Voracious and adventurous in her tastes, Queen Victoria was head of state during a revolution in how we ate - from the highest tables to the most humble. Bursting with original research, A Greedy Queen considers Britain's most iconic monarch from a new perspective, telling the story of British food along the way.

Read this fascinating extract all about Victoria's cooks - with some surprising similarities to how workers in the UK are treated today...


Dishes don’t cook themselves, and the vast and occasionally stinky kitchens at the various palaces were inhabited by a permanent staff of men and women. They occupied a bewildering variety of positions, named according to an archaic structure unique to the royal Establishment. There were between 35 and 45 cooks, but around them was a range of other people, employed in departments such as the cellar, the pantry, the silver room and the coffee room. In all, and excluding those who worked in the gardens, filling the stomachs of the palace residents provided direct employment for around 70 people in 1841, with the number rising slightly by the end of Victoria’s reign. They were all lumped under the heading of the Lord Steward’s Department and kept firmly below stairs. Hidden deep within the palaces, cooking for thousands of people each month, they had to be both gourmet chefs, catering to individual tastes, and mass caterers, churning out meals for hundreds or thousands of people at one sitting. It was a unique place to work, bound by traditions which sometimes seemed as antiquated as the buildings that on occasion housed them.

The structure of the royal kitchens had developed over many hundreds of years, and was peculiar to the palaces. Many of the offices and departments had medieval origins, though modernity had intruded in individual form by 1837 in the form of gas apparatus men. Within the Lord Steward’s Department, the kitchen was the biggest section, though it was itself divided into kitchen, confectionery, pastry and bakery (this was sometimes included with the pastry division). There was also a ‘ewery’ (responsible for table linen), the silver pantry (which also included all the gold), the cellar (wine and beer) and the table-deckers. Those who worked in these divisions formed the bulk of the department, but they had a staff of middle managers above them. For the kitchens, this was a set of four clerks of the kitchen, above whom was a Clerk Comptroller. His job was to plan the menus, send them up to the Queen for approval, fill in the ledgers and, with his deputies, order food and supplies and ensure the smooth running of the whole thing. Above them the structure grew hazier and less inclined to definable work. There was the inevitable committee, The Board of the Green Cloth, which had existed since the medieval period but which by Victoria’s reign largely looked after disputes, as well as administering the payroll. Even higher up were two highly salaried political appointees, the Lord Steward and his deputy, who wisely left all of the nitty-gritty to the administrators below them.

Beyond the Lord Steward’s Department were others, including the Lord Chamberlain’s Department, with which there was a great deal of crossover, for this included housemaids and serving staff; effectively front of house. The duties of everyone concerned were published for the wider public in one of those typically detailed, dry and utterly fascinating books in which Victorian Britain specialised. Sketches From Her Majesty’s Household (1848) was lavish in its praise of Albert’s household reforms, painting a picture of a newly reorganised Establishment, where everyone now knew their role, and no one took advantage of the system, or claimed perks to which they weren’t entitled. 2 It was a bit premature, for the Prince’s reordering took up most of the 1840s, and its repercussions were still being felt in the early 1850s, when the Buckingham Palace kitchens were finally rebuilt.

 In the kitchens, reforms had been ongoing for a while prior to Victoria’s accession. Many of the roles had been renamed over the previous 50 years – the Georgian children of the kitchen and boys of the kitchen (all adults, despite the names) had disappeared, while the turnbroaches of an earlier era no longer actively turned spits, and were now roasting cooks. Nevertheless, the full list of positions remained satisfyingly archaic. Top of the pile was the chief cook, occasionally also known as the maître d’hôtel. In 1837 this was William Bale, with an annual salary of £250. He was also entitled to apartments in St James’s Palace. There was very little inflation in the nineteenth century, and even in 1897 the chief cook’s salary had only risen to £300. Below him came two master cooks, on £150 and £220. Two yeomen of the mouth (by 1869 renamed as third and fourth master cooks) and two yeomen of the kitchen followed them. There were two roasting cooks, four apprentices, two scourers (scullery maids in any other world, but these were scullery men, and dignified with a different title), a woman cook and a kitchen maid. The kitchen staff in 1837 was completed by four non-cooking positions: a larderer, a storekeeper, a green office man (vegetable peeler) and an errand man or messenger. Meanwhile, the confectionery had two yeomen and two assistants, and the pastry had one yeoman and one assistant. Over the 63 years of Victoria’s reign, all of these roles shifted, as the emphasis on certain areas increased or declined. Already by the 1840s they had been joined by two more scourers, plus three assistant cooks (one was actually the renamed larderer, and the others were promoted apprentices), a baker and his assistant, and two gas apparatus men. More women swelled the ranks as well, as another kitchen maid and another pastry assistant were added to the wage lists. They were the lowest paid workers in the kitchen, earning £30 to £58 per year.3 The upper kitchen staff, including the clerks of the kitchen, also benefitted from extra allowances, including the £150 fee paid by parents to the kitchens for taking their children on as apprentices. Staff also received ‘vails’, gifts of money left by visiting dignitaries as tips, which were divided up according to seniority. Lodgings were provided, and full board when the royal family was in residence.

This structure remained largely unchanged throughout Victoria’s reign, along with the wages for each position. More women came in to fill the lower positions, which, invariably, underwent a hasty name change, in a cunning move to save money, for women could be paid about half as much for the same job that a man would do. The first women had joined the kitchens in active cooking roles during the Regency or in the 1810s, but they remained a minority. After Albert’s reforms in the 1840s, 8 out of 39 kitchen staff were women. By 1900 the figure was 8 out of 35.4 They all occupied subsidiary roles, whether within the kitchen proper, the confectionery or the pastry. This was normal. Large country houses, hotels and other wealthy establishments employed male cooks, ideally French male cooks, as a preference. Wages at country houses were usually in the region of £120–150 p.a. for a French male cook, with a slight decrease for an English male cook. Women, meanwhile, earned around £50–60 a year for the same job. Women had only entered the professional kitchen in the seventeenth century, and, despite a steady increase in the number of female cooks, were still regarded as inferior.

The cooks were a disparate group of people, from across Europe and occasionally beyond. They had to be ready for anything, from dealing with the appalling conditions of the Buckingham Palace kitchens in the 1840s, to cooking in a none-too-brilliantly converted stable at Osborne House. Every cook had to be prepared to work in any or all of the Queen’s palaces. As with country house staffing conventions, they moved with the family, and only a skeleton staff was left in each palace when it was vacated. However, if they did spend an occasional night without the main staff, they got an extra allowance, board wages, to cover eating expenses. Some cooks would usually be sent on ahead to the next palace to prepare for the descent of the full Household, while others stayed behind to clear up. In later years, when the Household was at the new, private palaces of Osborne and Balmoral, the staff divided entirely, some going with the Queen, and some remaining at Windsor, sending goods out as needed. Edible gifts winged their way across the world, especially at Christmas, while all of the stupendous iced wedding cakes that were produced for the weddings of Victoria’s many children, wherever they were held, were baked and decorated at Windsor. Victoria’s own wedding cake was made at Buckingham Palace by the then confectionery chef, the impressively named John Chichester Mawditt.

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