The Slum ‘Kitchen’ – Annie Hitchcock


slum kitchen

 Figure 1: Recreation of a ‘Slum Kitchen’

The kitchen has always been a central part of the home and remained so within slum housing. Those who were poverty-stricken adapted to the notion of the kitchen being a communal area due to reliance upon communal bakehouses, and the imposition of the home’s living space being merged with the cooking and dining space. The Victorian slum ‘kitchen’ was often centred on the fireplace of the main living space, which would occasionally include some form of boiler or oven.[1] Alongside this the kitchen would consist of an abundance of built in storage such as shelving and cupboards, despite personal belongings being sparse.[2] This, paired with the possible presence of a dining table, was the common notion of a kitchen within slum housing. The photograph above represents a ‘slum kitchen’, although this is merely an exaggerated larder which contains a basin. The cooking implements were dependent on the main fire and the dining table within the living space was the surface for preparation. The first half of the nineteenth century witnessed a notable decline in the popularity of domestic baking and home brewing as there was a lack of space within the home, fuel was inadequate and time was too valuable to upkeep these traditional activities.[3]

The change in employment patterns also impacted the diet of the working classes. As hours and regularity of work increased alongside the separation of the home and the workplace, eating habits started to alter.[4]  The working classes were prone to eating seasonal vegetables and fruits, such as onions and watercress, and these became a staple of many meals.[5] Although the diets seemed basic, all produce was organically grown meaning that they contained higher levels of nutrients that modern crops. Legumes and nuts were also popular due to the low cost and were eaten as either snacks or commonly used in puddings and pies. Although meat was scarce in lower class diets, there were decent levels of protein available due to the notion of keeping hens  – sometimes a specific household would be the owner, and sometimes they would be a shared commodity of small communities, for example in back to back housing. Dairy was not usually a large part of the diet due to butter being expensive and dripping being a far more accessible alternative, and milk was often watered down. However, cheese was considered an important part of the diet as it contained dairy and also had high levels of natural fats: the working classes preferred hard cheeses as they remained fresh for a longer period of time than soft cheese and even the stubborn heel of the cheese could be made edible by toasting it.[6] Alcohol was consumed often; as beer was the common beverage for most people, as it was affordable, there was the option of home brewing and it was far safer to drink than the water which was disease-riddled. The alcohol percentage of the average beer was often 2 percent or lower and watered down to ensure that women and children could consume it, with stronger beers being available in the public houses.

The working-class Victorian diet had a lower calorific content due to the density of nutrients, and although many struggled to afford food, there is a reasonable argument that the potential diets of this period were healthier than modern diets. The consistency of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes resembles a Palaeolithic diet.


Engraving showing the interior of a slum house, taken from the Illustrated London News, 1886.

Engravings were a prominent forum for displaying slum living in the Victorian period whilst photography was developing in accessibility. The engraving pictured includes characters depicted with daunting tones revealed by the deep set eyes and exhaustive facial expressions. The forlorn atmosphere, represented by shading, epitomises the dreary preconceived ideas of the slums. These ideas include the presence of dirt and squalor which reflects the notions of absences of morals amongst the poor. The opinion of the slums was divided during the nineteenth-century, amongst those who demonised the destitute and those who sympathised with the poor.  Compassion was largely reserved for those who were classed as the ‘respectable’ or ‘deserving’ poor, who could not afford a basic standard of living which consisted of necessities such as shelter, food and clothing.[7] This engraving also illustrates the restrictions upon the families concerning space and privacy, imposed upon them as a result of mass overcrowding. Due to the nature of the segregation within living conditions, the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor were often forced to live within close proximity, as represented in this extract:

“One of the saddest results of this overcrowding is the inevitable association of honest people with criminals. Often is the family of an honest working man compelled to take refuge in a thieves’ kitchen … Who can wonder that every evil flourishes in such hotbeds of vice and disease? […] The low parts of London are the sink into which the filthy and abominable from all parts of the country seem to flow.”

W.C.Preston, The Bitter Cry of Outcast London 1883 [8]

Overall it is reasonable to suggest that the public opinion of the poor was more sympathetic and empathetic than unsavoury. This is implied due to the vast of focus upon the injustice imposed upon working class people, as seen through the many social investigations of the nineteenth century. Moreover this period witnessed the formations of institutions whose objectives were to improve the conditions of working-class housing.[9] An example of these institutions includes The Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes (MAIDIC) which was founded in 1841 as part of a philanthropic movement in order to build social housing on a large scale.[10]

The nineteenth century also witnessed a number of parliamentary advancements, including the Housing of Working Classes Act of 1885 which granted local authorities the ability to close down houses that were deemed unsatisfactory of the minimum requirements for healthy living. This led to the shift of responsibility, concerning sanitary standards, ensuring that the proprietor was accountable for maintain decent standards within their properties. [11]  A simple of example of this is the gradual integration of indoor plumbing. The late nineteenth century and early twentieth century saw an increase in the amount of kitchens that were provided with clean water through plumbing systems which was considered favourable to the former methods of water collection. This seemingly minor alteration was in fact crucial to the improvement of the hygiene and health of the inhabitants of these houses. Other parliamentary advancements include the 1866 Sanitary Act which held local authorities accountable for the quality of water supply and the conditions of the sewers and the 1875 Public Health Act which encapsulated the issues of several acts into one covering sanitary conditions, housing conditions and disease. The compilation of these acts indicates the acknowledgement of issues, but does not necessarily provide solutions.

Academics, such as Richard Rodger, argue that political action was not effectively taken until the aftermath of the First World War, where the minimum standards of housing were identified and building programmes were assembled in order to achieve these standards.[12] Based upon this argument it is plausible to suggest that the nineteenth century observed a gradual evolution in the changing standards of housing and living for the working classes, rather than witnessing instant progress.

Ann-Marie Hitchcock 



[1] Tarn, T.N., Five Per Cent Philanthropy: An Account of Housing in Urban Areas between 1840 and 1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), p. 47.

[2] Tarn, Five Per Cent Philanthropy, p. 47.

[3] Daunton, M.J., ‘Housing’ in Thompson, F.M.L. (ed.), Cambridge Social History of Britain 1750 – 1950. Vol. 2: People and their Environment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 245.

[4] Daunton, ‘Housing’, p. 255.

[5] Clayton, P. and Rowbotham J., ‘How the Mid-Victorians Worked, Ate and Died’, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 6:3 (2009),pp. 1235-1253. Available online: (Accessed on 1st December 2015.)

[6] Clayton et al, ‘How the Mid-Victorians Worked, Ate and Died’.

[7] Morris, S., ‘Market Solutions for Social Problems: Working-Class Housing in Nineteenth-Century London’, Economic History Review, 54:3 (2001), p. 527.

[8] Preston, W.C, The Bitter Cry of Outcast London, Available online: (Accessed on 1st December 2015).

[9] Morris, ‘Market Solutions for Social Problems’, p. 528.


[11] Housing of the Working Classes Act, 1885. Available online: (Accessed on 28th November 2015.)

[12] Rodger, R., Housing in Urban Britain 1780 – 1914, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 5.


Figure 1: Recreation of a Slum Kitchen. Photograph taken by A.Hitchcock, National Trust Birmingham Back to Backs, 2015.

Figure 2: Engraving showing interior of a slum house, Illustrated London News (1886). Available online: (Accessed on 3rd October 2015).