Meat Pie: 1901

It’s that time of year again, the week we’ve all been waiting for: National Pie Week! Get your bibs on and gather round to sing the most festive and famous of all Pie Week carols:

It’s beginning to look a lot like Pie Week
Everywhere you go
Take a look at the five and ten
It’s glistening once again
With gravy stains and smeared on mashed ‘tato…

Johnny Mathis ‘It’s beginning to look a lot like Pie Week’

National Pie Week is the thoughtful contribution to British culture from the creative team at pastry manufacturers Jus-Rol who I’m sure had only public spirited reasons for coming up with this national holiday and no other ulterior motives whatsoever when they introduced it back in 2007. Since then, however, it does seem to have taken on a bit of a life of its own; this year has seen the topic of ‘Pie Week’ feature in several national newspapers and debates on morning TV about the best and worst pies. Truth be told I didn’t know National Pie Week was a thing until a few days ago when I was searching for inspiration on what to cook next for this blog. Don’t get me wrong – I’m very happy we have a National Pie Week, it’s just it’s not something that I’ve ever noticed up until now.

The notion of a ‘worst’ pie got me thinking, though. What would that look like? I wasn’t looking for mud pies of the sort I made when I was a child (which involved mixing compost and manure in a flowerpot before squodging it into frisbee and trying to force feed it to my sister when mum wasn’t looking – recipe below!), but something that was actually meant to be eaten. Did such a ‘worst’ pie exist? Would I be doomed to a Lord Woolton’s Pie fiasco again or would it be another apple pie triumph? Furthermore, what were the criteria for a ‘worst’ pie and who did they belong to? I didn’t know.

Someone who felt they did know what ‘the worst’ meant was Charles Dickens. Arguably his most famous work, Oliver Twist, deals with themes such as poverty though the lens of the Victorian workhouse and acts as a commentary on what Dickens perceived to be the failings of 19th century society towards its most vulnerable members: the poor. In Oliver Twist, a cherubic but immensely irritating young boy is cast into the brutal world of the workhouse where children are beaten, starved and forced to work all day long; they are just about as downtrodden as you can get before turning into complete caricatures. The most famous line of all – when Oliver asks for second helpings: “please sir, I want some more” – and the consequential beating given to the boy was a Dickensian tut of disapproval at those parishes which, during the 19th century, made it illegal to serve second helpings to workhouse inmates. By the way, I’m using the term ‘inmate’ deliberately – partly because that’s what members of a workhouse were called and partly as a reminder that however flippant this post gets, conditions were no better than in a prison and the people who voluntarily and out of complete desperation entered workhouses were stripped of all freedoms and dignity.

Southwell Workhouse. It’s probably a 5 star hotel now. Or a luxury block of flats.

The idea of a typical workhouse is something that everyone has some understanding of – either through the musical Oliver! (where the character Oliver is made so undeniably kick-able that one can’t help rooting for Mr Bumble) or from year 4 history lessons on the Victorians, or year 6 history lessons on the Victorians, or year 8 history lessons on the Victorians…

In fact, workhouses form so much of our understanding of Victorian poverty that there’s the risk of thinking that’s all they are: Victorian inventions designed to punish people for being poor. And that’s not true. Well, it is, but that’s not the whole truth. Like so much in history, the whole truth isn’t as black and white or easy as workhouses=bad and so the full truth has sort of been swept away in favour of songs about petty larceny and the rise of capitalism (I assume that’s the theme of ‘Who Will Buy’ – I stop listening when Oliver begins to sing in that dog whistle tone of his.)

The history of English workhouses is complex but stems back to as far as the medieval period, possibly further, when the Statute of Cambridge of 1388 placed heavy restrictions on the movements of beggars and sought to put some responsibility for the care and provision of such people on the community they came from. Although lack of thorough enforcement limited the success of such laws, the Statue of Cambridge became seen as the first Poor Law Act of many to come.

Efforts to control the poor (and more importantly establish who was responsible for them) continued throughout the centuries through various acts and laws and included efforts to define who counted as ‘poor’ and the types of provisions that should be offered to them. In 1722 Sir Edward Knatchbull drew up The Workhouse Test Act which gave guidance to parishes on how to set up workhouses and advised them that, as the idea of being sent to a workhouse should act as a deterrent to poor people, workhouses should only accept those in most desperate need. Sixty years later the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (AKA that attention seeking oddball who had his body preserved and put on display after he died) went a step further and attempted an early form of privatisation in the form of a national company which would build and maintain 250 workhouses, financed by investors. The inmates would be put to work and fed a sparse diet thereby ensuring profit margins stayed fat and inmates stayed desperate (and thin). All for the greater good, eh, Jeremy?

