The phrase full English breakfast denotes a substantial breakfast including hot cooked foods such as bacon, sausages, eggs and baked beans.
The earliest occurrences of this phrase that I have found all emanate from the wealthy upper class of British society.
The earliest is from Breakfast Dishes: Some welcome variations to what is perhaps the best meal of the day, by A. H. Adair, published in Britannia and Eve (London, England) of September 1933. This is the first paragraph of the article:
For those households in which a full “English” breakfast is a necessity one ventures to make a few suggestions which should serve to provide an occasional change in the menu. No one, of course, can criticise this, the best breakfast in the world, and the best meal of the day in England, but even the most efficient of us will always welcome something new.
The rest of this article did not describe the “full “English” breakfast”, but it is possible to infer what it consisted of (fried eggs, fried bacon and cooked tomatoes in particular) from the ingredients that A. H. Adair included in the variant dishes that he suggested; those dishes were:
– as “a pleasant alternative to fried eggs”, œufs sur le plat, “served quite plain or with bacon” [cf. photograph below];
– “various flavourings suitable for a breakfast omelette. Bacon or ham fried and cut into small pieces; kidneys also cooked; tomatoes peeled, chopped and cooked in butter; soft roes heated in butter”;
– scrambled eggs with “a few chicken livers […] cut into cubes and cooked for a few minutes in butter. As with omelettes, cooked tomatoes, kidneys of flakes of haddock are all very good as a flavouring”;
– rice and haddock;
– “savoury toast”, the savoury paste being made of mashed sardines and yolks of hard-boiled eggs.
A. H. Adair also recommended to serve fruit (“one thing [that] does not appear quite so often as it might on the average breakfast table”), for, he wrote, “there is something to be said for the “apple a day” theory, only it need not always be an apple”.
“Eggs cooked in little individual dishes are a pleasant change from the usual fried variety”—illustration for Breakfast Dishes—Britannia and Eve—September 1933:
AMENITIES PROVIDED BY HOTELS
All the other early instances of full English breakfast that I have found relate to amenities provided by hotels.
DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR
Three occurrences, dating from February and March 1940, refer to the Savoy, a luxury hotel in London, England:
1: From Night Out in Town, an unsigned article published in Britannia and Eve (London, England) of February 1940:
London night life, taking the war in its stride, has tuned-in to a mood of quick gaiety.
Men get a break because white ties are definitely out. Everywhere evening dress is optional, but that does not mean that women should turn up in tweeds, unless they have no choice.
Men, especially in uniform, are still susceptible to subtle flattery, and it pleases them to be seen with a girl who wins general admiration. Woollen dinner-dresses, ground length, in soft warm colours, or brightened with vivid embroideries, are the best choice because they are a good foil for khaki or blue. Wear them with or without a hat. But if you feel like dressing up in the grand manner, go ahead. You will have company.
For a Family Gathering there is nothing to equal a good dinner, dancing, and an impressive cabaret. Carol Gibbons is at the Savoy and you can dance to his band and to Geraldo’s. There are two floor-shows, one at 10.30 and the other at midnight, and an atmosphere of warm enjoyment that is very human and pleasant.
Dinner costs 15s. 6d., supper 12s. 6d. Both, of course, include dancing and cabaret.
If you want to spend the night at the Savoy you can have a bedroom and private bathroom, a full English breakfast, and dinner and dancing in the restaurant, or dinner in the Grill Room for a combined charge of 35s. For two people the combined charge is 60s. In any case, there is a 15% war discount on all rooms.
2: From The Savoy Revisited, by Ashley Courtenay, published in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News (London, England) of Friday 9th February 1940:
The Savoy to-day cannot be making large profits. How can it while maintaining Savoy standards with the increased price of everything—lighting, heating, and other commodities; yet at such reduced prices for accommodation that perhaps for the first time the Savoy is available to the average Englishman.
Do you realise that one can stay at the Savoy to-day at the combined charge for two persons to cover bedroom and private bathroom, full English breakfast, dinner and dance in the restaurant, or dinner in the Savoy Grill at only 60s. a night; and for one person 35s.
3: From In Quest of Good Hotels: Dining and Dancing in London—The City of Superb Entertainment, by Ashley Courtenay, published in The Sphere (London, England) of Saturday 23rd March 1940:
To round off an excellent evening one should sleep at the Savoy, and incredible as it may seem, dinner dance or supper dance cabaret plus room with private bath and full English breakfast costs but 35s. single or 30s. each for a double room.
AFTER THE SECOND WORLD WAR
From the early 1950s onwards, the phrase occurs in advertisements for hotels.
The earliest occurrence of full English breakfast in the Oxford English Dictionary (3rd edition, 2016) is from an advertisement published in The Times of India (Mumbai, India) of Saturday 2nd December 1950:
Two single bedrooms airy and well furnished […] at Malabar Hill. Only morning tea and full English breakfast will be provided.
