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The chef with a social conscience

Alexis Benoit Soyer was born in France in 1810 and trained as a cook. In 1830 he moved to London, where he became chef to the Duke of Cambridge and then chef at the Reform Club. Despite his associations with the rich and famous, his highly developed social conscience led him to write to the press in 1847 voicing his distress about the starvation resulting from the potato famine in Ireland.

He went to Dublin, where he built kitchens from which he sold simple meals to the poor at minimal prices. He wrote ‘Soyer’s Charitable Cookery’, giving part of the proceeds to charities. He invented a lightweight portable stove to be used in remote and difficult locations, such as field hospitals. He became an expert in developing cheap, easy-to-cook recipes for wholesome, palatable food from basic ingredients; he later wrote ‘A Shilling Cookery Book for the People’.

In February 1855 Soyer travelled to the Crimea at his own expense to support the army, who at this time were malnourished and scurvy-ridden. A soldier’s daily ration was 1lb of army biscuit and 1lb of meat, but there were supply problems, no efficient catering system (each soldier had to cook for himself) – and no fuel to cook with. First Soyer revised the diet sheets and recipes for the hospitals at Scutari and Constantinople, using his portable stove to prepare food (see our picture HS157). During two visits to Balaclava he, Florence Nightingale and the medical staff re-organised the hospitals. He also cooked for the 4th Division of the army.

He returned to London in May 1857, and died in 1858.

Here are two of Soyer’s recipes for the troops, taken from letters he wrote to The Times while he was at Scutari:


Put into a canteen saucepan about 2lb of well soaked beef, cut in eight pieces; ½lb of salt pork, divided in two, and also soaked; ½lb of rice, or six tablespoonsful; ½lb of onions, or four middle-sized ones, peeled and sliced; 2oz of brown sugar, or one large tablespoonful; ¼oz of pepper, and five pints of water; simmer gently for three hours, remove the fat from the top and serve. The first time I made the above was in Sir John Campbell’s soup kitchen, situated on the top of his rocky cavern, facing Sebastopol, near Cathcart’s-hill, and among the distinguished pupils I had upon the occasion were Colonel Wyndham, Sir John Campbell, and Dr Hall, Inspector-General of the Army in the Crimea, and other officers. This dish was much approved at dinner, and is enough for six people, and if the receipt be closely followed you cannot fail to have an excellent food. The London salt meat will only require a four hours soaking, having been only lightly pickled.


Put into a basin 1lb of flour, ¾lb of raisins (stoned, if time be allowed), ¾lb of the fat of salt pork (well washed, cut into small dies, or chopped), two tablespoonsful of sugar or treacle; add a half pint of water; mix all together; put into a cloth tied tightly; boil for four hours, and serve. If time will not admit, boil only two hours, though four are preferable. How to spoil the above:- Add anything to it.

Political candidates speak from the hustings

Victorian illustration to download showing political candidates speaking to voters from the hustings (a large rostrum/platform) erected in front of a town hall. A large crowd listens from the street below and from the windows and balconies of a nearby inn.

After the candidates had made their speeches from the hustings, the returning officer asked for a show of hands from the voters. If this was decisive, the candidate was declared elected. If the show of hands was not decisive, polling then took place. Each voter had to mount the hustings, where he orally declared his vote, and his name and vote was recorded in the poll book. After counting the votes, the returning officer announced the result from the hustings.

The obvious disadvantage of this system was that employers, landowners and landlords, for example, were able to use their power over their employees or tenants to influence the way they voted.

The Ballot Act of 1872 required that parliamentary and local government elections be held by secret ballot to prevent the bribery, intimidation or blackmail of the voters.

Article: ‘Condemned to unwomanly toil’: young girls making nails

For many women and young girls in the Victorian era, the struggle to make a living was hard and strenuous – and, many philanthropists felt, totally unsuitable for the female sex. Our picture shows a girl making spike nails; she was labouring in the Black Country (Staffordshire and Worcestershire), where women were engaged in the nail and chain trade, working in small workshops in villages and towns. The Rev Harold Rylett, writing in the English Illustrated Magazine of 1890, felt that their work was ‘emphatically unfeminine.’ He describes the process thus:

‘Now the making of spike nails is surely the cruellest occupation in which women and young girls are employed in this country … A spike nail is simply a very large nail, beginning with the four-inch rose-head nail, and finishing with a seven, or eight, or even nine-inch dog-eared spike or railway brob half an inch or perhaps three-quarters of an inch thick. Two people work together, one on each side of the hearth … The common case is for a man and a young girl of from fourteen to eighteen years of age to work together.

