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  • Dining with the Victorians Daily Express feature by Emma Kay

    Making a meal of it: How the Victorians influenced your eating habits

    From a cooked breakfast to our love of curries, many of Britain's familiar culinary habits were invented by the Victorians as a new book reveals.

    1. Victorians-eating-617709 Dining With The Victorians explores the impact they had on our eating habits today


    Many Victorians had an inexplicable obsession with the occult. In relation to food and cooking their superstitions were plentiful. Butter was thought to have healing properties, particularly for scalds and burns.

    In some counties such as Lincolnshire they used to throw salt on the fire as a portent for producing a good batch prior to the churning. In Lancashire it was considered important to insert a hot iron into the cream as a means of expel ling the witch believed to reside within.

    They also avoided bringing eggs into or taking eggs out of the house after dark to prevent bad luck and were the first to throw spilled salt over their shoulder.


    During Georgian times 15 plus courses would be prepared. It was Queen Victoria who made famous the two or three course meal with courses served in sequence one at a time. This was in contrast to the old French style of eating made popular by the Georgians of bringing out all the food at once.


    The Victorian era was also when the Sunday lunch came into its own. For many of the labouring classes, Sunday was the one day they would eat meat, usually a small joint of beef, pork or mutton accompanied by two types of green vegetable and potatoes. Invariably this would be followed by some form of fruit pie or jam roly poly pudding. If they were lucky enough to afford meat on any other day the poorer classes would indulge in offal, anything from liver to heart. Only the very poor or destitute would choose to eat soup, broth or boiled meat with any regularity as the labouring classes felt it had too many associations with poverty, often labelling it "slops".


    The food in workhouses did vary but in Charles Shaw's well known diary of his early life in Victorian Staffordshire he sheds an unappetising light on the fare on offer. He describes the bread as made of sawdust "blotched with lumps of plaster of Paris" which was served with a substance he called "greasy water" and a couple of lumps of something that "would have made a tiger's teeth ache". The supper consisted of something known as "skilly", which he described as "culinary making nausea". In prisons too the conditions were tough. Edward Du Cane, the surveyor general of prisons, believed in "scientific starvation" early in an inmate's stay. He thought abstinence from food was healthy and worried that if they were too well fed it might encourage others to offend. Most of the time prisoners were given stale hard bread, inedible suet pudding and gruel. There was little meat and no vegetables.

    By 1842 the government had decided that slops and gruel were detrimental to the health of prisoners and that "diet ought not to be made an instrument of punishment".


    The Victorian times were when people started eating a breakfast that we would recognise today. In the 18th century it had been dominated by cold meats, cheese and beer. The Victorians started having porridge, fish, bacon, eggs, toast and marmalade.

    They also changed the hour of dinner from 5pm to 7pm, which made the late meal of supper - taken around 9pm - less relevant.

    GOURMET CHEFSMany cooks of the Victorian era were women but the most fashion able families still employed highly skilled French male cooks at extortionate rates. The next best alternative was an English cook who had trained in France.

    While a top male cook could earn in excess of £80,000 a year in today's money, a good female cook would earn only half this.

    However, just because a family was wealthy does not mean they would have had a healthy diet. While they could afford more choice they were often ignorant in their food combinations, potentially leaving them as unhealthy as their poorer neighbours.


    One of the first kitchens to install a modern gas cooker was the elite Reform Club. So inspirational and innovative were the kitchens that they used to conduct tours around them and sectional views of the kitchen plans were mocked up, copied and sold to the public at a guinea for a coloured print and half a guinea for a black and white version. A total of 1,400 copies were sold. With the growth of the railways came the invention of food vending machines at stations. They quickly became regular features in railway stations and post offices, at first selling stationery and later food, particularly sweets.

    Nestle was one of the biggest manufacturers of these types of machine. Because they were so easy to scam - any old piece of metal would yield the machine's contents - it is surprising that it persevered with them.


    The Victorians were able to enjoy some foods that were imported from overseas. These included raisins from Malaga, grapes from France, dried tongues from Russia and Germany, and coconut oil from Manila and Ceylon. One of the big gest imports was sugar with more than 180,000 tons entering London in 1850. Not everything imported was exotic. Huge quantities of apples were brought in from the US, Belgium and France as well as a large amount of bacon and ham.

    A FRUITFUL BUSINESSPineapples became synonymous with wealth during the 19th century. Favoured by the upper classes they were served and displayed at dinner to indicate prosperity. In order to cultivate this fruit in cold, northern European temperatures Victorian gardeners invented "pineapple pits" which were essentially three trenches covered in glass. The walls of the trenches were bolstered with horse manure to generate heat and which had to be regularly topped up.

