, the cooking utensil most in use in the homes of the very poor is the frying pan.

When their funds allow them a luxury in the way of food, ham, ham and eggs, steak or sausages is the form which it is most likely to take.

You see, cooking by frying takes comparatively little time, and that is a great matter with those who cannot afford to keep someone home to cook for them.


Probably there is as much actual waste of food among the poorest class as among any other.

It is no uncommon sight to see a poor child throw away a large piece of bread.

Just the other day I visited a most wretched house, with broken-down furniture, including dirty-looking bed without bedclothes.

There were two young boys in charge. They were devoting their attention to a half loaf, and one of them was wantonly and destructively breaking the bread.


There is great need for instructing the poor in the art of thrifty housekeeping.

The most wretched houses are not those where the income is smallest, and plain instruction in the value of cheap foodstuffs of greater nutritive value than the universal tea, bread, and margarine would be sure to do much good if rightly gone about.

But even this will not solve the problem. There is the difficulty of finding time to cook, of providing the proper utensils, and of suitable grate accommodation.

With these two last-named, the poor are very indifferently provided.