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  • London On The Ground

Old Tom, the Christmas goose that wasn't cooked

Before turkey's popularity, goose was the Yuletide meal of choice. One goose escaped the pot.

Old Tom, stained glass window by Patrick McEvoy at Leadenhall Market
Old Tom, stained glass window by Patrick McEvoy

Today, Leadenhall Market houses a number of bars, pubs, restaurants and shops, but it was once one of the best places to buy a goose for the Christmas table. From the 14th to the 20th century, it was one of the most important markets in the City of London. It sold fresh produce, dairy products, wool, leather, cutlery, meat, poultry and geese.

 

Walks available for booking

For a schedule of forthcoming London On The Ground tours, please click here.

 

The popularity of goose meat at Christmas has been replaced by turkey, but only in relatively modern times.


In 1856, for example, Leadenhall Market alone sold 888,000 geese and 69,000 turkeys annually. Today, across the whole of the UK, approximately 250,000 geese are sold at Christmas, compared with nine million turkeys. Do the maths, and that works out at one turkey sold for every 13 geese in the mid 19th century versus 36 turkeys for every goose today (OK, I did the maths for you).


Before modern butchery and refrigeration/freezing techniques, birds sold for the table were slaughtered at the market after being walked from the places they were bred. In addition to points of origin across England, Leadenhall Market also sold geese from the European mainland.


In 1797, a flock of geese arrived from Ostend (in today's Belgium), having crossed the sea by ship. On reaching their port of departure, the geese followed a 'decoy', a male goose, or gander, whose job it was to lead the flock on board. He was then supposed to disembark before the ship set sail in order to repeat the task with the next gaggling group.


The decoy for this particular flock, so the story goes, took a shining to a female goose and pledged himself to her, staying on board for the crossing and walking with the flock across the east of England to Leadenhall Market.


Over a two day period, each of the 34,000 unsuspecting members of his flock was then grabbed, rendered lifeless and hung on hooks to be sold in the market. However, the decoy gander eluded all attempts to catch him for two days (perhaps strengthened in his resolve by the loss of his pretty goosefriend?).


Eventually, the market traders agreed to let him live. This he did, for a very long time. Becoming a well loved member of the Leadenhall community, and assuming the name Tom, he lived off scraps of food foraged from the market. Some traders even set aside suitable items for when Tom next passed by.


His diet must have been healthy, because Tom lived to the ripe old age of 37, when he died of natural causes. So beloved was he - by now, dubbed Old Tom - that he was buried at Leadenhall Market and The Times newspaper published his obituary on 16 April 1835 (see below).


The Leadenhall Market buildings Old Tom knew were built in the 1440s and survived the Great Fire of London of 1666. However, by the mid 19th century the market was becoming dilapidated and its stalls did not fit with the growing splendour of the Victorian City of London.


The market was rebuilt by the City architect Sir Horace Jones in 1881. It maintained the medieval street plan, but Old Tom would not recognise today's arcade. Nevertheless, the memory of Old Tom lives on to this day in the Leadenhall Market bar named after him.

Old Tom's Bar, Leadenhall Market

In addition, his story has been freshly illustrated in a series of five new stained glass windows currently on display in a retail unit next to the Lamb Tavern (on the eastern side of the market). They were created by architect and designer Patrick McEvoy from printed acrylic.


He told me: "The real challenge was trying to create something that looked like stained glass within a short period of time and without the expense." He also said that everything was fabricated in London, including the framework.


The Old Tom stained glass windows are due to be on display until January 2023. Leadenhall Market is always an atmospheric place to visit, especially at Christmastime. Patrick McEvoy's colourful illustrations of Old Tom's heart-warming story make it even more so.


Old Tom's obituary from The Times

In memory of Old Tom the Gander. Obit 19th March, 1835, aetat, 37 years, 9 months, and 6 days.

‘This famous gander, while in stubble, Fed freely, without care or trouble: Grew fat with corn and sitting still, And scarce could cross the barn-door sill: And seldom waddled forth to cool His belly in the neighbouring pool. Transplanted to another scene, He stalk’d in state o’er Calais-green, With full five hundred geese behind, To his superior care consign’d, Whom readily he would engage To lead in march ten miles a-stage. Thus a decoy he lived and died, The chief of geese, the poulterer’s pride.’


Old Tom's story as illustrated by Partick McEvoy's stained glass windows

(click on the first photo and scroll across to see all four)

 

Walks available for booking

For a schedule of forthcoming London On The Ground tours (including a Christmas-themed walk on 28 December, with a visit to Leadenhall Market), please click here.


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