Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Baking in Victorian England

by Heather Hiestand

In the Victorian period, food was expensive. A middle class family could expect to spend a little more than half their income on food. Their diet, just like with the upper classes, included a half pound of bread daily. A laborer’s diet might include two pounds of bread, with his wife and children getting something over half this amount.

This was often delivered directly to houses by bakers or pastry cooks. There were also street markets, stalls, and shops called such names as pastry shops, pie-shops and confectioners, where families could purchase a variety of baked goods. Families could prepare their own bread in their own oven or have it baked in a bakehouse, too. The family coal budget was one of the issues that led to making these different choices.

In the home, who was making the bread depended on the size of the household. Servants were relatively inexpensive and readily available during this period. Many families could afford to hire a maid-of-all-work. Next up would be families who could afford this and someone to do “heavy work.” Then, you get into larger households, where there might be cooks, kitchen maids, and scullery maids to specialize in food preparation.

Who made the bread outside of the home? According to A.N. Wilson in The Victorians, the baking life was a tough one. It only became worse during the London Season when bread orders increased. Eleven at night was the start of a baker’s day, when he made the dough. He was able to sleep on the job for a couple of hours while the bread rose, then had to do the rest of the physical tasks of preparing rolls and loaves. Kneading was sometimes done with feet, perhaps making for a less-than-clean product. The bakehouse was alarmingly hot as well, up to ninety degrees Fahrenheit. Some bakers had to deliver the bread they made, too. They only had five to ten hours off per day and all but none during the Season. Wilson says statistics show London bakers rarely lived past the age of forty-two.

Now, having said all this, it is true that in some places in England, the lifestyle of the industrial revolution was killing people even faster than that. In Glasgow, Scotland, for instance, during the middle of this period, men’s life expectancy dropped to thirty-seven and women to forty.

A baker didn’t only have to worry about the process of baking. Getting supplies was more difficult than it is now, though as always, suppliers were important to businesses. They had to choose from various grades of flour, classes of butter, and different kinds of sugar. Eggs needed to be fresh and fruit needed to be best quality.

The market for these building blocks of baked goods was international. Some sources were Ireland, Holland or New Zealand for butter, Hungary and America for flour, and France for eggs. These items affected shelf life, quality and color of the product.

Companies offered other wares such as machinery, tools such as rolling pins and rolling racks, cake boxes and boards, nuts, peels, flavorings, colorings and decorations. As the period continued, manufacturers attempted to invent machines to do some of the hard work. Some machines for sale included those for egg whisking, flour sifting, dough kneading and dough mixing.

During the Victorian period, we see the rise of consumer culture, and women with leisure time to leave the home and shop. By the 1870s, parts of London were safe for women to shop in, and soon came places for women to eat, socialize, and use the facilities. This is the time when ladies’ tea shops came into being. Meals eaten there were usually lunch or tea.

Adventure back in time to a Victorian confectioner’s shop, pastry shop or delicatessen. What would you find available for sale? You might enjoy cakes for various celebrations, gateux and petit fours, biscuits, shortbread, meringues, marzipan, trifles, pound cake, sponge cake and gingerbread, for starters. All of it was perfectly delicious (assuming it was made with the best products and no poisonous fillers) and looked not so different than it might today. Just as now, price point improved the ingredients considerably, with cakes starting at a shilling. Buyer beware, because it wasn’t until the 1870s that the government started policing the adulteration issue. Until then, some of the big issues were chalk in flour, lesser fats being sold as butter and poisonous food dyes.

Americans don’t often, if ever, choose fruit cake for wedding cakes, but it is traditional in England. Even Prince William and Kate Middleton served fruit cake for their wedding. But once again, ingredients and cake processing varied widely based on price point in the Victorian era.

The most basic cake was made from butter or lard, sugar, eggs and flour, and raisins or currants. As cakes became fancier, you see candied peels, fruit, lots of spices and alcohols being added. Food preservation was a major issue before refrigeration and alcohol helped preserve fruit cakes almost indefinitely, so the bakers said.

Cakes were cooked in closed, cast iron ranges by the 1850s. Originally ranges were all coal-based. Then gas versions were available about this time as well but were considered more dangerous.

Ranges required a great deal of maintenance and only rarely had thermometers, so bakers had to come up with methods of checking temperature, like putting paper in the oven until it was dark yellow. That meant the oven was ready to bake cake. Cakes were set on paper or in sand or bran filled trays so the bottom didn’t burn. Smaller baked goods like scones could be cooked on hot plates.

Art and commerce come together for my favorite category of cake, the special occasion cake, such as wedding, christening and birthday cake. Special occasion cakes could be decorated as fancifully as they are today. Smaller cakes were also decorated of course, just to attract the customer. Bright and pretty was important. Cakes were covered with almond paste, then royal icing, then stacked, before being piped around the sides and topped with gum-paste or marzipan decorations, flowers or fresh fruit. There were schools to teach the artistic parts of cake decorating, like modeling, sugar spinning, and fancy pastry making, as well as books. Competitions existed for decorated cakes.

While the process of making baked goods is still labor-intensive today, we can be glad so many improvements have been made to equipment and supplies. I imagine the taste of cake prepared by a conscientious confectioner was just as delicious back then though.

Davies, Jennifer, The Victorian Kitchen, 1989
Flanders, Judith, Inside the Victorian Home, 2003
Lodge, Nicholas, The Victorian Book of Cakes, 1991
Picard, Liza, Victorian London, 2005
Tabraham, C.J., The Illustrated History of Scotland, 2004
Wilson, A.N.,  The Victorians, 2011


After a couple of years of writing Victorian-set steampunk, Heather Hiestand went back to what first sold her into the romance market in the first place—Victorian-set romance. Her first novel for Kensington is the 1886-set The Marquess of Cake (July 2013) which will be followed by One Taste of Scandal (December 2013) and His Wicked Smile (2014). All the novels feature a Victorian bakery, a central setting of the Redcakes series. You can learn more about Heather at her website and blog. You can join her newsletter too.


  1. Interesting post! Shared.

  2. Thanks for stopping by and sharing, Jeanne!

  3. Wedding cakes were a real art back then! Can you imagine what they would charge now to make some of those elaborate piped masterpieces?


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