Category Archives: Deptford, pudding, recipe, food, London

The Beggarstaff Man

“Why,” I wondered yesterday as I sat in the hairdressers chair, “do men, once they reach a certain age, suddenly like dark chocolate?”  “My dad loves dark chocolate,” said hairdresser Hattie.

Beggarstaff Brothers Rowntree's Cocoa poster 1895

The Beggarstaffs Poster for Rowntree's Cocoa 1895

The Beggarstaffs were artists William Nicholson and James Pryde. As students they travelled to Paris and were influenced by the posters of Toulouse-Lautrec and Jules Chéret.  In 1894 the pair began calling themselves The Beggarstaff Brothers. They revolutionised poster design in Britain using flat colours, clear outlines, and making collages from coloured paper to produce striking graphic images of everything from Queen Victoria to Rowntrees Cocoa.

In London’s East End the portly well-dressed gentleman with his delicate cup of cocoa must have looked out of place among the slums and the grinding poverty.  Bethnal Green was home to the most notorious London rookery, the Old Nichol.

Map of the Old Nichol district of Bethnal Green

The Old Nichol district of Bethnal Green 1892

The Old Nichol had grown from a few houses in 1680 on a field dug for brick-making, to a shanty-town of hovels built to accommodate the arrival of 25,000 Hugenot refugees,  Jews from Eastern Europe, immigrant weavers from Ireland and the rapidly increasing indigenous population.  By 1880 the Old Nichol covered 15 acres, or just a square quarter mile, but it contained some of the worst constructed house anywhere in Britain,  crammed together in alleys and courts joined together by arteries of narrow lanes.

A Court off Boundary Street 1890

A Court off Boundary Street in the Old Nichol, 1890

Families sometimes of ten people occupied single rooms in dwellings built with half-baked bricks and a mortar made from a waste product of soap manufacture called ‘billysweet’. The mortar never dried-out, and floorboards were laid onto earth. With little or no foundations the walls and floors sagged, and the interiors were permanently damp. In these teeming conditions people scraped a living making matchboxes, smoking fish, catching birds to sell, or just thieving. Anything to keep the rent man at bay on ‘Black Monday’. No running water, no lavatories, and into that stew were added horses, donkeys, pigs, chickens, ducks, dogs and of course rats. Infant mortality was twice the number in the rest of Bethnal Green, and five out of six child deaths were caused by suffocation, their parents or bigger siblings rolling on top of them at night and smothering them. The squalor and depravity was almost indescribable, but Dickens tried. He visited Jacobs Island in Bermondsey, the setting for Fagin’s rookery in ‘Oliver Twist’, the Old Nichol would have been too dangerous.  He was accompanied by two senior policemen and three constables, with a further platoon of officers within a whistles-blow. “Wretched houses with broken windows patched with rags and paper: every room let out to a different family, and in many instances to two or even three … filth everywhere — a gutter before the houses and a drain behind — clothes drying and slops emptying, from the windows; girls of fourteen or fifteen, with matted hair, walking about barefoot, and in white great-coats, almost their only covering; boys of all ages, in coats of all sizes and no coats at all; men and women, in every variety of scanty and dirty apparel, lounging, scolding, drinking, smoking, squabbling, fighting, and swearing.”

Charles Booth's poverty map of Bethnal Green 1889

Charles Booth's Poverty Map from 1889. The black and dark blue denotes the poorest most criminal areas

The Old Nichol was even worse than that, “one painful and monotonous round of vice, filth, and poverty, huddled in dark cellars, ruined garrets, bare and blackened rooms, teeming with disease and death.” As the 19th Century drew to a close two books were influential in awakening the public conscience,  Arthur Morrison’s  “A Child of The Jago” about the Old Nichol, and Jack London’s “The People of The Abyss“.

