Friday, December 5, 2008

Lard in Lark Rise

I'm very keen on researching my family history, and recently I've been working on the predecessors of one great-grandmother who were all East Anglian 'ag labs' (agricultural labourers). I noticed an interesting thing about them: in the nineteenth century particularly, very many of them lived to a ripe old age. Even going back to individuals born in the middle of the eighteenth century, I can find more than a few - across different families - who lived into their late 70s and 80s. Why is this so? They were poor, they didn't have access to modern medical care and they worked hard physically.

One book which sheds light on this is Lark Rise to Candleford*, the first part of which was published by Flora Thompson in 1939. It is a novel/memoir of her childhood in a rural England (Oxfordshire) which even then was passing out of existence. By the 1880s, when Flora and my great-grandmother (living a similar life in Cambridgeshire) were growing up, the industrial revolution in Britain was a hundred years old, but in the agricultural sector machine power was only just beginning to replace manpower and horse-power. Hamlets and small villages were populated still by agricultural labourers, living in cottages which came with the job, and working for the local farmer. The farms were mixed farms, in the area Thomson grew up, they were mostly arable with some livestock. The weekly wage would not normally have been enough for such large families not to starve, but they survived and even thrived in the rural setting as they had the opportunity to provide for themselves: an opportunity denied to poor families in town. Indeed, Thomson notes that the general opinion of those in her village of the nearest big town, Oxford, was that although a man might earn more there, as he'd be paying more rent and would
have nowhere to keep a pig or to grow many vegetables, he'd be a fool to go there. (p. 33)
Thomson refers to the adult generation of the 1880s as 'The Beseiged Generation'. The term seems to be meant in two ways: firstly, it was a period just before enormous change. Although the social structures of the time were to hold for at least another thirty years (until after the Great War) and to a lesser extent for sixty more, not collapsing completely until after the Second World War, the big change in agriculture and the start of the inexorable decline in manpower on the land was just around the corner. Maybe it is just a coincidence, maybe it is a consequence of the initial impact of small changes, innovations, where before, for so many years, there were none, but it was a time of decaying tradition and custom. For example, she says of the herb garden:
As well as the garden herbs, still in general use, some of the older women used wild ones, ..... But the knowledge and use of these was dying out; (p. 115).
Secondly, it was a tough time economically, the agricultural wage of the 1880s was 10 shillings per week (equivalent to £258 per week today) and every way possible had to be used to feed, shelter and clothe a large family (and they did have large families, my great-grandmother was the 1oth of 11 children).

So why were they apparently so healthy? Indeed, the author herself seems somewhat pushed to explain the robust good health of the hamlet she remembers. She says:
There were two epidemics of measles during the decade, ... but, for years together, the doctor was only seen there when one of the ancients was dying of old age, or [for] some difficult first confinement... There was .... except for a few months when a poor woman was dying of cancer, no invalid. (p.19)
What They Ate
The staples of the diet were bread, lard and bacon. Every household raised and killed one or two pigs each year. The importance of the pig was shown by the amount of effort lavished on their care and feeding. They were given not only household scraps (if there were any) but specially cooked up meals of potatoes mixed with leftover cooking liquor, milk and barley meal. Children gathered weeds and grass or even snails to supplement the pig's diet. Often half the pig had to be 'mortgaged' to the baker or publican as a way of buying on credit the necessary pig fattening food.

Only one meal a day would have any meat. As an agricultural labourer's house did not have an oven, nor even a range, cooking was done in the fireplace in an iron pot slung from a rack or chain built into the lower part of the front of the chimney piece. This arrangement meant everything was cooked (boiled) together: bacon, green vegetables kept together in a net, potatoes in another net and a roly-poly pudding greased and floured and wrapped in a pudding cloth. (This last is a peculiarly English creation being a flour and suet or lard dough adaptable to either sweet, if fruit, currants or jam are added, or savoury purposes, if meat.) All that was necessary was careful timing of when to put in and take out the various components. There were no leftovers for the pig, save the vegetable and potato peelings and the cooking water.

