25th August 1794. Dinner or Lunch?

Before the mid 19th century food, for the wealthy, would have been served, ‘a la francaise’ where all courses were on the table as opposed to the later ‘a la russe’, where diners had to wait for others to finish each course.

Today in 1794, the diarist Parson James Woodforde, of Western Longville, Norfolk, recorded in The Diary of a Country Parson: ‘Had a genteel dinner-first course stewed tench and veal soup’.(1)

It went on (with spellings of the time): [then] ‘best part of a rump of beef boiled, 2 rost chicken and a ham, Harrico mutton, custard puddings, Mutton pies, mashed potatoes, Scollop Shells, brown’d over, Roots 2 Dishes’.(2)

Second Course. ‘At the upper End, Rabbitts fricasseed, at the lower End Couple of Ducks rosted, Trifle in the Middle, blamange, cheesecakes. Maccaroni and small Raspberry Tartlets’.(sic).

Table a la russe.


service a-la-russe.








Upper, lower and middle of table suggests ‘a-la-francaise’ service where all the dishes were laid out at once to demonstrate one’s wealth, a tradition carried over into our standing buffet. Service-a-la-russe is what we are used to nowadays.

From 1758 until shortly before his death on New Year’s Day in 1803 this Norfolk rector recorded his daily life-his meals, his services, his tiffs with his neighbours and his ‘saucy’ niece Nancy who ‘wolfs down’, he records, ‘some boiled Beef, rather fat and salty, a good deal of nice rost (sic) Duck, and plenty of boiled Damson Pudding’.

‘After Dinner by way of dessert, she eat (sic) some greengage Plums, some Figs and raspberries and cream. She then suffers a monster attack of indigestion, which leaves her blown up as if poisoned’.

Not surprisingly in 1803, the good parson suffered a stroke, which silenced his diary which ended, ‘Dinner today Rost beef &c’.

Woodforde mentions [above] ‘a genteel meal’ so probably the ladies sat at one end and the gentlemen at the other end of the table. Later in polite Victorian society came ‘promiscuity’ alternate seating, along with napkins; previously tablecloths, which reached the floor, enabled mouths to be wiped.

In Woodforde’s time, dinner was at noon, this gradually moving to mid-afternoon, and by the later 19thc the fashionable would eat at 7 pm, dressed for the occasion, followed, for the men, with port, brandy and cigars, with the ladies withdrawing.

History tells us much about the ‘quality’, but little of the workers who tended to still have ‘dinner’, not lunch, at mid-day, underlining one’s class. Now we are all ‘lunchers’ !

(1) Woodforde’s Diaries, in 5 volumes (1924-32), were published after a civil servant discovered them on a shelf in his GP’s waiting room, but even these omitted 40% of the original text.

Roy Winstanley, Editor of the Woodforde Society, was to produce a further ten volumes covering the period 1759-84, transcribing from manuscripts held in the Bodleian Library.

(2) The random use of capitals was a phenomenon of the 18thc literary Augustan Age.



musingsonthe18thcblogspot.co.uk/dining-in-18thc-england/Pic of a-la-russe.







About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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