The history of...turkeys

As 10 million homes across Britain prepare to tuck into one, Julian Humphrys looks at the history of the bird that will never vote for Christmas...

This article was first published in the Christmas 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

So, do they come from Turkey?

No. They’re native to the Americas. They got the name because when Europeans first came across them they incorrectly thought they were a form of African guinea fowl which, because they were imported into Europe from Turkey, were commonly known as turkey fowl.

 

How did turkeys come to Britain? 

Britain probably obtained its first turkeys from the Spanish, who had brought the birds back to Europe after encountering them in the Aztec empire. However it’s possible that they were introduced by William Strickland, a Yorkshire merchant and MP who travelled to the New World in the 16th century. He certainly seems to have wanted to promote a link with the bird, as the family coat of arms, which was granted in about 1550, has a turkey as a crest.

 

When did we start eating them?

Henry VIII is the first known English king to have eaten turkey. At that time the bird was seen as something of an exotic delicacy and would have been just one of a variety of fowl to be placed before the hungry monarch. One of the reasons for turkey’s appeal was that it was not only large enough to make a fine display on the table but also had tastier and less stringy flesh than that other exotic royal favourite, the peacock.

For centuries the turkey was the preserve of the well-to-do and middle classes and it was only after the Second World War, when it became cheaper to rear, that the turkey became the population’s Christmas bird of choice.

 

What was eaten before turkey?

If a working-class family in the 19th century ate a bird, it was more likely to have been a goose, and Christmas ‘goose clubs’ were established to help them save up for it. Note how the poverty-stricken Bob Cratchit in Dickens’s Christmas Carol scrapes enough money together to buy a goose before the reformed Scrooge presents his family with a massive turkey.

Geese and turkeys were, and still are, extensively reared in East Anglia. In the 18th century, thousands were walked to London in large flocks along what is now the A12 with their feet dipped in tar to protect them. 

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