19th Century: Jam Roly-poly


Preparation info

  • Makes


    pudding in a medium-size loaf tin
    • Difficulty


Appears in

Pride and Pudding: The History of British Puddings, Savoury and Sweet

Pride and Pudding

By Regula Ysewijn

Published 2016

  • About

A roly-poly is a pudding made from a flat rolled piece of suet dough, spread with jam, rolled up and, originally, boiled in a cloth. In the present day it is usually steamed or even baked to give the roll a gentle crust. The custom of boiling the roly-poly in an old shirt sleeve gave it the nickname ‘Dead Man’s Arm’.

No mention is made of a roly-poly before the nineteenth century and even during that period it is often called a ‘jelly roll’ or ‘jam roll’. It is very likely that it did exist, either under a different name or in certain localities. Eliza Acton, in Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845), just calls it a ‘Rolled Pudding’ and gives a number of different options for use as flavourings. She also gives the option to use puff pastry. Henry Mayhew, in his London Labour and the London Poor (1851), mentions ‘Rolly Polly’, as if it had been around for quite some time, when he described the shapes in which a plum duff could be made. A nursery rhyme in The Nursery Rhymes of England (compiled by James Halliwell-Phillipps), published in 1842, already mentions the pudding: ‘Rowley Powley, pudding and pie, Kissed the girls and made them cry; When the girls begin to cry, Rowley Poley [sic] runs away.’ Novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, mentions ‘she had the figure and complexion of a roly-poly pudding’ in his 1846 Notes on a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo.

Alexis Soyer in 1849 is the first to publish a rolled pudding recipe called ‘roly-poly’. He gives the name as it is written in the nursery rhyme printed a few years earlier, which means that the term roly-poly had been around for quite some time, maybe in more rural settings, before it actually appeared in a cookery book as the name of a rolled pudding.

831. Rowley Powley – Roll out about two pounds of paste (No. 746), cover it with any jam or marmalade you like, roll it over and tie it loose in a cloth, well tying each end; boil one hour and serve, or cut it in slices and serve with sauce over.

Alexis Soyer, The Modern Housewife or, Ménagère, 1849. Note: No. 746 is ‘Puff Paste, with Beef Suet’

I also believe Soyer wrote the name ‘Rowley Powley’ as he did for his amusement, to refer exactly to the nursery rhyme, as it is clear roly-poly had already become the common way of writing it by then. Five years later, in his recipe for ‘Handy Pudding’ (A Shilling Cookery for the People), he instructs readers to ‘boil the same as rolly-polly pudding’.

Just into the twentieth century our roly-poly pudding appears in Beatrix Potter’s book The Tale of Samuel Whiskers or The Roly-poly Pudding. In this scary children’s tale the roly-poly is not filled with jam but with the hero of the story! Perhaps aided by Beatrix Potter’s story, the roly-poly pudding became a childhood favourite and one of the iconic puddings of mid-twentieth century British school dinners, for which it will always be remembered alongside gypsy pudding, spotted dick, treacle pudding and sticky toffee pudding. A true retro pudding, smeared with good jam and soaked in thick custard.

Although Alexis Soyer suggests using a puff pastry dough with suet, I have tried it and the dough doesn’t work, so here is my version with a regular suet dough, which is most common.