From Butties To Bhajis At The People's History Museum

By Zoe Graham | 20 May 2004
Shows a black and white photograph of some children outside a fish and chip shop. In the foreground two children are sitting on bike sharing fish and chips. Another boy is sat on a wall behind them eating his fish and chips. In the background, outside the chip shop window, two other children are eating from chip shop paper.

Photo: the first fish and chip shop opened in this country in the early 1860s. By the early 1900s there were approximately 30,000. Today there are only about 8,500 - eight times more than there are McDonalds! By kind permission of the People's History Museum

No need for a packed lunch, thought Zoe Graham as she headed off to the People’s History Museum to check out their latest exhibition about working people’s food.

Food glorious food! The old adage 'you are what you eat' is celebrated in From Butties to Bhajis – Working People’s Food in Great Britain at the People’s History Museum until December 5.

The exhibition looks at how the diet of working people has changed over the past 200 years, showing how far we have come - from a staple diet of bread and potatoes to the multi-million pound food industry we have today. Advances in technology, agriculture, transport and storage have meant significant developments in the way food is used.

Things have moved on considerably since the 1800’s when, as the breadwinner, the man of the family was seen as more in need of a good diet. On display is a recipe for one of the favourite foods of the time - sheep’s head broth - which required the cook to spilt a sheep’s head in two and boil it in two gallons of water. Yummy?!

Shows a photograph of a CWS poster. There is a woman with blond hair holding up something she has baked. The text at the top reads 'She takes pride in her baking'. The slogan at the bottom of the poster reads 'CWS. Federation. Self Raising Flour.'

Photo: CWS poster - advertisement for Co-operative Wholesale Society flour, 1930s. The Co-operative movement originated in a shop set up in Rochdale in 1844 by 28 working men known as the Rochdale Pioneers. By kind permission of the People's History Museum

The role of food as a tool of the workforce is one of the topics covered at the exhibition. Dishes that have become local specialities, like Cornish pasties and Lancashire hot pot, were originally conceived with work in mind.

Cornish pasties were designed to give tin miners a two-course meal and the thick pastry protected them from the poisonous dust on their hands. The potatoes on top of a Lancashire hot pot kept the contents warm until lunchtime.

The first canteens for workers were built in the 19th century, reforms led by Robert Owen who recognised that eating well increased the work output. Marvel at the prices of a local government canteen in Salford in the early 1980’s where desserts like jam roly poly cost only 16p.

Shows a photograph of the exterior of the People's History Museum looking up. It has lots of windows and an orange banned which reads 'Entrance'.

Photo: People's History Museum, Manchester

Eating out has become a norm for the majority of us, but this is still a relatively 'young' trend. It wasn’t until the 1960s that dining out became popular.

At the exhibition you can learn about the first restaurants and how they started. Did you know that the first fish and chip shop is believed to have been opened in Oldham by John Lees in 1860, where the fish and chips would have cost 9d, the equivalent of £2 today? By the 1900s there were more than 30,000 chippies in the UK.

Food as a political tool is an issue that goes back to the corn laws of 1815 when duty was raised on imported wheat. This resulted in the price of bread rising dramatically and widespread riots followed. Some 30 years later the first successful Co-Op was founded in Rochdale in 1844 guaranteeing pure food.

Shows a photograph of a CWS poster for Mustard. It reads 'CWS Fine Mustard. 1 1/2 d per tin'.

Photo: CWS poster - Co-operative Wholesale Society Mustard. The Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) was started in 1863 to supply the co-operative shops with goods produced on co-operative principles. By kind permission of the People's History Museum

All tastes are catered for at From Butties to Bhajis. Find out how the Vegetarian Society was founded in Altrincham, Manchester and take away some alternative recipes for vegetarian food.

Who lives in a house like this…? Take a sneaky-peek inside store cupboards from 1850, 1900, 1940 and 2004 - you’ll be amazed at the differences. And if you have a favourite recipe, why not leave it on the recipe wall and share it with other visitors.

For all the budding Delia Smith’s out there, this exhibition offers a fascinating insight into working people’s food and the way in which it has changed with the passing decades. But more importantly, it offers children the chance to play with their food in a mock-up kitchen!

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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