Exploring...Food and Drink

Our City Together

Gluttony and the Great Fire

There is an intricate, interesting connection between food and one of the darkest chapters of English history which shaped London forever: the Great Fire of London. The fire started at 1am on Sunday morning on 2 September 1666 in Thomas Farriner’s bakery on Pudding Lane. Fires in London were common, inevitable even, due to the capital’s largely timber construction. Nevertheless, that night the fire spread quickly because London was very dry after a long, hot summer. The area around Pudding Lane was full of warehouses containing highly flammable items like timber, rope and oil. A very strong easterly wind blew the fire from house to house in the narrow streets. The fire left only a fifth of London standing, with over 13,000 houses, about 90 churches and centuries of history swept away.

After just under five days of burning, the flames finally stopped at a spot called Pie Corner. Having started in Pudding Lane and ending at Pie Corner, some thought the fire was a punishment from God for the sin of gluttony because City folk ate too much. A statue of a cherub or young boy, known as the ‘Golden Boy of Pye Corner’ was erected as a warning to future generations.

What connects one of the world's most influential writers, a British film icon and two notorious gangsters?

A fish market! The story of Old Billinsgate Fish Market goes back to the 5th century, when Billingsgate received its official charter from King Henry IV. Initially the market didn’t specialise in selling fish. Like most markets at the time, it sold a range of produce and goods, including corn, salt, wine, fish, pottery, coal and iron. It was only in 1699 that Parliament passed an Act that gave Billingsgate the right to sell just fish. The market could not, however, sell eels - a popular food at the time. Parliament rewarded Dutch fishermen who had helped provide food for Londoners during the Great Fire of London in 1666 by giving them exclusive rights to sell eels to the city.

In 1850, a formal market building was constructed on Lower Thames Street to create a centralised market space. This building was rebuilt in 1873 on the same site, as the original building was not big enough to meet the requirements of the rapidly flourishing fish trade. During this period, it is thought that Billingsgate was the largest dedicated fish market in the world. Reports say that an average of 120,000 tons of fish were delivered to the market for sale each year in Victorian times by sea, road and rail.

Some notable personalities with very different stories and backgrounds worked at the market in the first half of the 20th century. The writer George Orwell worked in the market in the 1930s for some time, as did Maurice Micklewhite, better known to most as Michael Caine. If Michael Caine had taken the traditional porter’s route and followed his father into the market, he might have missed out on Hollywood stardom! The most infamous characters to work at Billingsgate were the East End Gangsters, the Kray twins. They worked there for around six months after leaving school. Reggie Kray worked as a salesman, while Ronnie was an “empty boy”; his job was to go around at the end of trading to collect empty boxes.

The market was relocated to the Docklands in 1982 on a purpose-built 13 acre site, but the building of what was once the centre of the fish-trading world is still in the City of London, with its fishy grotesques still guarding the northern entrance to Old Billingsgate and golden dolphins adorning the weather vanes on the roof.

Billingsgate Fish Market in 1957 © London Metropolitan Archives

The Love of Three Oranges

In the spirit of our focus on food and drink this month, why not have a listen to Prokofiev's satirical opera 'The Love for Three Oranges'? The orchestra is conducted on this recording by LSO great Sir Neville Marriner.

Tudor banana

The past few months have been a good time for many of us to go through our bookshelves at home and discover “hidden treasures”. Things you picked up from a charity shop or car boot sale, a long forgotten birthday or Christmas present. Tidying up the 'office' at home, Claudia from the City Information Centre found a book about London archaeology, and this is she came across the Tudor Banana. In 1999, during excavations at in a former fish pond at London Bridge, a large collection of Tudor objects were found. The collection included tools, pewter spoons, armour, a bowling ball, a bottle in a wicker basket, more than 400 shoes, all in very good condition, and a banana skin! The timber-lined tanks had been abandoned and had gradually filled up with soil and rubbish and the over-spill from a sewer. The Thames kept the soil waterlogged, and under the cellars of later buildings the tanks and their contents survived.

