Copyright Enterprise Books
Have you ever had watercress for breakfast? Probably not but in Victorian times it was a vital part of workers’ diets, The ate it for breakfast and tea, buying it fresh every day from girls as young as five who sold it in bunches on the streets.
A watercress sandwich made with watercress from Tyler & sons
Workers would eat it as they walked to work. It became known at ‘the poor man’s bread’. Anyone wealthy enough to afford bread would have it between two slices.
Tyler & Sons Watercress Farm in Sarrett
My novel, The Watercress Girls was inspired by the lives of these street sellers. It charts the hardships, poverty and poor choices available to girls from poor families in Victorian times. In 1881 Richard Rowe wrote about the street sellers of watercress in Life in the London Streets:
It is rather a pretty sight to see them flocking out of the watercress market with their verdant armfuls, freshening their purchases under the sun-gilt water of the pump, splitting them up into bunches and beautifying the same to the best of their ability to temp purchasers. The fresh green and even the litter of picked off wilted leaves, pleasantly remind one of the country, in the midst of our dusty, dingy drab wilderness of brick and mortar…
The lives of the children of the poor were harsh and their choices limited but I hope that in telling their story I have been able to give them a happy ending.
The healing properties of watercress have been known throughout history. In 400 BC Hippocrates, the father of medicine, used watercress to help treat his patients. It was a staple in the diets of Roman soldiers and the Greek General Xenophon made his soldiers eat it to ‘increase vigour’. Napoleon was also a huge watercress fan.
Tyler & Sons Watercress Farm in Sarrett
The Victorian era was perhaps the heyday for watercress. It would be transported from the countryside on trains to arrive fresh in the markets every morning. I was surprised to learn that a watercress farm existed in Hackney in London’s East End before the coming of the railways. In the 1930s the Ministry of Health concluded that ‘watercress was excellent for promoting children’s health’ and it remained popular throughout the two World Wars when people had to rely on home grown vegetables.
Watercress farms today have declined in number, mainly due to the cultivation of many more varieties of salad leaves giving greater choice, large supermarkets importing it from Spain & Portugal, an increase in EU regulations and people’s changing tastes. However, it is now regaining its attractiveness due to it being recognised as a ‘superfood’.
Watercress contains more than fifteen different vitamins and minerals, providing a high level of nutrients for a low number of calories. If you are looking for a food to eat to improve your health and shrink your waistline, look no further than watercress
Big bowl of watercress from Tyler & Sons
It’s not only your waistline that can be improved with watercress. A recent study showed that 10 out of 11 women noticed a visible improvement to their skin after four weeks of adding one bag of watercress a day to their diets. They also reported increased energy levels.
Other studies have suggested that watercress can help decrease the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, lower blood pressure and help to maintain healthy bones. Scientists have also found that watercress, along with other cruciferous vegetables, can help in the fight again cancer as it contains a compound which can delay and impede the progression of cancer cells
So, don’t just relegate watercress to a garnish. Chop it up and add it to your scrambled eggs, omelettes, pasta sauces, jacket potatoes or soups. Also, take time out to visit your local watercress farms or take a trip to enjoy the annual Watercress Festival held on the third Sunday in May (15th May this year) in Alresford, Hampshire, the home of watercress. Like all traditional English festivals this will be a day of music, dancing and frivolity. There’ll be a parade with a Watercress King and Queen handing out the first of the new season’s harvest of the delicious salad leaves plus unmissable entertainment and a day out for all the family.
No piece about watercress would be complete without mentioning 'The Watercress Queen’ Eliza James, who as a child of five sold wild watercress around factories in Birmingham. She earned the nickname because of her near monopoly of the London watercress restaurant and hotel trade. She was reputed to be the biggest owner of watercress farms anywhere in the world, creating vast watercress beds at Mitcham and Beddington in Surrey and Warnford, Overton and Hurstbourne Priors in Hampshire. She registered the name ‘Vitacress’ which was later sold on. Despite her wealth she still turned up every morning to work at her stall at Covent Garden Market which she had been running for over 50 years, arriving every day on a watercress cart.
Reporting her death in 1927 the Daily Mirror described her life as ‘one of the most wonderful romances of business London has ever known.’
Alresford Watercress Festival: http://www.watercressfestival.org/
EDITOR: Kay is very kindly donating a signed copy of The Watercress Girls, details will appear on the website soon. Many thanks Kay.