In recent debates, the Government and the media have depicted the family meal as a historic tradition central to society's cohesion and wellbeing. Its alleged decline has been linked to communication problems in children, alcohol abuse and high crime rates.
Yet our research, which uses mealtimes as a lens on family life, suggests that family meals were not a universal institution even for the Edwardians.
Reanalysing life-history data from a collection of more than 400 interviews with people who experienced life in England between 1900 and 1918, we found that Edwardian English families - whether working or middle class, from north or south - did not necessarily have a regular family meal in the sense of a nuclear family eating the same meal, in the same place, at the same time. For much of the working-class population, meal times were regulated by the demands of their employment in mills, factories and the like. Only if the whole family was employed in the same institution did eating together become possible through shared break times.
For other families, mill work separated the family at meal times and created extra work for those preparing the food, like Edith's mother: "When my father worked at Vail Mill me mother used to walk from here and take him his dinner," she said. "Aye. That were her running up and down. I don't know how she lived as long as she did."
Nor were family meals any more prevalent among the middle-class families in our study. Ronald and his siblings, for example, ate breakfast and tea without their parents in the nursery, kitchen or dining room, while their mother usually took tea out as part of her social calls, returning to a cooked evening meal with her husband. Many children in families such as Ronald's had a separate domestic routine, implemented by their nanny or other household staff, which was largely independent of their parents'
comings and goings.
Ronald, however, speaks for many Edwardians when he stresses that lunch was "a family lunch", a "substantial Victorian sort of stodgy meal". Unlike today, midday meals were far more likely than the evening meal to be the main meal of the day, eaten by the whole family. Sunday lunch especially was an opportunity for busy Edwardian families to catch up. As another Edwardian, Dan, explains: "We never ate our meals really together - only our Sunday dinner. That was about the only time we ever ate together."
We contend that for many Edwardian families the "family meal" was a middle-class ideal rather than a universal, routine practice. The idea of a past in which families across the nation, rich and poor, dined together around the table appears to be a present-day myth.
Sarah Olive is a research associate at Sheffield University.