Arnold Circus bandstand

The bandstand at Arnold Circus, built on a mound of rubble from the Old Nichol rookery. ©Philip Walker

The newly formed LCC began pulling-down the slums in 1891, and in its place created the Boundary Estate, the first council housing in the world, with gardens built triumphantly on a mound of rubble from the Old Nichol. The Rowntree Cocoa poster appeared at this time, one of the biggest posters the Beggarstaffs ever produced. I imagine it was left hanging on a partly demolished wall, a target for resentful mud-slinging locals. A passing versifier wrote :

                                          “A splotch of mud on the Beggarstaff Man,

                                                        A splotch, that is all.

                                          But it blinds the eye of the Cocoa Man,

                                                  On a Bethnal Green dead wall.”

Aztec woman pouring cocoa from cup to cup to make froth

Aztec woman pouring cocoa from cup to cup to make the sacred froth ca.1553

Cocoa, or cacao beans came from Central and Southern America. Cultivation was first recorded 3,500 years ago, and the beans were sacred to the Mayan and Aztec civilisations. When the Spanish arrived they found the Emperor Moctezuma II would drink it flavoured with spices and whipped into a froth from a gold goblet for dinner.  It was brought to Spain by the conquistador Henri Cortez, but the Spanish found the drink bitter and almost unpalatable. By adding flavours such as cinnamon and pepper, and later of course sugar, chocolate drinking became popular but largely confined to Spain.  When Cromwell’s Navy captured Jamaica from the Spanish, the English found cacao plantations planted by the Spanish.

Bishopsgate, London, 1650

Bishopsgate in London, 1650.

The first advertisement for chocolate in London appeared in 1657,  “In Bishopsgate Street in Queen’s Head Alley, at a Frenchman’s house, is an excellent West Indian drink called chocolate, to be sold, where you may have it ready at any time, and also unmade, at reasonable rates.”

Making chocolate was very labour intensive and along-winded. The cocoa nuts were split and the beans dried in the sun before shipping to England. Then the dried beans were roasted and winnowed to remove the shells leaving ‘nibs’, which were ground on a special stone turning them into a paste which was dried in moulds. Only then could they be transformed into chocolate. You need between 300 and 600 beans to make 1 kg of chocolate.

Cocoa Nut

Cocoa Fruit or Nut, 20cm long!

17th and 18th Century chocolate would be unrecognisable to us today, the drink was thick, cool, and gritty. Bitter and grown-up, especially if it was mixed with wine or port.  I’ve never been a fan of chocolate, too sweet and sticky. Watching the crowds of (mostly) women excitedly gather around the stalls selling chocolate at Borough Market I wonder what it is that makes it so appealing.  Apparently twice as many women as men crave chocolate, and men mostly prefer bitter chocolate.

Keith Floyd and Clarissa Porter cooking in Devon.

Keith Floyd and Clarissa in his kitchen in Devon. The fridge is on the left.

Some years ago I was waiting with Clarissa for Keith Floyd in his Devon kitchen. We waited with M, a free-lance journalist. Keith was in Tuckenhay preparing for the lunchtime service at The Maltsters Arms. M was hungry, and she rifled through his fridge. “Mmm…” she said, “…chocolate.” She turned to us brandishing a large bar of Bourneville. “You’d better not touch that,” warned Clarissa. “Why not? Keith won’t mind, will he?” replied M.  “Yes he’ll mind very much, he’s numbered each piece.” Maria shrugged disbelievingly and scoffed some Bourneville. Keith appeared and he and Clarissa started cooking. I sat watching, and M started banging away at her laptop. M’s obsession was to be given a column on a certain tabloid. “Kelvin is interested in my ideas,” she’d gasp. Nothing else mattered, she’d sit all day bashing-out ideas for her non-existent column, instead of doing what she was supposed to be doing, and recording Keith’s every word. Stopping for coffee Keith went to the fridge, “Who’s touched my chocolate?” He said a mite grumpily. “I didn’t think you’d mind,” said M brightly.  “Well, I do.” And Keith refused to acknowledge her presence for the rest of the day, but at every opportunity dropped into the conversation his observations on trust and honesty, and how some people would stop at nothing in their pursuit of self-gratification. And so on.


