Friday, 31 December 2010

Deptford and rhubarb

I've looked in the past at Brockley's history as a centre of rhubarb-growing, but made only passing reference to Joseph Myatt. However, his role in the introduction of rhubarb as a food is worth a little more attention. Henry Mayhew tells the story in London Labour and the London Poor:
I allude to those gardeners who have improved or introduced our every day vegetables or fruit, such as now form the cheapest and most grateful and healthy enjoyments of the humbler portion of the community. I may instance the introduction of rhubarb, which was comparatively unknown until Mr. Myatt, now of Deptford, cultivated it thirty years ago. He then, for the first time, carried seven bundles of rhubarb into the Borough market. Of these he could sell only three, and he took four back with him. Mr. Myatt could not recollect the price he received for the first rhubarb he ever sold in public, but he told me that the stalks were only about half the substance of those he now produces. People laughed at him for offering "physic pies," but he persevered, and I have shown what the sale of rhubarb now is.
Rhubarb had been known before this, of course, but not really as a food. Rather, it was used as a medicine: its roots were a popular laxative. However, it found a canny champion in Joseph Myatt of Manor Farm (on what is now Breakspear Road). He introduced a variety called Victoria in the coronation year, followed later by Prince Albert: a clever bit of marketing. He not only launched a local speciality, but changed our meals (especially school dinners!) for good.


Philip Wilkinson said...

Myatt is clearly a local hero of SE4. I like Mayhew's phrase, 'the first rhubarb he ever sold in public'. As opposed to illicit, under-the-counter rhubarb?

CarolineLD said...

Oh, I love the idea of an underground trade in rhubarb!