If, like me, you’ve been enjoying the ITV period drama “Victoria”, you can’t fail to have been captivated by the opulent interiors on display. Dubbed “the new Downton”, this series explores the life of Queen Victoria, from the early days of her reign right through to her marriage to Albert, and gives a fascinating insight into the homes in which she lived.
During the Victorian era, the kitchen acted as the nerve centre for the whole home, and was particularly important for the aristocracy, who depended on lavish, formal meals to impress and influence their peers. But how did the Victorians cope without all the modern day conveniences such as electricity and hot running water? How did they keep food fresh?
We take a look at how the modern kitchens we’re used to compare to their Victorian counterparts.
Everything but the kitchen sink
First off, there was a simple golden rule applied to all grand houses: The kitchen was to be used for cooking food alone. Everything else, including preparation, washing up and cleaning was to be carried out in a separate room called the scullery. This rule was even applied to smaller dwellings.
Of course, these days we’d be shocked to find a kitchen without a kitchen sink, but that was precisely the situation in most Victorian homes. However, in more recent times, the housebuilding trend has started to favour a separate room for cleaning – but instead of calling it a scullery, we now call it a utility room, and you’ll most commonly find a washing machine and tumble dryer in its midsts, along with perhaps a fridge freezer and some recycling bins.
When it came to walls, floors and work surfaces, Victorian kitchens would have made best use of the materials available at the time. Walls would have been plastered and whitewashed, with a coating that was said to repel insects, whilst on the floor, flag stones or tiles were the covering of choice.
The lower part of the walls would often be surrounded by duckboards or tiles, which were easily washable, which was just as well, what with all the spills and mess that would be created in such a busy part of the home.
Work surfaces would largely be constructed from wood. It was a commonly available material, could be scrubbed clean and didn’t taint the food.
These days, in modern kitchens you’ll still find tiles on the walls and floors, providing a decorative and easily-maintained surface, but you are also likely to find vinyl flooring and wallpaper, which again can be easily cleaned.
Whilst solid wood kitchen worktops are still readily available, there are now a wide range of versatile and easily cleanable options to choose from, including acrylic and laminate worktops, or even decorative granite.
Cooking on gas
Whilst experimental gas cookers were available during the latter part of the 19th century, they were viewed with a certain degree of scepticism. At the heart of the Victorian kitchen, and arguably the whole house, you would find the range cooker.
Using solid fuel such as coke or charcoal, a fire would be set by the Scullery Maid and stoked when required for use, leading to sweltering temperatures in what would have been the basement of a grand house. To combat this, windows would be as high up the walls as possible, and ceilings would also be high, allowing the hot air to keep rising and eventually escape.
Ventilation is usually a much simpler matter these days, with cooker hoods quickly and efficiently drawing steam and condensation away from the kitchen.
Turning the table
Aside from a central kitchen table, which in those times would have been the main preparation area, work surfaces and the grand cooker, there was no real furniture inside a Victorian kitchen, apart from a dresser. The dresser was formed from a series of open wooden shelves, perfect for quick and easy access to implements, crockery and cutlery, much like those you’d find in today’s professional kitchens.
Nowadays, the table is still at the heart of the kitchen, but performs a very different function. It allows the family to sit down, eat together and socialise in the very room in which the food is prepared. Most food preparation takes place on kitchen worktops which form part of a modular range of fitted furniture for modern kitchens, including cupboards, a sink and integrated appliances such as a dishwasher, washing machine, microwave, cooker, hob and fridge freezer.
Of course, these days we take our fridge freezers for granted (until there is a power cut and we all panic!) and don’t really spare a thought about how we would make our food last without them.
In Victorian times, such luxuries didn’t exist and, instead, a larder would be used to store food. This would take the form of a small, darkened room, kept away from the warmth of the kitchen, where food could be stored at a lower temperature, so that it didn’t spoil quickly. Of course, during the summer months, this was far from ideal.
Why not find out more about Victorian kitchens for yourself this weekend, with one of the National Trust’s “below stairs” tours?