Victorian Street Food

Victorian Street Food

Imagine walking through your local fair or market. The smells from all the food stalls are making you hungry. What would you choose? Pancakes with chocolate spread; fluffy, sugary donuts; or something salty and savoury like burgers or hotdogs? Perhaps a tray of hot chilli, or aromatic curry and rice? For many of us, street food is a treat. But imagine being a Victorian child in Dickensian London. What would it have been like then?

For the poor, street food was really important: lots of people didn’t have ovens or, often, a kitchen at home (and a lot didn’t have a home to begin with) so it was their only chance to eat hot food. What would you choose from the costermongers that thronged the streets in Victorian times? A cheap baked potato, brilliant for warming your hands on before eating? Some jellied eels or a Yarmouth bloater (a herring smoked whole, guts and all)? Perhaps a nice hot pig-trotter? All washed down with beer or coffee, which were generally safer to drink than water.

"The London Costermonger", from Henry Mayhew's "London Labour and the London Poor", 1851. Caption reads: "Here Pertaters! Kearots and Turnups! fine Brockello-o-o!" From a daguerreotype by Beard. Henry George Hine and Ebenezer Whimper, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Food, not so glorious food

Most food was eaten with the hands; there were no disposable trays, of course, or wet wipes, or plastic gloves. There were re-usable cups or glasses, but hygiene wasn’t a strong point. A penny lick of ice cream, for example, was sold in a little jar that might be given a quick slosh in a bucket of water before being used by the next person (gross!). One scientist tested some street ice cream and discovered bacteria, fleas, straw, human and animal hair and coal dust. (Nice!)

There weren’t any laws about food labelling either. Bounderby in Hard Times – Dickens’ 10th novel – who liked to talk of his deprived childhood, said that as a youth he had eaten at least three horses ‘under the guise of polonies and saveloys’ (both are kinds of sausage). And as for pies – hot, filling and easy to eat – any kind of animal might be lurking inside. Sam Weller, in Pickwick Papers – Dickens’ 1st novel – tells his boss, ‘Wery good thing is weal pie, when you know the lady as made it, and is quite sure it ain’t kittens.’ (Well, that’s horrifying! Ed)

LSE Library, Set 72157624338796294, ID 6257456398, Original title Halfpenny Ices LSE Library, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons From 'Street Life in London', 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith

Oysters, too, were a very popular treat for rich and poor alike, perhaps because you could see exactly what you were eating. They were plentiful and cheap; Sam Weller’s remark ‘that poverty and oysters always seem to go together’ has become famous because oysters are now seen as extravagant and expensive items. There was no guarantee these street foods were fresh, though. Another favourite, pickled salmon, was often sold to people like Dickens’ character, Mrs Gamp, who was usually a little bit drunk, and wouldn’t notice that the fish was a bit whiffy under all that vinegar.

Victorian stallholders

For many, selling food on the street was a great way of making money. Children might buy a few bunches of watercress, say, when the markets opened at about 5am, hoping to earn enough to buy some bread and sugary tea, but if nobody wanted watercress that day, they would go hungry (or eat the watercress, presumably). Where there is food there is money, and some famous shops and restaurants today, such as Marks and Spencer, were started by Victorian stallholders. The wicked Ralph Nickleby and his business partners aim to put the muffin-sellers out of business with the ‘United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company’. It’s not the catchiest of names, though, is it? Perhaps they should have called it ‘Deliveroo’.

The Brill Market in Somers Town, London—1858. Published in the Illustrated News of the World, London.

What would you have eaten if you’d been invited round to dine with Dickens? Who cooked? Who else would’ve been there? Find out exactly what a dinner party with the Dickens family was like both for his guests and his staff, on the Charles Dickens Museum’s audio edition of Food Glorious Food: Dinner with Dickens. Find out more at

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Words: Pen Vogler, author of Dinner with Dickens: Recipes Inspired by the Life and Works of Charles Dickens. Illustration: Rachel Fuller