The Great Ham Yard Christmas Dinner of Eighteen Fifty-One

AUTHOR: WILLIAM ELLIS-REES

PUBLISHED: 19 DECEMBER 2023

Alexis Benoît Soyer. The Illustrated Times 28 August 1858.

A few years ago London Overlooked published an article on the soup kitchen in Leicester Square. The story featured more than one hero of the characteristically Victorian kind: kind-hearted individuals willing and able to employ their talents, not to mention their money and influence, to better the lot of those less fortunate than themselves. They were true philanthropists, and their beneficiaries were impoverished men, women and children struggling to survive in mid-century London.

One of these heroes was Alexis Benoît Soyer, a French chef who came to England in the early 1830s, where his remarkable abilities won for him an enviable reputation. He was, in truth, a celebrity, but he was also an advocate for culinary reform, and he should be remembered as much for organising famine relief in Ireland in 1847, and working alongside Florence Nightingale in the Crimea in 1855, as for masterminding stupendous banquets for his distinguished clientele.

Here, though, we are interested in a culinary event staged by Soyer on our very doorstep, in Ham Yard, which is tucked away between Great Windmill Street and Denman Street in the heart of Soho. These days it is a salubrious spot boasting a theatre and a luxury hotel. But in the year in question, which was 1851, it was little more than, well, a yard with a clutter of workshops, and stables, and the soup kitchen established in recent years by the social reformer, Charles Cochrane.

Deep roots

So what happened in 1851 in Ham Yard? In a word, a dinner. But this was no ordinary dinner, for the date was Christmas Day, and the guests were not the great and the good, nor indeed the cream of fashionable society, but the poorest of the London poor.

The belief that the poorer members of society should be generously treated at Christmas has deep roots, and it is not impossible that it extends as far back as the Roman festival of the Saturnalia, which was celebrated in the middle of December. Although it is a simplification to assert that Christmas is a just a Christianised form of its pagan ancestor, there can be no doubt that the spirit of the modern festival is a survival from the distant past. In particular, the temporary reversal of roles at the time of the Saturnalia, which gave slaves permission to be waited on at table by their masters, looks very like the elevated status Victorian sentiment accorded to the poor in the season of goodwill.

Strange and dreadful

The iconic expression of these charitable beliefs is A Christmas Carol, which was published in December 1843, and it is no coincidence that the idea for the story was fuelled by Dickens’s growing concern, not to say anger, over the social problems he had witnessed in the course of the year. He was appalled by a fundamental inequity that allowed destitute families to starve on the streets of the metropolis while the wealthy spouted pious sentiments and eased their consciences with charitable endeavours. In a letter to Douglas Jerrold he described his fellow guests at a hospital fundraising dinner he attended in May at the Albion Tavern in Aldersgate as ‘sleek, slobbering, bow-paunched, overfed, apoplectic, snorting cattle.’ They represented to him the worst sort of hypocrisy.

At the other end of the social scale Dickens was seeing with his own eyes the terrible effects of urban poverty. He was particularly sensitive to the plight of the children of poor families, and in September he visited the ragged school in Saffron Hill’s notorious Field Lane, where pupils were taught in ‘three most wretched rooms on the first floor of a rotten house’, as he recorded in a letter to Angela Burdett-Coutts. ‘I have very seldom seen,’ he added, ‘in all the strange and dreadful things I have seen in London and elsewhere, anything so shocking as the dire neglect of soul and body exhibited in these children.’

Field Lane in 1840. Walter Thornbury Old and New London volume 2 1878.

Modest but joyous

And so it is hardly surprising that the Christmas Day dinner, which brings the family together to enjoy an abundance of food and drink, is an important motif in Dickens’s novella. We see it in the fifth and final stave — the term Dickens used for the divisions of the story — when Scrooge accepts the invitation from his nephew Fred that previously he had rejected. The dinner that follows has a redemptive power, welcoming the reformed Scrooge back into the company of common humanity.

But the most moving occurrence of the motif is surely in the third stave when the Ghost of Christmas Present shows the miser the humble home of Bob Cratchit, where a memorable family occasion, joyous in spite of its modesty, is in full swing. When the goose is brought in — and goose was the Christmas standard for Victorian working-class families — there is a burst of activity accompanied by unbridled excitement:

Such a bustle ensued that you might have thought a goose the rarest of all birds; a feathered phenomenon, to which a black swan was a matter of course — and, in truth, it was something very like it in that house. Mrs Cratchit made the gravy (ready beforehand in a little saucepan) hissing hot; Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigour; Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple sauce; Martha dusted the hot plates; Bob took Tiny Tim beside him in a tiny corner at the table; the two young Cratchits set chairs for everybody, not forgetting themselves, and, mounting guard upon their posts, crammed spoons into their mouths, lest they should shriek for goose before their turn came to be helped.

The Cratchits enjoying their Christmas dinner. Edwin Austin Abbey / Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol 1876 edition.