Dr Matthew Green

If you’d like to find out more about London’s chocolate history, I recommend Dr Matthew Green‘s Chocolate and Coffee Tour. Matthew guides the tour around the sights, sounds, and smells of 18th Century London, complete with actors in period costume, and the chance to taste an authentic 18th Century cocoa. It’ll be a bit different to the usual walking tour, he had the idea when he was writing “The Lost World Of the London Coffeehouse’ which will be published through the Idler Academy in May. Invited to give talks at The Academy, Selfridges and at the upcoming Port Eliot Festival he thought there might be an audience for a real-life experience and assembled a team of actors and musicians to bring to life the streets and coffee houses of 17th Century London.

17th Century Chocolate House

London Chocolate House in the 17th Century

I met Matthew in The Black Lab, he ordered hot chocolate of course and began regaling me with chocolatey anecdotes. “If you could try 17th Century chocolate you’d probably choke!” He said sipping his cocoa. ” It was bitter and gritty and quite sludgy. But it became very popular in the coffee houses, in 1663 there were 82 coffee houses in the City of London, 100 years later there were 3,000 in London, and remember there were no news services. You went to a coffee house, and sat at a big communal table and immediately started a conversation with the person sitting next to you; that was the convention and how you learned the latest gossip and news. ‘What news have you?’ would be the shout as a newcomer entered.”  I glanced across the road at a chain coffee shop and today’s coffee ‘experience’. Lone customers sitting in hushed reverence with their latte, staring at their laptops. Imagine rushing into a smoke-filled Costa sweaty, unwashed, a clay pipe clamped between your blistered lips, clothes layered upon layer and dirty from the street, flopping down next to a perfect stranger and shouting “What news?!”

Map of Deptford and Docks

The Victualling Yard at Deptford, 1813.

Chocolate was more difficult and time-consuming to prepare than coffee or tea.  In Deptford’s Royal Victoria Victualling Yard, cocoa for the Navy was produced. Sailors had chocolate for breakfast, it replaced the unpleasant burgoo, coarse oatmeal and water.

The Cocoa Bean Roasters in Deptford's Victualling Yard

Cocoa Bean Roasters in Deptford's Royal Victoria Victualling Yard 1896

Sailors enjoyed generous daily rations. In 1622 the allowance was 1lb biscuit and 1 gallon beer every day, 2 lb salt beef four days a week, together with 1 lb of bacon or pork, 1 pint of pease. And for the other 3 days a quarter pound of salt fish and quarter pound of butter and a quarter pound of cheese. Additionally the sailors could buy other food from his wages. In the 18thn Century he gallon of beer, long a source of trouble, gave way to chocolate and tea.  Good living was one of the inducements to joining-up. Chocolate, or cocoa, or as sailors called it pussers ki was produced in Deptford from raw beans, more than 800 tonnes a year was made in the Victualling Yard. The ‘ordinary’ at 84% cocoa nibs the most pure chocolate, and the ‘soluble’. The ‘ordinary’ took several hour to prepare starting the night before when the chocolate was grated from 7 lb slabs, stamped with the Admiralty arrow, then locked away under sentry guard till the early hours when it was transferred to the ship’s coppers (boilers) and boiled for 3 or 4 hours, before being served for breakfast, with biscuit when the bugle sounded ‘Cooks of Messes’. The soluble chocolate which was less pure at 64% contained sago flour and could be prepared quickly, therefore more suited to drinking on watch in bad weather. It wasn’t till the advent of the modern drinking cocoa from Rowntree and Cadbury that it was taken up by the mass of the population at the end of the 19th Century.

