18th Century Self Sufficiency Manual


This only image in The Country Housewife's Family Companion.

This only image in The Country Housewife’s Family Companion.

I have just bought a copy of The County Housewife’s Family Companion by William Ellis (d.1758).  It was first published in 1750 and the wonderful Prospect Books have reprinted it.  The book includes recipes of the everyday foods eaten in rural England but it is more like a farmers’ survival guide than a cookery book.

The Country Housewife’s Family Companion covers a wide range of topics and reveals the sheer hard work needed to maintain a small farm and to feed everyone involved.  It covers the expected housewifery skills, such as baking and butter making, and then some.  For example, it explains the best way to grind wheat and how to feed the extra workers who come to get the harvest in (beef, bacon, picked pork, beans, puddings, pies, cheese, beer and ale).  It includes a vivid description of how to caponize cocks “…with a very sharp knife…” (pp. 216-217) as well as medical advice and remedies.  The description of how to prepare guts for sausage casings is a particularly telling example of the time consuming work needed to prepare food in a pre-industrial era.

“ Take the fresh guts of a sheep, and cut them into fathom or six foot long pieces; one parcel of guts will cut into six or eight such pieces; stroke the dung out, and put them into water just to wet them, turn them inside out, by the help of a stick, wash them, and scrape a pieces at a time as it likes on a table, with the back of a knife drawn along the inside skin thus turned outwards, and it will come off in two or three times scraping, and without breaking the gut, if it be rightly done; and in the same manner, the outward skin with scraping will come off at the end of the gut; then there will only remain the middle skin, that will appear about the bigness of a wheat straw.  And when all the pieces of the guts are thus scraped, cleaned, and prepared, put them into water made just lukewarm, for if it is too hot, they are all spoiled.  Now in this lukewarm water the guts must be washed clean; then put them into a glazed earthenware pot, with salt enough strewed over them, and they will keep sweet as long as you please.  And that the skins may appear truly fine and clear, put one end to your mouth and blow it, and then you may easily perceive whether the gut is entirely free of all outward skin or fur; for if it is nor, it must be presently taken off.”  (pp. 132-13)

William Ellis started farming in Little Gaddesden, Hertfordshire around 1717.  Before that he spent time working as a brewer and as an excise man.  The books that he wrote were popular and he earned his money from writing rather than from farming.

William Ellis’s book paints a picture of life just before the Agricultural Revolution transformed Britain.  I thought he was going to be the hero of this blog post but perhaps the real heroes and heroines were the army of individuals who worked incredibly hard to scrape a living and feed their families during the 18th century.

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.

Cleaning up the Milk Supply


Last week’s protest by British dairy farmers, and their threat to disrupt supplies during the Olympic Games, made me think about milk.   Specifically about how accustomed we are to having clean milk available all year round.  In Britain we might worry that too much double cream is unhealthy but we can assume that milk, and other dairy products, are safe.

Franz Ritter von Soxhlet, the German chemist who developed pasteurization in the late 19th century.

During the 18th and 19th century milk could be a source of illness.   Leaving aside adulteration, the way milk was produced and transported allowed harmful micro-organisms to multiply.  Milk cows were often kept in overcrowded conditions, equipment was not always cleaned properly and the lack of refrigeration made things worse.   Tuberculosis was one of the diseases that could be spread by contaminated milk but the lack of certainty about how the disease spread meant there was plenty of room for disagreement.  Some argued that the milk supply could be cleaned up by good hygiene practices alone.  Others argued that pasteurization of milk was absolutely essential.  There were even voices suggesting that the best solution would be for the government to take over milk production as in this 1899 Fabian Society leaflet.

Of all the people who helped clean up the milk supply the Medical Officers of Health deserve a special mention.  These government officials, who began to be appointed from the mid-19th century, gathered evidence on a range of public health matters including the milk supply.  They inspected milking parlours, visited dairies, tracked the spread of disease and reported on the cause of deaths in their area.   All of which helped to persuade others of the need for improvements.  Some changes were slow to come.  Franz Ritter von Soxhlet (1848-1926) proposed a way destroying the harmful bugs in milk by heating it, i.e. pasteurization in 1886 but British diary farmers resisted compulsory pasteurization.  It wasn’t until 1949 that it became standard practice across the UK. 

This book by Hannah Velten provides more information about the history of milk.

Charles “Turnip” Townshend


Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount Townshend as a young man. Painting from the studio of Godfrey Kneller. National Portrait Gallery.

The nickname “Turnip” was given to Charles Townshend (1674-1738) because of his enthusiasm for the root vegetable and, when I did my history “O” level, he was definitely presented as a hero of the Agricultural Revolution.   According to Charles the virtues of the turnip lay in their ability to help increase the amount of food produced, rather than how they improved a stew.

Born at Raynham Hall, Norfolk, he had an impressive political career before turning his attention to new farming techniques, in particular the four field crop rotation.  This system of growing was an important factor in increasing food production during the British Agricultural Revolution. However, four field crop rotation was a development of existing practice and not one of Charles Townshend’s making.   Farmers had long moved crops about from year-to-year in a system which normally involved  leaving some land out of production.  Nor did Charles Townshend introduce the turnip to Britain.   His contribution was as an advocate rather than as an originator.

It could be argued that the real heroes were the Flemish farmers who developed the idea of rotating crops of wheat, barley, clover and turnips on their land during the 16th century.  This system kept the soil in good condition and avoided leaving land fallow.  The turnips were fed to cattle during the winter helping to increase the amount of meat, milk and manure.

The adoption of the four field crop rotation increased food production in Britain and Charles “Turnip” Townshend deserves credit for using his land and social position to promote it.

Cheerleader for the Agricultural Revolution


Thomas William Coke (1754-1842), also known as Coke of Norfolk and later the first Earl of Leicester, was an English politician, gentleman farmer and promoter of new agricultural methods.  The old history books describe him as one of the key pioneers of the Agricultural Revolution, which is probably exactly the kind of aggrandisement he would have approved of!

Thomas William Coke painted in 1809 by Thomas Weaver. UK Government Art Collection 2010, licensed under the Open Government Licence.

At the age of 22 he inherited his uncle’s estate Holkham in Norfolk, which included 54 farms.  The farms were not badly managed by the standards of the time but the Agricultural Revolution was underway and Thomas Coke was keen to adopt new methods, such as crop rotation and selective breeding.

Perhaps his most significant impact concerned sheep.  Thomas Coke introduced new types of grass for his sheep to graze on and by 1793 he claimed to have increased the number of sheep at Holkham from 700 to 2,400 [1].   He also experimented with the selective breeding of sheep and promoted the English Leicester, a new improved breed in the late 18th century which is now considered rare.  In order to encourage the spread of these new techniques he began hosting annual sheep shearing competitions.  These grew into large shindigs and drew influential people from some distance.

He qualifies as a food hero because he helped to popularise new agricultural methods.  I admire his gusto in being an early adopter and his enthusiasm to share his new found knowledge.

Worth a trip to his old Palladian gaff sometime I think – http://www.holkham.co.uk/

[1] Susanna Wade Martins, 2009, Coke of Norfolk (1754-1842), The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, p.110