Hare pies, roast geese, plum puddings... not the decadent viands of a banker's banquet, but the foodstuffs enjoyed by London's poorest at a truly remarkable Soho feast. With food poverty an ongoing problem in the capital, perhaps some inspiration to tackle this problem can be found in the largely forgotten tale of a Victorian hero-chef who, one Christmas over 170 years ago, cooked up a meal for 22,500 vulnerable Londoners.
The London needy
Christmas 1851. London was triumphantly asserting itself as the centre of the world. This was the year of the Great Exhibition, one huge show-and-tell at the Crystal Palace; a self-congratulatory jamboree on the wonders of the British Empire and the power of modern industry and technology. But for all the city's wealth, countless Londoners lived in squalor and hunger, or else suffered the indignities of the work house.
It was also a city uniquely gifted with philanthropists, do-gooders and the agents of Christian charity. With winter setting in, the newspapers were filled with appeals to help the needy. "The outdoor poor... the casual poor... the thousands in London who are ashamed to beg," would be particularly hard-hit by a lack of food over Christmas time. Various institutions provided handouts and shelter, but a one-off feast in the streets of Soho would fill the bellies of unprecedented numbers of impoverished Londoners. At the centre of proceedings was Alexis Soyer, often called the first celebrity chef.
A man for all seasonings
Soyer was a noted chef who'd served in many of London's top kitchens, including the Reform Club. In the 1840s he effectively invented the soup kitchen, bringing relief to thousands of Irish workers during the Great Famine.
This French-born Victorian hero would go on to revolutionise field provisions during the Crimean War. "If he could do as much with shells as he can accomplish with eggs, how soon we should demolish the north side of Sebestapol," wrote one journalist. He's also credited with inventing lemonade, introducing sauces to Britain and pioneering a gas stove. But perhaps his greatest achievement came on 25 December 1851.
Feeding of the 22,500
For the scene of the feast, Soyer and colleagues had chosen the appropriately named Ham Yard, a sizeable court just off Great Windmill Street, which had seen previous use as a soup kitchen.
The yard was covered by a marquee of "colossal dimensions" and decorated with Christmas illuminations, banners and flags. "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." And greeted they were. Thousands poured into the marquee, which could seat up to 300 people at each half-hour setting. A band struck up popular waltzes and polkas to merry things along, although press reports suggest the diners tucked in with "strictest decorum, and in grateful silence". The food was donated by a long list of private individuals, from the super-munificent Mr Richard Cooper who supplied 200 pounds of beef, to the 'just doing his bit' Mr JL Bragg who provided a baked plum pudding. The copious donations added up to the ultimate Christmas food bank, as shown in the Bill of Fare:
The monster repast was not limited to Ham Yard. The victuals were spread far and wide by a 'take-away' system, whereby visitors with families could carry food home to share. Each head of the household was given roast beef, plum pudding, bread, coffee, sugar and a pint of porter to take home. In this way, it was estimated that 22,500 hungry Londoners (perhaps 1% of the city's population) were given a Christmas meal to remember.
Incidentally, Ham Yard still exists, and is now home to the luxurious Ham Yard Hotel. Perhaps its kitchen might be persuaded to start an annual Alexis Soyer fundraising meal... or even to recreate the glorious feast itself, hare pies and all.
See also: where in London can you see a Christmas cracker memorial?