Above: Joseph Pickles born 1823, Hunslet, Yorkshire, UK; died 1897, Strathfieldsaye, Victoria, Australia)
Above: Mine chimney constructed on the Victorian goldfields by Joseph Pickles. This chimney at the "Red, White and Blue Mine" was decorated with red, white and blue bricks!
On the 16th of September, 1854 my Great-great-great Grandfather Joseph Pickles departed from Merseyside on the White Star Line Clipper "Sultana" on a three month voyage which would eventually end in the Hobson Bay in the Port Philip District of Victoria. One of the reasons why I know this information is that he kept a diary of the voyage. Although he came from a relatively poor family in the Hunslet region of Leeds, during the early-mid 19th century young children received a basic education (by the age of 14-15 they are usually employed in the local mill industry). Hunslet and the neighbouring regions of Holbeck and Beeston where early industrial centres largely clothing mills, but also brickworks. In the 1841 census Joseph occupation is listed as "bricklayer", other occupations of his neighbours are listed as "cloth weaver, cloth spinner, clothier and cloth draper".
Although I have a large collection of cookbooks form this period, these are for middle- to upper-class English households, ironically I know more about the food habits of total strangers then my own family. Poor families don't write cookbooks. Happily one of Joseph's interests on the voyage to Australia was with the ship's food. In fact he wrote a poem about how much he disliked it.
"...Then now comes Friday: What's the dish?
Why preserved potatoes and salt fish
Of which the first is very good
A pleasant article of food.
Sometimes the fish is very well
Sometimes it has an offensive smell
Sometimes its rotteness is such
That it will scarcely bide a touch…"
There are many similar verses on his views of the various meals on board the ship (beef and duff, pork and peas, beef and pudding, boiled rice, salt fish and preserved potatoes, ships biscuit and butter, tea and coffee). Joseph's preoccupation with his dislike of ships food resulted in his writing a list of "Useful things to bring with them" for his wife who was to travel to Australia a few years later with their young sons.
Useful things to bring with them
About 2 stone of parafin and about 6 stone of flour and about 1 stone of beef cut rendered and put in jars, and 6 pots of preserves and 1/2 stone of lump sugar and 2 lb of carbonate of soda and a few pounds of currents and about a pound of carryway seeds and a little ginger and a stone of oatmeal, and a little ham and a few pounds of bacon and a few nutmegs, and dont forget a little medicine and oatcake it is very good when it is well dryed before it is put in the box and kept airtight and a bit of common cheese that is well dryed. The best cheese will not keep at sea and a little fresh butter well salted in a jar and a thin cloth over and well covered with rough salt, and a few scores of potatoes. I should recommend you have a box lined with tin with a partition in to keep the things parted.
Although this list of items can only provide a rough sketch of the food that my English ancestors ate (there is no fresh food on a voyage for instance), it does offer some insights. Carbonate of soda seems to be in regular use as a raising agent and much to my surprise, a relatively expensive spices are being used (possible in boiled puddings or "duff" to be eaten with the meat). However one item that is of great interest is the Yorkshire "oatcakes".
The West Riding of Yorkshire, and neighbouring regions in Lancashire, have a long association with oatcakes. In part this is due to the fact that wheat was not a traditional grain grown in these regions and its introduction to the region occured relatively late (early-mid 19th century) compared to other parts of England.
"Riddle cakes, said to be thick sour cakes and is mostly eaten with tea, being preferred to wheaten bread. The Lancashire oat-bread is made both leavened and unleavened (in refutation of Adam Smith) says handsomer and more muscular men are not reared in any part of the British dominions, than in those countries where the oatmeal diet is predominant.
The 33rd regiment, which goes by the name of ' the Havercake Lads,' and which is usually recruited in those parts of the West Riding of Yorkshire where oat-bread is in common use."
Most people now are familar enough with small thin and crisp Scottish oatcakes, however there was a large variety of oatcakes or "haverbread" ("haver" is of Anglo-Saxon/germanic origin and means "oats", hence "Haversack" or oat bag) made throught the UK. The majority of these oatcakes are no longer made, however there is a large amount of information about the types historical oatcakes made in Yorkshire, Cumbria and Lancashire. In fact soft Staffordshire Oatcake are still made.
There are two main types of oatcake made, the first is made from a stiff dough rolled out and baked until stiff (like a modern Scottish oatcake), called clapbread, oatcake or haverbread/cake. The second type is made from a thin batter which is poured out onto a griddle or "bakstone" (bake stone) and cooked like a large crepe, also known as riddlebread, haverbread/cake or oatcakes. This latter type can eaten fresh when soft (like a modern Staffordshire oatcake) or they could be dried for future use - which is the form that Joseph refers to. This process of producing soft oatcakes and drying them is shown in this print from "The Costume of Yorkshire" by George Walker 1814, note oatcakes being hung from the ceiling to dry.
I have produced these soft oatcakes from a recipe given in Elizabeth David's "English Bread and Yeast Cookery", based on the recipe given for Staffordshire oatcakes. Essentially equal amounts of oatmeal and wheat flour are added together, a thin batter is made using a warm water and milk and a little yeast is added. Historically, no wheat flour would have been used and the yeast would have been replaced by the leaven produced by allowing oatmeal mixture to sour. Nevertheless, I found the modern version to be delicious an much appreciated by my young son. They are equally good spread with butter and honey or filled with egg and bacon.
Above": Recruiting for the "Haverbread Lads" (33rd Regiment). Note the recruiting officer hold aloft a haverbread, decked with ribbons.