Historical Food in Surrey: Background Teacher Information KS 1 / 2

Background Teacher Information

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Now that most of our food is imported and shops are open nearly all day long we forget what it must have been like for people in the past trying to feed their families. Finding, growing and farming food was often a daily struggle.

By using archaeological evidence and archive sources from Surrey we can find out more about how people in the past found their food.


Source 1 – Archaeological Evidence

Much of what we know about the early past comes from archaeological evidence that has been found in Surrey. This information is kept on a database called the Historic Environment Record and can be accessed on Exploring Surrey’s Past website. To find more information on each of the archaeological finds type the HER record number into the search field on www.exploringsurreyspast.org.uk

Early People

The area of Surrey was used by early man, known as hunter gatherers, to forage for food and to trap, hunt and kill wild animals. A handaxe (SHHER 2673) made about 400,000 years ago in the Palaeolithic or Stone Age period has been found in the River Wey at Farnham. The handaxe is now at Farnham Museum]. These axes were used for butchering and skinning large wild animals.

Evidence of a temporary camp used by hunter gatherers about 11,000 years ago has been found at a meadow called Church Lammas near Wraysbury Road at Staines (SHHER 5003). Flint and bone tools were also found at the site together with evidence that people were eating wild horses and reindeer.

As the ice sheet from the Last Ice Age retreated, the landscape changed, the subsoil thawed and forests of birch and pine and later hazel developed.

8,000 years ago the sea engulfed the link which we now call the English Channel and Britain became the island it is today.

After the Ice Age

The Mesolithic period saw small hunter and gatherer groups living off what they could find, for example hazelnuts, berries and fruit along with wild cattle, deer, pig, and perhaps larger fish and fowl. North Park Farm has evidence of hearths and burnt flints, suggesting cooking (SHHER 13723).

Early humans chose drier, warmer soil close to water sources such as a stream or river. This can be clearly seen at Ewell where there is archaeological evidence from the Mesolithic onwards of people camping and settling by the Ewell spring (SHHER 15317).

Image of a Saxon Quernstone

Saxon Quernstone

Changing the landscape and beginning to farm

In the later Mesolithic period people started to burn areas of woodland to clear areas for grass and heathland. As the Neolithic period developed people started to grow crops and begin to domesticate animals including, cattle, sheep and pigs as well as continuing to hunt and gather. This new way of life meant that people become more settled.

An archaeological excavation at Runnymede Bridge near Egham shows butchered remains of cattle and pig together with gathered food such as crab-apples, slows and hazelnuts (SHHER 2645). People at this site had also started to grow types of wheat and grind them into flour using a quern stone.

Bronze Age

During the Bronze Age field systems were plotted onto the land and people organised themselves into social groupings where the land was owned by a group leader and worked on by the other people. This system meant that the farming settlements stayed this way for a long time. The best example is a Middle Bronze Age field system at Stanwell (SHHER 5076).

On Whitmoor Common at Worplesdon traces of early field systems exist which might have formed part of the Bronze Age landscape (SHHER 16126). Other evidence of these field systems can also be seen at Smarts Heath and Horsell Common near Woking.

Bronze Age people grew wheat and barley, and cattle and sheep were herded and farmed.

Iron Age

As towns developed, in the Iron Age, there was a need for protection in the form of hillforts. These forts were also used as a centre for trade. An example of one of these forts is the fort that was built on St Ann’s Hill near Chertsey (SHHER 590).

In Effingham and on Epsom Downs at Tadworth evidence of banjo shaped enclosures have been found, which would have contained cattle and sheep and been surrounded by fences in the Iron Age (SHHER 3194).

Roman Britain

Surrey gained new towns and roads in the Roman period but most people still lived in the country on individual farms. Throughout the period fields were laid out in a regular pattern and trade, exchange and money became more important.

Evidence from archaeological sites in Surrey shows a diet with much variety including lentils, oysters, cockles, sheep, pig, cattle, boar, badger and wine and fish sauce. At a site in Betchworth part of a loaf of bread was found close to baking ovens. The bread is a very rare find as it does not normally survive (SHHER 5403).

The Saxons

Between AD 400 and AD450 Britain lost contact with the rest of the Roman Empire and quite rapidly trade ceased to be an important activity. Areas of settlement stayed the same with Saxon manors being the centre of food production. It seems that each manor provided a particular resource which we know because of their names: ‘Gatton’ was a goat farm, ‘Merstham’ a horse enclosure, ‘Banstead’ an area specialising in bean cultivation, and ‘Chipstead’ was a market centre.

Eel and fish traps were used in rivers. Stakes were placed in a ‘V’ formation which was connected by nets to catch fish and eels. Eel traps have been found at Newark Mill, Send (SHHER 3212) and Ferry Lane, Shepperton (SHHER 1273).

Norman and Medieval Britain

The Domesday Book of 1086 in Surrey showed that each manor in Surrey was controlled by a lord and this arrangement continued throughout the Middle Ages. By the end of the 1100s, most of the wooded area of Surrey, known as the Weald, had been cleared and was used as pasture for pigs.

Following the Norman Conquest only the king and his court were allowed to hunt deer. As a result of this hunting restriction venison became a symbol of wealth, together with partridge woodcock and swan. At this time Windsor Forest was protected for the king’s hunting (SHHER 1876) and covered large areas of north-west Surrey providing little chance for people to clear the land or build farms here.


Surrey peasants had more land for pasture than other areas in the country so they may have had more meat in their diet. The diets of late medieval and Tudor times were very varied. Excavations of the rubbish pits in Southwark, part of old Surrey, showed they ate apples, plums, grapes, strawberries, carrots, peas, wheat, rye, oats, hazelnuts and cabbage, among other things. Bones of cattle, sheep, pig, goat, rabbit, eel, cod, and plaice with oyster and mussel shells were also found. Source 2 is a copy of a banquet menu in 1470 which was cooked in honour of the new archbishop of York.