‘The first thing to be done is to cut the iron rods into the required lengths. This is done by the means of the oliver, and while the iron is cold. The oliver is simply a sledge-hammer affixed to the block on which the anvil is placed. It is worked by the right foot operating upon a sort of treadle. The man places the rod upon a chisel fixed in the block by the side of the anvil. The girl then gets close behind the man, generally holding him by the waist, and they both jump together upon the treadle which works the oliver, and with one, two, or three blows, according to the thickness of the iron, the required length is cut off. When very thick iron has been operated upon I have seen as many as four or five men and young women alternating and clasping each other close and jumping together upon the oliver, and a more brutal and loathsome spectacle I never witnessed in my life.

‘The man takes a number of pieces of rod and plunges them in the fire. The moment the iron is heated he withdraws one piece, and using the hand-hammer and oliver in rapid succession, he forms the head, jerks out the iron, flings it across to his companion, and goes on again. The girls instantly takes what is thrown her, plunges the cold end into her side of the fire, helps to blow the bellows, and then, when her iron is heated, she snatches it from the fire, and using hand-hammer and oliver almost as rapidly as the man, draws the iron to a point, and the spike is finished. The work is terribly hard, for in addition to striking the spike with the hand-hammer as vigorously as any blacksmith would strike a horseshoe, the girl has to work her sledge-hammer with her foot. It is humiliating to see a girl thus occupied.

‘But I have seen a girl of eighteen ‘heading’ as well as ‘pointing’. I shall never forget the sight. I saw this young woman with arms and bosom bare, grimy, profusely perspiring, and working like a tigress. It was simply revolting. Yet I was assured by an old and experienced man that though such sights were not as common now as formerly, they were still more frequently to be met with than they should be.’

Mr Rylett writes that ‘the spike nail-makers work extremely hard and are very ill paid’: he calculates that a pair of workers would make about 680 spike nails a day, and that the man would earn about 15s a week and the girl about 5s. He goes on:

‘The one ugly feature about spike nail-making is the employment of young girls and women, involving as it does the use of the oliver. It is nothing short of a scandal, and I am happy to know that the universal feeling among the women and girls themselves is that they ought not to be condemned to such unwomanly toil. They would hail with satisfaction a law prohibiting their employment in this way, and it is earnestly to be hoped that the next session of Parliament will see the enactment of such a law.’

But progress was slow, and little was done in the Victorian age to improve working conditions for women and children. The Factory Act of 1891 prohibited the employment of women within four weeks of childbirth, and raised the minimum age for children to be employed from 10 to 11 years old – 11 to 14-year-olds could only work for half a day. In 1895 working hours and breaks during work were regulated, and in 1901 the minimum working age was raised to 12 years old.

The Hop harvest

At Goudhurst and Paddock Wood, and in many other villages throughout the south-eastern county of Kent, are the great gardens and oast-houses devoted to the growing and processing of the hop. Introduced to England from Flanders in the 1600s, this ancient plant, well known to the Romans, is cultivated for its very special catkins, which bring to beer its unique aromatic bitter taste.

Towards the end of the summer of their third year, the ripening fruits began to swell and to acquire a scent. In the final stage of cultivation the ‘stilt-men’ appeared. On lofty stilts eighteen feet high, they picked a path between the rows, tying the topmost bines to the tallest strings to keep the ripening plants aloft. Once the plump cones were firm and crisp in the hand it was time for the pickers to enter the fray.

At hop harvest armies of the London poor travelled out by train and waggon to enjoy a few weeks of healthy open-air labour. It must have seemed like paradise, with the sun streaming down and with the fresh country smells and greenery. Men, women and children laboured from dawn to dusk in the dusty hop fields, sweltering in the sultry heat.

This ragged army had to work fast, for the hops needed to be picked as soon as they were ripe. It was one man’s task to cut the supporting strings that held the hops aloft with a bill-hook, causing the plants to collapse and fall haphazardly down on the heads of the assembled hop-pickers below. Straight away, the bines were stripped of their harvest by a thousand nimble fingers.

Towards the day’s end the call went up over the fields, ‘Pull no more poles!’ and the brigades of pickers trooped off to kindle fires, prepare their evening meal, and to enjoy a well-earned rest. It was a time of joy and comradeship, despite the gruelling work under the hot sun.

