Prior to reading these chronicles of Victorian London, I had no existing knowledge of Henry Mayhew. I restrained from typing his name into any search engine, relishing the prospect of my first Little Black Classic being a complete unknown.
What I found was a very revealing and genuinely gripping account of life in Victorian London, without the familiar circus cast of Dickens’ cannon. Ultimately, this is a great read for anyone living in London or any Londonphiles.
A collection of eight extracts, taken from various articles and essays, guide the reader through varying London scenes: the struggling independent piemen competing against pie powerhouses; the small, more human appearance of the Metropolis from a hot air balloon; the chaos of popular markets; the lewd and clearly tempting setting of the Music Hall; the progress reflected in London’s great ports; the poverty and squalor of young flower girls; the rural views offered by a train journey to Clapham; and finally the patience of local birdcatchers.
It has to be said that I do skim read long descriptions in any book (cheating, I know) and Mayhew’s elaborate depictions were no exception. I tend to regard detailed scene descriptions as waffle, preferring soundbites of description. For example, in one city portrayal Mayhew described London as ‘one immense black spot’, a portrayal that I paused to drink in.
Mayhew also drew a lovely image, from the vantage of the hot air balloon, of a train’s cloud of smoke seeming nothing more than the puff of a boiling kettle. An Englishman reducing a revolutionary, industrial machine to a signatory of teatime. Truly marvellous.
I could also appreciate the power of the chapter dedicated to London’s ports; living in London docklands myself, where old weather beaten dock buildings stand aside modern accommodation, I enjoyed imagining the hustle of shipments.
It was the accounts of real life Victorians struggling in the great urban smoke that were particularly compelling, especially as Henry interviewed many himself. It seems that however beautiful the city was from above in a hot air balloon, or outside of a rattling train carriage, this beauty didn’t reach some poverty-stricken city-dwellers.
The opening study of London piemen really captured my imagination. These forty or so street vendors were competing with the new penny-per-pie stores popping up across London, an antiquated version of our independent high street retailers struggling under the weight of giant corporations.
Henry clearly felt for these men, hinting that the quality of the meat in these pies was not the highest, using a lot of seasoning.
This made me think of happy summers spent in Devon with my Grandparents, in the house my Mum grew up in. The homely and moderately nauseating waft of hot pasties and sausage rolls filling the car as we stopped for lunch is a prominent memory, and today I just need to walk past a West Cornwall Pasty Co. stall to be right back in the back seat, attempting to catch any renegade pastry in a greasy paper bag.
In honour of these hard-working piemen I decided to cook my own traditional, comforting English savoury pie.
I turned to two women for instruction on pie-making.
We had ‘Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management’ on our family lounge bookshelf for as long as I can remember. Perhaps its sheer enormity is what placed it in my consciousness. I never dared pluck it off the shelf for fear of it falling on me. Death by book.
It was at university that I became more familiar with Mrs Beeton, studying her in one of my modules. A Londoner herself, Isabella Mayson married publisher Samuel Beeton when she was twenty, and thus the first published cookery writer was born. Rather intimidatingly, Mrs Beeton wrote these articles, advising readers on how to successfully run a Victorian household, when she, like me, was in her early twenties.
She covers everything: the different methods for cooking meat; which vegetables are in season when; tips for hosting a dinner party; drugs to keep in the medicine cabinet for all ailments; appropriate care for animals; fashion; and the duties of a housemaid.
I really like Mrs Beeton. Admittedly, this household bible is rather intimidating. Despite being her age when this was published, I am incapable of poaching eggs. Otherwise, here is an ambitious woman with valuable advice for everyone under the one household roof. She is clearly confident and knows her own mind.
She also signed off letters to her husband with ‘Fatty.’ Here is a woman I could have been friends with.
The second woman I turned to was my Mum, another intelligent, capable woman with a great sense of humour.
Mum studied Home Economics at university (Food Technology in modern terms), which I benefited from, growing up with delicious and nutritious food, and was packed off to university with knowledge of a balanced diet and recipe book written by Mum. Any food related emergency, I call Mum.
Between the two of them Mrs Beeton and Mrs Richards gave me confidence to set to and bake a chicken pie.
I managed to track down mace, a ground spice Mrs Beeton litters her pie with, and also armed myself with rosemary, salt and pepper, remembering Mayhew highlighting that the piemen used a lot of seasoning.
I confess that I bought the puff pastry rather than making it. I know, I know. I’ll withdraw my Great British Bake Off application anon.
I made a stock with the chicken, herbs and onion, which filled the flat with a lovely, homely smell, while simultaneously boiling some eggs. Move over Nigella.
At Mum’s suggestion I fried up some leeks to add some green to the pie. When everything was ready, I layered chicken, leeks, ham and the sliced hard boiled eggs, before seasoning with mace, salt and pepper. This was followed by half a pint of water and the puff pastry casing.
I placed this in the oven for 45 minutes and, upon removing this golden crown, I filled it with the gravy as Mrs Beeton instructed.
It looked and smelled beautiful.
Flavour-wise, I’m not so convinced.
It was terribly watery, and the chicken was rather bland. I did add a lot of seasoning, as recommended by Beeton and Mayhew, but I would often hit a patch of mace, which made my eyes water.
In Victorian times, I’m convinced this pie would have been delicious, comforting, filling. But for me it was rather tasteless and thin. It didn’t pack much of a punch and it was an awful lot of work. The kitchen was chaos.
All credit to those London piemen; an awful lot of work in a struggling trade.
A big thank you to Tim for choosing my first Little Black Classic. That’s No. 26 ticked off the list! Next time, I’ll be blogging about Thomas Hardy’s ‘Woman much missed.’