Thursday, 9 August 2012

A Jubilee Ox Roast

The first slices of rump cut from the ox after thirty hours roasting - served on an 1887 ox plate
In a previous posting about food for royal jubilees, I described how ox roasts were frequently held to celebrate these important national events. During the 1809 Jubilee to commemorate George III's 49th year on the throne, scores (probably hundreds) of oxen were roasted all over the country. Similar events also took place at the time of the Jubilee celebrations in 1887 and 1897 in honour of Queen Victoria. Special ox roast medals, plates and knives were frequently distributed among the crowds as souvenirs. The fine transfer printed plate below is one of a number in my own collection. It was made by B. Hancock of Stoke-on-Trent for a Jubilee ox roast which took place in Whittle-Le-Woods near Chorley in Lancashire in 1887. Last weekend I got a rare chance to use this plate for its original purpose, because we roasted an ox in the traditional manner here at Penrith in the English Lake District as a somewhat belated Jubilee celebration.

A 1887 commemorative plate on which the first slices were served. They were  carved from the beast using the Earl of Lonsdale's ox carving set (illustrated below)
Our Penrith ox roast was the brainchild of Frank Jackson, a friend of mine who is a master butcher and caterer. Frank hails from four generations of master butchers. He was assisted in preparing the ox for the spit by his friend and fellow butcher Tony Willetts. Since at least the sixteenth century it was always the local butchers who roasted oxen, so Frank and Tony were continuing this ancient tradition. In the past many butchers owned the necessary equipment and possessed the skills and experience required to carry out what is a demanding and difficult task. Unfortunately ox roasting is no longer part of a butcher's training so Frank came to me about six months ago to discuss how he should proceed. I have had some experience of roasting oxen and have written on the subject. Frank had had experience of contemporary style 'hog roasts', where a pig is rotated over a bed of charcoal or gas flames. This practice was rarely carried out in the past because it is actually not a very good way to roast any animal - fat drips on the coals and flairs up, sometimes making it difficult to control the fire. Roasting a 640kg animal using this method would be very difficult and probably disastrous. You can get away with a pig, but a large bovine needs to be slowly roasted in front of the flames, not over them. Unfortunately, the mistaken idea that meat was roasted 'over a fire' has taken such a hold, that the British have forgotten the most basic techniques of what was once their national style of cookery. To cook over the flames is 'to broil' or 'to barbecue', not to roast, which was always done in front of the fire. Frank decided he wanted to have a go at the traditional method. Some other towns have been 'roasting' oxen for the Jubilee celebrations, but they appear to have gone down the route of getting so-called 'barbecue chefs' to dig fire pits. This is not how it was done in this country in the past. Temporary roasting hearths were always built out of brick - just look at the evidence in the historic photographs and images below. 

Originally an ox was put down to the fire by impaling it on a sturdy spit. This was placed directly under the animal's spine and secured to it by a number of large staple-like skewers. Unfortunately, this method is impossible to carry out now in the UK, because the law demands that the animal's spinal cord has to be removed. This means that a modern ox or bullock is divided right down the centre of the spine into two separate halves making it impossible to spit it in the time-honoured way.
The 5th Earl of Lonsdale's ox carving set - the knife is a massive 25.4 inches long. Photo - Michael Finlay

Watch a video of our ox roast - this was made after 28 hours in front of the fire
In order to fit our divided ox on to a spit we had to commission a blacksmith to construct a specialised cradle spit. Frank and Tony decided to subdivide the carcass again into forequarters and hindquarters for ease of carving and serving. The video above shows how the four quarters fitted into this cage-like basket or cradle. In order that the spit could be turned with little effort by one person, a large stone block was lashed to the spit wheel direcly in line with the lightest side of the carcass. This was a standard technique in the past, which can clearly be seen in some of the old photographs below. We roasted our 640 kg monster for 30 hours. Volunteers turned the spit in shifts throughout the day and night. Frank and I cut the first ritual slice of rump off the rear quarter with the 5th Earl of Lonsdale's extraordinary 1890s ox carving knife and we served it on my 1887 plate. Despite a black caramelised surface and being rather well done, this meat really had an extraordinary texture. It literally dissolved on the tongue like savoury marshmallow. It was marvellous. In some of the deeper reaches of the prime joints there was plenty of rare, but perfectly cooked meat. We fed about 400 people, though there was enough meat for at least 600.

