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Philip Carstairs

Archaeology, University of Leicester

Thesis title:

The archaeology of soup kitchens in post-medieval philanthropy

A generous helping?  The archaeology of soup kitchens and their role in post-medieval philanthropy 1660-1914.

This project traces the birth and development of the soup kitchen in England during the long-nineteenth century (1790-1914) a period of great social change.  Soup kitchens were a crucial element in the welfare economy on which the poor depended to survive.  In some winters in the mid-nineteenth century, over two million people, around 10% of England’s population, probably received soup from a soup kitchen on account of their poverty.  Between 1797 and 1801, the proportion of the country getting soup was even greater.  Some large urban soup kitchens served over 4,000 quarts (4,500 litres) of soup a day.  In London in 1887 over 200 London charitable institutions served around 100,000 meals of cooked food daily to the local adult poor.  Despite these numbers, soup kitchens have barely been studied.

My research involves understanding how the buildings and material culture were used to deliver charity on an industrial scale, how the landscapes in which the buildings were situated affected the poor and how the first mass-produced “fast food” and first nationally-shared experience for the poor came into being. 

Research Area

  • Archaeology


2017.  Soup and Reform: Improving the Poor and Reforming Immigrants through Soup Kitchens 1870–1910. International Journal of Historical Archaeology,

2019.  Soup of the day: Rural soup kitchens in the long nineteenth century.  Rural History Today 36.


Post-medieval archaeology Conference 2020 (virtual conference) on Twitter.  Invited guests? The architecture and landscape of poor relief in English country houses 1795-1914: a new perspective on elite landscapes.

University of Leicester, Department of Ancient History Annual Graduate Conference 2019.  Soup Kitchens at country houses.

Institute of Historical Studies Food History Seminar October 2018.  Dining experiences at nineteenth-century soup kitchens.

Post-Medieval Archaeology Conference in Bristol in April 2018.  A tale of two soup kitchens.

University of Leicester, Department of Ancient History Annual Graduate Conference November 2017.  The Duke of Northumberland and his soup ticket.

Cambridge University 4th Annual Student Archaeology Conference. September 2016.  Sharing is caring? Soup kitchens, charity and the gift of food.

M3C 5 minute presentation May 2016.  A generous helping?  Soup kitchens 1660-1914.

Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) Conference 14 December 2015.  Berkhamsted Castle and the Countess of Bridgewater's Soup House.

University of Leicester, Department of Ancient History 20 May 2015.  The mysterious death of Mary Ann Bradford 1837?-1887: soup kitchens in post-medieval England.

Public Engagement & Impact

Eating Around - a guided walking tour of food history of London, July 2019.  Spitalfields Soup Kitchens.

Public lecture at London Metropolitan Archives May 2019: Feeding the poor of London: soup kitchens in the nineteenth century, Spitalfields, silk-weavers and soup.

Public lecture at Buckinghamshire Archives History Open Day: Buckinghamshire Soup Kitchens October 2018.

Public lecture at Sutton Coldfield Archaeology Society, Birmingham April 2019: 'A very savoury and substantial repast'?  Dining experiences at nineteenth-century soup kitchens.

University of Leicester Café Research February 2016: Feeding 1,000 hungry guests: 19th Century Soup Kitchens.

Article in Berkhamsted Local History & Museum Society's magazine, The Berkhamsted Chronicle 2015: Rediscovering Berkhamsted's lost soup kitchen. 

Article in Boughton Monchelsea Parish Magazine2015: The Boughton Monchelsea Soup Kitchen.

Amersham Museum blog/webpage: Amersham's lost nineteenth century soup kitchens Amersham Museum.

Other Research Interests

Post-medieval archaeology

Historical archaeology

Landscape history and archaeology

Post-medieval ceramics

Historic buildings and vernacular architecture


Chartered Institute for Archaeologists

Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology

Society for Historical Archaeology

Vernacular Architecture Group

Professional skills training

Introduction to historic building construction organised by the Institute for Archaeologists  October 2014.  

Using Agisoft Photoscan to record historic buildings in 3-D  organised by University of York 2014.

Using ArcGIS  organised by University of Leicester 2016.