Recipes from the Victorian Sick Room


Anyone reading Regency or Victorian novels will be all too well aware of the obsession with remedies for invalids that were handed down arsenicfrom generation to generation. Some may have worked (most were at least nutritious) and we cannot really blame them for quacking themselves when terrible diseases lurked in their homes and haunted their nightmares. With medical hindsight we can, of course, laugh at some of their ‘cures’ but huge reliance was placed on traditional recipes. Many books were written on the subject and newspapers were full of advertisements for all sorts of medicines and remedies (often lethal ones at that).

My well-thumbed edition of Beeton’s Book of Household Management is always a delight to peruse. There was no area that she feared to give advice on and there is an entire chapter on recipes for invalids. Here are a few of the more well-known ones you may have come across and always wanted to know how to make.


Arrowroot is an easily digested starch extracted from the roots of the arrowroot plant, Maranta arundinacea. It is arrowrootextremely bland, making it suitable for neutral diets, especially for people who are feeling nauseous. The Victorians considered it ideal as a food supplement as it was easily digestible. However they often flavoured it to make it more appealing.

The plant is native to the tropics of South America. The roots are washed and pulped and finally forced through a sieve. The fine powder left is dried.


2 teaspoons of arrowroot

3 tablespoons of cold water

Half pint of boiling water

Lump of sugar

Grated nutmeg or cinnamon

Port or sherry

Method: Mix arrowroot to a smooth paste with cold water then pour in boiling water, stirring all the time. Put thickened mixture in a tumbler, sweeten with sugar and flavour with nutmeg, cinnamon, or lemon-peel or 3 tablespoons of port or sherry.

Barley Gruel:

Igruelt always sounded faintly disgusting to me and was made infamous by Dickens! But it actually doesn’t sound that bad (particularly if you throw in the wine!).


2 oz of barley

Half pint of port wine

Rind of 1 lemon

1 quart and half pint of water

Sugar to taste

Method: Wash barley; boil in half pint of water for a quarter of an hour. Pour water away. Put barley into quart of fresh boiling water and boil until the liquid is reduced to half. Strain. Add wine, sugar and lemon-peel and simmer for 5 minutes.

Beef Tea:

There are three recipes in Mrs. Beeton’s book; here is the basic one:


1 lb of lean gravy-beef

1 quart of water

1 saltspoonful of salt

beef-teaMethod: Dice the beef and put in a saucepan. Add cold water and bring to the boil. Skim well. Add salt and simmer gently for about three quarters of an hour, removing any scum from the surface. Strain and put in a cool place. Ideally make the day before. When wanted, remove any fat from the top and warm up, adding more salt.

Calf’s Foot Broth: (Strangely she doesn’t give a recipe for Calf’s Foot Jelly)


1 calf’s foot

3 pints of water

1 small lump of sugar


1 egg yolk

Nut-sized portion of butter

calves-foot-jellyMethod: Stew the foot in the water with lemon-peel until the liquid is half wasted. Skim off any fat that rises. Put aside and cool. Warm up about a half pint, adding butter, sugar and grated nutmeg. Then add beaten egg yolk stirring until mixture thickens but do not let it boil. Serve.


I have saved the most insipid recipe till last:

Toast-and-Water (I haven’t made this up!)


Slice of bread

1 quart of boiling water

Method: Toast a slice of stale loaf to a lovely brown on both sides. Put in a jug and add the boiling water. Leave until cold. Strain and always serve cold.


Reference: Beeton’s Book of Household Management 1859


7 thoughts on “Recipes from the Victorian Sick Room

Add yours

  1. I loved this post.

    My mother made beef tea for me once when I had had a really bad bout of flu. She didn’t use Mrs Beeton’s recipe but put finely shredded lean beef just covered with water in a small, covered pudding basin and steamed it for a couple of hours then strained and seasoned the liquid. It was like a really good consommé and a fantastic pick-me-up.


    1. I can see the real benefits in beef tea but some of the other ‘remedies’ were either entirely useless, lethal or just looked and must have tasted awful.


  2. They all sound healthier than the Lucozade (which was basically coloured, flavoured sugar solution) that was so popular when I was a kid.


  3. a great post Pam, some of the old remedies are very scary. I remember my gran rubbing butter on burns!


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