Hampers have long been a symbol of the special occasion. Whether star of the summer picnic or bringer-in of Christmas cheer, they stand in our minds for the finest fare and a sure touch of luxury.
Hampers also hint at the tastes of yesteryear. Pressed-meat pies, fruit preserves, spiced biscuits and candied fruit: their contents are typically old-fashioned delicacies, the kind of things our ancestors would have recognised and relished.
Hampers are certainly a tradition to be celebrated. But how far back does that tradition go? And where does it come from?
They say that hampers were brought over to the British Isles from Europe at the time of the Norman Conquest.
Early Norman hampers, however (or hanapers, as they were then called), had nothing to do with food. Though baskets, these were storage cases for valuables: drinking goblets, originally, but also gold coin and legal documents. There was in fact a so-called Clerk of the Hanaper who handled the paperwork and fees that passed through the English Chancery from the thirteenth century right the way up to 1832.
Baskets for food, of course, existed quite separately and had been around long before the Normans. Drum-shaped examples – woven from stripped willow, with oak handles and leather fastening-straps have been found on Iron Age excavation sites in the south of England.
But the Norman hanaper, no doubt due to its association with items of high worth, was destined to become a food basket of a particular type: one of distinctly superior quality.
The word started morphing into its modern equivalent from around the end of the fourteenth century; and that gradual change was mirrored by a slow shift in function – towards an exclusive association with food and drink.
Legendary diarist Samuel Pepys was around as the transition was happening – indeed captured something of it in an anecdote from 1666.
He tells the story of how in September of that year he found he was missing some books – books that he had made the mistake of stowing in a hamper that had then vanished. It was some time before the reason for the disappearance emerged. A colleague of Pepys at the Admiralty, where both men worked, had seen the hamper, assumed it to contain bottles of wine, and had it sent down to the cellar. Only later did the cellar records show one hamper too many. The matter was looked into and the books – to Pepys’s ‘great joy’ – were reunited with their owner.
As hampers slowly started being used just for food and drink, rather than for money and documents (and books), two subsidiary developments occurred.
First of all they came to be connected with gift-giving, especially at Christmas time, and not least as a way for wealthy employers to express their appreciation to servants and staff. This wasn’t just a British custom; to this day, some Spanish companies are contractually obliged to bestow the festive cesta once a year on their workforce.
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 – again for the affluent – a means of being able to eat well, away from home, without recourse to dining establishments.
These travelling hampers could be extremely lavish affairs. Dickens has a scene in The Pickwick Papers (1836) in which the eponymous hero 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.
The best picnic hampers carried not just food but the accoutrements of a full dining table. Edwardian examples, such as those supplied by the upmarket ‘portable furniture’ makers Drew and Sons, came kitted out not just with silver cutlery and china plates but with cocktail shakers, leather-wrapped thermoses, nesting tumblers and clear glass salt and pepper shakers.
Perhaps the ultimate hamper of modern times was made – by the esteemed London firm Asprey in the 1980s – for billionaire American businessman John Kluge (1914-2010). Intended to accompany the man’s hunting expeditions on his extensive Virginia estate, this horse-drawn wicker hamper was literally a wagon on wheels and carried, besides all the usual silver, china and crystal, battery-powered hot and cold boxes, a water pump and folding mahogany table and chairs.
Of all the wonderful hampers in history, though, our favourite has to be the one that arrived one morning in 1839 at Windsor Castle, addressed to the Queen.
According to a report in The Times, this ‘small hamper’, while it was lying in the coach-office, was heard to emit ‘a curious squeaking noise … resembling the stifled cries of a child.’ When it was opened, two guinea-pigs were discovered crouching underneath some hay accompanied by this note:
A Preasant of 2 Guinea Pigs to her Magesty from A little Boy 5 years old, that come in one day from Playing in the Street. Says Mother, I love the Queen because she is A Good queen. I wish to know ware she live, I would send her my two Pigs. The child would not Rest till he had sent the Queen the only Treasure he posses. He shed a tear over is Pigs, and told them they was Going ware they would have more plenty than he Could Have for them. He is Quite Happy at Parting with them. I am Afraid your Royal Highness will be displeased at a Poor woman taking the Liberty to send them to your Majesty. Your Majesty’s Most Humble Servant,
Oct. 9, 1839. Elizabeth Elridge
Heart-breakingly (and inexplicably) the gift was turned away by the Master of the Household; whereupon the animals were taken in by a local gentleman who Christened them Victoria and Albert and gave them a ‘spacious hutch’ in which to live out their days.
A gift of ‘treasure’ indeed.