Living History: Tea and Two Slices


In the late 1920s, George Orwell compiled his first full-length book. Although Down And Out In Paris And London wasn’t an epic novel about a dystopian future, the origins of his later works could be found in this semi-documentarian, semi-autobiographical look at the criminalization of the poor.

In the first half of Down and Out…, Orwell gives a grueling account of the French food industry; he worked in Paris as one of the lowliest kitchen staff buried in the basement scullery of a hotel. But even more fascinating was when Orwell’s main character returns to his hometown of London, and through a series of misfortunes ends up living life as a penniless “tramp” for a period of several months. Orwell, too, lived amongst the homeless while he was a young journalist: he wandered in and out of shelters with the permanently poor, and became critical of the housing and diet of these men, the latter being “tea-and-two-slices.”

Ironically, just off the boat from France, Orwell”s main character orders tea-and-two-slices with a sort of welcome nostalgia.  Standard 1920s British diner fair, it’s a mug of tea with milk and sugar, and two slices of toast spread with margarine. But as he gets caught up in the system of cheap lodging houses, work houses, and prison-like shelters called “spikes,” it is the only food offered to the homeless.  “Food..had come to mean simply bread and margarine, which will cheat hunger for an hour or two,” Orwell writes.

“It follows that the ‘Serves them damned well right’ attitude that is normally taken towards tramps is no fairer that it would be towards cripples or invalids. When one has realized that, one begins to put oneself in a tramp’s place and understand what his life is like. It is an extraordinarily futile, acutely unpleasant life…hunger, which is almost the general fate of tramps.  The casual ward [a sort of shelter] gives them a ration which is probably not even meant to be sufficient, and anything beyond that must be got by begging–that is, by breaking the law. The result is that nearly every tramp is rotted by malnutrition; for proof of which we need only look at the men lining up outside any casual ward.”

Orwell’s book goes so deeply, and personally, into societal views of poverty that I can’t even scratch the surface in this post. Go on and read it, it will fascinate you.  But in an odd sort of tribute, I’m going to reenact the part that fascinated me the most: the ongoing march of tea-and-two-slices, this very British meal that was the insufficient fuel for an army of homeless men. Four meals today: 8am, 12pm, 4pm, and 8pm–tea, bread and margarine only.  I’ll update this post with thoughts throughout the day.

Update 12pm: A few words on margarine: I hate it.  I hate the mouth-feel and greasy taste. My future husband & my temporary roommate LOVE it. That’s part of the reason I’m doing this experiment now, because there’s an economy sized tub of it in the fridge.  I haven’t been able to figure out why margarine was so incredibly popular in England – maybe someone out there can clue me in – but this line from Down and Out is particularly telling:

“An ordinary London coffee shop, like a thousand others…’Can I have some tea and bread and butter?’ I said to the girl.

She stared. ‘No butter, only marg,” she said, surprised. And she repeated the order in the phrase that is to London what the eternal coup de rouge is to Paris: ‘Large tea and two slices!’

Daily Mail UK online has some things to say about margarine.

Black tea with milk and sugar is one of my favorite things in the world, however. And sipped slowly over many hours, it does stave off hunger, as many an Irish domestic knew.

Update 4pm: I get really hungry about two hours after eating.  The tea always helps–I’m very happy when I’m filled with sugar and caffeine.  Tea is a drug, that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, helped the poor get through their day and functioned as a substitute for food when there was none.  The “lower classes” were also constantly criticized for spending what little money they had on frivolities like tea and sugar; or so it was perceived, in England and on this side of the ocean. Perhaps today’s replacement is coffee or Mountain Dew.

Update 8pm: I had my last tea-and-two-slices an hour early.  What I ate at 4pm didn’t satisfy me at all.  I was having trouble thinking and remembering by 5pm, and by 6 I had to go have a lay down. I feel weak, sick and confused.  When I ate my final meal at 7, I felt full, but gross. I really thought today would be a cakewalk–who doesn’t love tea and toast? But I cannot imagine eating this, and only this, day after day.  It would destroy you.

I think I might have a banana and some peanut butter before I go to bed.  Don’t judge.

12 thoughts on “Living History: Tea and Two Slices

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this book! Thank you for reminding me of it – it was one of the very first audiobooks I listened to, and the narrator was fantastic. Good luck in your “diet” and thank you for the continually interesting posts.

  2. i kept a similar diet at some point – beer-and-two-slices. there was always some sort of vegan ‘marg’ in the fridge, so that was the same, but the bread was always thick and crusty and the drink non-caffeinated and highly alcoholic. while more calories were involved, this diet also led to feelings of weakness, sickness, and confusion…

    i look forward to reading this book and your next living history post!

  3. May I suggest you expand your research to skilly which is mentioned in the book.
    Its oatmeal made with water very fast in a wide frying pan. Like a stir fry.
    Strangely enough despite its associations people stick with it after leaving prison and related places.



        As I say its in Down and Out where he stays in doss houses.

        Take a handful of oats into a frying pan. Add water and salt heat to boiling whilst agrressively stirring around the pan so that the oats deliver their gunge.
        You now have skilly or the thin gruel of Dickens novels.

        I hate oatmeal, porridge, porage. It may be good for horses and Scotsmen but it reminds me of childhood.


  4. Amazing, if Orwell was right, that people could spend months on tea and two slices, perhaps twice a day… This reminds me of the Greek breakfast of poor people in the last century: dry bread and red wine!! Or even of the Greek dinner for the poor: bread and olives.
    Well, maybe nowadays people eat better, but whether they are happier or not is a big question…If things carry on this way, we will have to work much harder than the “plongeurs” in Paris of the early thirties, and for less Money for that matter!!! –STELIOS

  5. Down and Out was one of the most interesting books I’ve read in years. (My favorite part was when the tramps all started making noise and coughing in the chapel!)

    On a whim I Googled “Tea and two slices” and thereby found your blog. I look forward to reading more of your musings and insights Sarah!

    I could go for some tea and two slices now,
    Jeff Barker
    Washington, DC, USA

  6. A very interesting article. If I may point out one thing, the “tea and two slices” which was the usual fare of tramps in the twenties did not comprise two slices of toast. It was just plain bread. As for the popularity of margarine in England, I can see two possible explanations. For one thing, it is cheaper than butter, which is probably why it caught on in the first place. And one might refer to another of Orwell’s books, “The Road to Wigan Pier” (also an excellent book, by the way) in which he states that the British have grown so accustomed to industrial food that they seem to actually prefer it to natural products (this was written in the thirties, but I don’t think things have really improved very much)

  7. Wigan Pier is a great book.The dirt in one of the houses is unreal. how the table was never cleared of crumbs and GO would see a crumb at breakfast and recognise it in a different place at dinner.

    But that diet must have been high in cholesterol? was it always marge or was it sometimes dripping?

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