The ploughman’s lunch – guilty or innocent?

How much metaphorical baggage can you pile on a simple bar snack? Can bread, cheese and pickle (plus some lettuce and a sliced tomato, if you like) really be placed in the dock and charged with representing the worst kind of British fakery? Does the ploughman’s lunch masquerade as a false representation of simpler times, when muscular farmworkers furrowed the fields with the aid of a couple of tons of Clydesdale or Shire, while in reality it’s the invention of Italian-suited marketers in slick Soho offices? And what does the father of Martin Bell, the BBC journalist and former MP for Tatton, have to do with the story?

The accusations of fraud and pretence were flung at what was already a staple of the British pub menu by the British novelist Ian McEwan in the screenplay he wrote for the film called The Ploughman’s Lunch in 1982. The pivotal scene occurs when the journalist anti-hero, James Penfield, played by Jonathan Pryce as a creep who would sell his grandmother if it would advance his career, meets a TV ad director, Matthew Fox, played by Frank Finlay, in a pub for a chat:

MATTHEW: I’ll tell you another thing. We might have led the world once into the Industrial Revolution, now we lead with television commercials. We’re the best, it’s as simple as that. Even the Americans will admit it now … the camera work, the acting, the scripts, special effects. We’ve got the lot. Nearly all the good directors here have ambitions to make serious films. (a sudden laugh) That food you’re eating.


MATTHEW: What would you call it?

JAMES: I dunno. Ploughman’s Lunch.

MATTHEW: Ploughman’s Lunch. Traditional English fare.

JAMES: Uhuh.

MATTHEW: In fact it’s the invention of an advertising campaign they ran in the early sixties to encourage people to eat in pubs. A completely successful fabrication of the past, the Ploughman’s Lunch was.

We look at James’s plate, the unappetising food. Matthew takes a long drink.

What the ploughman’s lunch represented in The Ploughman’s Lunch, which was directed by Richard Eyre and came out in 1983, the year after the Falklands War, was explained by the film and theatre critic Benjamin Nightingale in an article in the New York Times in 1984:

In every other British pub these days you can buy something called a Ploughman’s Lunch. It consists of bread, butter, chutney and a slice of cheese, and might at first glance or bite seem just the sort of meal generations of farm-laborers carried in their knapsacks, as they plodded through the furrows. But that yeomanly picnic, name and all, was actually invented by marketing experts in the 1960s. Some pubs tacitly admit as much by wrapping the butter in glossy paper and putting the cheese and chutney in little cellophane containers. The Ploughman’s Lunch is a fraud and a con – and as such, Richard Eyre would suggest, “an extremely dense metaphor for Britain itself, which is still creating fictions about the past and using them to suit the needs of the present.”

So is the ploughman’s lunch a con? As an expression it appears to be surprisingly modern. Until a couple of years ago, the earliest reference the Oxford English Dictionary could find to the name was from 1970, in the foreword to a book called The Cheese Handbook, where Richard Trehane, then chairman of the English Country Cheese Council, declared:

English cheese and beer have for centuries formed a perfect combination enjoyed as the Ploughman’s Lunch.

Trehane, himself the son of a dairy farmer, was correct in declaring the antiquity of cheese and beer as a combination – references to the two together go back to at least medieval times – and implying their agricultural connection. In 1801 Arthur Young described the food given to Hertfordshire harvest workers as:

… at six o’clock bread, cheese and ale; at nine a hot breakfast; between eleven and twelve, bread and cheese; they dine at half past one, and have beef or mutton, and plumb-pudding; at four in the afternoon they have cheese and ale again … and at night they have a hot supper in the farmhouse. (General View of the Agriculture of Hertfordshire)

But the cheese and ale in that prodigious consumption of calories was a harvest worker’s early breakfast, elevenses and late-afternoon snack, not a “ploughman’s lunch”. In 1934, when the anonymous author of A Book about Beer wrote about beer and cheese, he said:

Good bread, good cheese and good beer provide a complete meal which the most elaborate meal can scarcely better. Bread and cheese, indeed, form a perfect background for a beer of good quality. They set off its smoothness, its gulpability, its essential rotundity.

but he never called the combination a “ploughman’s lunch”. When Andrew Campbell wrote The Book of Beer in 1956, he declared, in a chapter on beer with food, that

The classic British snack lunch consists of bread, cheese and beer, and if accompanied by a little celery, lettuce or other salad, or followed by some fresh fruit, is dietetically a meal for a king … it is a very sensitive matter to get the right [beer] for the cheese … Draught Bass and good farmhouse Cheddar; Guinness goes well with Cheshire, Lancashire or Wensleydale.

but he never mentioned ploughmen either.