Rabot Estate Cocoa Growers

Rabot Estates in Borough Market

I went to Borough Market, to Rabot Estate, buying 100% pure cocoa bean shavings, £7.50 for 120g; but you can buy 100% cocoa by Willie’s Cacao in Waitrose, I’d recommend the Venezuelan at about £6 for 180g.

My recipe is for an authentic cocoa drink from the 17th Century. I pushed the boat out and bought a chocolate cup on ebay, a Royal Worcester design by Sir Joshua Reynolds dated 1765, when the artist was founding the Royal Academy.

You can adapt this recipe to your liking by adding or subtracting ingredients. Be prepared for a surprise, there’s nothing whispery about this drink!

Cocoa, recipe for real cocoa hot chocolate 17th Century

17th Century Restoration Cocoa

Restoration Cocoa, or, a Real Hot Chocolate

Serves 4

Preparation time 10 minutes



Whole milk

1 star anise

1 pimento, or a sweet chili pepper

Half stick of cinnamon

Few scrapes of nutmeg

Pinch of black pepper

Few drops of pure vanilla essence

Few drops of orange flower water

6 heaped tsp of ground almonds

1 tbs honey, or more, to taste. Or sugar the same.

2 tbs pure 100% cocoa


The amount of water and milk depends on the cup size. I used an authentic chocolate cup which is about the size of a demi-tasse: 100ml. So for 4 cup servings I needed 100ml water, and 300 ml milk. In a small pan bring the water to the boil, and in a separate pan heat the milk gently.

With a pestle and mortar pound the star anise, the pimento or chili pepper, the nutmeg, the cinnamon, and the pepper. Pound till it resembles ground coffee. Add a few drops of pure vanilla essence and orange flower water, and the ground almonds. Combine all these ingredients then drizzle-in the honey so the mixture resembles a grainy paste.

Stir the paste into the boiling water till smooth, then spoon the cocoa into the milk.

Finally add the water to the milk and whisk gently on a low heat till the mixture thickens slightly. Pour warm into your cups to serve.

©2012 David Porter

Rhubarb Rhubarb

Rhubarb, mmm Rhubarb!

Joseph Myatt is another unsung food hero of Deptford. Born in 1770 in Maer in Staffordshire, Joseph travelled south to work as a nurseryman for ‘Mad Jack’ Fuller in Sussex.  In the early 1880s Myatt brought his family to Deptford and Manor Farm where he began growing strawberries.

Manor Farm (in the centre of the map) in 1833

He cultivated many new varieties: Myatt’s Pine in 1832, Eliza named after his daughter in 1836, British Queen, described as the most famous strawberry ever raised in England, and Deptford Pine in 1843. Myatt held annual Strawberry Feasts at Manor Farm which lasted for days, with tents, bunting and fireworks, and girls dressed as Greek goddesses riding on carts carrying baskets of strawberries. I think we can deduce that Joseph Myatt was an enterprising and forward-looking man with an eye for the main chance, so it’s no surprise that he tried his hand growing rhubarb. “Rhubarb, hmm, sharp and tangy,” he probably thought, “will complement my sweet strawberries.”

Myatt's British Queen strawberry, named in Honour of Queen Victoria in 1840

Before Joseph Myatt rhubarb was considered a medicinal herb. The root was known as a purgative, excellent for constipation, and as a general cure-all. Rhubarb came from China and Siberia, the name is derived from Rha, the old name for the Volga river. Marco Polo wrote of the miraculous root and it began to be traded through Venice into Italy in 1608, and then onward into the rest of Europe.  It was extremely expensive simply because of the distance it travelled, at first it was worth more than gold or opium. In 1657 a London pharmacist listed the powdered root at 16/- per pound, nearly three times the price of opium.

But no one considered eating rhubarb, it was the stock in trade of the apothecary and the druggist.

The 18th C Bow Street Court at 4, Bow Street.

