Handwritten history from the kitchens of Georgian England

From 1 March 2013, Westminster City Archives invites you to explore over 150 years of English culinary history through The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies.

This remarkable manuscript contains hand-written recipes from the early 1700s to the mid 19th century, covering one of the most exciting periods of development in the English kitchen. It is a time of technological innovation and of  evolving tastes, as the price of exotic imports fell with the ever-widening reach of British trading routes.

Georgian and Regency culinary habits have surprising parallels with modern food trends. There was an emphasis on the ‘fun’ of food, and on creating dishes to amaze and delight. Recipes for carrot puddings, lumber pie and whipped syllabubs display innovation worthy of Heston Blumenthal.

There are also parallels with today’s ‘slow food’ movement. Kitchens drew largely on seasonal, locally-sourced produce, and as far as possible used food produced in their own smallholdings and gardens. The compilers of this Cookbook make their own cheese from freshly drawn milk, fearlessly stuff calves heads, and demonstrate considerable skill in butchery. They appear deeply connected with the food they eat and where it comes from.

On the search of our Unknown Ladies

Mystery surrounds the compilers of the Cookbook. A type-written title page bound into the book suggests that the recipes were collected by ‘various unknown women about the year 1761’. But the handwriting and recipes suggest that the period over which these were collected was in fact much longer. Some of the hands belong to the very early part of the 18th century, and others transcribe recipes from popular published cookbooks of the 1820s.

It had also been assumed that the ladies were living in the London area, but on closer inspection of the manuscript there is little hard evidence to support this.

Many questions remain unanswered. Was this a family cookbook, passed down from generation to generation? For what type of household were these recipes written? Were our ladies servants and, if so, what was life like for them in an 18th century kitchen? In this blog, we’ll draw on clues from the manuscript to create a picture of our cookbook writers and the world in which they lived.

Cooking up history in today’s kitchens

Over the year to come, we’ll be trying out some of the historic recipes from the Cookbook of Unknown Ladies in our kitchen here at the Archives Centre. We hope you’ll join us in exploring the tastes, sights and smells of Georgian cookery by trying out some of the recipes in your own kitchen!

Post up your experiences on this blog, or email us at archives@westminster.gov.uk. We look forward to hearing from you!