Aaron Bhatia| Caroline Otu| Pete Hobson| Rickesh Patel 

With the growth of the British Empire during the Victorian period, expansion of trade, population movement into the cities and the development of better transportation, people were able to taste a growing selection of foods. French cuisine, popularised in books such as Marie-Antoine Carême’s, L’Art de la cuisine française, became more accessible to the middle classes, [1] while noted individuals such as Oscar Wilde became fascinated with wine and food[2], This expansion of foodstuffs meant that the upper and middle classes ideas about taste and nutrition were entrenched.

Fig.1 “Please,sir,can I have some more.”

However, how what impact did this revolution in taste have on the poor? This exhibition section explores the sense of taste in the Victorian ‘slum’, what the poorest in British society ate and drank, and reactions to their eating and drinking habits across the social spectrum .

When thinking about the taste of the London slums, it is difficult to muster an image of anything other than  colourless and dissatisfying gruel.

One of the most famous scenes in English literature is the eponymous character of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist being refused more gruel in the workhouse, symbolic of the starvation of the innocent poor being starved and abused and refused more gruel [3] by the fat and healthy middle classes.

Fig.2 An East-End Gin Shop

While this is undoubtedly a striking image, how representative is it of the experience of eating and drinking for the Victorian poor?

Each post in this section combines fictional and non-fictional primary sources and engages with historiographical debate to look at the experience of taste in the Victorian ‘slum’. Our posts range in topic from philanthropic soup kitchens to food adulteration, workhouse diets to the temperance movement. Common themes across all of these topics are how issues of taste were often linked to death but – in contrast – were often addressed by means of satire.

Overall, this section seeks to shed light on cultures of taste in the Victorian slums and the experiences of their inhabitants.


[1] Victorians: Food and Health, http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/story-of-england/victorian/food-and-health/ (date accessed: 13/10/2016)

[2] Magid, Annette, A Taste of Wilde: Food Issues In the Life and Works of Oscar Wilde  http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/wilde/magid1.html (date accessed: 13/10/2016)

[3] Dickens, Charles, Oliver Twist (Richard Bentley, London, 1838), p.18.


Fig.1 Cruikshank, George in Dickens, Charles, Oliver Twist (Richard Bentley: London, 1838), p. 18.

Fig.2 May, William, ‘London East End: Sketch in an East End Gin Shop, 1899′ http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/115896/print (date accessed: 8/10/2016)