The Truth about Victorian Kitchens

The Victorian Era lasted from June 20, 1837 until the VictoriaCredit: wikipediaQueen's death on January 22, 1901. 

During her reign the United Kingdom made great strides in the areas of industry, culture and politics along with scientific and military changes and was marked by great expansion throughout the empire.

It was during this time the countless social customs were created and young ladies of a certain social class had a minefield of manners and how-to information to wade through. This was  to prepare them for an 'exciting' future as wives, mothers, social hostesses, and most important of all, mistresses of their houses and servants. 


The first industrial revolution (from 1760 to some time between 1820 and 1840) was centered on iron, steam technologies and textile production, the second industrial revolution revolved around steel, railroads, electricity, and chemicals. Vaclav Smill called the period 1867–1914 "The Age of Synergy" during which most of the great innovations were developed. Unlike the First Industrial Revolution, the inventions and innovations were science based.

The Second Industrial Revolution, also known as the Technological Revolution was a phase of the larger Industrial Revolution corresponding to the latter half of the 19th century until World War I. It is considered to have begun with Bessemer steel in the 1860's and culminated in mass production and the production line.  Wikipedia


The Industrial Revolution created the onset of economic and social changes. As country folk moved to the cities to find better paying jobs, their living habits also changed. For the first time, instead of a whole family living in a small farm house or cottage with one main room serving as kitchen, parlour and bedroom, the city homes had separate rooms for various functions and in many homes, each room served one purpose only.

kitchen butter churn with maidCredit: old and interesting

Some Victorian households were not wealthy enough to employ servants, and others could only afford one maid or an orphan child to help out. The wealthier had a housekeeper, cook, parlour maid, and butler while the big estates had even more servants; close to 100.

But despite these housing improvements life was still a daily grind for servants. The one tap in the house in the scullery ran sporadically, an outdoor "toilet" was shared by multiple houses and the holding tank often overflowed creating appalling smells and diseases in local areas. There was no food packaging or product standards as we know of them, no electric power to run appliances, no cleaning products and everything ran on manual labour.

And while the house shone like a new penny on the outside, the servants worked and toiled inside so that the lady of the house, her husband and children could present a clean, wholesome face to the community.

In some households the servants were treated with due respect and a modicum of kindness but in others they were treated with little regard. The fact that they had parents and siblings they wish to see more than once a year or that they worked day in and day out to the point of exhaustion doing heavy manual labour never entered the minds of their employers. 

1) The Kitchen: One room, many uses.

Cooking, sleeping, eating.

Today's kitchens are the heart of a home. Over the past few decades the socializing spaces in houses have changed from multi roomed to open concept. Family dynamics have shifted to a more relaxed way of living and while some might say that the kitchen is still single purpose made for cooking and eating, the kitchen "area" has grown to include small office spaces 
and comfortable chairs and a tv for family.

Two ladies having teaCredit: McCord MuseumIn the early 1800's the staff slept in the kitchen or in cupboards under the stairs. Even the cook unrolled an old blanket and slept by the stove in winter to keep warm or in a cooler spot in the summer.

In the Victorian Era, new-found prosperity saw homeowners able to afford larger houses with multiple floors and multiple rooms. Victorians bought into the theory that each room had one purpose and one purpose only. Even reading in a bedroom was frowned upon.

As time went on and homes got bigger (and/or higher in crowded cities) the female staff were allocated attic rooms that were hot and stifling in summer and cold and damp in the winters. The men usually slept downstairs to guard the house especially the silverware and other silver plate.

And, no longer would the homeowners have dreamt of eating or sleeping in the kitchen. There was 'upstairs' and there was 'downstairs' and everybody knew their place! 

2) Kitchen Staff: Overworked, unappreciated, abused

16 - 18 hour days, year in and year out.

Not everybody could afford servants in Victorian England but when they were able to hire they felt that they had reached middle class. Suddenly the lady of the house was no longer able or willing to do menial tasks; she was better than that and had risen in status. 

