No, this is not a bizarre idea for a new Christmas panto! Just a plain, factual statement of what took place in Norfolk in Georgian times.
From the late 16th century, thousands of geese and turkeys were walked the hundred miles from Norfolk to Leadenhall market in London each year. The journey would take three months and the birds wore special leather boots to protect their feet. Geese wouldn’t allow themselves to be shod (hence the contemporary phrase “to shoe a goose” for something difficult), so their feet were dipped in tar and covered with sand.
Turkeys in England
Turkeys didn’t come to England from the colonies in North America. They were here long before that. The birds were introduced to Europe by the Spanish, who found the Aztecs of Mexico and Central America rearing them. The latest research suggests this had been going on for maybe 2000 years, long before the Aztecs, and already the domesticated birds were not the same as the wild ones. They were more docile, slightly smaller and darker, and the black plumage contrasted well with the white flesh. By 1525 or so, turkeys had reached England from Spain via merchants of the Levant Company. Since these merchants were associated with the Middle East, the strange birds were assumed to come from Turkey, hence the common name. (As an aside, the French name, dindon, is a corruption of d’Inde, ‘from India or the Indies’. I believe the Portuguese call them ‘peru’. )
Turkeys became immediately popular with the rich, since they had more meat on them than the small Tudor chickens. Their meat was also far tastier than that of other birds of a comparable size then available, such as swans or peacocks. Henry VIII is known to have eaten turkey at Christmas — not because of any link to that time of year, but simply because he wanted to show off. Eating turkey was at that time an extremely expensive luxury.
King James I is reputed to have had turkey replace pork at a number of banquets and ceremonial occasions, labelling it ‘the king of birds, the bird of kings’. Within half a century of its introduction, turkey was already a favoured meat at grand Christmas meals. George II loved the bird, and, in 1851, turkey replaced swan as Queen Victoria’s choice for her Christmas dinner.
By the time English colonists were heading for America in appreciable numbers in the late-1500s and 1600s, the rearing of turkeys for market had become concentrated in eastern England , especially Norfolk. The land was suitable and it was within a reasonable distance of London. The breed of turkeys in England had already been improved into what later became known as the “Norfolk Black“, which is generally considered the oldest turkey breed in the UK and can still be found on certain farms. Some of these birds were even taken to the American colonies, where they were crossed with wild birds to produce most of the dark-feathered commercial varieties used today.
Getting to Market
By the early 18th century, some 150,000 to 200,000 turkeys were being walked to London from Norfolk each year. These Norfolk turkeys were reared and then sold live at October sales at Aylsham and Attleborough. They were arranged into small flocks of between 300 and 1,000 birds and driven fairly slowly, to avoid loosing too much weight from the exercise. All along the way, there would be stops for rest and feeding, especially in stubble fields. The journey usually took around three months, with the first flocks setting off in August. They would be bought by London middle-men, then walked by drovers to Smithfield Common, where they had a further period resting and building up their weight. Having been slaughtered in early to mid-December, the turkeys were sold at market to local butchers and individual buyers.
Never a cheap meat, turkeys quickly became a bird of choice for major holidays, such as Christmas. Writers on cookery, such as Hannah Glasse in the 1740s, made sure to include a number of recipes for cooking turkey . She also described certain items as ‘the size of a turkey egg’, implying this was common knowledge. The 18th-century Norfolk diarist Parson Woodforde commented in an entry for 1770 that a turkey weighing 14lbs was, “the finest fatted turkey that I ever saw, it was two inches in fat on the breast after it was roasted”.
Arriving in Style
Turkeys didn’t just walk from Norfolk to London either. Many were slaughtered locally, dressed, then loaded onto the stagecoaches. During four days in 1793, over 2,500 turkeys were sent by passenger coach from Norwich to London for Christmas. The coachmen even thought the trade “paid better” than human passenger at that time of year.
In The Book of Christmas, by Thomas Kibble Hervey (1836), the author states:
Our readers will acquit us of exaggeration, when we tell them that Mr. Hone, in his Every Day Book, quotes, from an historical account of Norwich, an authentic statement of the amount of turkeys which were transmitted from that city to London, between a Saturday morning and the night of Sunday, in the December of 1793;—which statement gives the number as one thousand seven hundred, the weight as nine tons, two cwt., and two lbs., and the value as £680. It is added that, in the two following days, these were followed by half as many more.