I blame Charles Dickens. If he hadn’t ended A Christmas Carol with the by-then thoroughly reformed Scrooge ordering the prize turkey to be delivered to the Cratchits’ home in Camden, perhaps we wouldn’t now be persuaded in Britain that a tasteless, monstrous bird should be the centre of the December 25 dinner, and we would have stuck to the traditional yuletide treat – roast beef, lots of it, accompanied by plum pudding and strong ale.
If you search through 19th century newspapers, it quickly becomes clear that the trinity of beef, heavy dried-fruit-stuffed pudding and good ale was at the heart of the Christmas festivities everywhere in Britain, literally from palace to poorhouse. Here’s the Liverpool Weekly Mercury for Saturday September 29 1855:
THE ROYAL BARON OF BEEF
This old English joint was this year supplied to Windsor Castle by the royal purveyors at Windsor. The baron was cut from a five-year-old Highland Scot, fed by his Royal Highness Prince Albert, at the Norfolk Farm, and weighed 425lb. The process of roasting occupied 15 hours. It was decorated with holly and ivy, and placed cold on a sideboard in the banqueting-room on Christmas-day, where it will remain, together with the boar’s head and woodcock pie, during the week.
Must have been pretty cold in that banqueting hall, for beef, pie and boar to remain healthy for a week. If you’ve not heard of a baron of beef, incidentally, the excellent Food History Jottings blog explains all: “According to Dr Johnson, ‘a Baron of Beef is when the two sirloins are not cut asunder, but joined together by the end of the backbone’. In other words, the whole bum of an ox!”
Anyway, at the same time as Victoria and the rest of the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas were cutting slices off 30 stone of cooked ox bum, her poorest subjects were enjoying the same sort of treat. The Christmas day workhouse meal of roast beef, plum pudding and ale had become an institution by the mid-19th century: in London on December 25 1860, between 40,000 and 50,000 inmates of the metropolitan workhouses were supplied with roast beef and plum pudding. Even at the lower estimate, that is around 18 tons of beef, without bones, and perhaps 25 tons of pudding. Here’s a tiny snatch of reports of the workhouse festivities around the country plucked from just one year, Christmas 1869, starting with the Bristol Mercury of Saturday January 1 1870
CHRISTMAS TREATS AT THE BRISTOL AND CLIFTON UNION WORKHOUSES
On Christmas-day the inmates at the Bristol Union at Stapleton and the Clifton Union at Fishpond-road were regaled with roast beef and plum pudding. The luxuries of beer, tobacco and snuff were added to the substantial Christmas fare; and the children were not forgotten on the festive occasion. At the Clifton Union there was a very imposing Christmas tree, loaded with books and toys to the value of about £8, for the youngsters … Thanks to the efforts of the master and matron and their assistants, the interior of the building was very prettily decorated with evergreens, mottoes, and artificial flowers. No less than eight hundredweight of beef and eleven or twelve hundredweight of pudding were prepared for the Christmas feast; and in these days of complaints as to workhouse dietry and management, Clifton Union on Saturday last must have shown that even in the gloomy life of a pauper there are some gleams of sunshine.
The Reading Mercury for the same day, talking about events at Maidenhead, said:
CHRISTMAS AT COOKHAM UNION
On Christmas-eve each of the inmates in the men’s and women’s infirmaries enjoyed an extra cup of tea, ham, cakes &c., and just before bedtime each had a glass of mulled wine; this treat was given by the Master, Mr Malyon. In the evening the old men were regaled with a large mince pie and some of Nicholson’s fine old ale, liberally given by Mr W. Nicholson, together with pipes and tobacco, all spending a pleasant evening with songs &c. On Christmas-day a substantial dinner, consisting of roast beef and plum pudding and ale, was given to each inmate.
That was William Nicholson, who had founded his brewery 30 years earlier in Maidenhead High Street: it finally closed in 1959, taken over by Courage & Barclay of London.
In the York Workhouse, the York Herald revealed,
there were 480 inmates, exclusive of vagrants, on Christmas Day, which is the largest number of inmates ever present on a similar occasion … By the kind liberality of the guardians and their friends this large number of paupers had the opportunity of partaking of the good old English fare with which the advent of Christmas is associated. A most substantial and first-class dinner was provided for them … Upwards of 50 stones of prime roast beef, with mashed potato, comprised the first course, which was followed by 35 monster plum puddings, with brandy sauce, &c. The puddings consisted of 77 1/2 lbs flour, 60lbs suet, 50lbs sugar, 60lbs currants, 14lbs raisins, 7lbs lemon peel, and 180 eggs. After dinner a suitable allowance of ale, tobacco &c. was made to the adults and fruits &c. distributed among the children.
