ST BARTS CATERING - "TO FEED US OR TO ANNOY US?"
In a special guest post, Amanda Engineer, Project Archivist at St Bartholomew’s Hospital Archive, looks to newly catalogued material to answer the question posed by one unhappy customer, “Does the Catering Company exist to feed us or to annoy us?”
Two surviving Complaints books, 1885-1954, and a minute book of the College Catering Company, 1936-1953, available to researchers at St Bartholomew’s Hospital Archive and Museum, provide a vivid insight into the eating experience and expectations of student doctors at Bart’s during this period.
5 January 2018
Before 1910 the Albion Tavern in Aldersgate was employed to feed Bart’s residential students. However from 30 Jun, following increasing dissatisfaction, the Hospital financed an internal arrangement in the form of St Bartholomew’s Hospital College Catering Company Limited. The company was to provide meals and cleaning services for medical students, trainee doctors and resident medical staff at a reasonable cost.
It was an optimistic innovation; however complaints, which had been lively for at least 25 years, naturally continued.
The annoyed student above complained in November 1919 about “the dictatorial attitude of the kitchen hands on the subject of the time” and their inflexibility about serving late-comers, which he attributed to “the growth of Bolshevism in the country”.
A steady array of gripes, grievances and protests can be mused over in the books. Tough or rancid beef “unfit for human consumption” crops up regularly, as does the presence of beetles in food and drink, “insipid and tasteless” morning coffee, paucity of fresh fruit and vegetables, allegations of food poisoning, high prices and - the ultimate catastrophe - running out Bourneville chocolate!
Things seemed to improve in the late 1930s especially after the departure in 1937 of the unpopular Lady Superintendent who had been in post since 1910. The hopefully re-titled ‘Suggestions Book’ 1937-1954 records noticeably more positive comments:
“JUST FOR A CHANGE – may we congratulate the Catering Co and their staff and waitresses on the high standard of food and service maintained during the past few months, in which time the difficulties must have been considerable”, undersigned by 16 people, 6 Feb 1941
Other snippets of social history can be gleaned from the Catering Company books. A more health-conscious student can be detected in Feb 1938 asking if “certain tables or a certain portion of the canteen [can] be reserved for non-smokers”. The ingress of commercialism can be seen in 1940s arrangements to stock products of J. Lyons and Co., the famous British food and restaurant company. This generated many complaints about Lyons produce being priced higher in the canteen than elsewhere.
Monotony of menus and the poor quality of food (partly due to Post-War rationing), was a chief cause of the Catering Company’s decline, along with more students eating elsewhere, increased prices of materials and wages. By the end of Oct 1953 the College Catering Company was making a serious loss and the Company Board agreed to liquidation. From 1954 alternative arrangements were made to feed the students, Housemen and Registrars.
The Catering Company books form part of eleven hundred or so items recently catalogued and added to the archive of St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical College. The fully updated catalogue can be viewed online.