The seventy years between the Great Exhibition and the start of the Great War had seen great changes in the way many people worked and travelled. Yet, the way food and homewares were produced hadn’t changed a great deal. The local butcher, baker, grocer and green grocer supplied daily needs. A carpenter might make furniture, a seamstress a dress, a cobbler boots, a tailor a suit of clothes. Change though was afoot, and I seek to tell it through the prism of my father who was born in 1891. Chains of stores had begun to appear on High Street; biscuits were made in large factories such as Huntley & Palmer in Reading employing some 5,000 people.
My father, Leslie Williams, told stories of drinking ginger beer with a spoonful of ice-cream floating in it. Schweppes had provided carbonated water at the Great Exhibition, and was producing tonic water in 1870. Ginger beer had been alcoholic until the mid-nineteenth century to address the issue of dirty water. With improved water treatment, the Ginger Beer Leslie drank would have been bottled and carbonated, but non-alcoholic, as would be lemonade. Ice-cream would have been made from eggs, or powdered egg, and milk.
Cadbury first opened a grocery shop in Birmingham in 1824, but by 1831 was manufacturing chocolate. It wasn’t until 1878 that they moved production to Bourneville four miles from the city centre, conceived as a place where employees could live near their work, but away from the overcrowding of the city. As George Cadbury put it, “no man ought to be condemned to live where a rose cannot grow”. Bourneville had its own sports ground including a handsome cricket pavilion.
In the late nineteenth century, many urban dwellers had moved away from baking their own bread or brewing their own beer, the latter because of the improving quality of water. Bread remained a core element of diet, and I remember my father’s fondness for it; it would be bought from the local baker. It is possible that the bread would be made with Smith’s Patent Process Germ Flour, which was re-named Hovis, following a national competition. Hovis flour was milled by S. Fitton & Son in Macclesfield and was soon made into both Hovis bread and Hovis Biscuits, which, in 1896, were being supplied to Her Majesty the Queen. It wasn’t only Hovis, Joseph Rank had been milling flour for use by local bakers since 1883 when he introduced milling by rollers rather than the traditional millstone. The London docks was the home to a good many flour mills, which made sense given the percentage of grain that was imported.
Leslie’s mother may have used powdered milk to feed her young sons, from Cow & Gate or perhaps Glaxo, which would become better known for pharmaceuticals. The name Glaxo derives from the name given to a patent dried milk powder by New Zealand milk producers, Joseph Nathan & Co. In terms of other foods, Mildred may have bought items like Bird’s custard, which had been manufactured in Birmingham since 1837, later, along with baking powder, blancmange powder, jelly powder, and egg substitute. Mildred was a Scot, and so may have been attracted by Baxters tinned fruit or even tinned soup. She may have obtained her sugar, tea and coffee from Home & Colonial Stores. Cutlery would be from Sheffield and crockery for use on special occasions perhaps from Wedgwood or Crown Derby.
I write more about manufacturing and the home in my book How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World available from Pen & Sword.