1. In-Cell Cuisine 1960’s – 1980’s

It was a Marvellous time.

As you know, the blogs I write are based on David’s experiences between 1985 and 2017. On this occasion I’ve had to call in the experts who were in prison prior to 1985. 

There’s a good chance that you’ve already heard anecdotes of people in prison ‘cooking in a kettle’ and the various culinary delights that can be produced with a plastic travel kettle. I’ll cover cooking in a kettle in Part Two, but first let’s look back at life in prison when the only kettle to be seen was on the wrist.  

Sixty years ago, for the poor souls in prison, canteen and a kettle were little more than pipe dreams. If you were feeling peckish or fancied some munchies, you pulled up your prison issue big boy pants and used your cunning, stealth and ingenuity. It’s good to know that it’s still the same today, except you can pull up your own big boy pants now. 

Just like today, a mate on the servery made the quest for food so much easier. This tradition has also been handed down through the generations. Depending on your budget, you could lay your hands on a joint of meat, half a pound of cheddar or a couple of eggs.

The gentleman with the more generous budget could hire a personal chef, who would provide an on-demand food service from a menu that would include curry and rice with nan bread, kebab and chips and a full roast dinner with roast potatoes, a selection of vegetables, yorkshire puddings and gravy twice a week. (I wonder if there was stuffing or horseradish sauce? I should’ve asked at the time.)

It was common practice for your purchase to be delivered to your landing via the tea urns. The same urns were used to make toast by holding a slice of bread against the flames from the gas burners heating the water from below. One of the strangest stories I have been told was of the Red Band who, when working in the grounds, took the opportunity to plug a portion of egg-fried rice. I guess it’s preferable to prawn balls, nobody wants that. Just shows that no matter where you work in prison you can always find ‘perks of the job’.

With no kettles in sight, it would be easy to assume that eggs and joints of meat were consumed raw. Nope, these were the days when most landings had a kitchen to prepare your own food, often taking a companion to mind the door.

If there wasn’t a kitchen on your landing, or you couldn’t access it, you could still rustle up tasty hot snacks in your pad.

But, what about a hot drink at bedtime? Well, you could make a flask by sewing a pillow case together and placing it over a large jug filled with boiling water from the urn. If you couldn’t get to the urn, no worries, you could kill a bit of bird waiting for your hot chocolate to heat up under the element of the light switch. If you know better than to play with electrics, you had to get hold of a Marvel tin. Don’t throw the contents away, you won’t believe what you can do with a bit of powdered milk.

In fact, the powdered milk was so versatile, that everyone declared it to be “a bloody marvel.

But how on earth did they heat up the Marvel tin?

  1. Rip your chosen fabric into strips. (Sheets and t-shirts are the popular choice)
  2. Procure eight empty tuna cans and fill each with your strips of fabric.
  3. Poor on the baby oil and set it alight.
  4. Place a stainless-steel tray over the burners.

Voila! You have everything you need to prepare a home-cooked meal for eight or plenty of nibbles for your meet and greet on the landing.

The bland, tasteless lukewarm food was not to the liking of many people in prison, especially those from different cultures. They were able to source, perhaps more familiar tasting food, by catching pigeons.

It required patience and perseverance to entice pigeons with pieces of bread onto the windowsill. I believe a form of noose was placed on the windowsill and as soon as the pigeon stepped into it, it was yanked as hard as possible grabbing the delicacy by the legs. Once caught, the pigeon was plucked, gutted and boiled in the old faithful Marvel tin. Witnesses report scenes not dissimilar to a pillow fight that had taken place in a blood bath.

When the Prison Rules 1964 were introduced raucous cheers could be heard from landing to landing across the land. This was huge news.

Rule 8 – Privileges directed the following: 

“There shall be established at every prison systems of privileges appropriate to the classes of prisoners there, which shall include arrangements under which money earned by prisoners in prison may be spent by them within the prison.” 

Welcoming the introduction of a little shop, often referred to as tuck shop, caddy shack or stores.’

Back then, for the princely sum of one shilling and six pence, you could get ALL of the following: 

Quarter of an ounce of tobacco, (lasted three days)

packet of papers,

penny box of matches (to be split into four with a razor blade)

and the choice of two black jacks or

two strawberry and custard chews.