In 2005 “Ploughman’s Lunch” was one of the expressions the Oxford English Dictionary asked the public to help it out with, in the BBC programme Balderdash and Piffle. (I was filmed for a segment in one of the programmes talking, in a pub, to the presenter, Victoria Coren, about the “wallop” element in the word “Codswallop” – alas, my bit was cut out …) As a result of evidence offered by former Milk Marketing Board staffers, the researchers for the programme found minutes of a meeting of the Milk Marketing Board in November 1960 which included a mention of budgetary provision for printing 5,000 “Ploughman’s Lunch showcards” for distributing round pubs. This led the BBC to declare:

Documents uncovered at the National Archive from the Milk Marketing Board reveal that the Ploughman’s Lunch was invented as a marketing ploy to sell British cheese in pubs.

So – Ploughman’s Lunch, guilty as charged then: nothing but a cynical 1960s marketing man’s invention to offload more cheese.

But wait – I’d like to lodge an appeal, and unlike Conrad Black I think I stand a chance of winning it (note to self – revise this if CB does win his appeal …). A short while ago I acquired, for an amazingly cheap price, a complete run of a magazine called A Monthly Bulletin, produced by the old Brewers’ Society between the 1930s and the early 1970s. It’s a fascinating contemporary record of movements in pub architecture, design, service and the like. The July 1956 edition has a report of the activities of the Cheese Bureau, which:

… exists for the admirable purpose of popularising cheese and, as a corollary, the public house lunch of bread, beer, cheese and pickles. This traditional combination was broken by rationing; the Cheese Bureau hopes, by demonstrating the natural affinity of the two parties, to effect a remarriage.

The magazine reported a tasting held at the Samson and Hercules in Norwich (a dancehall rather than a pub), and “that good countryman, Mr Adrian Bell, writer and broadcaster (and above all, author of Corduroy) pronounced the blessing.” It is a sign of the fickleness of fame that no explanation as to the nature of Bell’s book Corduroy was felt necessary in 1956, while today the author is effectively unknown. Bell was the son of a Fleet Street editor who had turned to farming, combined with journalism and book-writing. Corduroy had been written in 1930, but in 1940 it was brought out as a Penguin paperback in just the size to fit into a kitbag or a uniform pocket, and its evocation of a rural, peaceful England of farms, seasons and harvests spoke to the sentiments and ambitions of servicemen across all theatres of war. To quote his son, Martin Bell, the former BBC war correspondent, the book

provided a life-line to another world, a world of peace and sanity, of enduring values and country rhythms remote from the war’s destruction

and to an audience just barely a decade off from the end of the war the book needed no introduction. At the tasting in Norwich, Adrian Bell “made a spirited plea for the ‘auld alliance’ of beer and cheese”, and went on to say that he recollected his ploughman “eating lunch, with a connoisseur’s palate, in a Suffolk barn, and old days of rabbiting in the snow, when the party drank beer and ate bread and cheese.”

Bell then called upon more pubs to provide bread and cheese and lunchtime, and said:

There’s a pub quite close to where I live where … all you need say is, ‘Ploughboy’s Lunch, Harry, please.’ And in a matter of minutes a tray is handed across the counter to you on which is a good square hunk of bread, a lump of butter and a wedge of cheese, and pickled onions, along with your pint of beer. ‘Ploughboy’s Lunch’, that’s called – remember those words: they stand for something pretty good.

A year later, the June 1957 edition of A Monthly Bulletin reported on another tasting by the Cheese Bureau, this time at Fishmonger’s Hall in London in conjunction with the Brewers’ Company, to encourage “the traditional public house meal of bread, beer, cheese and pickles”. Some 500 guests, the magazine said, tried out 16 different types of cheese “and beer brewed by eight firms – all of which, incidentally, have been household names in London for 150 years or more” (pause for quiet weep at the fact that, 50 years on, only one of those brewers is still making beer in London). After the tasting

There followed a ‘Ploughman’s Lunch’ of cottage bread, cheese, lettuce, hard-boiled eggs, cold sausages and, of course, beer. This is just the sort of light mid-day meal that one might expect to find in an ordinary public house, where the customers do not wish to spend much time or much money on their lunch, and where the landlord cannot afford a catering staff. Licensed victuallers please note.

This is, as far as I am currently aware, the real first mention of the expression “Ploughman’s Lunch”, predating the OED’s current earliest mention by all of three years and five months. It looks as if the Cheese Bureau had picked up on Bell’s use of the phrase “ploughboy’s lunch” at the Norwich tasting and decided that, by changing “boy” to “man” and thus making the meal sound more muscular and masculine, it had the ideal name with which to promote cheese snacks in public houses. However, the nomenclature was not yet completely settled. In April 1958, the following year, The Times brought out a supplement on “Beer in Britain” to which Adrian Bell (who was the first crossword compiler for the newspaper) contributed a piece on food in pubs which included the sentence

In a certain inn to-day you have only to say, “Ploughboy’s Lunch, please,” and for a shilling there is bread and cheese and pickled onions to go with your pint, and make a meal seasoned with gossip, and not solitary amid a multitude.

