Philanthropy at Christmas comes in many forms whether it is sending money to an appeal, donating to a food bank or possibly even volunteering to serve Christmas dinner to those who find themselves homeless. I’m afraid I can only own up to one of these and its not the last one. I came across a story related to the serving of a Christmas dinner recently which took me slightly by surprise, not only because of when it happened but due to the situation that surrounded it.
Today, Ham Yard is a tiny stub of an alley situated just off Great Windmill Street in the heart of London’s theatre land. but back in the 1850s it was a larger more open space.
Let’s travel back to 1851 and the life of one of my culinary hero’s (in a previous life I was a chef), Alexis Soyer. Not many people have heard of Soyer but he was the most celebrated Chef in Victorian England. He was born in France and worked his way through many Parisian restaurants until he became a Sous Chef at the home of Jules Auguste Armand Marie de Polignac, the then Prime Minister to the court of Charles X. During the 1830s France was going through a period of upheaval which culminated in the second French revolution and the abdication of the much hated Charles X. Soyer’s employer was no less reviled and became a target for armed revolutionaries. In 1831 they broke into his house and finding him not at home they ransacked the building during which they entered the kitchens demanding food, which was refused, so they opened fire killing several of the brigade of chefs. Soyer escaped unharmed, but obviously saw the way things were going and fled to England.
Over the next six years he worked for a number of London’s nobility until he became Head Chef at the newly built Reform Club in 1837. His first job was to design the kitchens into a layout that is still recognisable in today’s industry. He innovated cooking with gas, refrigerators cooled by cold water, and adjustable temperature ovens. His kitchens were so famous that they were opened for conducted tours. He was something of a self-promoter. “Soyer’s Sultana’s Sauce” was marketed for him through Crosse & Blackwell in an exotic bottle. Soyer was a great philanthropist and also a culinary inventor. One project that went hand in hand with this is the creation of the first Soup Kitchen. This was used to try and help those in dire straits due to the Irish famine of 1847, although as a Government funded project costs were cut to the bone and the nutritional value of the soup was pitiful. While in Ireland he wrote Soyer’s Charitable Cookery. He gave the proceeds to various charities and also opened an art gallery in London, donating the entrance fees to charity to feed the poor. Another invention of his was Soyer’s Magic Stove which allowed the user to cook in any conditions either in the home or outdoors.
During the Crimean War, Soyer joined the troops at his own expense to advise the army on cooking and reorganized the provisioning of the army hospitals. He designed his own field stove, the Soyer Stove, which was still used in the British Army up until 1982. He personally trained a “Regimental cook” for every regiment in the Crimea to oversee the preparation of adequate meals for the soldiers.
Well enough of the background lets get back to the story. In 1850 Soyer resigned from the Reform Club to open the Gastronomic Symposium of All Nation, this coincided with the Great Exhibition and was based on new and emerging culinary techniques. It was while he was running this that he was struck by the plight of the London poor. London had asserted itself as the worlds capital, but for all it’s wealth, huge amounts of Londoners lived in squalid conditions with not enough to eat, or as a last resort suffered the depravations of the work house.
With the onset of winter, newspapers were filled with appeals to help the needy. “The outdoor poor… the casual poor… the thousands in London who are ashamed to beg,” as they would be particularly left wanting over Christmas time. Soyer, along with other philanthropists organised a “Great Christmas Feast” which was held in Ham Yard. To say they set a high bar in terms of those they would cater for is a bit of an under statement. Their original plan was to serve food to ten thousand of London’s most needy population, but as it turned out the final figure was in excess of twenty two thousand people who were given a hot meal. Ham yard was covered by a marquee of “colossal dimensions” and decorated with Christmas lights, banners and flags. A newspaper reported “A profusion of holly and other evergreens, with flowers and oranges, gave indications of the welcome with which the poor recipients were about to be greeted.”
In order to accommodate the numbers involved each sitting was limited to thirty minutes and as the yard could seat three hundred at a time it must have taken a while to get everyone served. For those who did not wish to show their poverty in the open there was also a Takeaway system. Each head of the household was given roast beef, plum pudding, bread, coffee, sugar and a pint of porter to take home. It has been calculated that around 1% of the city’s population benefitted from the feast. And as for those who queued and took their place at the table, what were they given?
The early product placement by the Western Gas Company made me smile, and I would have loved to have seen the “Monster Pie“
Well that’s enough of my ramblings for the year, feet up, a beer and the inevitable turkey sandwich until the new year when I hope to come back with more rather off beat stories about the capital. Can I take this opportunity to thank you all for reading this blog and for all the nice comments that I’ve received. All that remains is to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a happy New Year, but if this story has inspired you to do something for those less well off than yourself then however small go ahead, I’m sure it’ll be appreciated.