Porridge for One: The Tale of the Grub Street Hermit


In his youth Mr. Henry Welby, the man who would later become known as the “Grub Street Hermit,” enjoyed riches, talents, and, above all, popularity. Contemporary accounts describe Welby as a sympathetic gentlemen much beloved in his neighborhood of Grantham. Yet, despite such esteem, Welby at around age forty decided to leave his tranquil home nestled among the gentle green hills of Lincolnshire and move to colorful, riotous London.

What happened to Welby in London remains for the most part a mystery; all that is known is that he became a hermit. A curious document published in 1637 attempts to untangle the strange knot of events that led to Welby’s retreat into solitude. “This Gentleman, Master Henry Welby, was Forty Years of Age before he took this solitary Life,” the document reports.

Those who knew him, and were conversant with him in his former Time, do report, that he was of a middle Stature, a Brown Complexion, and of a Pleasant Cheerful Countenance. His Hair (by reason no Barber came near him for the Space of so many Years) was much overgrown; so that he, at his Death, appeared rather like a Hermit of the Wilderness, than Inhabitant of a City. His Habit was plain, and without Ornament; of a sad-colored Cloth, only to defend him from the Cold, in there could be nothing found either to express the least Imagination of Pride or Vain-Glory.

The document goes on to speculate that it was an attempt on Welby’s life, by Welby’s brother of all people, that sent him into solitude, where he remained until his dying day. Welby took a rambling house in the lower end of Grub Street, near Cripplegate. He chose to inhabit only three rooms — one for meals, one for rest, one for study — and gave his servants dominion over the rest of the house. Welby carefully protected his solitude. He arranged his daily habits so that when he dined his servants would be in the bedchamber, preparing his bed or lighting the grate; when he retired for the evening they would be in the dining room, clearing away dishes. Such was his habit for forty-four years, it was said.

Welby’s meals were as austere and as strictly ordered as his life. He “never tasted Fish nor Flesh” and he never drank either “Wine or Strong Water.” His chief food was oatmeal boiled with water, which in summer was accompanied by a “Sallad of some cool, choice Herbs.” On days when craved additional nourishment, Welby ate the “Yolk of a Hen’s Egg” (but no part of the white) and crustless bread. His drink of choice was four-shilling beer. Sometimes he ate “Suckets,” or sugar plums, and “Red Cow’s Milk.”

Henry Welby’s recipe for hermit’s porridge has, unfortunately, been lost to history. But Benjamin Smith Lyman’s cookbook Vegetarian Diet and Dishes (1917) presents an appetizing recipe for oatmeal porridge sure to tickle the palate of any London hermit.

Oatmeal Porridge

Let half a pint of oatmeal steep in about a pint of water over night. In the morning, boil it an hour or more, regardless of the twenty minutes prescribed on the package as enough. It can hardly be cooked too much. Add salt to the water, if you like. Eat with sugar and milk (or terralac) or butter (or a palatable oil); and slices of banana, or apple sauce, or other fruit jam or marmalade, mixed with it, go well. Or figs may be cooked in the porridge; and a spiced steam pudding is sometimes made with the oatmeal.

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