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The Dinners of Old London

November 11, 2012
by the gentle author

Dinner at the Mercers’ Hall, c.1910

Is that your stomach rumbling or is it the sound of distant thunder I hear? To take your mind off hunger, let us pass the time until we eat by studying these old glass slides once used for magic lantern shows by the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society at the Bishopsgate Insititute. Observe the architecture of gastronomy as expressed in the number and variety of ancient halls – the dining halls, the banquet halls and the luncheon rooms – where grand people once met for lengthy meals. Let us consider the dinners of old London.

The choicest meat from Smithfield, the finest fish from Billingsgate, and the freshest vegetables from Covent Garden and Spitalfields, they all found their way onto these long tables – such as the one in Middle Temple Hall which is twenty-seven feet long and made of single oak tree donated by Elizabeth I. The trunk was floated down the river from Windsor Great Park and the table was constructed in the hall almost half millennium ago. It has never been moved and through all the intervening centuries – through the Plague and the Fire and the Blitz – it has groaned beneath the weight of the dinners of old London.

Dinners and politics have always been inextricable in London – as in many other capitals – but, whether these meals were a premise to do business, make connections and forge allegiances, or whether these frequent civic gatherings were, in fact, merely the excuse for an endless catalogue of slap-up feasts and beanos, remains open to question. John Keohane, former Chief Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London told me that his troupe acquired their colloquial name of “beefeaters” because – as royal bodyguards – Henry VII  granted them the privilege of dining at his table and eating the red meat which was denied to the commonfolk. In the medieval world, your place at dinner corresponded  literally to your place in society, whether at top table or among the lower orders.

Contemplating all these empty halls where the table has not been laid yet and where rays of sunlight illuminate the particles of dust floating in the silence, I think we may have to wait a while before dinner is served in old London.

Christ’s Hospital Hall, c.1910

Buckingham Palace, State Dining Room, c.1910

Grocers’ Hall, c.1910

Ironmongers’ Hall, Court Luncheon Room, c.1910

Mercers’ Livery Hall, 1932

Merchant Taylors’ Hall, c.1910

Painters’ Hall, c.1910

Salters’ Livery Hall, c.1910

Skinners’ Hall, c.1910

Skinners’ Hall, c.1910

Stationers’ Hall, Stock Room, c.1910

Drapers’ Hall, c.1920

The Admiralty Board Room, c.1910

King’s Robing Room, Palace of Westminster, c.1910

Buckingham Palace, Throne Room, c.1910

Houses of Parliament, Robing Room, c.1910

Lincoln’s Inn, Great Hall, c.1910

Lincoln’s Inn Old Hall, c.1928

Drapers’ Hall, c.1920

Middle Temple Hall, c.1910

Mansion House Dining Room, c.1910

Ironmongers’ Hall, Banqueting Room, c.1910

Apothecaries’ Hall, Banquet in the Great Hall, c.1920

Boys preparing to cook, c.1910

Boar’s Head Dinner at Cutler’s Hall, c.1910

Lord Mayor’s Banquet at the Guildhall, 1933

Baddeley Cake & Wine, Drury Lane, c.1930

13 Responses leave one →
  1. Chris F permalink
    November 11, 2012

    How many of these old halls still exist? Are any but the most obvious still in use?

  2. Libby Hall permalink
    November 11, 2012

    The images with the light coming in from windows on the side are powerfully atmospheric. Particularly Stationer’s Hall. I stared at that frozen moment for ages. Magical.

  3. Annie permalink
    November 11, 2012

    How I wish I could taste those long-lost dinners…in my teens I was a cleaner at Christs Hospital school in Horsham. Just seeing the image of the original dining hall of the Greyfriars building reminded me of cleaning the panelling and sweeping the floors. They did a good job of copying the old hall when the school moved. I love these glass plate images – the quality is so much better than old photos. Keep them coming!

  4. November 11, 2012

    Such wonderful images ! Thank you for sharing

  5. Peter Twist permalink
    November 11, 2012

    I have a feeling that the penultimate slide described as the Law Courts is in fact of the buffet at the Guildhall in the City of London, viewed the wrong way around. Can any of your readers help?

  6. November 12, 2012

    Loved seeing those gorgeous dining rooms. I’d also love to know how many still exist, or are used today.

  7. Vicky permalink
    November 12, 2012

    I’m pretty sure Peter is correct and that this is the Lord Mayor’s banquet at the Guildhall, in reverse. There is a good picture on this site

  8. November 12, 2012

    Skinners Hall certainly still exists and is very little changed. I shot a wedding there last year –

    It’s also worth pointing out that I believe the Christ’s Hospital image will be from the ‘new’ site near Horsham which they moved to in 1903.

  9. November 15, 2012

    Not for nothing does slang term a corpulent stomach an ‘alderman’ and a turkey begirt with links of sausages an ‘alderman in chains’.

  10. November 18, 2012

    One word comes to mind while viewing all these photographs – grand.

  11. Andy Willoughby permalink
    November 22, 2012

    I also wonder how many still survive. Although they were for the privileged minority, it would be a pity if they were destroyed, to make way for modern offices. I am surprised the Guilds of such people as Cutlers, Drapers & Painters would want to spend so much money on such grand places.

  12. January 28, 2014


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