What The Poor Eat

For us today it is almost impossible to picture what life was like for the everyday person who lived in the East End of London around the time of the Jack the Ripper atrocities.

Fortunately, from an historical research perspective at least, the newspapers of the age had come to regard Whitechapel as an area worth investigating and, as a result, numerous articles appeared in the 1880’s and the 1890’s that proved readers with an insight into how the poor lived.

These articles are immensely important in our understanding of everyday life in the Victorian East End, since they, effectively, provide us with a window through which we can peek back on a bygone age.

On Saturday August 27th, 1898, the following article appeared in The Falkirk Herald And Midland Counties Journal, which took a look at conditions inside some of the eateries of London:-


A lady Correspondent in the “Daily Chronicle” says:-

If Sir Thomas Lipton successfully carries through his scheme for providing restaurants at which working men and women can get well-cooked, wholesome meals, decently served, he will deserve the grateful thanks of a long-suffering community.

I have carefully sampled dozens of eating-houses, commonly called coffee and chop houses, and I confidently assert that in no other town in Europe would the service and feeding of the people be so inadequate.

The exterior of a coffee house in Whitechapel.
A Whitechapel Coffee House


I make not so much complaint about the food; that I found to be wholesome – wholesome, in so far as it was not tainted. Nor had it any unpleasant smell.

But it was the fearful conditions of the rooms, reeking with the odours of a thousand dinners.

The majority of these coffee and chop houses are situated in small houses; the front room – low and badly ventilated – forms the restaurant proper, the back room serves as the kitchen and the home of the carver.

The fittings of the eating rooms are all precisely similar; four, or perhaps six, high-backed forms, resembling nothing so much as the high-backed pews of the days of our childhood, and which serve admirably for the purpose of excluding what little air there is going, are fixed along either side.

The walls are decorated with a couple of playbills, setting forth the delights of a neighbouring music-hall, and with written placards telling of the wonderful meals that are to be had, of the matchless meals for working men, and of dinners cooked as “mother cooks them.”

And hovering above and below, around and above, there are always the flies; they buzz hungrily on the many greasy patches on the floor, on the herrings’ heads, crusts of bread, on the wonderful jam tarts in the window, and only await their opportunity to settle down on whatever plate yon may finally choose.


My first experiment in testing the meals and service to be obtained at these poor men’s restaurants was in Somers Town, a region known of carmen, where houses bearing the inscription, “A good pull up for carmen,” are frequent.

I walked down the long, narrow street, in which the roadway was blocked with street merchants, and made an inspection of the eating-houses.


I paused and watched the operations at a fried fish shop, where the dinner hour business was in full swing. And I wondered – wondered at the vigorous constitutions of the men, women, and children that could withstand and apparently thrive on such dinners.

There is no deception about these “ha’porths and a pennorth,” “two ha’porths and three pennorth,” “three ha’porths and ” three pennorths,” divisions which seem most mysterious to the uninitiated, but which the deft helpers comprehended instantly.

The fish and potatoes are handed over in open pieces of newspapers to the grimy hands held out to receive them. A dash is made by the recipients for the patent vinegar dredger, consisting of an empty bottle of some description, into which a cork with a hole bored through the centre has been thrust.

A dash of salt and pepper is added, a screw given to the newspaper holding the fish and potatoes, and away the customers go to eat their purchases, perhaps on the driver’s seat of a dray, or on some handy doorstep.


I plunged without further premeditation into the first coffee-house I came to.

The young girl who acted as waitress had a bright and pleasant face, a face that looked attractive despite the disfiguring curl pins.

I ordered steak pudding and potatoes, and whilst it was being dished took the opportunity of looking round.

I watched the girl give a furtive wipe to the mustard pot, and put a sprinkling of clean salt over the dirty, sand-coloured stuff that covered the bottom of the salt-cellar.

Of table-cloth there was not a sign, a bloater’s head ornamented one corner of the table, a couple of dirty plates on which the chipped shells of two eggs and the skin of a bloater rested, stood at the other end.

The floor had a thin covering of sand (by no means fresh), struck matches, crusts of bread, a few more heads of bloaters serving as a kind of top covering.

But my dinner has come. I attacked it courageously. The pudding is big enough in all conscience, the crust is of a drab colour, unmistakably smeared with grime, the meat inside is fat and coarse, but with the exception of what may, perhaps, be called minor details, the pudding, so far as a couple of mouthfuls could prove, was harmless, and it may be to those who could eat it most certainly filling, and may be nourishing.

The price of the pudding was threepence, and a charge of one penny was made for potatoes.

The exterior of a coffee bar.
A Victorian London Coffee Bar


The day is getting on, but dinners are only on from twelve to three, and I walk into the first eating house I come to in the Whitecapel Road.

Here are to be had the “matchless meals,” the “best sixpenny dinner in London,” the “champion dinners.” “the one and only shop,” “No connection elsewhere.”

I order roast beef, beans. and potatoes. Beans are “off,” I am told, would I like a plate of cabbage?

On the cabbage being declined, I am asked to try a bit of “Yorkshire.”

To this proposal I assent, and my dinner is brought. I don’t know what the joint is from which it is carved, all I know is that the meat is tough, that the pudding is thicker and tougher, that it is literally floating in greasy water, and that the strip of tablecloth is indescribably filthy, and that of this matchless meal I am unable to touch more than a mouthful.

I notice the other customers supplement this sixpenny plate of meat with two vegetables, with a help of pudding, either rice and milk or rice and fruit, the cost of which is two pence, and if bread is wanted that would be another half-penny, so that the cost of this dinner may be put at 8 pence.

I sample another coffee-house in Whitechapel, and get precisely the same results.

I make my way down the malodorous streets of St George’s-in-the-East.


In Cable Street I enter a coffee-house, and ask resignedly of the slatternly waitress what food she can suggest that would be a relish and might tempt the appetite. She suggests a bloater, two slices, and a pennyworth of tea. That, will do as well as any other, and I wait, being greeted with strong odours from my bloater, long before it makes its arrival in person.

The butter on the “gravestones” (the name by which slices of bread and butter are locally known) is atrociously rancid, the tea is fairly good, and the bloater is certainly a relish, and the total cost is threepence.

The other occupants of the tables sit with their sleeves turned up to their possible highest leaving their grimy dusty arms bare, there being no place or accommodation for a good wash.


I enter two other eating houses in Commercial Road, where in the window I can leisurely make my choice. Roast pork and roast beef simmer away in the broad low window, roly-poly jam puddings, open jam tarts, plum puddings, suet dumplings – all these in some mysterious manner are being kept in either a state of baking or boiling.

I choose a steak pie this time, and again I am beaten, for it is tasteless, flavourless, wholesome, and yet withal so unappetising that I could not possibly eat it.

I must, however, make an exception in favour of two places where cheap food can be got.


At the one place, where food is not sold for profit, everything was scrupulously clean. I inspected the kitchens and the stores, the huge boilers where the soup is made, and can only corroborate the statement of a sanitary inspector who has recently visited the place, and who said that it was the cleanest place he had visited in London.

At one other coffee room I have an excellent plate of porridge and milk, at a cost of three-halfpence.

The spoon was not plated, but it was clean, and the porridge I ate.

At another much advertised coffee-room I am bound to confess that the serving and the food were not so good.

I noticed a placard bearing the inscription that nothing but a mixture of the best Danish butter and margarine was sold here.

I asked if it was possible for me to have a slice of bread and butter, and was told that butter was never asked for, and that the price of a slice was a ha’penny each.”

Bon Appetit!