Line of ServantsCredit: McCord MuseumIn the census of  London in 1871 there were 1.19 million servants of whom 93,000 were cooks and 75,000 were nursemaids. Many of the workers with no skills came from the workhouse or were orphans. They were paid a pittance and their masters and mistresses had no idea what ghastly environments they had come from: filthy hovels with broken windows, broken doors and a privy for about one hundred and twenty people. The houses might have an attic, basement and two rooms and twenty people squeezed into these “homes”. The Victorians thought that these poorest of the poor would be improved and “bettered” by being surrounded by “artistic” things and pleasant surroundings like good decorations and art. They also believed that the poor were poor because they spent all their money on gambling and drink.

Servants toiled at many jobs and positions over the years and worked hard to get important references when they saw a chance to move up in the pecking order. As an example, at one house over 100 women were employed in a four-year period and this was not unusual. After their initial job they were given a character reference and a prospective new employer usually went to see the previous employer to ensure that the person in question had good morals, was clean, honest with a good temper and good health.

Sexual abuse was also common and the attractive serving girl who found herself pregnant at the masters hand was without recourse. She was dismissed and ended up in the workhouse to toil in appalling conditions.

Servants were not allowed to "walk out" with fellow servants and those who did get married had to give up their jobs to manage their own houses and take care of their husbands and future children. It was also a lonely life for servants who often started work in service at 12 years old or younger meeting few people outside of their work environment.  


  • Cook - $3200/year. A cook in a Royal household might make $32,000/year
  • House Maid - All around worker. Sixteen pounds ($1,700) a year
  • Between Maid - Worked in the house or the kitchen as required. Fifteen pounds ($1,600) a year.
  • Under Cook - Apprentice to the chef and helped make meals for staff. Worked for low wages to work his way up to a full chef's job. Fifteen pounds ($1,600) per year.
  • Kitchen Maid - Helped in kitchen. Fifteen pounds ($1,600) a year. 
  • Scullery Maid -  Dish washer. Thirteen pounds ($1,300) per year
  • Laundry Maid - Washing and ironing. Thirteen pounds ($1,300) a year.

3) Kitchen Environment: Hot, dirty, grimy, greasy.

The Victorian kitchen in a London house (as opposed to a larger kitchen in a country estate) was little more than a hole in the wall, a small space that was made even smaller by the Victorian notion that everything has its place and everything in its place. In a decent kitchen this meant that tiny alcoves and rooms were created off the kitchen or the kitchen passageways: the larder stored the fresh food; a storeroom was for dried goods; a scullery with sporadic running water for washing food; a pantry for storing china, glass and silver with a wooden sink to prevent chipping.

servant serving teaCredit: McCord MuseumIn reality most kitchens were dark and smelly with damp running down the walls and a temperature that soared relentlessly thanks to the fireplace, stove or gas burner. A small window might let in a little light and allow the gas fumes to escape. From this dark hole our poor cook and her kitchen maid had to create multi course meals including pastries, sauces, desserts, meat and fish dishes from scratch for the house owner, their children and guests and hope the food didn't go rancid or spoil before it was made and served.

The kitchen maid and all around helper had a never ending list of tasks to accomplish each day: lighting fires, sweeping grates, blacking stoves, changing beds, cleaning carpets, and helping to make meals. In between these jobs she had to change into her cleaner serving clothes and serve meals to the family; she might end up changing clothes 5 or 6 times a day.

A woman's social reputation hinged greatly on the food her cook could produce and the how meals were presented. It was very much a cook to impress situation and ironically, the dirtiest, least appealing room of the house located in the damp, dark basement was expected to produce food fit for a king. 

In Judith Flander's book The Victorian House, she writes that a civil servant Arthur Munby  observed his wife to be, a maid-of-all work, in the kitchen of her employer. He said that she was standing at the sink behind a wooden dresser backed with choppers and stained with grease and blood. Piles of dishes waited to be scoured and her frock, cap and face and arms were wet and sweaty. Her apron was a filthy piece of sacking tied with a cord and the "den" where she was working was low, damp, ill-smelling and windowless lit by a flaring gas-jet. There was a larder hung with raw meat and beside, a common urinal, with dirty implements around her.