A great deal of pageantry was associated with ox roasts. This noisy procession took place in Buckingham in 1844. The ox, slaughtered to honour the 21st birthday of the Marquis of Chandos, was roasted in the town centre. Note how the ox is bedecked with garlands of bay leaves, ribbons and flowers. The animal's horns were frequently gilded.
The Marquis's ox being roasted by the Buckingham butchers. The method of turning the spit is here quite different to the usual wheel at one end of the spit method. It looks like very hard work.
This very rare bill gives some interesting details about the celebrations in Windsor town in 1821 to celebrate the coronation of George IV. Note how the ox and the four fine sheep were taken to the Batchelors' Acre (the traditional site for these events in Windsor) in a procession, probably similar to the one in Buckingham held in the following decade.
Ox roasts continued to be held to celebrate coronations into the twentieth century. This souvenir plate from Darlington was made to commemorate the ox roast in the Market Place in 1911 for the coronation of King George V and Queen Mary. Ten years earlier a similar ox roast took place there for the coronation of Edward VII.
This postcard of an ox roast at Tamworth in the early twentieth century clearly shows how the equipment was set up. The  spit or 'stang', to give it its traditional Midlands name, is supported on two sturdy wooden trestles. Note how the spit is balanced by the weight lashed to the wheel on the light side of the carcass.
Again note at this Stratford-on-Avon mop fair ox roast from just before the Great War that the spit is balanced with a weight lashed to the wheel. The basting ladle has a very long handle.
At the mop or hiring fairs in Stratford-on-Avon, the butchers had an ancient charter which allowed them to roast a number of oxen in the Main Street. The practice probably died out when the street was surfaced in tar macadam, which would have caught fire. Ox roasts were once very popular in the English Midlands.
In pencil on the back of this postcard is written 'Brierley Hill 1927'. This beast was roasted for the town carnival that year. The mayoress of the Black Country town is basting the ox, from which she later carved the first slice. Frequently this slice was sandwiched between two slices of bread and auctioned off to raise money for charity. The photograph shows that ox roasting techniques and equipment had not changed since the seventeenth century when the woodcut below was published to record the 1683/84 Frost Fair on the frozen Thames, when an ox was roasted on the ice.

This very interesting video includes some amateur footage of an ox roast which took place in Ledbury in Herefordshire in 1953 for the Coronation of Elizabeth II. Note the two cartwheels on the ends of the spit for ease of turning.


  1. any idea as to how much fuel you used Ivan?

  2. Hi Richard,

    About three and a half tons of well seasoned logs.

  3. Possibly not the most economical way of cooking beef..!

  4. In the past ox roasts were usually held for the benefit of the less well-off. The ox was often donated by a landowner or rich farmer and the fuel was also normally given as a gift. The bread, plum puddings and other accompaniments were frequently donated by the local bakers. So it was actually a very cheap way of feeding a large number of people, sometimes up to two thousand. Our ox was the gift of a very generous local farmer. We fed four hundred and had plenty of meat to spare. It might seem like a lot of trouble and you may well think that the meat was burnt on the outside and raw in the middle. This was not the case at all. Even the meat directly below the surface was tender, despite the fact that it had been rotating in front of the fire for over a day! And what a great spectacle!

  5. Looking forward to Ledbury's ox roast on the 2nd June 2013 to mark the 60 year coronation!

  6. I bought today at a local second hand shop a duplicate of your 1887 ox plate for 75 cents. I went looking for some information on the plate and was pleased to find your blog! I wonder how the plate got to Southern California? Anyway, now I want to have an ox roast! Thanks for the history lesson!

  7. Hey wow, to ta my first read of your blog. Super interesting. I was searching for how to use whole carcasses until I stumbled on your blog. I would love to see this happen in front eyes some day and be part of a communal gathering to feed the multitude with Ox.