How the Full English Breakfast became a national institution

Weekends without a fry-up are unimaginable for many of us - but the dish wasn't always the nation's go-to comfort food

Published : 04 Dec 2016, 16:02

Jagoroniya Desk

A hangover cure, fuel for hard labour, and an indulgence on the weekend – the full English breakfast is so ingrained in British culture it’s hard to imagine life without it.

But there was, of course, a time before it was the nation’s go-to comfort food.

A plate piled with sausage, egg, bacon, beans, black pudding, hash browns, fried tomatoes and mushrooms is associated with builders in greasy spoon cafes and up-market brunch spots. However, that image is only a very recent one, food historian Professor Rebecca Earle of Warwick University told The Independent.
In the 17th century, the items which make up the traditional fry-up were only eaten by the upper and upper-middle classes, such as bankers. In wealthy Victorian houses, enormous buffet-style breakfasts would also include kedgeree, pork or lamb chops, friend mushrooms, and bread.  

As meat was expensive, the rest of the population would eat bread and butter for breakfast, with cheap jam containing little fruit.
“Working men could not afford to eat in a restaurant in general in the Victorian era, and in the early 20th century bacon and eggs might be eaten as a special weekend dish, and even then not necessarily by everyone in the family," said Professor Earle.

The dish appeared in Isabella Beeton's Book of Household Management in 1861, but it was not until around 100 years later that the ingredients were cheap enough to make the meal available to the masses.

“The greasy spoon is itself a post-war development. A fry-up requires cheap food, which arrived in the 1950s. Tinned beans, for instance, were a costly import before WWII.”

But nowadays, Professor Earle argues, tourists are more likely to eat the full English than Brits, as research shows only 5 per cent of the population eats a fry up for breakfast.

In the future, Professor Earle predicts a far healthier trend: “Because of our current fascination with porridge perhaps we will renew our appreciation for the filling, sustainable and tasty grain puddings and pottages that have fuelled working people all over the world for millennia."


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