Surrey was very popular with Tudor Kings and Queens and had many royal houses and palaces. Henry VIII demolished the nearby village of Cuddington, including the manor house and church, in order to make way for an enormous and luxurious hunting lodge. Nonsuch Palace was built from scratch with the most fashionable European trends, and is said to have been named Nonsuch because Henry VIII declared that there would be ‘non-such like it’.


Plantations were set up in the Caribbean by the English, Dutch and French to grow sugar. As the routes to the West and East Indies became easier and quicker to travel, the prices of sugar, tea, coffee and spices began to lower (source 3). However, many of these items were still only available to the rich due to heavy taxation. This taxation led to the growth of tea smuggling and adulteration, until in 1784 the government slashed the tax from 119% to 12.5%, and the smuggling trade virtually vanished.

Many people began to keep food for longer as ice houses were built in the grounds of large estates, such as Hatchlands Park in East Clandon. These ice houses were underground chambers that were filled with straw for extra insulation and kept the ice cold. This meant that for the first time kitchens had a ready supply of ice for making ice cream desserts and for preserving food.

Much of Surrey in this period was still part of the King’s hunting park. Surrey History Centre has a letter written to the King explaining that Surrey will not be producing large amounts of food because of the ‘smallness and barrenness’ of Surrey compared to other counties. It also shows that a great deal of land in Surrey was given up to royal parks and therefore food couldn’t be grown on this land.


By the early 18th century, parts of Old Surrey provided London with a lot of produce: milk from cows in Peckham, Brixton and Camberwell, vegetables from the fertile soil of market gardens in Lambeth and Battersea including carrots, melons and asparagus. The Industrial Revolution developed new machines and factories that changed the way food was produced.

Spices and teas were traded, and Indian cuisine was brought back to England as the curry recipes of the day show (source 4). Most people had to eat seasonally and use cheap cuts of meat. This is shown through recipes like ‘Mock Turtle Soup’ (Source 5) which mimicked the more exotic ‘Green Turtle Soup’ but using local food and cheap cuts as a substitute.


The New Poor Law in 1834 centralised the previous system that dealt with poor relief through local parishes. This centralisation saw the development of large-scale workhouses, like the ones in Guildford, Epsom and Farnham. Poor Victorians lived off bread and gruel from the workhouses, and children would work in the factories for food (source 6).

As land was taken over for building, and towns and cities grew, fewer people lived and worked in the country. In 1851, agriculture had employed over a fifth of the population, whereas by 1901 this had dropped to less than a tenth.

The Industrial Revolution of the 1700s and 1800s sparked a wealth of new inventions. Inventions like tins and gas ovens made cooking easier. People were designing things to make life simpler and more efficient.

First World War

The First World War led to the introduction of rations by the government to make sure everyone had a fair share. Women’s Institutes such as the ones in Cranleigh, Frensham and Albury were started that showed women how to grow and preserve their own food. Towards the end of the War, as German U-Boats successfully blocked the Atlantic, it was increasingly hard for food supplies to reach Britain from North America. The government started producing propaganda materials to encourage people to grow their own food.

In the First World War, the East Surrey Regiment was stationed in India and Pakistan and we can see from their diaries and photo albums what food they ate. The photograph of a soldier standing in a banana plantation (source 7) is a contrast to the terrain and agriculture we can see in England.

Interwar Period

We can see from the diaries and scrapbooks of Surrey’s Women’s Institutes that food still played a large role in their meetings. The Women’s Institute in Cranleigh created scrapbooks of the posters and activities they were involved with throughout the wars (source 8).

Some of the sources we have from this period include newspaper cuttings (Source 9) kept by Surrey’s Trading Standards department between 1924 and 1925. They show the punishments for selling underweight loaves of bread under the Weights and Measures Act which dates back to the 13th century and was put in place to monitor the sale of bread. It has developed over time and now falls under Trading Standards laws. There has always been a problem with the selling of underweight food or adding cheaper or illegal ingredients.

Second World War

Rations were introduced again during the Second World War, and the government started a nationwide campaign, ‘Dig for Victory’ (source 10). Land Clubs were started all over the country to aid the war effort and boost morale. Surrey’s Land Clubs were started by Miss M J Carter, who was a Surrey County Council Poultry Inspector. The clubs provided the local farmers with people willing to help farm the land who were often women.

Personal diaries from both soldiers and those left at home give an insight into the lives of people in Surrey during the war. Molly Caddy, daughter of a squadron leader in the RAF, wrote in 1946 about the first time she had eaten a banana since 1941. The rationing meant very little food was imported meaning many young people at the time had never seen some exotic fruits until after the war. This is not included as a source as it is a personal, hand-written diary that is hard to read.

Modern Britain

Rationing ended in the 1950s, although some items were rationed a little while longer. Sugar, fat and salt became more readily available and contributed to unhealthy lifestyles. In a scrapbook from the Tadworth’s Women’s Institute in 1965 (source 11a and 11b) there is an example weekly menu, designed to be cost effective and healthy for the family.

Nowadays more food is imported than ever before but we also have local food grown and produced in Surrey such as watercress from Abinger Hammer and Norbury Blue Cheese. Our food is now influenced by different styles and cuisines, from Italian to Chinese, Gurkha to Romany and Polish to Pakistani.


Due to copyright law this source pack is for classroom use only. Photocopies can be made for classroom use only and all sources must be accredited to the Surrey History Centre with the correct references. Copies must not be redistributed.

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