A Victorian house from tip to toe

The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed
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Flanders goes from attic to basement and describes in detail the rooms of a Victorian house and what it was like for family and staff to live in them.
Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England
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(price as of Jun 1, 2015)

4) Kitchen Residents: Bugs, fleas, blackbeetles and rodents

Cleanliness, social status and morality were paramount

rat catcherCredit: wikipediaThe Victorians were great believers that a clean house created clean and decent people and cleanliness was next to Godliness in their eyes. But, the Victorian house staff waged a constant battle against bugs, fleas and rodents. Bugs and cockroaches would multiply into groups that hung on the ceilings, behind pipes and cracks and make their way into clothing, furniture and even drop into hair and food. 

The most efficient method of stopping these pesky creatures, before they invaded the upper floors, was to deny them entry and kitchen staff stopped up holes with cement and used carbolic acid in the scrubbing water when they were cleaning.

For the rats and mice, a cat was recommended along with traps and arsenic but a mouse who died under the floors made a terrible smell and this was far more offensive to some staff or homeowners than the danger of poisoning a child or family pet with arsenic. 

The Norwegian Brown rat made its way into England in the 19th century and their numbers  reached epidemic proportions. The  rat catcher was a familiar figure on the streets of Victorian England and Jack Black was the most famous; he was appointed to Her Majesty Queen Victoria during the middle of the nineteenth century to get rid of rats in Buckingham Palace.

Black created a uniform for himself made up of scarlet topcoat, waistcoat, and breeches, with a huge leather belt inset with cast-iron rats. He carried a cage with a few ferrets inside and his small black and tan dogs accompanied him. His face and hands were scarred from rat bites. Most rat catchers were more subtle that Jack Black and were given an allowance from their employers to buy grey pants for their jobs and then directed to be discreet in their labours.


5) Kitchen Food: Rancid, overcooked, spoiled

Take Out Food became Big Business

Meals for the middle and upper class were short on vegetables and big on sweets and meat although country dwellers benefitted from their veg gardens and pigs and beef that could be slaughtered and eaten. The poor survived on tea, bread and meat drippings but with no social assistance in place many of the poor simply starved to death.

Tinned meat was available from the 1860's but it was mostly fat with a few pieces of meat inside. This process had actually started during the Napoleonic era for armies when food was initially sealed in bottles and later cans but it was costly and time-consuming to make. As production improved and demand increased companies like Nestle, Heinz and Crosse and Blackwell developed more and better products. Early tins carried the opening instructions: “Cut around the top outer edge with a chisel and hammer.”

The Food Adulteration Act was passed in 1860 but nobody paid any attention to it until over a decade later. That meant that anything could be added to a consumer's food to save money for the producer, to stretch the ingredients and hopefully the buyer was no wiser. And, who knew what you were actually buying anyway with nobody enforcing the law?

Kitchen staffCredit: McCord MuseumBread was filled with potato starch or alum to make it look whiter and the butter and water was diluted. Cooks were advised to soak suspicious bread in water over heat for several hours. After the water was poured off a common bulking agent - plaster of Paris - settled to the bottom of the pan and the waterlogged loaf could then be "safely" eaten.

The bakeries themselves were filthy: cobwebs in the roof and rafters got so full of flour dust that they fell into the bread mixture and rats and mice had a field day nibbling on the fresh loaves. The buyer had to check the bread carefully for chew marks.

Meat went 'off' quickly and when there was suddenly nothing available for dinner, the local fish and chip shops along with lobster and steak take aways  on the streets were a popular alternative.

  • Tea was also not what it seemed and was often found to contain sand and dirt.
  • Butter went rancid even when kept in the north side room of the kitchen area. To keep it usable once used, it was covered in salt, a step that had to be repeated after each use.
  • Fresh fruit and vegetables were rarely served fresh; instead they were pureed, boiled, and cooked into a myriad of concoctions.
  • Meat that was brought into London 'on the hoof' and slaughtered in the city so it was relatively fresh however if it came by train it was often spoiled and bad. 