Two years later, however, in 1960, when the supplement was issued as a book, the words “Ploughboy’s Lunch, please” had been altered to “PloughMAN’s Lunch, please” (my emphasis). Had the Cheese Board been on to The Times and said: “We don’t call it Ploughboy’s Lunch, it’s Ploughman’s Lunch, thanks, old chap.”

Probably. But the evidence from Adrian Bell, and A Monthly Bulletin, is that bread, cheese and pickles was a genuine “traditional public house meal” from at least before the Second World War, which had been knocked on the head by wartime rationing of staples such as cheese, and that bread, cheese and pickles was something genuinely consumed by ploughmen – or ploughboys – for their lunch. The dish wasn’t invented by marketing men in the 1960s, but revived by the Cheese Board, representatives of Britain’s cheese makers, in the 1950s, and the name Ploughman’s Lunch might be marketing flannel, but it seems to have its roots in authenticity. The Ploughman’s Lunch is innocent of the charges laid on it by McEwan and Eyre

Whether Britain is guilty of “still creating fictions about the past and using them to suit the needs of the present”, however, is likely to be made clear when Gordon Brown offers us his vision of the country at his first speech to the Labour Party Conference as Prime Minister …

19 thoughts on “The ploughman’s lunch – guilty or innocent?

  1. Very interesting stuff – thanks!

    No denying it does make a good accompaniment to beer, however old it may be…

    I look forward to olives being served as a “revival” from Roman days.

  2. Very entertaining and informative, too. You’ve found some fascinating sources.

    Im trying to remember now if I’ve ever seen a mention of Ploughman’s Lunch, or even just the beer, bread, cheese combination. Sydney Nevile often makes mention of ordinary pub stuff like that.

  3. Very interesting and informative, thanks. I’m serving a Ploughmans Lunch at a brewery here in Switzerland next month and this has given me some interesting anecdotes to use in my little talk!

    Thanks again

  4. Excellent article. You say that references to ale and cheese together go back to at least medieval times. I’d be interested to know your medieval references.

  5. Thanks, Gavin – there’s a quote regarding bread, cheese and ale at the monastery in Evesham in the 15th century here and one for bread, cheese and ale for the bellringers at St Paul’s in 1368 here and one for bread cheese and ale for the poor of Romford in the 15th century here

  6. Distant memories but the Wheel Inn at Branston served a “Ploughman’s Lunch” back in the late 1960s. It was crusty bread and butter with a thick slice of ham and a bit of salad, costing 2/- , later rising to the dizzy heights of 2/6.
    I’m pretty sure of the date because I met a colleague from work there and I left that employment in 1969.
    As far as I know it was the only pub in the vicinity offering such an item.

  7. Common ‘Ploughman’s Lunch’s’ in Australia back in the early 1970’s consisted of thick sliced cold roast beef or lamb, slice of ham, cold roast chicken leg and/or other meats. Usually a leaf or two of lettuce, a tomato, hardboiled egg, wedge of cheese, pickled onions, gherkin and sometimes olives. There were always one or two thick rolls of bread with butter and consumed with your favourite beer.

    Many country (and city) pubs still offer varying versions of this, quite often with relishes and more substantial salads and still one of the cheaper meals available. Great on a hot dusty day for lunch with a couple of cold schooners…

    I think we pinched the name from GB, but that wouldn’t be unusual considering our heritage and love for beer. Still I know this type of meal was common going back many years but was probably called something else. It was also a typical ‘picnic’ meal going back many generations.

    The name ‘ploughman’s’ is probably taking away from the fact that people have historically used bread, beer, cheese and preservable foods as a meal for thousands of years.

    2500BC – Egyptians lived on sourdough breads and bread beers for all their meals (adults and children). Adding whatever was available ‘in season’ to the meal. Cheese pre-dates to 3000BC in Egypt and Sumer. Pickled cucumbers go back to 2000BC in India.

    Considering these things, it makes sense that bread, beer, cheese and pickled vegetables became an essential food style for agricultural peoples… aka the ploughman’s lunch…

    Call it what you like, but it has been a common meal structure for human societies for thousands of years.

  8. Now in my 81st year on planet earth I can definetinely confirm that the described lunch was common in several areas of Hertfordshire in the late 1930s. The only thing lacking at that time was the additional salad items that now seem to adorn the platter (normally wooden). Originally served with varieties of pickle, no butter and coarse ale (generally known as Mild Ale) and as being drawn from a keg, was normally warm and as flat as dishwater by late morning. It did not however have the fancy title of “ploughmans lunch” but was a staple of farm workers from before I can remember.

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