Those puddings, to save you working it out, weighed around eight pounds each. They would have each been wrapped up in a cloth and hung, suspended, on a pole in a copper full of boiling water to cook, that copper being identical to the sort found in any small 19th century brewery, with a coal fire underneath.
In Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, according to the Northampton Mercury,
The Workhouse on Christmas Eve was gaily decorated with various devices in holly, ivy, laurel, and winter flowers. At twelve o’clock on Christmas-day more than 100 old and young people sat down to a substantial dinner of roast beef, boiled round of beef, roast and boiled legs and shoulders of mutton, and a bountiful supply of plum pudding. Each adult male had also one pint of good home-brewed ale … After supper each adult inmate had one pint of ale and one oz. of tobacco. The old women had each one pint of ale, and snuff. The old people thoroughly enjoyed themselves, and repeatedly expressed their thanks to the guardians and ratepayers, also to the master and matron, who were indefatigable in their attention.
Not everybody had roast beef. The local newspaper in Winchester reported after Christmas Day 1859:
The soldiers in this garrison had their accustomed treat, viz, a plentiful supply of roast and baked pork (beef being no treat to them), plum pudding and good ale on Christmas day. We need hardly say that the gallant fellows thoroughly enjoyed their fare, and spent a most “jolly” Christmas.
Truly, these soldiers were beef-eaters.
Of course, the royal Christmas dinner, while based on the same principles as those given to the paupers, was distinctly grander: here’s the menu for Christmas Day 1896 at Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s home on the Isle of Wight (which I nicked from here):
Kromeskies (which I admit I had never heard of before) are a sort of bacon-and-minced-meat fritter. The baron of beef (cooked at Windsor and brought down by train and ferry), you’ll see, is still on the sideboard with the boar’s head and the pie, just as it was 41 years earlier. More interesting is why the roast turkeys were speaking French (“Les Dindes rôties à la Chipolata“) but the roast sirloin of beef was allowed to be English. And did they really have the plum pudding with the “relevé“, the main part of the meal? Apparently, at least in some places. Here are a couple of reports of workhouse Christmas dinners that suggest this happened elsewhere, starting with the Essex Newsman in Colchester, Saturday 29 December 1900, reporting on what it – correctly – called “the last Christmas of the century” the previous Tuesday. Describing the celebrations at the local home for the mentally handicapped, the Eastern Counties’ Asylum for Idiots and Imbeciles (sic – later the Royal Eastern Counties’ Institution) at Essex Hall: “Letters, cards and parcels were delivered to each patient during the morning. At 12.30 all those who were well enough sat down to an excellent dinner of roast beef and plum pudding, followed by dessert.”
OK, I know you’re trying hard to be PC and not think “Yeah, idiots and imbeciles WOULD have their Christmas pudding at the same time as their roast beef,” but here’s the Isle of Man Times on Tuesday 26 December 1893:
“On Christmas Day the inmates of the House of Industry were again the recipients of the usual good fare, which, at this season of the year, through the kindness of Mr HP Noble, JP, Villa Marina, they have for the last 25 years been privileged to enjoy … At one o’clock over 50 of the inmates were served with the good old-fashioned Christmas dinner, consisting of roast beef, potatoes, plum pudding and the best ale. The dessert consisted of apples and oranges, to which were added tobacco and snuff.
and according to the Liverpool Mercury, when 1,330 sailors and marines from the Channel Fleet were given dinner by the mayor and citizens of Liverpool at St George’s Hall in October 1888, the menu consisted of “roast turkey and sausages, roast goose with onions and apple sauce, roast beef, potatoes and cauliflower, plum pudding, and apples and pears for dessert.”
That last, non-Christmassy reference to roast beef and plum pudding is a pointer to the forgotten fact that, as Food History Jottings says, “roast beef served with plum pudding is the most evocative of past traditions of hospitality. It was once Britain’s prime celebration dish and a potent symbol of the nation’s character and cohesiveness.” Here’s a report from the Bury and Norwich Post of Wednesday 2 January 1805:
On Christmas day, Lord Whitworth entertained the Holmesdale Volunteers, consisting of 700 men, at Seven Oaks in Kent, with a very hospitable dinner consisting of roast and boiled beef, and plum-puddings, with a quart of ale to each man and a half a crown for liquor. His Lordship gave 50l. to be distributed among the families of those who are labouring men.
The Holmesdale Volunteers were named for the Vale of Holmesdale at the foot of the North Downs. Lord Whitworth was a British diplomat whose wife, the former Duchess of Dorset, brought into the marriage a good fortune and ownership of Knole Park, Sevenoaks. Britain was back at war with France: even as the Volunteers dined, Napoleon was preparing an invasion at Boulogne, within sight of the Kent coast. If his barges had sailed, the Volunteers would have been among the Britons attempting to stop him.
