I picked up a copy of The Covent Gardener Spring Magazine (2018) and read not one but two delightful articles on watercress. In the article written by food historian Regula Ysewijn, I was first introduced to the true Green Queen, Eliza James. I learnt about Eliza’s life as a watercress girl selling on the streets of industrial Birmingham and later moving to London dreaming of a better life. I then went on to read lots of fabulous facts from the article written by John Lloyd on watercress trivia.
Eliza’s story is one I want to remember and share with you today, it took place during Victorian Britain and really began to take shape when Eliza travelled to London in search of a better life whilst still continuing to sell watercress. Eliza was not afraid of hard work and early starts and she would’ve been heard among the trading cries of watercress sellers at dawn in order to catch the morning rush hour.
“Workers would eat the bunches of cress on the go, very much like we grab a bacon butty and sip our lattes on the way to work today”
Watercress kept ordinary Londoners going and was know as poor man’s bread, yet it provided a welcomed hit of green, vitamins and minerals too, in an otherwise monotonous diet.
Watercress became big business in 1865 with the opening of the mid-hampshire railway which connected the rolling watercress beds of Hampshire to the market stalls of London. In 1871 Henry Mayhew reported that 1,578,000 bunches of watercress a year were sold in Covent Garden alone and it was here that the best quality bunches could be found.
With the development of the railway came huge competition in the watercress selling market, however Eliza with her entrepreneurial spirit quickly diversified her business not just trading at the market but also selling to restaurants, stores and hotels. From this she founded her company James & Sons and invested in her own watercress beds in Hampshire, soon gaining a near monopoly over London’s watercress trade. This grew her business to the largest watercress company in Europe (possibly even the world). Eliza remained true to her humble watercress and for 50 years and opened her stall at Covent Garden Market every morning.
On her death the Daily Mirror reported, “For a woman by her own unaided efforts to have amassed £20,000 (£3.5 million today) three or four times over by selling watercress is surely one of the most wonderful romances of business London has ever know”. [Hear Hear!!]
Little did anyone realise that 150 years later this green leaf would go out of fashion and disappear off more than half the populations plates. These facts have been taken from the article on Watercress trivia by John Lloyd:
I hope my summary of both of these articles encourages you to purchase the humble watercress as it is seasonally available to us. The taste of watercress is a milder version of rocket as it has a mustard taste, you barely need to dress watercress just a drizzle of olive oil in salads and it really holds its own as well as lends a hand to the overall flavour of the dish.
Simple tricks to get more watercress into your everyday eating is to simply make a smoothie (juice) with it. Using a blender just add a handful, when paired with celery, cucumber or lemon the taste of watercress is not pungent and think of all those nutrients, Vitamin C, iron, calcium, Vitamin E and Vitamin K. Also just try adding handfuls of it to your food, mix it with other salad leaves or even a watercress soup if you feel like going really green too. All hail the Watercress Queen and Queen of Green.