The increasing industrialization of Victorian Britain required a large workforce – and the workers needed to be fed. Working class folk usually had little or no cooking facilities, so buying prepared food from street vendors was the norm. In the second half of the nineteenth century, there was a move to provide better quality dinners to those who kept the mills, factories, and shipyards in operation. A short piece in Lloyds Weekly Newspaper of April 12, 1863 described the new system in Glasgow, Scotland
The following interesting letter on this important subject has been addressed to the editor of the Times:-
I visited last week the new dining rooms for the working-classes at Glasgow; and I will, if you please, describe in a few words what I saw and ate there. I am anxious to do this, because I perceive that a praiseworthy attempt is about to be made in London to follow the example which has been set in Glasgow; and I think that I shall be able to show that the bill of fare issued on Saturday by “The London Association for the Establishment of Dining and Refreshment Rooms for the Working Classes” lacks one main element – viz., simplicity – which has assured to the Glasgovians the success they so well deserve.
There are in Glasgow about eight or ten sets of these new dining-rooms, which will all, in a few days, be supplied from one central cooking establishment; the kitchens which now supply them being mere makeshifts.
….. on each table stands a large decanter of fair spring water and some tumblers. No beer, wine, or spirits are sold or consumed on the premises.
Every ration of everything sold, save meat, costs one penny. A ration of meat costs three halfpence; lemonade, ginger-beer, and soda water are sold at a penny a bottle. The first floor is chiefly devoted to the sale and consumption of tea, coffee, bread and butter, and cold meat and eggs; on the upper floor, broth, soup, cold meat, hot collop, potatoes, rice and plum pudding are sold.
For fourpence halfpenny I got a pint basin of pea soup, a plate of hot minced collops, a plate of potatoes, and eight ounces of bread; my companion, Mr. Stirling, of Keir, got, for the same sum, a pint basin of broth, a plate of cold beef, a plate of potatoes, and a slice of plum pudding. The quantity of meat was small, but the ensemble of the dinner was certainly sufficient to satisfy one not endowed with an exorbitant appetite; and as each article of which our dinner was composed was distinctly priced, a voracious consumer can readily, by paying a penny or three halfpence more, adapt his supplies to the extraordinary requirements of his stomach.
After we had thus dined, we called, in passing through the lower room, for a cup of coffee and a slice of bread and butter, and were each supplied, on paying 2d., with a large breakfast-cupful of coffee and milk, and four ounces of bread buttered.
The remarkable feature of our entertainment was that every article was of the very best quality. Better broth, soup, potatoes, and meat are not to be had in any club in London than at these Glasgow dining-rooms; at no railway station that I have ever stopped at in Great Britain are such coffee, milk, and bread and butter ever sold at all.
The provisions are all contracted for, at the best prices; the thick end of the ribs and beefsteaks being the only meat received in the establishment. This meat, cut from the ribs, rolled and dishes, is sold cold in slices; the bones and trimmings going to make the soup and broth, in which the rolled beef is also boiled; while the beef-steaks minced and stewed become “hot collops,” and mixed with potatoes or rice constitute a very savory mess.
After six p.m. whatever soup or broth remains is sold at half-price; and if any should remain after 8 p.m. it is given away; so that none is left at night to disgust, by staleness, the customers of the morrow. But the soup and broth are so good and so popular, that it generally turns out that the day’s supply is consumed before six o’clock, and that nothing remains to be sold at half-price or to be given away.
Several decades later (in 1890) an American perspective on the efforts to feed the workers was published. Luckily for us, Cookery for Working-Men's Wives: Report by United States Consul Underwood, Glasgow included some recipes which fit our theme:
Put a little dripping into a saucepan, let it get quite hot, then put in your minced-meat, and keep turning it for ten minutes or so with a fork (if liked, when the dripping is hot, before putting in the meat, add an onion chopped fine and a teaspoonful of flour). When all is a nice brown, add as much boiling water as will cover the meat; close the lid and stew very gently for one hour. Pepper and salt to taste.