The history of breakfast

By Jo Bruce

- Last updated on GMT

For more than two centuries, the tradition of the full English has been embraced across British society
For more than two centuries, the tradition of the full English has been embraced across British society

Related tags: Full breakfast

Breakfast hasn’t always been the British institution it is now. The Morning Advertiser takes a look at the evolution of breakfast since the 1300s and how the ‘full English’ has managed to embed itself into the British psyche.

As novelist William Somerset Maugham said: “To eat well in England you should have breakfast three times a day” and, with strong growth in out-of-home breakfast sales, UK consumers certainly seem to agree.

Breakfast is big news, with NPD Group research showing that the meal now accounts for 11.2% of Britain’s total eating-out visits and sales are seeing a big rise and shine in pubs in the past year – up 21% as licensees have shaken up the wake-up opportunity.

The meal also continues to provide a strong influence for dish innovation including the current Instagram craze for meringue-like cloud eggs and breakfast-inspired pies, pizzas, burgers, burritos and cocktails.

But breakfast hasn’t always been perceived as the great British institution it is today.

During the Middle Ages, breakfast was practically non-existent for the masses and although monarchs and their entourages enjoyed lengthy feasts, only two formal meals of lunch and dinner were the order of the day.


Sin first thing

This boycott is believed to have been attributed to the criticism of breakfast by Catholic church leaders, who believed breakfast committed the sin of eating too soon, which was associated with gluttony.

Breakfast was, however, permitted for children, the elderly, the sick, and working men, but men were often ashamed of eating breakfast as it was associated with being poor and meant you were likely to be a low-status farmer or labourer who needed the energy to sustain his morning’s work or were too weak to last until midday dinner.

Gentry does it

The tradition of the English breakfast as a national dish dates back to the 13th century, with its popularity driven by the gentry, the distinct social class made up of the ‘high born’ who believed themselves to be guardians of the traditional English country lifestyle and cultural heirs of the Anglo-Saxons.

The great English country houses they owned were important hubs of local society, where breakfast was considered the most important meal of the day and a key social event, as the breakfast table was an opportunity for the gentry to display the ‘wealth’ of their estates in the quality of the meats, vegetables and ingredients used for breakfast feasts.

It was in the gentry’s traditional Anglo-Saxon dishes that the traditional English breakfast was born.

The origins of reading a newspaper over breakfast also stems from this time, with the gentry often reading their mail and periodicals of the day during the meal.

A meal for all

However, it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that the English breakfast became not just a meal for the wealthy, but for the masses as well. The working classes began to regularly eat the dish, seeing it as a staple to help provide them with the energy needed for heavy manual labour.

In Victorian times, home economist Isabella Beeton also championed the importance of eating a hearty breakfast to set you up for the day and the full English appeared among the suggested breakfasts in her Book of Household Management​ (1861).

For aspirational Victorians, however, breakfast was an opportunity to demonstrate wealth and good taste and, like many great Victorian traditions, the serving of the traditional English breakfast became a refined and elegant affair with ingredients standardised to create the much-loved English breakfast.


Most important meal of the day

The perception of breakfast as the most important meal of the day was driven by a 1944 American marketing campaign for cereal called “Eat a Good Breakfast – Do a Better Job”, with advertising materials proclaiming that: “Nutrition experts say breakfast is the most important meal of the day”.

The tradition of the full English, however, spread until its peak in the 1950s, when it is thought half of the British population began their day with a fry-up.


The full English today

There is often fierce debate about which items should feature in a traditional full English breakfast today, but according to the English Breakfast Society the dish should consist of back bacon, eggs, British sausage, baked beans, fried tomato, fried mushrooms, black pudding and toast.

Some argue that black pudding was inherited from the Scottish and should play no part in a traditional English breakfast, but a quick look at TripAdvisor reviews shows how dissatisfied customers can be today when black pudding – which was last year hailed as a super food due to its high iron content – is lacking from their plate.

The Bury Black Pudding Company brand and marketing manager Peter Winkler says: “Year-on-year growth of 52% in the catering market is proof of how popular the product has become in recent years.”

While also not accepted by traditionalists as part of a full English breakfast, hash browns – which were introduced by companies including McCain Foods to the foodservice market more than 20 years ago – have also become a star player of the ‘full monty’, with NPD research reporting a 29% sales increase in pubs in the past year as pub operators grow their breakfast offers.

Foods marketing and category controller Jo Holborn says: “We’ve also started to see hash browns used in slightly different ways, such as a base for toppings such as smashed avocado and eggs, or a breakfast-themed alternative to topped chips.”

For more than two centuries, the tradition of the full English has been embraced across British society and is now so entrenched in the nation’s eating habits that it won’t be disappearing from pub menus any time soon.

But breakfast is now making new history, increasingly establishing itself as the new social and work occasion for eating out. And with food deliveries growing at a pace faster than Usain Bolt, and operators including McDonald’s recently announcing plans to launch home delivery in the UK, the rise of breakfast home delivery looks set to become the next significant piece of our breakfast history.  

Time line of breakfast breakthroughs​ 

  • In 1620, English medical writer Tobias Venner suggested eating eggs for breakfast poached, with salt, pepper, and vinegar, served with bread and butter.
  • Bringing home the bacon – John Harris is credited as the forefather of large-scale industrial bacon manufacturing in the 1770s. He opened his company in Wiltshire, still considered the bacon capital of the world.
  • The first Bury (England’s ‘home’ of) black pudding was made and sold at Casewell’s Pudding Shop on Union Street, Bury, in 1810.
  • Heinz Tomato Ketchup was launched in the UK in 1886 and HP Brown Sauce has been adding oomph to breakfast dishes since 1903. Rival brown sauce Daddies was launched the following year.
  • The earliest mention of the hash brown, first known as hashed brown potatoes, was in 1888 by food author Maria Parloa.
  • Beans are believed to have become a breakfast standard after Heinz’ 1960s ad campaign, Beanz Meanz Heinz​, which launched after research showed 1.75m British housewives bought Heinz baked beans every day.

Related topics: Food trends, Marketing

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