Doing something about it

Although Dickens published A Christmas Carol in the hope that he would raise awareness of the problem of poverty, he was also motivated by a desire to advance his literary career, and, at a time when he was facing financial difficulties, to boost his earnings. However, he was not above direct participation in the move for social change, and it needs to be said in his defence that he paid a subscription of five guineas to the Poor Man’s Guardian Society, which had been founded by Charles Cochrane in 1846 to champion the victims of the inhumane poor law reforms. Cochrane had actually invited Dickens to preside at a meeting of the Society, but he backed out, offering as his excuse an already long list of commitments to worthy organisations.

Not that everyone agreed with the sort of charitable enterprises the Society supported. Soup kitchens, for example, were criticised by the Chartists, who maintained that the solution to the problem of poverty was self-determination rather than emasculation. Paternalism, the argument against all forms of philanthropy ran, only encouraged dependency. At the same time the Church objected to secular practices and movements — temperance societies and the like — that challenged its position as spiritual guardian of the poor.

However, down at street level, men like Cochrane were making real improvements to the blighted lives of countless Londoners with funds raised by subscription and patronage. The facilities in Ham Yard included a night refuge and washrooms for the use of the general public, the latter comprising water-closets and lavatories, and stocked with soap and razors, towels and brushes, all available free of charge. And it was in the same spirit of public benefaction that Ham Yard was made the venue for the great Christmas dinner of 1851.

Charles Cochrane. 19th century. Wellcome Collection.

What a sight!

The Ham Yard dinner was not the first of its kind, and similar, but rather more modest, events had taken place in previous years. However, what distinguished the 1851 dinner from its predecessors was the scale of the undertaking. Whereas six hundred paupers had been entertained on Christmas Day in 1850, the number of guests in the following year was, as we have seen, many times greater. Almost certainly the 1851 dinner owed its success in large part to Soyer, who, incidentally, offered his services gratis. At the same time, the organisers understood the importance of publicity, and announcements were made in the newspapers in advance of the events.

Alas, these announcements, which undoubtedly succeeded in attracting the right sort of public attention, had a dark side. In 1850, for example, the Morning Herald printed a brief notice to the effect that the subscribers and contributors to the Leicester Square soup kitchen were ‘respectfully invited’ to Ham Yard ‘to witness the distribution of roast beef and plum pudding to the resident poor on Christmas-day, between One and Three o’clock’. Although entertained free of charge, the pauper guests were expected to provide an edifying spectacle.

An Edgington marquee. The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News 6 July 1878.

Enter the guests

Be that as it may, Soyer’s banquet was an extraordinary affair. The yard was covered with an enormous marquee courtesy of Edginton’s, manufacturers of tents and tarpaulins, while illuminations were arranged by Dethridge’s of Soho. The guests sat at tables covered with white tablecloths amidst a profusion of seasonal foliage and flowers, while above their heads banners and flags ‘of all nations’ hung in colourful abundance.

They were admitted in half-hour relays, three hundred at a time, which started at one-thirty in the afternoon and went on until six in the evening. Those who could not be accommodated at the tables were given food and drink to take back to their families, and, on the basis that an average family numbered five members, it was estimated that 22,500 men, women and children received a Christmas Day dinner, either in Ham Yard or at home. In addition, food and drink was sent out to a number of ragged schools.

This logistical feat was achieved by imposing a one-way system through the Yard, and the newspapers were keen to point out that the guests behaved ‘with the strictest decorum’ and ‘in grateful silence’, allaying the fear of more conservative readers that large gatherings of paupers brought with them the threat of disorder. The police — fifty men in uniform and twenty detectives — kept an eye on the proceedings, which no doubt dampened the spirits of many diners. However, even the most dampened spirits would have been raised again by the musical entertainment provided by a band playing a selection of waltzes, polkas and other jolly tunes.

Ham Yard as it is today. © William Ellis-Rees 2023

No shortage

And the bill of fare? Well, no summary could do it justice, and so it is given in full below, exactly as Soyer immortalised it in the memoirs he published in 1859:

BILL OF FARE FOR THE POOR
9,000 pounds roast and baked meat
178 beef pies
50 hare pies
60 rabbit pies
50 pork and mutton pies
Each pie weighing from 10 to 30 pounds; one of them, the ‘monster pie’, weighing 60 pounds
20 roast geese
3,300  pounds of potatoes
5,000 pints of porter
5,000 pounds of plum pudding
50 cakes
6,000 half-quartern loaves
1 cask of biscuits
18 bushels of Spanish nuts
18 bushels of chestnuts
6 boxes of oranges
3,000 two-ounce packages of tea
3,000 three-ounce packets of coffee
5,000 half-pounds of sugar
One whole ox, roasted by gas — supplied by the Western Gas Company, under the gratuitous superintendence of Mr Inspector Davies of that establishment

Giving and lending

Not the least interesting aspect of the 1851 Christmas Dinner is the tone of the reports that appeared in the newspapers. The outpouring of goodwill was recorded in language calculated to elicit sympathy. The London Evening Standard, for example, described the pauper guests as the ‘unhappy pariahs of humanity’, and went on to praise their benefactors with quotations from the Bible:

Who gives to the poor lends to the Lord; and their reward is laid up where there is neither moth nor rust to destroy it. Verily the promoters and supporters of the Soup-kitchen deserve well of their fellow-creatures; for in this particular at least they have made heaven largely their debtor.

