Wining and dining has long been a tradition at Tallow Chandlers Hall, from its earliest incarnation in the 1300s, to the present day.
The tradition of livery dinners began with the Tallow Chandlers’ association with the Fraternity of St John the Baptist. These religious organisations encouraged livery companies to give charitable donations and to dine, drink and socialise as a collective.
Food in the Middle Ages was not only used for nutrition, but as a display of wealth and status. The rarest and most expensive of ingredients at the time included spices from the Middle East. These were so valuable that soldiers in the Crusades were often paid with spices such as pepper, which at the time was worth significantly more that its weight in gold.
In the Middle Ages, the dinners of the wealthy would have been large and theatrical, with many courses of delicacies served while fire eaters, musicians and acrobats performed.
In contrast to these opulent feasts, the dominion of the Catholic Church also meant that days of fasting were also common, and members of the Tallow Chandlers’ Company were expected to adhere to these restrictions as part of a religious fellowship. Feast days were often held at the bequest of deceased members who left money in their wills for dinners, provided that members prayed to lessen the deceased’s stay in Purgatory.
After the Reformation, the Tallow Chandlers Company separated themselves from the Catholic fraternities for fear of religious persecution. However, they continued the tradition of dining as a Company, which they could do in a purpose-built hall, as of 1476.
In the Tudor period, food was still used as a symbol of status, with sugar, rather than spices being the must-have ingredient to demonstrate one’s wealth. Sugar was added to wine, savoury dishes and even built into sculptures of palaces to entertain dinner guests.
Beer was the drink of choice for all Londoners, rich and poor until the 20th century, as water was undrinkable. Because of this, most livery companies owned breweries and inns in the early modern period, including the Tallow Chandlers who leased out inns in the City and Southwark.
Beer came in two main categories: ‘small beer’ which was around 2% proof and was drunk as regularly as we drink water today, and ‘big beer’ which was considerable stronger. Among the wealthy, imported wine was popular and mulled and fortified wines were commonly drunk.
The 17th century was a period of contrast, both politically and when it came to dining trends. Under the reign of Cromwell, opulent dining and drunkenness were discouraged and displays of temperance were expected from those in high positions, rather than displays of wealth. Food was now considered to be sustenance, rather than an indication of status.
However, the City had, for the most part, backed Cromwell in the English Civil War, meaning that the ancient rights and customs of City liveries such as the Tallow Chandlers Company were less interfered with than those who had sided with Charles I.
The Restoration of the Monarchy ushered in a period of dining opulence not seen since the Roman occupation of Britain. Food was once again a symbol of status and the ‘foodie’ vogues of the time included parmesan, jellied cock’s combs and the newly invented fork.
A European influence was clearly seen in the dining rooms of England, with food no longer being served in courses, but delivered to the dining table all at once in the French tradition. It is from the late Stuart and early Georgian period that we can find the earliest written records of Company dinners, which clearly reflect the grand tradition of dining at the time.
Lord Mayor’s Dinner 1713
Ten Dishes of boiled fowl, three with two pounds of bacon, sausages and oysters in each
Two sirloins of beefs and two seven ribs
Seven dishes of turkeys with a chine of bacon in each dish
Eight dishes of geese, two roasted in each dish
Four ducks, Four partridges, Four teal and three larks
Eight dishes of minced pies, two in each dish
Eight almond puddings
Eight pippin tarts
Three dishes of custard
Three dishes of fruit
Two joints of meat, three fowls with bacon, sausages and oysters, and two geese for the after dinner
A joint of meat for the musicians
Eight gallons of canary
Eighteen gallons of claret
Six gallons of white wine
Together with a due proportion of bread and small drink (a weak ale) and other things usual and necessary for the said dinner
While dinners at Tallow Chandlers’ Hall continued to be grand during the Georgian and Victorian period, the Hall was in a state of disrepair, with pests and accumulated dirt causing the dining room to become unusable. By 1872, the company was forced to purchase several ferrets to help control its pest problem.
The Georgian and Victorian period saw an influx of new foods arriving in England from across Europe and the British Empire, and London was introduced to foods such as ice cream, due to a trend of building ‘ice houses.’
Spectacle was all important when it came to Edwardian meals, with the influence of haute cuisine chefs such as Georges Auguste Escoffier (who invented the peach melba) being apparent in the dining halls of the City.
Food was now being imported from across the empire, with ingredients such as turtle frequently appearing on the menus at Tallow Chandlers’ Hall. Menus of the period were ornate, covered with gold leaf, and were usually written in French, as was fashionable.
A 1909 Menu from a Dinner at Tallow Chandlers Hall
Turtle and Clear Turtle
Fillet Brill Dugleré (Brill in a Tomato and Cream Sauce)
Salmon á la Gourmet (Salmon in a Wine and Dill Sauce)
Whitebait á la Madras (Whitebait in a Curry Sauce)
Quails á l’Alicante (Quails in a Mayonnaise and Orange Sauce)
Chaudfroid Foie Gras aux Champagne (Fois Gras in a Champagne Jelly)
Spring Chicken, Neapolitan Sauce (Chicken in Tomato Sauce)
Ducks and Peas
Corbeille en Surprise (A Cake with a Surprise Filling)
During the first half of the 20th century, World War I and II affected almost every aspect of London life. With nearly every man of fighting age at war, and bombing and the threat of invasion affecting all those who remained at home, the City banded together to help Londoners at home and abroad.
With many of their members fighting on the front, and rationing in force at home, Tallow Chandler dinners became smaller, less frequent affairs. However, the Company continued to ensure that its members abroad were well wined and dined, sending care packages of spirits, cigars and foodstuffs to the front.
Company dinners, although somewhat less extravagant, continued in a limited capacity throughout World War II. Evidently, members were determined to continue with their dining activities, despite the risks they faced from German bombs.
The Company’s resilience (or possibly their stubbornness) during this period is perhaps best illustrated by an incident where members refused to abandon a luncheon, despite the risk that the ceiling may fall due to bomb damage. Several even signed indemnities, absolving the Company from liability should the roof cave in.
The Company continued their dining traditions into the 20th century, along with the newer tradition of letting out the Hall for events. However, these did not always go smoothly, as can be seen in an account from John Poole, the Beadle from 1929 and 1953. Mr. Poole’s account of a dinner held by the Fruiters Company reads like a catalogue of disaster, with the heat in the Hall failing, the butchers failing to provide any poultry and the Beadle of the Fruiters helping himself to a bottle of rum before passing out drunk!