In the year Joseph Myatt was born, one Thomas Davis was charged with stealing musk, saffron, mace and 22 lb of rhubarb from his employers Messrs Kenton and Vazey, apothecaries of Lawrence Lane in the City. The goods were valued at £130, an enormous sum, and Davis was found out because his accomplice Sam Smith offered them to a Mr Winch, a druggist in the Haymarket, who then offered to sell them to Kenton and Vazey.

Davis and Smith appeared before the celebrated magistrate Sir John Fielding, the ‘Blind Beak’ and brother of Sir Henry Fielding the author of Tom Jones. In 1749 the Fielding brothers founded the Bow Street Runners and were fearsome guardians of the law. Despite statements of previous good character, the verdict was guilty, and the punishment was death.

Sir John Fielding, the 'Blind Beak' and founder of the Bow Street Runners

Joseph Myatt experimented with different hybrids of rhubarb producing cultivars of differing colour and flavour. He hoped he could convince the public to eat the stems along with his strawberries, and in 1809 sent his sons to Borough Market with 5 bunches of rhubarb. They only managed to sell 3 bunches to the sceptical traders, but Joseph wasn’t detered and persisted in offering rhubarb for sale. In 1815 at the Chelsea Physic Garden it was discovered by accident that if the plant was covered and kept in darkness it produced sweeter, more tender shoots earlier in the year, so-called ‘forced rhubarb’. But the real trigger to start the change from medicine to food was the arrival of cheaper sugar. By the 19th Century rhubarb was so popular, here and in France, and in America, that demand exceeded supply.

18th C. Advertisement for Night Soil Men. Image from Wikipedia.

Soon London was ringed with rhubarb fields fertilised with ‘night soil’ (poo!) from the City.

Joseph Myatt died in 1855, and was buried in Nunhead Cemetery. The family remained in the area, several Myatts lived in Foxberry Road;  his son James took the business to Camberwell where Myatt’s Fields still exists as a park. Joseph’s grandson Frank migrated to Australia in 1906 and started a vineyard still producing wine today, they hold an annual Strawberry Fair to remember where and how it all began!

Manor Farm was sold to accommodate the Victorian building boom and the coming of the railways. The farm buildings were between present-day Breakspears Road and Wickham Road; nothing remains but in the 1970s and early 1980s we kept a horse in livery stables behind a house on the eastern side of Breakspears, now developed into Tack Mews. That was probably the last remnants of the farmyard.  There are no plaques or statues to Joseph Myatt, he is remembered only by the name of the local school, Myatt Garden, and the street Manor Avenue.

Ticket to Nunhead from Brockley Lane, image from

The railways were the death of London’s market gardens, and rhubarb growing moved north to the area between Wakefield, Leeds, and Bradford: Yorkshire’s ‘rhubarb triangle’. Here sheds were built to grow forced rhubarb in darkness. The soil was perfect, the water from the Pennines was just right, the mills provided ‘shoddy’ a by-product of wool manufacture used to mulch the soil, and beneath the sheds were the coal mines which produced cheap fuel to heat the forcing sheds. Excellent railway links to the rest of the country provided the final piece of the jigsaw. Rhubarb became more and more popular, soon there were 200 growers and every night during the long season special trains known as The Rhubarb Express took the fruit to Covent Garden.

When I was growing up, everyone had a rhubarb patch in their back garden, a leftover from the War, as kids we’d dip a stick of rhubarb into a bag of sugar and happily chew away the hours. During the War the government listed rhubarb as an essential food and fixed the price at 1/- per pound. But ironically wartime rationing of sugar caused a generation of children to turn their backs on rhubarb and the industry went into a steep decline, accelerated by the arrival of cheap exotic fruit from abroad. One of the growers,  second-generation rhubarb grower Ken Oldroyd, refused to be beaten and bought up abandoned rhubarb fields, expanding the business. His daughter Janet and her son now run the business, forced rhubarb from late December to March then field rhubarb from April till September/October. They produce over 1,000 tons annually, 200 tons forced in her candle-lit sheds.