The Standard also printed a long list of individual contributions. Some of these came from tradesmen, such as Messrs Hodges and Co. of Lambeth, who provided two gallons of spirits, and Messrs Joseph Travers and Sons of St Swithin’s Lane in the City, who donated a chest of tea and a hundredweight of sugar. Others were the gifts of generous individuals whose offerings ranged from the epic, such as the two hundred pounds of beef from Mr Richard Cooper of Great Portland Street, to the modest, but no doubt well-received, solitary plum pudding from Mr J. L. Bragg of Wigmore Street.

The reformed Scrooge enjoying the hospitality of his nephew Fred. Arthur Rackham / Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol 1915 edition.

Other Christmas dinners

An important point to be made here is that the Ham Yard extravaganza was in fact a close relative of the Christmas Day dinners that were laid on every year in the workhouses. These were routinely reported in the newspapers, and, in the case of the London workhouses, considerable column inches were devoted to details of the meals and any accompanying entertainment.

Here, for example, is what the Morning Post had to say about arrangements in the St Marylebone workhouse in the key year 1851:

The Christmas fare was half-a-pound of roast beef, free from bone, one pound of plum pudding, one pint of porter, with potatoes, bread, and other vegetables, an oz. of tea, and ¼lb. sugar, with tobacco and snuff to adults, and oranges, apples, and sweet-meats, with various amusements to the children. The directors and guardians, accompanied by a large number of ladies and gentlemen, attended Divine service in the workhouse chapel, and then went through the wards to see the poor enjoy their substantial meal.

Christmas Day meal in the Whitechapel workhouse. The Pictorial World volume 2 1874.

Measuring pauperism

The newspapers also noted other seasonal gestures, such as exeats for ‘deserving’ inmates, and the Boxing Day treat laid on by the St James workhouse in Westminster, comprising apples and buns accompanied by a slide show and choral singing. Where statistics were available, these were also printed for the benefit of the reading public. Those for St Marylebone — the Morning Post again — were particularly detailed:

Population of parish, 157,000.— Number of inmates of the workhouse 1,758 (last Christmas-day the numbers in the house were 1,741), viz.— in the workhouse department 1,495, consisting of 429 men, 697 women, 139 boys, 96 girls, and 134 infants; in the infirmary 83 men, 135 women, 4 boys, 11 girls, and 24 infants; total in infirmary 257. In addition to this, there are 76 children at the Royal Sea Bathing Infirmary at Margate, and 167 lunatics at Hanwell, Colney Hatch, and in the lunatic wards.

These statistics were clearly seen as a way of gauging the extent of pauperism, and, where there had been a decrease in the number of inmates in a workhouse relative to the previous year’s Christmas Day, it was invariably commented on. However, not all workhouses supplied these figures, and in one case, that of St Mary Islington, the refusal to cooperate was little short of hostile. The Morning Post reported the workhouse master’s exact words: ‘Can’t be bothered — same as usual’. Even so, it appeared that there had been a ‘great decrease in pauperism’, which suggests that the governor, Henry Laman, did in the end give the Post at least a rough idea of numbers.

Christmas in a workhouse. Hubert von Herkomer / The Graphic 25 December 1876.

Not entirely forgotten

However, the Christmas Day dinner did not always provide the gratifying spectacle of paupers humbly acknowledging the generosity of their benefactors. The day after the peaceful proceedings in Ham Yard, the police were summoned to the St Luke workhouse in Chelsea, where the master and matron, Daniel and Charity Sutton, had been attacked by a number of female inmates, who went on to cause mayhem, smashing windows and using foul language. One even hurled a half-brick at Mr Sutton’s head. Incidentally, something not dissimilar had happened to the same workhouse master a few years previously, a full account of which can be found in my article A Riotous Affair: A Christmas Story from the Chelsea Workhouse. One wonders what it was about him that made him so unpopular.

As one might expect, this incident was reported with a good deal of editorial spleen. But it would be better to end on a more optimistic note. To this end, let us listen to the Morning Post, yet again, commenting in uplifting tones on the great Ham Yard Christmas Dinner of 1851:

It is usual for the poor of the metropolis to fare rather liberally on Christmas-day, that is, the inmates of the several workhouses are usually regaled with roast beef and porter, and with plum pudding, once a year. Even this is gratifying, so far as it goes; for it shows that the poor are a little cared for, that they are not entirely forgotten in the scale of humanity. But, what becomes of the out-door poor? Of the casual poor? Of the thousands in London who are ashamed to beg? We trust that a new era is breaking forth, when the unemployed labourer, the homeless outcast, and the way-faring stranger will be treated as human beings; will be fed and lodged; aye, and clothed and shod, if need be, in short, that when all who are in straits, shall be treated by Christian Englishmen with that hospitality which is enjoined by the religion which they profess.

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