Odd this day

12 May 1718

5 min readMay 12, 2024

If it’s 12 May, it must be the 306th anniversary of the day James Austin started baking his giant plum pudding, which took a fortnight to make, and got nicked by a gang of rogues.

According to that noted 1866 classic, The History of Signboards, Austin was the “inventor of the Persian ink powder”, and,

desiring to give his customers a substantial proof of his gratitude, invited them to partake of an immense plum pudding weighing 1000 lbs., a baked pudding of a foot square, and the best piece of an ox roasted.

Title page, The History of Signboards — from the earliest times to the present day, by Jacob Larwood and John Camden Hotten. Illustrated with a drawing of a cockerel standing on a prone bottle, with the caption ‘Cock and Bottle’

Apparently, publicity stunts involving pastry were a speciality of the man in question.

Puddings seem to have been the forte of this Austin. Twelve or thirteen years before this last pudding, he had baked one for a wager, ten feet deep in the Thames, near Rotherhithe, by enclosing it in a great tin pan, and that in a sack of lime: it was taken up after about two hours and a half, and eaten with great relish, its only fault being that it was somewhat overdone. The bet was for more than £100. Austin was also noted for his fireworks.

Anyway, the account has some excellent detail, including the musical accompaniment the finished pie enjoyed.

the principal dish was put in the copper on Monday, May 12, at the Red Lion Inn, by the Mint in Southwark, and had to boil fourteen days. From there it was to be brought to the Swan Tavern, in Fish Street Hill, accompanied by a band of music playing — “What lumps of pudding my mother gave me;”

Obviously, I couldn’t let that particular nugget pass without checking it, and apparently such a ditty did indeed exist, and you can still find the music and lyrics online:

My mother she killed a good fat hog
 She made such puddings would choak a dog
 And I shall ne’er forget till I dee
 What lumps of pudding my mother gave me.
 She hung them up upon a pin
 The fat run out and the maggots crept in
 If you won’t believe me you may go and see
 What lumps of pudding my mother gave me.

There’s even a mention of a suitably vast musical instrument involved in the parade:

one of the instruments was a drum in proportion to the pudding, being 18 feet 2 inches in length, and 4 feet diameter, which was drawn by “a device fixt on six asses.”

However, you may have noticed that the account says the pudding “was to be brought to the Swan Tavern”, and it continues in this conditional tone:

Finally, the monstrous pudding was to be divided in St. George’s Fields

There was a little local difficulty. The Red Lion, where the great pastry was being created, was in Southwark — south, as its name suggests, of the river. Fish Street Hill, the destination for its devouring, was in EC4, in the City.

Quite why Mr Austin wanted to take his pie on such a long journey before it was eaten is anyone’s guess. Maybe the best baker in town happened to be down south. Either way, it was problematic, because Southwark had something of a reputation. The Mint, in particular, was a dubious place, a rookery — not the “haunt of gregarious birds” kind, but the “crowded dilapidated tenement or group of dwellings” variety.

It was known as the Mint, because there had been a coin manufactory there under Henry VIII, and as such it was given the legal status of a ‘liberty’ — a place where the usual laws did not apply. The mint itself did not survive the time of Queen Mary, but the dubious, Passport to Pimlico air of the place persisted. Britain’s punitive bankruptcy laws in the 17th and 18th centuries made it a place where debtors gathered, where they would be safe from bailiffs. It was a ‘bastard sanctuary’.

So, the short version is: the pie did not get north of the Thames. There was an incident, which — given that the pudding “had to boil fourteen days” — must have taken place on or around the 26th…

apparently its smell was too much for the gluttony of the Londoners; the escort was routed, the pudding taken and devoured, and the whole ceremony brought to an end, before Mr. Austin had a chance to regale his customers.

In 1696, there had been an attempt to legislate against these neighbourhoods where debtors could escape their creditors: An Act for the more effectual relief of creditors in cases of escapes, and for preventing abuses in prisons, and pretended privileged places, to give it its full name.

Southwark, though, proved a difficult nut to crack. In 1721, Daniel Defoe has Moll Flanders spend some time there, observing men who

were too wicked, even for me. There was something horrid and absurd in their way of sinning…

While this was fiction, it was a sign that the law had not quite reached Southwark, a place where debtors banded together, and beat up any bailiffs who ventured in. They were also said to

seize any bailiff, dunk them in successive water troughs then make them kiss a shit-covered brick and swear not to return

…and William Harrison Ainsworth, in his 19th-century novel, Jack Sheppard, set in the period, called the area “The Grand Receptacle of Superfluous Villainry” and described other methods of guardian against incursions by the forces of law and order:

In order to guard against accidents, or surprises, watchmen or scouts were stationed at the three main outlets of the sanctuary, ready to give the signal — ‘a blow on a horn’… bars were erected which in case of emergency could be stretched across the streets, doors were attached to the alley and were never opened except with due precautions; gates were affixed to the courts, wickets to the gates and bolts to the wickets. The back windows of houses were strongly barricaded … and furthermore, the fortress was defended by high walls and deep ditches in those quarters where it appeared most exposed. There was also a maze into which a debtor could run, the intricacies of which it was impossible for any Officer to follow him

…so, finally, The Mint in Southwark Act 1722 was passed — a special law, just for this one part of London, to clear out all the wrong ’uns.

No pie has been stolen in south London since that day.





Purveyor of niche drivel; marker of odd anniversaries