Likewise, the earliest post-Second World War instance of full English breakfast that I have found is from an advertisement published in The Battle Creek Enquirer and News (Battle Creek, Michigan, USA) of Sunday 23rd November 1952—the coronation of Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom, took place on Tuesday 2nd June 1953 at Westminster Abbey, London:
7 GLORIOUS DAYS
Twin-bedded hotel room for seven nights, with full English breakfasts.
Full sight-seeing schedule with the services of a tour conductor.
Security National Bank Bldg.
NO SERVICE CHARGE
The Birmingham Post (Birmingham, Warwickshire, England) of Tuesday 8th November 1955 published this advertisement for Associated Hotels Ltd.:
IT COSTS LESS TO STAY IN LONDON NOW
During the Winter months, Tariffs in these modern hotels, owned by Associated Hotels Ltd., have been substantially reduced. All the amenities expected in a first class hotel are available at these modest terms. Just write or telephone the hotel of your choice.
Victoria, S.W.I (Vic 8042) 50/- 2 persons
Luxurious double rooms with private bathroom and full English breakfast for two, no extras.
Princes Square, W.2 (Bay 6477) 35/- 2 persons
Very comfortable double rooms without private bathroom, but including full English breakfast for two, no extras.
Monmouth Street, W.C.2 (Tem 4422) 25/- Single Rooms
Ultra modern single pullman rooms with full English breakfast.
Similar rooms with private bathroom and breakfast, 35/-.
Write for fully illustrated brochure in colour to Associated Hotels Ltd., Room 703, Eccleston Hotel, Victoria, London, S.W.1.
THE (FULL) ENGLISH BREAKFAST BEFORE THE PHRASE APPEARED
An article in the Nashville Tennessean (Nashville, Tennessee, USA) of Sunday 18th August 1929 reported that Mrs Ervine, the wife of the Irish playwright, novelist and critic St. John Greer Ervine (1883-1971), had written in The Manchester Guardian of the high cost of the “full-sized English breakfast” in American hotels.
Although she did not use the phrase full-sized English breakfast, Mrs Ervine had given a description of what this expression designated in English and American Food: A Difference of Opinion, published in The Manchester Guardian (Manchester, Lancashire, England) of Tuesday 9th July 1929—she had been staying in New York City for about three weeks:
My dislikes begin at breakfast, but here my complaint was not of the quality of the food, but of its cost. The table d’hôte breakfast served in a good British hotel, consisting of a pot of tea or coffee, as much toast, rolls, bread, jam, butter, or marmalade as are required, a plate of porridge, a choice of several varieties of fish, and a choice of bacon and eggs, or kidney and tomatoes, or sausages and bacon, &c., would cost at least sixteen shillings in New York.
An evocation of what the shorter form English breakfast denoted occurs in the Boston Morning Post (Boston, Massachusetts, USA) of Friday 11th June 1841:
A day on board of a steamer.—A passenger on board of the Britannia, on her last departure from Boston, writes from Halifax to the editor of the Trenton Emporium, as follows:—
“The day on board is spent as follows: From day-light until eight the ship is a sort of general dressing-room. This business over, the passengers assemble in the dining-room, where each has his seat at table permanently assigned for the voyage. At half past eight the bell rings, and an English breakfast appears—to wit: teas. coffee, fish, beef, ham, eggs, sausages, and in short everything that was ever heard of as a morning dish.”
However, English breakfast seems to have originally designated tea and/or coffee, eggs and cold meats. The earliest description that I have found is from Personal Narrative of Adventures in the Peninsula during the War in 1812—1813. By an Officer late in the Staff Corps Regiment of Cavalry (John Murray – London, England, 1827), attributed to one E. W. Buckham—the narrator has been billeted in a Portuguese convent:
In the morning I found in readiness a regular English breakfast, viz. tea, coffee, with eggs and cold meat.
The second-earliest description that I have found is from an article entitled Great Britain in 1833, published in the North Carolina Sentinel (New Bern, North Carolina, USA) of Friday 25th October 1833:
English Breakfast.—An English day is much cut up by the frequency of meals. Tea is served at nine o’clock; and at this meal nobody is waited for, hardly the master of the house. When the clock strikes, the first comers place themselves round the table, make the tea, and help themselves unceremoniously to bread, butter, and eggs, of which the breakfast is composed. On a sideboard are placed cold meats—those who wish for a slice of meat, stand up, cut off a suitable portion, and return to their places. Neither wine, beer, nor water are served at this meal—one has only tea or coffee to quench one’s thirst, for which one must frequently ask the person officiating at the tea-table. Custom excludes the presence of servants; and the persons composing the company, generally occupied in reading the newspapers, or with their letters, do not think of supplying the want of servants by transmitting from hand to hand such things as others have need of.