We can read about a slaughterhouse from "The Feeding of London' in the Leisure Hour of 1889:

"Though all the cattle come into Deptford alive, nothing alive ever leaves it. All round the lairs are long streets of slaughter-houses, wherein the killing goes on as required. But a slaughter-house is at its best but a chamber of horrors, and we need but glance at the last scene, in which oxen and sheep become beef and mutton under the hands of the brawny, half-naked, pole-axing men. A wonderful sight is the long avenue of huge sides of beef, being trimmed and divided to hang here for half a dozen hour before they are distributed; and even more remarkable is the display of the carcasses of the sheep, skinned and cleaned, and thrown smoking into the carts, to be carried away immediately. In these economical days nothing is wasted that can be saved."


6) Recycling: A Victorian Necessity.

Recycling is nothing new, in fact the Victorians were masters of the art.  This was a necessity for three reasons: thriftiness, cleanliness and lack of ready materials. Kitchen rubbish was divided into two parts: coal ashes and dust from stoves and fires and refuse which was anything else left over.  After 1875 refuse was removed by the municipality thanks to a new law but before this time, removal was up to the homeowner who paid for the service.

Food wrapping was years away and any food bought was packaged in paper. This was easily thrown out in the fire and any good paper was smoothed out and used as toilet paper or to make ‘spills’ which were long strips of twisted paper to help light fires and stoves.

rag and bone manCredit: wikipediaThe rag and bone man was also a key part of the recycling process and a familiar man about town in Victorian England; there were some still in existence until the 1950's with hand carts or bags pulled over their shoulders.  Today they use vans.

It was estimated that in the mid 1850's there were between 800 - 1000 rag and bone men collecting old pots and pans, bits of metal, rags and bones. The household cooks kept bits of leftover bone from meat or fish from her meals to make a soup stock and anything that was finally of no use went to the rag and bone man. He in turn sold his wares to paper mills, glue factories, toothpick, match and fertilizer manufacturers. 

7) Kitchen Equipment: Labour intensive

 Time saving devices were making slow inroads into the Victorian household and included:

  • apple and potato peelers 
  • cork shapers
  • cork screws
  • can openers
  • jelly moulds
  • hand mixers
  • sugar nippers
  • a 'dishwasher' - a wooden bucket with a paddle that swished the water around inside it was ineffective at best.

 Ice chests were also created and this in turn started the mania for ices and sorbets. However, many old methods were still in place; carpets were cleaned with cold tea leaves and wacked outside to get rid of stains and smells. Commercial cleaning products were unheard of and cooks and maids had to create their own cleaners using harsh chemicals, even using sand as a scouring agent for pots and pans. Water supply was sporadic and until a stove with a boiler was installed, water had to be heated in pots over the fireplace for cooking or carried upstairs for bathing.

Before a stove was purchased, the kitchen fireplace would have servedJackCredit: wikipedia as the only place to cook meat. This would have been done on a jack  which turned in front of the fire going one way and then the other to ensure even cooking.    

Kitchen ranges took a long time to be accepted although they did make an appearance at the start of the 1800’s. The styles varied but they all offered an oven or two and a boiler to heat water fuelled by coke which was delivered. Later by the 1860’s the improved ‘kitcheners’ had hot plates for simmering and shelves that could be moved as needed and flues for heat adjustment.  Gas cookers were sold from 1880’s on but were not overly popular due to the cost and the lack of boiler for hot water. The first electric stove was on the market in the 1890's but was used by few people as electricity was in very few homes.

While stoves were seen as a huge timesaver for the poor cook and staff, they were labour intensive and maintaining them was done on an almost daily basis.

The fender and fire irons were first removed and then the metal cleaned to get rid of the smell of scorched meat and fat. The ashes had to be removed and the cinders put aside to be re-used. After that the flues were cleaned and the grease scraped off.  Steel parts were polished with something called bathbrick which was a powdered brick abrasive and iron parts were blackleaded and polished.

Victorian stoveCredit: McCord MuseumThe cook had to be careful before sending the food upstairs to the dining room to be eaten; black specs from the fireplace or stove often landed on top of the white potatoes or meat and vegetables.

Soot from the coal fires that burned throughout London made everything, inside and outside of the Victorian home, dirty and black. Keyholes had coverings to stop soot coming inside, plants and flowers on windows helped to trap dirt, and muslin was nailed across windows to catch the soot before it entered the home. The kitchen was especially dirty with the fireplace or coal stove going full tilt most days. 

