Chimneys and factory stacks billowing out into the night; corridors of tall, blackened brick buildings and wide, packed streets; dark and gloomy but for the white of the snow and the flames of gaslight; people, orphans, huddled together, wrapped in as many layers as they can get their hands on – cold, and hungry; starving – everyone else walking on, ambivalent, uncaring, unwilling to help.
These sorts of images are likely easily pictured by most people – they are the sort of Dickensian ideas that have come to predominate popular ideas of Victorian winters – and yet, it seems, the winter of 1858 in Harrow may fit this rather mythical ideal rather well.
Accounts of 1858 indicate that the winter of this year was a particularly harsh one. Though exact data on the conditions are difficult to come by, multiple paintings of buildings in the colder months of 1858 and 1859 indicate widespread snowfall across the country. With homelessness and poverty rife, such conditions were potentially lethal for many – so much so that any life-line, whatever form it could come in and however far it could go, would be readily seized by most. Imagine then, the prospect of cheap, warm food – a winter’s broth of beef and vegetable to beat back the bitter cold. For many, no doubt, such an idea would have been too good to be true – but for the children of Hatch End in 1858, this was exact life-line they enjoyed.
Run by Isabella Mary Beeton, now of nationwide fame for her cookbook and recipes, out of her own home in Pinner, this soup kitchen provided for countless children and their families during the harsh winter months of 1858. Thanks to Beeton’s domestic knowhow, the soup offered used ingredients like beef trimmings which, at the time, could be bought cheaply – allowing the soup to be affordable even for those with little else to live on – a fact which no doubt saved dozens, if not more, lives. It’s the sort of charitable act that would fit right at home in Dickensian fairy-tales, and yet, in this instance, is actually true.
In fact, Isabella Beeton’s whole life – or certainly her adulthood – at times reads like a grand Dickensian narrative. Born in London, Beeton was educated at Heidelberg, Germany, and later moved to Harrow after marrying Samuel Orchard Beeton. Yet, though a fruitful partnership was at the centre of their marriage – with Samuel deeply creative; Isabella a careful researcher – it was not to be a life of luxury. Partly due to Samuel’s impulsiveness, the married couple’s experience of the 1850s was dogged by constant financial woes, and further worsened by repeated miscarriages that, in 1865, finally claimed Isabella’s life when she was only twenty-eight.
The fact that, in between all this, Isabella Beeton found the time and the heart to run such a soup kitchen, and not to mention write the famous Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management – which by 1868 had sold nearly two million copies – is nothing short of amazing.
A meticulous, entrepreneurial and yet altruistic woman, Isabella Beeton and her Hatch End soup kitchen is another notable tale from Harrow’s history – one that, perhaps in light of Isabella’s continual hardship, has something of a tragic, melancholy tone to it. Dickensian through and through, perhaps. For those curious, the exact recipe Beeton used for her soup kitchen can be found online (link here) – aptly named the ‘Soup for Benevolent Purposes.’ Meanwhile, though the Beetons’ estate was bombed during the Blitz of World War II, Isabella – as well as her husband – are forever immortalised by a road near their the site of their old home.
One Beeton Close, in Hatch End, Harrow – the torchbearer of a selfless legacy; a memorial to the tragic tale of Isabella Beeton, and to all the lives she helped stop, in those winter months of 1858, from becoming but more tragedies.
Written by Harry Turner.
Image Credit: ‘Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward’