Tucking into History through Food

21 July 2023

Blog

21 July 2023

Blog

Families are asked to help Joseph save the Birthday Banquet and find missing foods lost around the ship. These foods represent real dishes from the ship’s past and include a piece of archival material that gives an insight into passenger experiences of dining on board.

This year at SS Great Britain we have been exploring the ship’s history through the theme of food.

To do this we have tucked into the passenger diaries for food stories and discovered many delights for the taste buds that have culminated in our children’s trail Birthday Banquet Blunder.

The archive has dished up a selection of food stories. From a quaint little girl’s birthday party in the ladies’ boudoir with bonbons, cakes, and lemonade to the bizarre story, recorded by the surgeon, of a passenger breaking his arm while throwing some bread! There was even a debate in Steerage about whether the morning caffeine was tea or coffee, and imagine the surprise of the crew who caught a porpoise which was later served to passengers.

 

It is clear that food was a big part of the daily experience on board. First class passenger Annie Henning wrote ‘we do little else but eat’ which was true at least four times a day. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, supper and, sometimes, tea, were served – tables in the First-Class Saloon were regularly laden with a wide variety of roast meats and pastries. The ladies would be seated before the men to make room for their large hooped skirts, and twelve stewards would line the saloon to place the extravagant dishes on the tables.

By comparison, down in Steerage (fourth class) the food lacked variety and was rather beige. Rations, included in the ticket price, were largely made up of ships biscuits and salted preserved meats. The anonymous Quaker wrote ‘I’ve had so much salted pork I am ashamed to look a pig in the face’. Dinner time was less of an occasion too, passengers were split into messes of 8–14 people who ate together with one member of the group appointed to be the mess man in charge of collecting rations, taking them to the galley to be cooked then serving them up come dinner time.

In charge of stopping passengers from getting hangry were the galley crew. Just like today, there was the same hierarchy and stress of commercial cooking in the galley kitchen. Each class and the crew had a first cook and a second cook managing their meals. On outward voyage nine this proved difficult as first cook John Birtles was rather incompetent, which led to his dismissal for bad conduct when the ship reached Melbourne. Second cook Joseph Blanchard was promoted to take his place.

This story inspired our food trail Birthday Banquet Blunder. Families are asked to help Joseph save the Birthday Banquet and find missing foods lost around the ship. These foods represent real dishes from the ship’s past and include a piece of archival material that gives an insight into passenger experiences of dining on board.

Lucinda Comport (Interpretation Assistant) 

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