    CURRYING ROYAL FAVOURQueen Victoria loved curry. Her taste was influenced by her relationship with Abdul Karim, her controversial young servant, that began in 1887. It was at Osborne House where he first cooked for her using a spice box he had carried with him from India. He made her a chicken curry with a fragrant pilau and from that meal onwards the Queen requested Karim's dishes with greater regularity. In fact during the last decade of her life curry was ordered to be cooked on a daily basis.She only ever had curry for lunch, as was also customary for the British living out in India.

    Daily Express feature by Emma Kay on 7th November 2015

    Emma Kay's Dining with the Victorians is available for purchase now.


  • 8 Weird and Wonderful Victorian Discoveries

    Victorian - 9781445645421It was an age of experimentation and innovation, and of great advances in the steamship, railway and the electric telegraph. But the Victorian period also saw a number of more unusual discoveries…

    In her new book, Great Victorian Discoveries: Astounding Revelations and Misguided Assumptions, Caroline Rochford examines some of the incredible findings made across the world between 1875 and 1895. Here she shares some of her highlights…

    The Victorians lived in an age when knowledge could be shared faster than ever before. New railways and steamships had made it easier for intrepid explorers to visit regions of the world hitherto unseen by western eyes; telephones enabled communication across vast distances, and speedier printing presses ensured the delivery of the latest news to almost every household in the land. Meanwhile, those with a thirst for knowledge were able to read about the astounding discoveries of natural historians, who published thrilling accounts of the strange new plants and creatures they’d encountered during their forages.

    Indeed, modern technology had kick-started an information revolution in every field of science. With the aid of photography, microscopes and other new contraptions, researchers were happening upon daily discoveries that promised to change the way the world worked. These many remarkable discoveries were described in the pages of forgotten Victorian compendia, which revealed the wondrous experiments and bizarre theories of the great – and not-so-great – minds of science, engineering and natural history.

    1) The four-legged bird

    Since the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, mankind has been captivated by the theory of evolution. In 1885 an American naturalist, Edward Morris Brigham, took great pleasure in announcing the discovery – made in 1881 – of an astonishing type of bird that lived by the banks of the Amazon River: the creature’s most incredible characteristic was that it was born with four feet.

    The discovery was so contrary to the accepted order of things that it baffled scientists of the age. Even more curious was that this South American creature was four-footed only in its early life – one pair of legs developed into a set of wings some time after hatching. This was a trait akin to the regenerative power of lizards, which have the ability to regrow lost limbs, thus Brigham’s discovery seemed to confirm the evolutionary theory that birds are descended from dinosaurs.

    Brigham was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the elusive creature, and he compared its likeness to a pheasant. The bird, commonly known as the ‘cigana’ or ‘gypsy bird’, couldn’t sing; instead it uttered doleful and demonic cries, as if in mourning. This was an eerie sound in the dead of night, when the bird was active.

    Victorian - Microsoft Word - Document3

    2) The electricity plant

    In 1885 an unusual, tropical plant termed the phytolacca electrica was discovered on the torrid plain of Hindustan [the northern/northwestern subcontinent]. When in full bloom, this extraordinary species generated a strong current of electricity that flowed all the way through it, from root to tip.

    The indigenous people who lived in the region regarded it with awe and reverence, never daring to get too close. Birds and insects that came into contact with the tree were killed at once, but most had learned to keep well away.

    When the stem of the plant or a twig was snapped by hand, an intense electric shock was felt, reportedly causing even the strongest man to stagger backwards. Magnetic compasses – even at a distance of up to 20 feet – were reportedly affected by the plant’s power.

    Curiously, the electric current was said to vary throughout the day, being at its strongest at about 2pm and most feeble during the night. In the rainy season the plant became completely dormant, yet its energy increased by a marked degree during thunderstorms.

    3) Local anaesthetic

    Victorian surgeons had long sought an anaesthetic which, when applied externally to a given part of the body, would render it completely void of feeling for a certain length of time, without the need to send the patient to sleep. This numbing property was discovered in 1884, completely by chance, by a German medical student, whose research quickly spread to America.

    The substance in question was hydrochlorate of cocaine, which had been known about, but not widely used, since the mid-19th century. After accidentally splashing some of it in his eye, the student was surprised to find that it caused his eyeball to become insensitive to the touch. Further trials served to confirm this remarkable observation, and an eminent oculist in New York later performed cataract surgery on the eye of a patient without causing her any pain whatsoever.

    Had it not been for this total fluke – and the absence of safety goggles – this early local anaesthetic may never have been discovered.

    4) The land of the giants

    Mankind’s oldest legends are peppered with tales of giants who once roamed the landscape, causing unspeakable mayhem for the regular-sized inhabitants of the earth. From David and Goliath to Jack and the Beanstalk, so frequent were the references to oversized beings that the Victorians seriously wondered whether or not a race of exceedingly tall men once existed on earth but later became extinct.

