Victorian London - Professions - Food and Drink - Butchers

[-142-] Our engraving represents the well-known row of butchers' shops; for the Whitechapel butcher still belongs to the old school, taking a delight in his blue livery, and wearing his steel with as much satisfaction as a young ensign does his sword. He neither spurns his worsted leggings nor duck apron; but, with bare muscular arms, and a knife keen enough to sever the ham-string of an old black bull, takes his stand proudly at the front of his shop, and looks "lovingly" on the well-fed joints that dangle above his head. The gutters before his door literally run with blood: pass by whenever you may, there is the crimson current constantly flowing; and the smell the passenger inhales is not such as may be supposed to have floated over "Araby the blest." A "Whitechapel bird" and a "Whitechapel butcher "were once synonymous phrases, used to denote a character the very reverse of a gentleman; but in the manners of the latter we believe there is a very great improvement, and that more than one "knight of the cleaver," who here in the daytime manufactures sheep into mutton-shops, keeps his country-house.
    The specimens of viands offered for sale in these streets augur well for the strength of the stomachs of the Whitechapel populace; no gentleman of squeamish appetite would like to run the risk of trying one of those out-of-door dinners, which ever stand ready- dressed. The sheep's trotters look as if they had scarcely had time enough to kick off the dirt before they were potted; and as for the ham, it appears bleached instead of salted; and to look at the sandwiches, you would think they were veal, or any thing except what they are called. As for the fried fish, it resembles coarse red sand-paper; and you would sooner think of purchasing a penny- worth to polish the handle of a cricket-bat or racket than of trying its qualities in any other way. The black puddings resemble great fossil ammonites, cut up lengthwise; for while you gaze on them you cannot help picturing these relics of the early world, and fancying that they must have been found in some sable soil abounding in broken fragments of gypsum, which would account for the fat-like substance inside. What the "faggots" are made of, which form such a popular dish in this neighbourhood, we have yet to learn. We have heard rumours of chopped lights, liver, suet, and onions being used in the manufacturing of these dusky dainties; but he must be a dating man who would convince himself by tasting: for our part, we feel confident that there is a great mystery to be unravelled before the innumerable strata which form these smoking hil-[-143-]locks will ever be made known. The pork-pies which you see in these windows contain no such effeminate morsels as lean meat, but have the appearance of good substantial bladders of lard shoved into a strong crust, from which there was no chance of escape, then sent to the ovenĚ and "done brown. The ham-and-beef houses display the same love of fatness, as if neither pig nor bullock could be overfed that comes to be consumed by the "greasy citizens" of the east end of London.
    As for fish! the very oysters gape at you with open mouths, as if they knew how useless it would be to keep closed in such a ravenous looking neighbourhood. They seem to cast imploring glances at the passers-by, as if begging to be taken out of the hot sun, and devoured as quickly as possible. You see great suspicious-looking whelks, sweltering in little saucers of vinegar; and you cannot help wondering what would be the result if you attempted to eat one; and while you are thus doubting, without "doating," some great broad-shouldered fellow comes up, throws down his penny, and, making but one mouthful of the lot, lifts the saucer to his lips, and drains the last drop of vinegar, then goes, for a finisher, into the nearest gin-shop. Pickled eels, cut up into Whitechapel mouthfuls, are fished up from the bottom of great brown jars, and devoured with avidity. You can never pass along without seeing brewers' drays unloading somewhere in the streets; and you cannot help thinking what hundreds a year Barclay and Perkins might save, in the wear and tear of men and horses, if they laid down pipes all the way from their brewery in the Borough to Whitechapel.
    What little taste they display (if we may make use of so classical a phrase in contradistinction to their "palatal" or gastronomic propensities), is shewn in their love of pigeon-keeping; and many of the "fanciers in this district can boast of possessing both a choice and an extensive stock of these beautiful birds. From this taste arise good results, inasmuch as it leads them into the suburbs, especially on Sundays, when they either carry the pigeons with them in bags or thrust them into their coat-pockets, and so wander for three or four miles out, when they turn the birds loose, both parties thus enjoying the luxury of a little fresh air. They are excellent hands at decoying pigeons, for all the "strays" that alight in the neighbourhood are pretty sure to become "Whitechapel birds." What means they use for entrapping these feathered favourites we have not been able to ascertain, though one knowing fellow told us, with a deep-meaning wink, that "it was the fineness of the climate, and a little 'hankypanky' business." We paid a pot of beer for the information, without asking for any clearer definition of the latter phrase.

Thomas Miller, Picturesque Sketches of London Past and Present, 1852