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Roast beef, climbing boys and ‘rosbifs’ – a little history as we tuck into carveries in T Wells!

A notable pattern as lockdown eases in Tunbridge Wells, and across Kent generally, is that people are enjoying meals again at pubs and carveries – and nothing quite beats a cracking roast dinner as a pick-me-up.

Of course, there are all sorts of meats (and veggie options) these days – but pride of dinner place surely has to be roast beef! In fact, roast beef has been a firm favourite with chimneys sweeps for hundreds of years.

We all know the MUST ingredients for roast beef: roast beef (obviously), Yorkshire Pudding (is there a Kentish equivalent?), Mustard, Horseradish, roasted potatoes, thick brown gravy and any combo of vegetables. It was less refined in the 1700s. That’s when Elizabeth Montagu, a popular party host in London, was active – hosting numerous events from Montagu House. One of those events was the annual May Day when she gave climbing boys and girls (young chimney sweeps) a roast beef dinner, alongside a plum pudding. You can read more about her by clicking here.

Anyway… the key question (of the greatest importance) is this: what kind of roast dinner did these young chimney sweeps, and others, eat during the 1700s? If you tied up your horse and popped into a local tavern in T Wells at that time, could you expect to see a Yorkshire Pudding (or was Yorkshire akin to another country in those days?) What about roasted onions – perhaps more au fait with French cuisine at the time? Further investigation reveals simplicity was deemed best (isn’t it always?). The population at the time enjoyed their fire-roasted beef fancy-free and without strange sauces.

Even so, puckering of the lips for the dish grew so much amongst both landed gentry (often) and poorer folk (when rarely possible) that our French cousins, during the 1700s-era, first started calling us ‘rosbifs’. And let’s remember that it was at this time also, in 1731 to be exact, that Henry Fielding put together his ballad masterpiece, ‘The Roast Beef of Old England’, which became world famous and is still favoured by the Royal Navy. The first verse is below. It shows immense passion for the hearty dish! A love of ol’ beef shared no doubt by those poor climbing boys and girls when they tucked into topside on May Day.

When mighty Roast Beef was the Englishman’s food,
It ennobled our veins and enriched our blood.
Our soldiers were brave and our courtiers were good
Oh! the Roast Beef of old England,
And old English Roast Beef!