The incredible Patent Impulsoria

The Illustrated London News for 22 June 1850 explains how this amazing invention works:

This ingenious means of applying animal power to the working of railways, so as to supersede the costly locomotive engine, has lately been invented in Italy, and exhibited experimentally upon the South-Western Railway. It consists in introducing the animals into a kind of coach, called Impulsoria, by which they transmit their acting power to the leading wheels.

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Charles Green and his Great Nassau balloon

Our picture shows one of the 527 balloon flights made by Charles Green (1785-1870), the most renowned British balloonist of the 19th century.

This ascent, made in 1850 from Vauxhall Gardens, was in his Great Nassau balloon, named after his record flight of 1836 from Vauxhall to Weilburg in the Duchy of Nassau in Germany, a distance of 480 miles in 18 hours – a record not broken until 1907.

Charles Green’s first ascent was from Green Park in 1821 to celebrate the coronation of George IV. He constructed the Great Nassau Balloon in 1836, and made his first flight in it that year, ascending from Vauxhall Gardens with eight other people. He made five other ascents in it from Vauxhall, including his famous record flight, and the one recorded in our picture. One of these flights ended in tragedy: on a flight with the aeronaut Edward Spencer and Robert Cocking, again in 1836, Cocking jumped out at a height of 5,000 feet to descend by parachute, but was killed when he reached the ground.

Green made experimental ascents with George Rush (his companion in our picture) to see how high the Great Nassau balloon could go – they reached a height of over five miles, and during the flights their barometer recorded temperatures below freezing point. In the 1840s he developed his ideas on the practicability of crossing the Atlantic by balloon. His last ascent was made from Vauxhall Gardens in 1852.

Before Green’s time hydrogen gas was used to inflate balloons, which was very expensive and slow to generate – it used to take two days to fill a balloon. Green showed that coal gas was a far more practical way to inflate balloons. He also invented the guide rope, a rope that trailed from the basket and could be lowered and raised to regulate ascents and descents.

His name lives on: the Charles Green Salver is awarded by the British Balloon and Airship Club for exceptional flying achievements or contributions to ballooning.

Dealers in human flesh

‘I was much struck with the general well-to-do look of [the slaves], for I had imagined they would have wretched, down-trodden appearance showing marks of ill-usage, and be afraid to look up at strangers; instead of which I found them well dressed, well fed, and apparently happy and contented; but I was looking on the surface only, I suppose.’

Thus writes a Special Correspondent of the Illustrated London News, sent to Richmond, Virginia, USA in 1861 to report on the slave auctions. To gain entrance to an auction he had to promise not to libel or misrepresent the Southerners on pain of being tarred and feathered! This is part of his long report:

‘The auction-rooms for the sale of negroes are situated in the main streets, and are generally the ground floors of the building; the entrance-door opens straight into the street, and the sale-room is similar to any other auction-room. I observed that placards, advertisements and notices as to the business carried on are dispensed with, the only indications of the trade being a small red flag hanging from the front door-post, and a piece of paper upon which is written with pen and ink this simple announcement – ‘Negroes for sale at auction this day at ten o’clock’ … Besides this written notice and the heading to a sheet of letter-paper, I saw nothing in print or writing having reference to the sale of negroes – no catalogues nor descriptions of lots; nor could I find any advertisements in the local papers …

‘I had a good opportunity to look at the crowd of men about me who dealt in human flesh, and I am bound to say that I saw nothing very dreadful in their appearance; they carried neither revolvers nor whips. They were not a gentlemanly-looking lot of men certainly, but seemed quiet, respectable people, such as one might meet at a sale of books or old china in any part of London. At length a fine-looking coloured man was put forward. He walked straight up to the block, mounted it, and put himself in a most dignified attitude … He was a remarkably good-looking man, and I felt sure that a sculptor would have pronounced him by far the best-looking man in the room.

‘A few steps lead to the top of the block and upon one of these the auctioneer or crier, as he is called, stands, and a red-faced, impudent, vulgar-looking individual he was in this case … He described the negro as sound in wind and limb, as being a good farm hand, could guide a plough, shoe a horse, and mend a hoe, but he was not a first-rate smith. Then the biddings commenced, and 800 dollars were offered.’

The ILN reporter’s contact claimed that the slave owners had been ‘most foully slandered by Mrs Beecher Stowe’ (the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), and that ‘the Northerners were continually threatening immediate abolition and proposing to use force to carry out their views; that they [the Southerners] were determined to meet force by force, and that there was, in consequence, little chance of peace between them.’ The American Civil War broke out in April 1861, soon after the ILN article appeared, and in 1865 it ended, the Confederate (slave) states having been defeated.