Amersham’s “lost” 19th century soup kitchens
This article was written by Philip J Carstairs for this website
The Amersham Soup Society was set up in 1798 to run a soup kitchen for Amersham’s poor. The years at the end of the eighteenth century were particularly hard ones for the poor. A series of bad harvests and poor weather resulted in grain and bread prices reaching levels that were unaffordable for the unskilled labourers, the unemployed and poor. For the better-off the consequent increases in the poor rate to pay for relief were resented if not burdensome, at least for the poorer ratepayers. Food riots and civil unrest occurred throughout Britain, alarming Pitt’s government which always had one eye on the instability in Continental Europe where the French revolution and the rise of Napoleon were underway. The local militia and troops were frequently used to quell disorder, but local communities responded in different ways to the crisis. By 1797, many charitable groups took matters into their own hands and set up soup kitchens in most large towns and cities.
In Amersham, the Soup Society was formed. Little is known about this society (its records are now in the Franklin Library at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, USA), but if it was anything like other contemporary soup kitchens, its committee will have been made up of local community leaders, businessmen, shop keepers and farmers, perhaps with leadership from the local Quaker Meeting and support from the local aristocracy. It will have raised funds from local subscribers. We know it had a small soup kitchen located in one room in the Shambles, measuring about 3m by 12m. The Soup Society’s minute book contains a plan which shows a room open at one end, facing an “open space in the shambles which in common may still be used at times for the market if necessary”. At the back of the room was a large “copper”, a brick-built stove with an enormous metal cooking pot built into it. The larger coppers were capable of cooking more than 100 gallons of soup, enough to provide soup to several hundred of the poor. A small kitchen area was all that was required – the standard soup kitchen recipes of the day consisted of beef, peas, barley and onions simmered for up to six hours. The plan also shows a serving counter and a small cubicle where the poor had to show their ticket entitling them to soup and pay towards the cost of the soup (usually one penny). While modern views of charity are somewhat different, the Georgians and Victorians believed that the soup should not be given away as to do so would make the poor dependent on charity and weaken their self-reliance (and free soup might easily become pig feed).
We don’t know exactly where Amersham’s Shambles were. Many towns had shambles in the eighteenth century and earlier although most have now disappeared; the term was frequently used to describe a row of flimsily built shops, often used by butchers, usually in or near a market square. The description on the plan certainly links the location to the area of the market, a fact confirmed by a 1682 lease of the Market Hall from Sir William Drake that stated “all that howse and the appurtenances commonly cald or known by the name of Markethowse and alsoe the pile of buildings cald the Butchers Shambles … together with the free liberty to set up upon the Market days … Stalls, pennes and coopes for tradesmen and cattell”. [From Amersham Town Council’s brochure for the Market Hall.]
The Shambles probably stood in the Market Square, possibly in the vicinity of the row of cottages that stood in the Market Square near Broadway until 1939. The plan suggests that there might have been enough space over the kitchen for a store room for ingredients. The Soup Society probably closed in the early 1800s; whether it ever re-opened, as many other soup kitchens did, is unknown.
On 22 December 1855, the Bucks Herald reported that a soup kitchen in the town had again opened “for the purpose of supplying the poor and the labouring classes with good soup at one penny per quart” (about a third to a quarter of cost price). At roughly the same time, Chesham also opened a soup kitchen. The Amersham institution was run by a team of women, Mrs. Aylward, Mrs. Faithorn, Mrs. Godwin, Mrs. Walker, and the Misses Faithorn and C. Sutthery, with the involvement of the Statham family and the Drake family, represented by the Rev. J. T. Drake and his wife and Mrs. Drake of Shardeloes. It was open three days a week and located somewhere on the Weller’s Brewery premises. Between 200 and 300 poor families were in receipt of soup from the kitchen that winter. Given that the population of Amersham was about 3,600, between 10 and 20% of the population of Amersham would have attended the soup kitchen. This figure is not unusually high when compared to other nearby towns for which any documentary evidence survives such as Berkhamsted. In the penultimate paragraph of an article by Michael Brooks he mentions the Drake family’s involvement in the soup kitchen, but no other evidence for it is known.
However, it may have closed by 1903, because Mrs. A. J. Berkley decided to open a soup kitchen at her residence (Bucks Herald 24 January 1903). Again, we do not know exactly where this was; Kelly’s Directory of 1903 lists Arthur John Berkley as a farmer on Union Street (now Whielden Street, possibly at Crown Farm) to the south east of the Old Town and as a private resident at the Common (to the north east of the Old Town). Union Street would have been much more convenient to the town’s poor.
Although soup kitchens such as Amersham’s three performed a life-saving role during hard times, both the buildings and the documentary evidence for them have largely disappeared, or are at least hidden. We do not know how regularly the soup kitchens operated or exactly where they were; it would be surprising if after 1855, it had not operated most winters; Chesham’s soup kitchen is mentioned in newspapers fairly regularly throughout the second half of the nineteenth century and Berkhamsted’s operated most winters from the 1840s until at least 1897.