Still, workhouses offered refuge to a range of people: the sick, elderly, impoverished and unlucky. If you had a great enough need, the workhouse was there to provide a roof over your head, a small amount of food and shelter from the dangers of living on the street. It wasn’t a caring place, however; unmarried mothers in particular were scorned and pregnant unmarried women were often treated harshest because the cost to keep them was considered disproportionately high in comparison to their “social worth” as England entered the era of the “deserving poor” vs the “undeserving poor”.

The image of workhouses most of us are familiar with peaked in the mid 19th century and coincided with the economic boom of the Industrial Revolution. It’s hardly a coincidence that the cramped, dark, disease ridden images of workhouses that fill history textbooks almost exactly mirror the cramped, dark, disease ridden factories from this time. In 1834 the government was becoming increasingly concerned that the cost of running workhouses would prove too much, so it created the Poor Law Amendment Act. This Act enabled the creation of the Poor Law Unions which grouped parishes together under the control of several appointed ‘guardians’ and encouraged them to think of workhouses as unofficial mills. Those inmates who were well enough to work in such workhouses were now forced to labour in silent factory style production lines; the focus was now on profiteering from people’s misery and misfortune rather than solving the problem of poverty. The government took a cut of whatever income the workhouse produced, and the workhouse guardians and shareholders split the rest. Families were split up according to the jobs they could do, with children usually separated from their mothers and forced to live and work in entirely different buildings often for several years or even, if their fates did not improve, separated for the rest of their lives.

By the end of the 19th century there was at least one workhouse in every parish and people were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the idea that they were living in close proximity to such dreadful institutions. One reason for this cultural shift was the fact that a significant number of women were elected as guardians of workhouses and worked to highlight and improve current conditions through organisations such as the Workhouse Visiting Society, founded by Louisa Twining. Another reason was that in 1892 the property rental value of some workhouses was lowered to £5. This price drop allowed some working-class people to reach the threshold income needed to be elected as Board members and, as some of these Board members had experienced first hand the conditions inside workhouses, they sought to change things.

As attitudes around workhouse conditions began to change, so too did the function of the workhouses. By the late 19th century most of the people in workhouses were there because they were ill, alone and couldn’t afford medical care. Workhouses increasingly took on the role of unqualified hospitals and homeless shelters, with an emphasis on attempting to get inmates back on their feet if possible through nutritious food and a no-nonsense brand of Christian charity. With this in mind (and seeing a way out of a business model that had lost much of its profitability) the government released new legislation in 1929 which stated that local authorities could take over workhouses and use them as hospitals instead. It wasn’t a quick or ever fully completed change over, however, as Susan Swinton’s childhood spent growing up in a workhouse in the 1960’s and 70’s shows.

Anyway, time to put away the woe-is-me violin and get back to the food.

The recipe I’m using is from the Manual of Workhouse Cookery which was issued to guardians in 1901 and has been reprinted in Peter Higginbotham’s excellent book The Workhouse Cookbook. What immediately struck me about the recipes in this cookbook were that they sounded…okay. Not amazing – it was a workhouse after all, but definitely not just gruel. As Higginbotham reveals “[the] benchmark in formulating the workhouse diet was that on no account should it be superior or equal to the ordinary mode of subsistence of the labouring classes of the neighbourhood.” There were also different menus according to whether it was a meat day or not, and according to how ‘deserving’ you were of the workhouse’s charity – able bodied men in work received better food than unemployed women, for example.

The meat pie that I made today was basically meat and potatoes with a pastry topping (therefore not a true pie, in my opinion) but it used salt, pepper and dripping to add flavour. I could see no reason for the workhouse to add seasoning like this other than for the enjoyment of the diners, which suggests that in the workhouses of London parishes where this book was issued the guardians were at least partially concerned with something more than just the profits to be made out of the inmates. Okay, so maybe it was also partly because in some workhouses the cooks had to eat the same fare as the inmates and it’s true, there are stories of some of the more unscrupulous guardians mixing chalk and lower grades of flour in with pastry dough to make supplies stretch further, and the beef used in the recipe is described as being made up of “clods and stickings” left over from proper cuts, but the sentiment was there.

The recipe seems to give instructions for single serve pies – 5oz of meat and 4oz of potato per pie. Because I wanted to share the joys of the workhouse with my family, I multiplied the quantities by 3 to make one large pie instead.

Other than some mental maths, the instructions were really rather easy to follow, which I suppose was the point: the guardians weren’t running a 5 star restaurant here and the meals had to toe the line between being nourishing and an unintentional advertisement for an ‘easy’ life for those looking to dodge work.

First I put the cloddiest looking beef chunks I could find in Sainsbury’s in a pie dish and seasoned with a good twist of pepper and salt. Then I laid sliced potato over the meat in a jaunty spiral pattern that I hoped would delight the two wretches who were going to eat it (my husband and daughter) whilst also inspiring them to better themselves, as all workhouse inmates should do. Honestly – I might have been fired if I’d been a workhouse cook because I felt that 12oz of potato wasn’t sufficient to cover the meat so I stole another 4oz from the pie of an imaginary workhouse inmate and added it to my own.

Making a recipe from a workhouse cookbook is the perfect excuse for not peel potatoes before cooking them – those paupers need all the nutrients they can get!

The pastry was made by rubbing beef dripping into flour and mixing it with water before lying on top of the meat and potatoes. Then it went into an oven at 160 degrees for just under two hours.

There were two main things that stood out about this pie: first – it was dry. It was a dry pie. Not inedible dryness, but definitely in need of additional gravy. Most of the water I’d added had evaporated and what was left was enough to provide a thin clear meat jus at the bottom. Fancy that, an inadvertent jus in a workhouse recipe.

Secondly – once you’d given your salivary glands a chance to recuperate, the meat tasted lovely. It’s amazing what a good amount of salt and pepper can do and I think because the seasoning had been sprinkled directly onto the meat but not stirred in with the water or potato, I could really taste it as if it were a salt and pepper crust. A jus and salt encrusted meat? No wonder Oliver wanted more.

The pastry case was underwhelming both in terms of taste and aesthetics – workhouse budgets didn’t stretch to egg washes or milk glazes so it was a bit pale to look at. Flavour wise I couldn’t tell the difference between a basic pastry made with butter and this one made with dripping – it was fine, but nothing spectacular.

It was clear that the aim of this pie was to be hot and filling (pastry and potato!) and inoffensive to even the most sensitive of stomachs (although again, I’m not sure workhouse charity would have cared that much if you didn’t like beef, or preferred a non-dripping pastry case). It fed my own workhouse mob nicely as a mid week dinner with some emergency Bisto and broccoli and those of you who may have been increasingly concerned for my daughter’s welfare with every new post will be pleased to know that when she demanded ‘more!’ she was only lightly beaten but was spared the singing.

Definitely not too GRUELling. Hilarious, I am.

Am I advocating a return to workhouse food? No, not really. But was it as bad as I’d been led to believe? No. Now, there is a caveat to that: my recipe is from the period when workhouses were becoming more socially aware and there are many accounts from the previous century of inmates being served mouldy bread and “milk porridge of a very blue complexion” instead of the relatively filling and nutritious pie I made. Additionally, this meal would not have been made available to everyone – unemployed but able bodied men, for example, could expect nothing more than the plainest of diets as punishment for their lack of work.

So, back to Pie Week. As the end of this glorious, much celebrated national holiday looms closer I’m wondering whether we should promote workhouse meat pie up there with all the other staples: beef and ale, chicken and mushroom etc. It certainly fits a lot of the criteria – meat filling, gravy (of a sort) and it even comes with its own serving of potatoes. The one problem? It’s not a pie, is it? Not really. Call me a Pie Purist if you must (just don’t let anyone hear you, you weirdo) but if it’s not got a crust all the way round it, it’s not a pie. And really, when all the evaluation of working conditions and family separation is done, that’s the real social injustice here.

E x

Meat Pie

400g beef chunks
400g flour
Salt and pepper
125g dripping or lard
125g sliced potato

  1. Place the beef in the bottom of a pie dish.
  2. Add a little water and season with salt and pepper.
  3. Cover the beef with sliced potato.
  4. Rub dripping into flour until it is the consistency of sand. Add water to form a dough.
  5. Roll dough out and cover the potato and beef mixture.
  6. Cook at 160 degrees for 1.5 – 2 hours.

2 thoughts on “Meat Pie: 1901

  1. This was an excellent read. Always love the flippancy but appreciated the historical treatment, too. When I was a lad in Derby, my city of birth, we had a hospital called the Manor Hospital and I remember talking to a very elderly lady who was terrified she would end up there. It turned out the hospital was the old workhouse and her memory of it — personal or shared cultural, I’m not sure — was enough to instill an unreasonable terror in her. Mind you, back in the late 70s-early 80s, there was the legitimate fear of hospital food. It sounds to me, based on your culinary success, here, that the hospital cooks could have done with a copy of The Workhouse Cookbook.

  2. Oh that’s so sad she was so frightened of it! Although I can appreciate that hospital food was something worthy of fear – the last time I spent long enough in hospital to experience a range of food was over a decade ago and even then some of the food was pretty hit and miss! Nowadays I’m told it’s brilliant – I like the idea of a Workhouse Cookbook squirrelled away on hospital kitchen shelves!

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