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BASKETRY - Picnic Hampers


In the first chapter of Kenneth Grahame’s ‘Wind in the Willows’, the Rat and the Mole embark on a river trip. Ratty emerges from his hole “. . . staggering under a fat wicker luncheon basket. ‘Shove that under your feet,’ he observed to the Mole. Then he untied the painter and took the sculls. ‘What’s inside it?’ asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity. ‘There’s cold chicken inside it,’ the Rat replied briefly; ‘coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwichespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater -’

From hunter gatherers to shepherds and harvesters, from nomads to explorers, soldiers and missionaries, people have always carried food and drink containers on their journeys. Before the days of pottery and metal work, gourds and animal skins were used for liquids, but the first baskets were used both to collect food and to carry supplies on expeditions.

In Welsh we have a  basket called a fflasged. This corresponds to the Middle English flasket, to which Edmund Spenser refers, being carried by his ‘flocke of Nymphes’ to pick flowers. It is also mentioned in a 1685 cookery book by Robert May for draining fish before serving. There are still those in Wales who remember their fathers or grandfathers taking a fflasged with them when they left home to work in the fields. This was a lidded woven basket, made of straw or willow, containing their food for the day.

Another reason for carrying your own food and drink was a concern about quality. As Britain’s roads improved during the 18th Century, the coaching trade flourished, but the refreshment stops did not always produce food and drink to the travellers’ liking or desired standards. This led to the production of wicker baskets containing food, drink and the equipment with which to consume it. Many coaches set off from Piccadilly, and it was in this area that hampers were made, filled and sold to the departing travellers.

Drew & Sons patented the En Route Tea Basket (‘As supplied to the Royal Family’) for the discerning traveller, wherever they might be. It could be shipped to anywhere in the world, and models were made to suit many pockets, including one with sterling silver fittings. This version, in Coates Basket Museum, is not so grand, but could always provide that vital cup of tea for two people.


By the early Victorian period, firms such as Fortnum and Mason were producing very large hampers, and these could be very lavish affairs. Dickens has a scene in The Pickwick Papers (1836) in which Mr Pickwick is met by a friend on the open road and treated to lunch from ‘a hamper of spacious dimensions’ the contents of which encompass everything from roast chicken to pigeon pie, and from potted veal and ham to lobsters – to say nothing of the bottle of wine per person. Neither were the hampers prepared only for travellers. Servants and coaches would come at 4am to pick up a picnic hamper for the Epsom Derby, when lobster salad was the great luxury.


Then, from the nineteenth century onwards, as travelling first by stagecoach, later by railway, and finally by motorcar become more popular, the picnic hamper became – at least for the affluent – a means of being able to eat well, away from home, without recourse to dining establishments. Scotts of London made their picnic baskets famous by displaying them at the Great Exhibition of 1851, but other makers, such as Drew, and Craven also produced a range of baskets for different purposes.

This piece, also in Coates Basket Museum, was made by T Craven & Sons of Manchester. It is more what we have come to think of as the picnic hamper, whether it be carried to the beach, to the local horse trials, or to an outdoor theatrical production. Their 1905 catalogue featured various Tea & Lunch Baskets.

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