A few years later, though Britain was still fighting France, the nation united in celebration for the golden jubilee of George III in October 1810. The king and his family lived at Kew, in the grounds of what is now Kew Gardens, and Kew itself saw a substantial party on October 25:
The preparations for the celebration of this memorable day at Kew were completed yesterday. This morning was ushered in by the firing of cannon and the ringing of bells … After divine service, about 100 persons were entertained with roasted beef and plum-pudding, set out on tables, within a spacious marquee, erected on Kew-Green, opposite the high road. Rounds of beef were likewise cut up for the benefit of the wives and children of such persons as are natives of Kew. Porter, ale, and punch were plentifully distributed. On the health of His Majesty being drank, fifty pieces of cannon were discharged.
Within four years, Napoleon had been defeated, and Britain, as the Norfolk Chronicle recorded on Saturday May 14 1814, could celebrate again, in the usual way:
CATTON FEAST; May 6
To celebrate the glorious success of England and her Allies, the Restoration of the Bourbons to France and the Termination of Hostilities in Europe, a liberal subscription was raised and expended in the following handsome manner:- Six tables, of 20 yards long each, were arranged in the form of a crescent, extending along the front of an elevated and ornamental grove opposite Mr Ives’s lawn … At two o’clock all the inhabitants who could attend, to the number of nearly 500, each wearing a white cockade, sat down to a plentiful supply of Old English fare, roast beef, plum-pudding, and strong ale; the plum-puddings supporting flags, on each of which was wrought some appropriate motto.
Of course, just 10 months later, Napoleon had escaped from exile on Elba, and Britain was back in a war. The victory at Waterloo, however, meant more celebrations. Here’s the Hampshire Chronicle of Monday August 8, 1814:
On Saturday, at the Grainge Park, near Alresford, upwards of 300 of the poor of the adjoining parishes were bountifully regaled by Henry Drummond, Esq, in commemoration of the happy return of peace, with a good dinner, consisting of roast and boiled meat of every description, plum pudding and plenty of good old stingo … Weyhill, on Tuesday the 2nd inst presented a scene truly gratifying for its novelty, taste and elegance. The bells of the parish were ringing, and a band of music playing at an early hour. The Farnham hops booths were decorated with laurel and other emblematic representations of old England’s victories, crowned with a glorious peace. Tables were erected throughout the booths, which were amply supplied with beef, mutton, and plum pudding, where the worthy Rector, and most of the principal inhabitants, who were subscribers, dined together with 400 poor men, women and children, who were all regaled with good ale and strong beer, in which they drank the healths of the King, the Prince Regent and the naval and military heroes, with enthusiastic loyalty.
Weyhill, outside Andover, was one of the great agricultural fairs of England. It was a centre for the sale of all sorts of products, including hops from Farnham in Surrey, then a rival to Kent and Herefordshire for hop growing.
Why roast beef (and plum pudding and ale) stopped being the celebratory menu of Britain, I don’t know. I don’t really blame Dickens. Even in 1893, 50 years after A Christmas Carol was first published, the Northern Echo, talking about the Christmas preparations in Middlesbrough, could still say: “The roast beef of old England is invariably associated with this season of the year … Next to the Christmas beef the plum pudding secures the greatest amount of attention …”
Quite likely the disappearance of the roast beef of old England from the Christmas menu was because, with increasing affluence, roast beef became for many, as it was for those Winchester soldiers in 1859, “no treat” but a weekly occurrence. Similarly, affluence brought wine, rather than beer, to the dining table. And, of course, we no longer have the servant class available to cook vast quantities of beef, and boil huge numbers of plum puddings.
The last reference I have been able to find to the “traditional” celebration comes from the Tamworth Herald of Saturday January 2 1932:
Poor Law Institution
The dining room and wards of Tamworth Poor Law Institution were pleasingly decorated. The service was taken by the Rev AC Smith. A large “family” was catered for, numbering 170 inmates and 28 casuals. The usual Christmas fare was allowed by the Public Assistance Committee and included roast beef, roast pork,and vegetables, and plum pudding, tea and ale. Sweets, tobacco, cigarettes, fruits and nuts were distributed.
The Poor Law Institution – the official name for a workhouse – had actually been abolished in 1930, so the Tamworth Herald should have been referring to the “Public Assistance Institution”.
I doubt too many people, anyway, will be having roast baron of beef this Christmas, probably not even at Windsor Castle. The plum pudding hangs on, hurrah, even though this is the only time of year it is seen now, and its name has changed to reflect this: Christmas pudding. DO people still mostly have this with their Christmas dinner? I hope so. But whatever you’re putting on your Yule table this year (I’m going for duck), may it come with plenty of “good ale and strong beer”.