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.

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18th century cookery writer in jail


The Fleet Prison where Hannah Glasse was taken in July 1757. Image from Robert Chambers’ Book of Days / Wikimedia Commons.

Hannah Glasse (1708-1770) was responsible for producing one of the most popular 18th century cook books, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.   It remained in print for nearly a century and it is back in print today thanks to Prospect Books, which publishes a facsimile of the 1747 edition.The Art of Cookery covered everything an 18thcentury cook ought to know, from roasting and boiling to pies, puddings and preserves.  The book also contains some surprising recipes such as how to “Make curry the Indian Way” and ketchup that will last 20 years!

This is one of her recipe for parsnips,

“They should be boiled in a great deal of water, and when you find that they are soft (which you will know by running a fork into them) take them up, and carefully scrape all the dirt off them, and then with a knife scrape them all fine, throwing away the sticky parts; then put them into a saucepan with some milk, and stir them over the fire till they are thick.  Take great care they don’t burn, and add a good piece of butter and a little salt, and when the butter is melted sent them to table.”

When Hannah was born in London her mother and father were not married, at least not to each other.  Nevertheless Hannah was given her father’s name, Allgood, and was absorbed into his Northumberland family.   At the age of 16 she moved to London and promptly married an Irishman called John Glasse.

If her husband had been a better provider it is possible that Hannah would never have written The Art of Cookery.  She had some money from her father but this was not enough to avoid financial worries, especially as her family grew.  She gave birth to ten (or possibly eleven) children, although only five survived into adulthood.  Selling subscriptions for the cook book was just one of Hannah’s money making ventures.

For a while it was looking good.  Hannah and one of her daughters were running a shop in a smart part of London but Hannah had borrowed heavily and, in 1754, she went bankrupt with a debt of over £10,000 pounds.  To help sort things out she sold the copyright of The Art of Cookery.  A few years later Hannah was in financial trouble again and this time she ended up in debtors’ prison.  First the Marshalsea Prison and later the Fleet Prison.  There is some uncertainty over what exactly happened to Hannah after that.  We know that she went on to produce two more books, The Servants Directory and The Compleat Confectioner, but it isn’t clear whether she wrote these while in prison or having got out of jail.

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.

18th century housekeeper does it all


A portrait of Elizabeth Raffald printed in 1782, the year after her death.

Elizabeth Raffald (1733-1781) is a food heroine for writing The Experience English Housekeeper, a practical 18th century cookery book.  She was one of those amazing women who did everything, making the rest of us look like lazy slatterns.  And, in between all the work, Elizabeth gave birth to between 6 and 15 children (the records are vague and sources differ).

The Experienced English Housekeeper was first printed in 1769 and reprinted many times during the next 60 or so years.  The book gives recipes for all sorts of things, from Yorkshire goose pie and spun sugar webs to cherry brandy and pickled walnuts.   It also gives instructions on how to lay a table out for a party.  In the introduction, Elizabeth explains that she had worked for 15 years as a housekeeper in “great and worthy families” and the book was dedicated to her last employer Lady Elisabeth Warburton of Arley Hall, Cheshire.  It was at Arley Hall that she met John Raffald, the head gardener who became her husband.

Soon after marrying the Raffalds moved to Manchester where Elizabeth set up several businesses.  She established herself as a confectioner, supplying the newly rich of Manchester with the fancy goods they needed for entertaining in style, for example, table decorations and cakes, as well as the kind of things you’d find in a delicatessen, like potted meats, lemon preserves, mushroom ketchup and anchovies.   Realising that her customers needed servants she set up servant exchange and, in 1772, she compiled the first directory for the growing city of Manchester, which included an alphabetical list of tradesmen.

Later the Raffalds made the short move to Salford where they ran an inn called King’s Head and a coffee-house.  They had some financial difficulties but their creditors only really moved in after Elizabeth’s sudden death in 1781.  She was survived by her husband, just three of her children and, of course, her cookery book.

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