The other two meals (breakfast and lunch) were bread and butter (rarely) or bread and lard. According to Thomson, butter was expensive, although cheaper in the summer when a pound cost tenpence, and the cheaper imitation 'butterine', presumably an early form of margarine, was not liked. Instead they collected their own lard from their pigs and flavoured it with rosemary from the garden. Rosemary did not just improve the flavour. Herbs such as rosemary and sage have anti-oxidant properties and help to prevent the unsaturated fatty acids in the lard from going rancid ([1], p.606) as it had to last until the next pig killing, an important consideration in houses which had no refrigeration.

The pig killing was an important event and was followed by a celebratory 'pig feast' to which the extended familly was invited. The feast featured "joints of pork, potatoes, batter puddings, pork pies, and sometimes a cake or two" [to take advantage of the opportunity of using the baker's oven] (p. 27) plus three or four different kinds of vegetables and a meat pudding.
At the pig feast here would be no sweet pudding, for that could be had any day, and who wanted sweet things when there was plenty of meat to be had! (p. 27).
This statement is one of the most remarkable in the whole book: it would be hard for today's children to understand.

Nothing from the pig was wasted: home-cured bacons and hams kept the family provided throughout the winter and beyond (depending of course on the size of the family and whether half the pig was already spoken for!), 'hog puddings' were also made (from the pig's blood) and the chitterlings were made into sausages after they had been rinsed under running water for three days.

Throughout the year, the main meat to be had was the preserved, salted and dried bacon and ham. Once a week, there would be a small amount of meat bought ("six-pennyworth of pieces") made go further by making a meat pudding. Even less often a small joint would be roasted "on a string before the fire" or used as a pot-roast, cooked with lard in a saucepan over the same fire. A "toad", the meat wrapped in a suet [pastry] crust and boiled over the fire would again make a small joint go farther and make sure the precious meat juices were not wasted.

Bread was bought, but the women also needed flour - to make the puddings which were otherwise the way of eking out a meagre supply of meat. This flour was obtained by the right of the labourers to the leazings: the heads of grain left behind in the field from the less efficient time before mechanical harvesting. For two to three weeks once harvesting was over, the women and children went out to the stubbly fields each day, collecting by hand the leftover ears of wheat. Once threshed by hand at home, it was taken to the local mill and a large sack of flour returned:
one bushel, two bushels, or even more, in large, industrious families. (p.28)
It would have been stone ground flour too, at least at the beginning of the decade (of which more later).

Just as the pig was home-raised, vegetables and fruits were also home-grown. The men tended allotments (parcels of land granted to them, probably as part of the cottage rental to allow them to grow food crops) where they grew potatoes and wheat or barley. In the cottage garden they grew vegetables and fruits: peas, cabbages, cauliflowers, kale, beans and potatoes, fresh greens, radishes and onions. Rhubarb, currants and gooseberries would be made into jam. They had the advantage of fresh and organic produce. They also did not waste the natural produce around them. Children went out gathering mushrooms; sloes, blackberries and elderberries could be made into jams or jellies - or brewed into wine.

Nevertheless, there were occasional variations to the diet. Eggs were eaten, but only when affordable or only by those who kept chickens. Milk was available, at very low cost, if you walked the mile and a half to the farmhouse. It was hand-skimmed, so some cream was left and it was raw. Interestingly, she says that most people did not bother and so most children did not drink milk once they were weaned.

A travelling fishmonger who also sold fruit called weekly. If it could be afforded a bloater would be bought for a penny, "but it had to be a soft-roed one, for, in nearly every house there were children under school age at home; so the bloater had to be shared, and the soft roes spread upon bread for the smallest ones." (p. 119). Oranges and, on one occasion, a tomato bought from this vendor were merely curiosities, tried out once.

Small birds were another frequent and popular addition. Older boys would go out at night and net groups of sparrows where they were nesting in the hedgerows. These could be plucked and put into a pudding. One or two would be toasted over the fire. Women and children also lured and trapped birds. To take anything bigger than a sparrow or a blackbird or thrush, even to pick up a dead hare, was poaching. But it was done, not habitually, but if the opportunity should arise.

* My edition of the book is: Flora Thompson, Lark Rise to Candleford, Penguin Modern Classics, Penguin Books, 1973.

[1] McGee, H. On Food and Cooking, London: Unwin Hyman Ltd, 1984.

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