8) No Stove? No Time? Send your meal to the Bakehouse.


bakers peelCredit: old and

The London bakehouse was a busy place on Sunday morning. Between 11 am and 1pm they took in more pots for cooking that at any other time or day of the week. For a few pennies cooks or housewives could bring their meat and potatoes in a pot or jar for cooking; when church was over they collected their dinners and went home to a hot meal.

The cooks put meat, a small amount of water and potatoes in a covered pot.  One new invention enabled the cooking of a Yorkshire pudding (a Yorkshire pudding is like a popover, not a sweet pudding) by putting the batter mix in the bottom of the pot. The meat and potatoes were placed in a type of wire cage above the batter and as the meat drippings got hot, they enabled the pudding to cook and puff up.

Bread was also often cooked at the communal bakehouse and once it had risen in the home kitchen, it was wrapped in flannel and rushed to the bakehouse for cooking where it was scored or marked to identify the owner.


Victorian and Edwardian Period Films Montage

9) Kitchen Work: A never ending grind - week in and week out

washing machineCredit: ingenious. org.ukIf a household employed one cook and one housemaid they had to tackle multiple jobs.  One of the worst jobs for the maid was the laundry which was an all day process, usually starting on Mondays, that continued until Friday, just in time to be started all over again.

Washing machines were invented in the 1880's but they were nothing like we know and often tore the clothing or left rust marks.   And while a machine might have been of some help the laundry still had to be soaked, rinsed several times, boiled, starched, blued or bleached, wrung, then hung up to dry and ironed.  The process took days and with no dryers sheets and clothes were hung here and there throughout the kitchen to dry. With luck the clothes and sheets escaped the London soot 

By 1901 servants were permitted one half day off a week but only after their chores were done. In many household these hours off were given grudgingly as some employers didn’t see their staff as humans.

peeling potatoesCredit: Scullery Maid's day started before 6 am and she had to clean smelly chamber pots, polish silver and brass, scrub steps and stairs, wash dishes and scour sticky pots, sweep and wash the kitchen floor and carry heavy (15 kg) cans of hot water upstairs for bathing. If she was lucky she would fall into bed around 10 pm and start the process all over again the next day, week after week.

A Cook in a household ruled over her kitchen with an iron fist and yelled at her underlings as she tried to cook for the family or for a houseful of guests under very difficult circumstances. She wore a white apron over a black dress and held an important position in the household. Her duties included talking to her mistress each morning for menu ideas, buying all the food for the meals, making the meals and supervising the prep work done by the scullery or kitchen maid.  She also presided over staff meals eaten in the kitchen and went to bed around 10 pm leaving the poor maids to clean up the mess. 

10) The Servants: Where did they all go?

Victorian ChristmasCredit: McCord Museum

Change was in the air at the turn of the century but it really gained momentum after 1901 when King Edward VII came to the throne. Despite his affairs and scandalous behaviour he was truly a King of the people. He made an effort to get about and about in public like no other monarch before him; he had also travelled extensively and brought an interest in art and culture back to Britain.

Social change was in the air: women wanted the vote and enjoyed daring fashions, new plays were shown in the theatre, new books were written, fast cars were developed and architecture was evolving. People were getting interested in socialism and politicians were becoming aware of the huge disparity in the social classes. The rich still owned over half of the land and they made their income from cattle, minerals, farming, forestry and their investments. It was still 'the old boys club' and if you weren't a part of it, you never would be. The wealthy still held their weekend parties, fished, went hunting and dressed for multi course meals as if nothing was changing. They thought they were untouchable. However, there was a new man in town and there was money and power in becoming a banker or financier representing a new social group with money.

As WWI  progressed, many servants were doing their bit for the war effort: young men went off to fight and servants left the houses and vast estates to work in factories or to help out in hospitals. They realized that there was a choice for them and a better way of life was available.

Women with education were able to get jobs in offices as secretaries and with modern conveniences the homes and estates needed fewer servants.  New inventions and electricity made a huge difference in efficiency; estates that once required a hundred servants could manage with twenty or twenty five and smaller homes that once needed seven staff members now managed with two or three. 

There were choices to be made and a better way of life was available. England, and the whole world was changing and would never be the same.

Ladies on bikesCredit: McCord Museum