Historical Food in Surrey: Background Teacher Information KS 3

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.


Please see the supplementary resource pack for archaeological information about food in Surrey, from pre-history to Norman and Medieval Britain.


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 (source 1) 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’.

A Tudor document in the Surrey History Centre from the Greenwich Privy Council in 1586 (source 2) prohibits the eating of meat at Lent except for those who were sick. A Privy Council was a group of men who governed the land in the name of the King or Queen and could issue orders and commands. Not eating meat at Lent was a common practice in the past.

This document also mentions ‘great loss of sheep’ that year as another reason to restrict the eating of meat in lent. The cause for the loss of sheep is unclear, although we presume factors like disease or flooding or drought could be to blame.

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.


Much of Surrey in this period was still part of the King’s hunting park. Source 3 is 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.

During the Stuart period plantations were set up in the Caribbean by the English, Dutch and French to grow sugar (extension source 14) shows the proposed costs of setting up a plantation. 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 4). 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.


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 curry recipes from the period show. 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 instead used 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; a good example of this is the bronchitis kettle and food warmer (source 7). This was designed so that water could be boiled to moisten the air for a bronchitis sufferer whilst being able to keep food warm at the same time.

First World War

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 8) is a stark contrast to the terrain and agriculture we can see in England.

The First World War brought the introduction of rations by the government to make sure everyone continued to be fed. 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 (source 9).

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 10).

Some of the sources we have from this period include newspaper cuttings (Source 11) 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 12). 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 13a and 13b) 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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