A New Class


I taught the first class of the WEA “Food Heroes and Heroines” course this morning.    Today was about introductions, a bit of administration and the Agricultural Revolution.

There were 18 students and I think it is going to be fun.  They are asking lots of good questions already!  Here are some I promised to bring back to the class next week with my answers so far.

  1. When was Thomas Malthus alive?  He was born in 1766 and died in 1834.
  2. When were tarmaced roads introduced in Britain?  This doesn’t have a simple answer.  John Loudon McAdam introduced “macadamisation” around 1820.  This produced good roads for horse traffic but, strictly speaking, “tarmac” is a type of road surface  patented by Edgar Purnell Hooley in 1901.
  3. Does the Dishley Society set up by Robert Bakewell in 1783 still exist?  I can’t find it so I guess that it has been absorbed into the Leicester Agricultural Society or perhaps the Leicester Sheep Breeders’ Association. There is a New Dishley Society which covers Robert Bakewell’s historical legacy.
  4. Why did the population of Britain double between 1801 and 1851 (8.7 to 16.7 million)? It can’t just be because of increased productivity on the farms, can it? The short answer is no.  The population explosion was due to a variety of factors.  It comes down to increased birth rates and decreased death rates.  Given the dreadful living conditions in towns during the early 19th century I find this hard to believe but something was going on.

For more on the Agricultural Revolution this article by Professor Mark Overton on the BBC’s website, Agricultural Revolution in England 1500-1850, is worth a read.

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Inspirational Food Historian


Dorothy Hartley. Photo by Ron Thomson.

Dorothy Hartley (1893- 1985) was a very interesting woman and her book Food in England qualifies her as a top-notch food heroine.

She was born in Skipton, Yorkshire where her father Rev. Hartley was the headmaster at the local grammar school.  She went to Nottingham Art School but the First World War interrupted her training and she worked in a munitions factory for a while.  After the War she worked as an art teacher.  In 1933 she settled in Froncysyllte, North East Wales and lived there until her death at the age of 92.

Her interest in social history resulted in several books but the best (in my opinion) is Food in England, which was first published in 1954.  It is a big book, packed full of information about food history and highly readable.  It includes, for example, instructions on how to smoke and salt a ham, descriptions of various breeds of cattle, a text on Medieval table manners and a discussion of the causes of malnutrition during the Industrial Revolution.  All the way through the book she includes recipes, illustrations and puts food into its historical and social context.   Her definition of “English” is rather elastic and there are plenty of references to Irish, Scottish and Welsh food.

I bought my copy of Miss Hartley’s book this summer and it has taught me everything I need to know about blackberries.  On page 427 is a drawing is of a blackberry cluster along with her useful observations about the fruit.  She tells us that the fruit at the tip of the clusters ripen first.  These are soft, juicy and best eaten raw.  The next ones to ripen are better cooked in puddings or made into jams.  As the season progresses the fruit at the rear of the cluster ripens and the proportion of pulp to seed reduces.  These later berries should be cooked with apples, if eaten at all.  I love her carefully researched practical guidance and I love that her last book was published when she was 86.  There is time for me yet!

Alfred Bird’s Custard


Bird’s custard powder.

Cornflour based custard is now so common that, for many of us, it is more “real” than the version made with eggs. Alfred Bird (1811-1878) is the man we need to thank for it.

Alfred set up himself up as “experimental chemist” in 1837. I am not entirely sure what an experimental chemist was meant to do but Alfred’s investigations were influenced by his wife’s delicate digestion.  Mrs Elizabeth Bird was unable to eat eggs or bread made with yeast so Alfred came up with alternatives.  Initially his inventions were only used at home but he went on to manufacturer them on a commercial-scale.  Custard powder was popular from the start.  It was cheap, simple to make and tasted good. By the mid 1840s it was being sold throughout Britain.

Alfred embraced the new opportunities of industrial Britain, which helped his firm to grow.  He put a lot of energy into promoting his products, which is reflected in the company motto,

“Early to bed, early to rise, stick to your work, and advertise.”

Later two of his sons joined the firm and more products were developed, including blancmange powder in the early 1870s and jelly crystal powder in 1895.   The firm, Alfred Bird and Sons Ltd, was bought in 1947 by the General Food Corporation.  Today the Bird’s brand is part of Premier Foods and the old Bird’s factory in Gibb Street, Birmingham is now part of an arts and media quarter called the Custard Factory.