A brief history of turkeys, plus why we eat a turkey dinner at Christmas

How did turkeys come to Britain and when did we first start eating them? As 10 million homes across Britain prepare to tuck into one over the festive period, Julian Humphrys looks at the history of the bird that will never vote for Christmas

Land girls on an Essex turkey farm round up the turkeys for the last time. (Photo by Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Where do turkeys come from?

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.

Advertisement

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 Brits 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 Swans, peacocks and boars’ heads graced aristocrats’ tables; more modest households made do with whatever seasonal fare they could find – chicken or goose, perhaps, or the odd pigeon.

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.

A Victorian Christmas
By the end of the 19th century turkey was the most popular choice of Christmas roast. (Image by Bridgeman Art Library)

Why do we eat a turkey dinner at Christmas?

Geese and turkeys were, and still are, extensively reared in East Anglia. In the 18th century, before the introduction of the railways, thousands were walked to London in large flocks along what is now the A12. Norfolk farmers would dip turkeys’ feet in tar and sand to make ‘wellies’ for the walk to London, which could take up to two months.

Like so many traditions, roasted turkey became synonymous with Christmas when immortalised by Charles Dickens. At the end of the classic A Christmas Carol, the humbled Scrooge sends a boy to buy the biggest turkey in the shop. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that Hollywood movies popularised the dish in the UK, and prices fell thanks to new farming methods.

Advertisement

Read more about the history of Christmas traditions