Janet Oldroyd in a Forcing Shed

Janet is something of a human dynamo when it comes to rhubarb and local tourism, winning awards for both, and she’s one of Rick Stein’s Food Heroes. She thinks this is rhubarb’s time, “We all want to eat healthily, and rhubarb is very good for you, we want people to buy our rhubarb because they can afford it and like the taste. Not because it is expensive and exclusive.”  The Yorkshire growers have shrunk in number from 200 before the war to just 12 now, but initiatives like the Rhubarb Trail and the annual Food and Rhubarb Festival in Wakefield in February.

My Box of Rhubarb from E.Oldroyd & Sons

I’ve been buying Oldroyd’s forced rhubarb for the last three years, you order by post or telephone and then a box of perfectly wonderful rhubarb arrives by courier. It’s a bit of a  treat buying rhubarb this way, making the ordinary special I think, and they sell rhubarb plants as well and will advise on the different varieties. They even sell Myatt’s Queen Victoria!  Thanks to Janet Yorkshire rhubarb has been recognised by the EU and designated a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin). You can take a tour of the forcing sheds and see the rhubarb growing by candlelight, Janet says it’s a unique experience, “It’s very calming in the sheds, it has almost a religious effect on people when they are in the warm candle-lit darkness. A very pleasant feeling, if you’re very quiet you might hear a bud burst as leaf pushes through. To me it’s like a field of daffodils, but inside. You’ve just got to be quiet and at peace.”

Rhubarb goes well with both fish and meat. Mackerel with rhubarb compote is very nice, rhubarb with duck, goose, or even black pudding is scrummy. The classic puddings really can’t be bettered, the pies and the tarts, the simple rhubarb and custard, or how about an old-fashioned plate pie of rhubarb cooked in pale ale! Yesterday I was talking to Daman Buckingham, a butcher at Secretts Farm. Daman asked if I had any ideas for a sausage; he wanted to use coconut and ginger and wondered if I had any ideas for the meat content.  Duck was the obvious choice, though the texture would be a bit smooth for my taste. I suggested adding rhubarb, we know it goes well with ginger and duck, but I wonder about the coconut?

My recipe is a twist on the classic Rhubarb and Custard, a tart to bring back memories, I hope.

Rhubarb and Custard Tart/ Rhubarb and Custard Pie

Rhubarb and Custard Tart

Rhubarb and Custard Tart

Preparation time: 10 minutes + 30 minutes resting time for the dough

Cooking Time: 55 minutes


For the pastry,

2 large free range eggs
225g  unsalted butter
1 tablespoon of caster sugar
275g  plain flour

For the filling,

1 kg  of rhubarb, forced if possible, sliced into 40mm (1.5”) pieces.
150g  brown sugar
Knob of butter
dash of brandy

for the custard,

2 egg yolks
75 ml double cream
1 teaspoon vanilla essence


First make the pastry, and as usual try to do this in cold conditions on a cold surface.

With a hand blender and a large bowl whizz together the eggs, butter, and sugar. Then sift in the flour and fold together. Tip out onto a cold floured surface and knead once or twice, gently.
Wrap in clingfilm and chill for at least 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, place the rhubarb pieces in a large frying pan, if possible in a single layer. Sprinkle with sugar, add the butter and cook very gently for about 5 minutes, till the sugar dissolves and the rhubarb is nearly but not quite cooked. Pour on a dash of brandy and sizzle for another 30 seconds or so, you’ll have to judge it. Then remove from the heat.
Grease a 25cm (10”) flan tin, roll out the pastry and line the tin, baking blind for 15 minutes at 200C (400 F). Remove from the oven and allow to cool then carefully arrange the rhubarb evenly in the pastry case, and pour over syrup left in the frying pan. Whisk the egg yolks, cream and vanilla and pour over the rhubarb. Return to the oven and cook at 200C (400F) for 35 minutes. Serve hot or cold and watch it disappear!

©2012 David Porter.

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