The Tudor Banana
© Christopher Fowler

The banana is an anomaly, because it is almost a century older than any previously recorded banana in Britain, and a full three centuries before the first regular imports. Archaeologists believe the banana was thrown into the Thames in around 1560. The first written description of bananas seen in Britain was in April 1633, when a bunch imported from Bermuda were hung up to ripen in the shop of Thomas Johnson, a herbalist in Snow Hill, in the City of London. In Tudor times, fresh fruit was believed to be unhealthy and so was treated with suspicion, whereas cooked, preserved and dried fruits were eaten widely. Many varieties of apples, pears, plums, cherries, mulberries, blackberries and wild strawberries were cultivated here. Oranges, lemons, pomegranates and almonds were imported from southern Europe, together with dried fruit such as raisins, figs, prunes and dates. Bananas will have been far more exotic imports than any of these. Regular imports only came with steam ships in the 19th century and bananas were still regarded as rare luxuries.

Most of the discovered objects were brought straight from the site to the Museum of London, where they were on display in a special underwater unit for a few weeks until 9 July 1999. The collection has been billed as the best preserved and most complete discovery of Tudor items ever.

Vintage wine bar

El Vino on Fleet Street was established in 1879, back when Queen Victoria was on the throne and horses ruled the road. Alfred Louis Bower started as a wine merchant and founder of Bower and Company, on Mark Lane, with a tasting room set up in the premises. This became a hotspot for wine lovers across the City. Alfred Bower was one of the few Free Vintners and had the advantage of being able to sell wine without a licence (a law overturned in 2005). In 1915, in order to fulfill his ambition to become the Lord Mayor of London, he had to cease trading in the City under his own name. As a result, the company name was changed in 1923 to El Vino and Alfred Bower eventually became Lord Mayor between 1924 and 1925. Today, El Vino operates five popular wine bars in and around the Square Mile.

El Vino in Fleet Street today © El Vino

Life lessons from the 17th Century

Still life paintings featuring food were extremely popular with Dutch Golden Age painters in the 17th Century. The genre was a way for the artist to show off their ability to depict all manner of surfaces, textures and objects in fine detail, as well as an opportunity for patrons and buyers to demonstrate their wealth. Butter, cheese, fruit, and the silver and glass tableware used to serve them, were expensive luxuries. A painting of personal possessions and dining habits was therefore doubly performative of material success. However, these images also carried a moral message which would have resonated with contemporary viewers. They tacitly warn against excess consumption, vanity, and temporary attachment to physical life. Our bodies, like the food that fuels them, are also frail organic matter destined to be ‘consumed’ by time. These seemingly simple paintings were a reminder to pay more attention to spiritual achievements and to do what is right while we are still ‘fresh’ and ‘ripe’.

Still Life with Beaker, Cheese, Butter and Biscuits by Floris Gerritsz. van Schooten
© Guildhall Art Gallery
Still Life with Jug, Herring and Smoking Requisites by Pieter Claesz
© Guildhall Art Gallery

Ye Oldest pub

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Wine Office Court at Fleet Street was the first new building to be built locally following the Great Fire of London, which destroyed most of the City in 1666. In the 300 years since then, the drinking hole has acquired a strong literary legacy, attracting Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, Dr Johnson, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain.  Another resident celebrity was Polly the Parrot, who was often heard swearing at the customers. Following her death in 1926 she sparked international headlines as obituaries were written for her from around 200 newspapers across the world.

Entrance to Fleet St from Wine Office Court, 1972
© London Metropolitan Archives

Look out for more about the historic pubs in and around the City, coming soon.

What would you save in a fire?

Not just any fire...the Great Fire. An entry in the diary of Samuel Pepys tells us that wealthy Londoners, including himself, buried their fine wines in the ground to save them from the inferno. Pepys worked for the British government and documented life in London. He principally worked for the Royal Navy but also became a member of Parliament. At the time of the Great Fire, he lived in Seething Lane. Pepys’ diary entry for the 4 September 1666 – 2 days after the fire had started  – tells of how a Navy colleague, Sir W Batten, came up with a plan to save his wine from the fire. ‘He dug a pit in the garden and laid [the wine] there,’ wrote Pepys.

‘In the evening, Sir W Pen and I dug another pit and put our wine in it, and I my Parmazan cheese and my wine and some other things.’

The plan must have worked. Pepys later wrote that he dug up his wine on 14 September and returned it to his cellar.