    One of the investigators was Count Georges Vacher de Lapouge, a French anthropologist who made a remarkable discovery in a prehistoric burial ground at Castelnau-le-Lez, near Montpellier. In 1890 he uncovered portions of a human skeleton from the Neolithic period, which, by his calculations, came from a man who stood nearly 12ft tall. The remains were sent for examination by a team of professors at the University of Montpellier, and later by the Montpellier School of Medicine, who confirmed that the bones appeared to belong to a race of “very tall” men.

    Strangely enough, an old French fable placed the cavern of a giant in the same valley of Castelnau.

    5) Mankind’s lost magnetic sense

    In 1883, the great scientist Lord Kelvin proposed a theory that the human race possessed both a ‘sixth sense’ – heat and force combined – and a ‘seventh sense’: that of magnetism. As such, the phenomenon of clairvoyance could be explained by the fact that some people were in tune with their magnetic sense much better than others.

    Unaware of what they were picking up on, they interpreted the sensation as the presence of some invisible being, perhaps even a spirit from beyond the grave. Following a series of experiments, several people were found who, when their heads were placed between the poles of a strong electromagnet, could tell when it was turned on.

    Kelvin’s theory was largely forgotten about until the 1970s, when a team of scientists revisited the subject. Through their researches they discovered that the human nose consists of bones and sinews that may once have been receptive to the earth’s magnetic field, thereby acting as a kind of in-built compass, which, during the course of evolution, became functionless.

    The presence of such magnetic bones offers an explanation for how migratory animals manage to successfully navigate vast distances, and also points to the likely etymology of the old expression ‘follow your nose’.

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    6) Ball lightning

    Nobody truly knows how or why the extraordinary phenomenon known as ball lightning is caused, but during the 19th century, hundreds of well-attested instances were chronicled.

    Owing to its rarity, no photographs of the lightning had ever been taken – until, that is, 17 July 1891, at about 10.15pm. If genuine, this is the first ever photograph of ball lightning, and for more than a century it remained the only known example in existence, until Chinese scientists succeeded in capturing the phenomenon on film during a lightning storm in 2012.

    The photograph of 1891 was taken by Mr Dunn, an ironmonger’s son, from the window of his father’s residence in Newcastle-on-Tyne, which overlooked the river. A thunderstorm was raging overhead, and a great ball of fire suddenly appeared over the river, reportedly moving as fast as a man could run. It was estimated to measure about 2ft in diameter, and when it came opposite the Dunn household it vanished. But before it did so, Mr Dunn managed to expose a plate in his camera.

    Over the centuries, further sightings have continued to shake the nerves of witnesses and rattle the brains of many leading experts, who thus far have been unable to offer a definitive explanation for the phenomenon.

    Victorian - Microsoft Word - Document37) Wearing newspapers

    The innovative Victorians were always searching for new ways to improve their quality of life – from generating cleaner energy and recycling waste, to trying out new gardening and interior design techniques.

    Without the luxury of central heating or electric blankets, winter nights were often long and cold. In the days when diseases were harder to cure, it was essential to keep warm, thereby reducing the risk of contracting a potentially fatal illness such as pneumonia.

    In 1875 health officials recommended that before covering up for the night, two or three large newspapers were to be spread over the entire body and blankets thrown over the top. The result was a warm and comfortable sleep.

    Similarly, before taking a cold ride on a boat or coach, or a long walk against the wind, if a newspaper was spread over the chest before buttoning up the overcoat, no chill was felt. No other method for keeping warm was found to be as cheap or effective as this.

    8) The discovery of Atlantis

    With so much exploration underway, the ancient legend of Atlantis [a fictional island mentioned within an allegory in Plato's works Timaeus and Critias] was once again revisited by learned men of the late 19th century, keen to learn its true location at last.

    The notable zoologist Charles Émile Blanchard believed that at some point within the human geological period, the region of Labrador in Canada was once connected to Europe by a now subterranean link of land that ran from Scotland, through the Orkney and Faroe Islands, to Iceland and Greenland. Upon investigation, the sea over this supposed tract of land was found to be comparatively shallow, and the islands in questions were therefore, Blanchard deduced, vestiges of the lost land.

    His theory was supported by the fact that European animals and plants existed in America alongside species that were atypical to the western continent. Anemones, violets, roses, orchids and lilies were common to both. Certain beetles, spiders and other insects were also found on either side of the Atlantic. The reindeer of Lapland was plentiful in North America; the beaver was a native of the two continents, and so was the river perch, which never left fresh water. This being the case, how did this fish cross the salty Atlantic ocean if the two continents were never connected?

    It wasn’t the main thrust of his research, but had Blanchard’s study led him to the discovery of this mythical lost land?

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