These were the days when if you didn’t meet your quota of two mailbags a week to earn a basic wage, you would get a nicking for idle labour. Most people were keen to go to the workshops and earn enough to get more tobacco and a stamp for an extra letter home. It also provided the opportunity to gossip like old fishwives and find a mate to lend you a couple of split matches or arrange a trade.

I think it was also around this time that a Royal Decree came from Her Majesty in Buckingham Palace.

And, so it was, the left legs were removed from all chickens and thrown across the room into plastic bags, and continuing until this very day.

Prior to the 1980s, although drugs were available, they weren’t such a big thing then. If you wanted a ‘night out’ you made hooch. There’s always a risk of ill-health from drinking the final product, especially when you introduced additives to give it a bit of a kick. I’m told the addition of the metal polish, used to clean brass and copper pipes, resulted in two deaths, two men seriously ill and the immediate removal of metal polish. Seriously, don’t try this at home.

Ask any man who’s been in prison to tell you about the hooch he made, and he probably won’t tell you how it tasted. Although you do hear reports of hooch that tasted just like vodka. I bet if you’ve been behind the door long enough Brasso would be reminiscent of a 1962 Smirnoff! What you are more likely to be told are the stories of when the hooch exploded. Weekend bang up was the perfect time to get busy with your distillery and vessels included 5-10 litre drums, buckets, two litre 7-up bottles and even fire extinguishers!

If, like me, you’ve never had the need to know how hooch is made, here’s a very basic recipe:

Heat is key to the fermentation process and in the absence of an airing cupboard, there are a number of ways to keep your hooch warm.  I’m going to give you a very basic example using a couple of empty 7-Up bottles.

Mash all ingredients together, you’re aiming to get the consistency of a fruit puree with bits of mashed white bread.

Pour your hooch into the empty bottles, don’t ever forget to leave some room at the top.

Wrap your bottles in a towel and keep them warm on the hot water pipes.

Carbon dioxide will build up as part of the fermenting process and you will need to burp your bottle to let the gas out EVERY DAY.

The consequences of not letting the gas out often led to an explosion that sounded like the Tornadoes had turned up or a bomb had gone off! You could wake a wing or even the whole jail when it went off. Hooch was commonly brewed under the bunk, in a five or ten litre tub or a couple of two litre bottles on the pipes. If the gas went off, you would find your hooch and bits of fruit sprayed across your entire pad, with most of the fruit hitting the ceiling. The stench, described as “like orange juice” and “Gazza’s breath”, could hang around for days or weeks and no getting away with it. Two weeks down the block, no canteen for two weeks, back on basic and even worse – you lost your hooch!

Yes, it’s another practice still going strong today, including the explosions. Idiots!

But wait! I haven’t even mentioned “Duffncustard” pronounced as one word.

Reportedly one of the best things about being in prison. Sometimes it’s the only good thing about being in prison. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there’s a link between Duffncustard and recidivism to this day.

Even though Duffncustard has been around since Elizabeth Fry was at pre-school, I’m going to cover it in Part Two: 1980s – 2020.

I’ve learned a lot and laughed a lot doing my research. But as a Health and Safety Consultant

“Are you ####ing kidding me?”

Thank you so much to everyone who has contributed and especially the ladies and gentlemen of HMP Old School Connections. I would have made a right pig’s ear of it without you.

Part two coming soon. (I haven’t finished writing yet!)

Best wishes

Keef x

4 thoughts on “1. In-Cell Cuisine 1960’s – 1980’s

  1. I absolutely refuse to say anything at all about this very funny and fascinating piece which demonstrates how much ingenuity people have in extreme circumstances until I have read about Duffncustard. You have left us all with a cliffhanger. Very unfair if you ask me.


  2. You made it sound alot posher than it was Kelly 🤣😂 . Wouldn’t call him my personal chef but I get your drift.
    The food was smuggled out of the kitchen back door not delivered in a urn and no there was never any stuffing 🤣😂 so I now want a refund.
    Duffandcustard….now that’s a new one on me. Cant wait till the next instalment. Keep up the good work


    1. It’s all about duffncustard! I don’t think I’ve had a single comment on this blog that didn’t refer to duffncustard. Looking forward to your guest blog on Christmas behind bars!


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