Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Settlers board the gravy train

Scottish immigrants Morris Drummond and wife Catherine 1882. Morris was struck by the availability and cheapness of food in Australia.This is the fifth in a series on domestic life and the rhythms of childhood  
Two things impressed Scottish stonemason Morris Drummond on his arrival in Melbourne in March 1879 on the way to his new home in Sydney. The first was the stonework, the best he had ever seen. The second was the food.

“Meat is cheaper than at home”, he wrote in his diary. “we had a good Dinner for sixpence I will give you an idea of it had soup and Bread Mutton Potatoes & Cabbage and Plum pudding for a Desert” Tea was just as cheap: “we had our Tea for the same amount and as much as we could eat and fruit is cheap.”

This picture of the Australian colonies as places with plentiful cheap food is something repeated in many immigrant accounts. Australians had a particular love of meat, something that Sydney doctor and nutritionists Philip E Muskett complained about in 1893. Australians should, he suggested, eat more vegetables for health reasons.

There were good reasons for this love of meat. Livestock was readily available and could be driven to market over considerable distances. New England beef helped feed the diggers on the Victorian gold fields.

By contrast, vegetable had to be carted at considerable expense or grown on home or station gardens. The expansion of the railways allowed fruit and vegetables to be brought to the cities more easily, but the love of meat remained.
"Now that meat was cheap and freely available, they consumed it with gusto."  
In the home countries, meat had been expensive, a luxury. Many families rarely tasted meat in their daily diet. Now that it was cheap and freely available, they consumed it with gusto. It was, suggests historian Geoffrey Blainey, more than a food, more than an incessant topic of conversation. It had become a way of life.

Outside sheep country, beef was more popular and freely available than mutton. Pork became readily available from the 1890s linked to the spread of dairying. From the 1870s rabbit meat was being sold, initially as an expensive luxury. By the 1890s, rabbit had become the cheapest meat. The humble chook was available but remained expensive.

In sheep country like the New England, mutton dominated. The weekly rations of a station worker could include close to 6 kilos of mutton a week, more meat than some immigrant workers had eaten in six months or longer at home.

There were some complaints, but most settled in happily eating three meals of meat each day and talking about their good fortune in letters home.

Although Australians remain great meat eaters, the earlier meat based diet with its English overtones now seems old fashioned, even unhealthy. The idea of meat and three veg, itself a later model, has been replaced by a melded perception of food attributed to the migrant intakes after the Second World War.

There is some truth in this stereotype, but like most stereotypes it is only partially true. The reality is far more complex.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 30 May 2018. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here  2017, here 2018 


Hels said...

Morris and Catherine Drummond seemed to have found the right nutritional balance in Australia. Their bodies look to be the right weight and they don't have that bedraggled, pale look that was so prevalent in Victorian Glasgow or East End of London.

I wonder if they had chickens in their back yard - both for the eggs and the meat.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Hels. I think they did. Chickens? Quite possibly. A little later Morris brought a small farm at Liverpool.

At home in Scotland, Morris's father was a small farmer outside Perth. Morris became an apprentice stone mason and then stone mason, so when he first arrived before Catherine there was a fair bit of work. I don't know whether you saw this earlier, but this piece tells their story in more detail as well as that of the early life of David Drummond - http://newenglandhistory.blogspot.com/2010/06/drummond-life-chapter-1-troubled-child.html#_ftn22_1001