A teaspoon of history: the evolution of British cookery books

I am so excited for our upcoming event, Time Kitchen (Wed. Feb 22nd) to nibble delicious historic dishes and learn more about ancient recipes!

This event has inspired me to look into the history of cookery books, and the recipes in our museum collections.

The earliest surviving collection of recipes in Europe is De re coquinaria (The art of cooking), potentially by Marcus Gavius Apicius, an early version of which was compiled in the 1st century. The version currently used is believed to have been compiled in the 4th or 5th century, and the first print edition was made in 1483.

Apicius (public domain)

Apicius (public domain)


(If you want to taste a dish right out of ancient Rome, drop by the Time Kitchen event on Feb 22nd, and try the Roman lentil casserole!)


Since Medieval times, competition among nobles to host the most lavish feasts encouraged the rise of professional cooks, and recipe compilations aimed at the cooks for grand houses. But the first recipe books for domestic readers were still to come. In the 19th century, the emerging Victorian middle-class desire for domestic respectability encouraged the emergence of cookery books in a form we would recognise today.

In 1845 Eliza Acton published the first cookery bookn for domestic audiences, Modern Cookery for Private Families. This book established some of the norms for writing about cookery that are still practiced today. For example, she divided the book by types of food and meals, listed the ingredients and amounts needed, and suggested cooking times for each recipe. She also included sections for foreign recipes, mostly for chutneys, although these may not have been widely enjoyed until after the second World War.

Eliza Acton’s book influenced possibly the most famous British cookery book writer of all time- Mrs Isabella Beeton.


TWCMS : 1995.2872

Her book, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, was published in 24 monthly instalments between 1857 and 1861. Mrs Beeton was more like an editor than writer, as many recipes were plagiarised from earlier writers, including Eliza Acton.

TWCMS : 1995.2872

TWCMS : 1995.2872

This book was mostly recipes, but also included advice on fashion, parenting, animal husbandry, household management, religion, and much else. Mrs Beeton’s book has been reissued in numerous editions and has never been out of print.

TWCMS : 1995.2872

TWCMS : 1995.2872

Although recipe books now are based, consciously or unconsciously, on Acton and Beeton’s Victorian cookery books, they have changed a great deal in the last century and a half.

The way the recipes are written have changed to be more specific, to discuss adaptations for dietary requirements, and to incorporate colourful and tempting images to encourage domestic cooks (later editions of Mrs Beeton’s book began to include colourful illustrations as well).

The contents of recipes have also changed in line with what is in fashion, and what foodstuffs and technology is available to the domestic cook.

TWCMS : 1999.1509

TWCMS : 1999.1509

TWCMS : 1999.1509

TWCMS : 1999.1509

In the 1920s amd ’30s, gas cookers were a popular new technology becoming readily available to home cooks. Books of recipes adapted specially for gas cooking became popular.

During World War II, rationing was instituted in 1939 and did not end until after the war in 1954. It limited what was available to eat, and resulted in some interesting recipes using every last bit of the cow!

TWCMS : 2007.1971

TWCMS : 2007.1971

TWCMS : 2007.1971

TWCMS : 2007.1971

TWCMS : 2007.17

TWCMS : 2007.1971










This book also provides advice  specific to wartime circumstances. You can imagine, an air raid siren blaring and thinking ‘Oh NO! My casserole!’




In the 1960’s the celebrity chef began to take off, and one of the biggest was Marguerite Patten.


TWCMS : 2000.4518

Her encyclopedic books A to Z Cookery in colour provided recipes for anything the home cook would need to know, with beautiful images of the ingredients and finished product.


TWCMS : 2000.4518

In the 1980s microwave cooking was suddenly available to the domestic cook, and it became all the rage!


TWCMS : 2011.2917


TWCMS : 2011.2917

Now cookery books come in thousands of varieties, ranging from books highlighting specific dietary requirements, to featuring specific ingredients, to celebrating indigenous foods around the world.


TWCMS : 2011.1439


TWCMS : ol

TWCMS : 2011.1439








TWCMS : pij

TWCMS : 1995.2872


The bridle-bit and the river

B&W bridle

One of the objects going into the Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibition at Segedunum is a late Iron Age bridle-bit from the Laing Art Gallery. It is a beautiful object, complete and in good condition. It was ‘found in the River Tyne, near Kay’s Meadows’. This is presumably a mistake for King’s Meadows (unless anyone knows of a Kay’s Meadows anywhere?), which was a large island in the river between Dunston and Elswick. It was ‘large’ in the sense that it was about 1500m long (nearly a mile) and had trees, hayfields and even a pub on it. It was removed during dredging of the river in 1884 to make the river more navigable for large ships. The bridle-bit may have ended up in the river as a votive offering, as it has been suggested that the length of the river between the Island and the current position of the Swing Bridge was used for ritual ceremonies from c.1000 BC.

Late iron Age bridle-bit

Late iron Age bridle-bit

The bit is made up of three copper alloy pieces, each cast in one solid piece. It would have required skill and time to produce, probably using a process called ‘casting on’. First one side-ring was cast, then a wax link, attached to the ring, was made and covered in clay to form a mould, the wax then melted and the bronze poured in. The process was then repeated, with a wax version of the second side-ring made, threaded through the central link. A lot of effort, but a beautiful end product!

Ten Things You May Not Know About Kurt Schwitters and the Merz Barn Wall

Interior setting of large abstract wall sculpture set on a wall of slate stones, with wooden roof beam across top of picture and wooden flooring in foreground

If you’re a regular reader of this blog (as if) you already know about Kurt Schwitters and his Merz Barn Wall sculpture, but if you’re new to the Hatton then I can sum it all up in just one word:


However you may be less familiar with the following nuggets of knowledge:

It’s heavy, man
Schwitters created his large sculpture on the interior wall of a small dry-stone barn. A dry-stone building is made from just loose stones, a problem when it came to removing both sculpture and wall in one piece. To consolidate everything into one mass, the Hatton’s removal team built a steel frame behind the wall then filled it with concrete to embed all the stones. While successful, it did leave them on a hillside, in the Lake District, 150 yards from the road, with a lump of slate, steel and concrete weighing twenty-five tons – ‘Hang on a minute, lads, I’ve got a great idea..’.

Vintage black and white exterior photo of group of men removing a large section of wall from a smallstone outbuilding

Removing the Merz Barn Wall from the barn in Elterwater, Lake District

Here’s one I prepared before the programme started
Schwitters had moved to Norway in 1937 to escape increasing Nazi harassment but when Germany invaded in 1940, he fled to Scotland, where he was immediately arrested as an enemy alien. While in internment camp he continued to make new works, and his practice of creating art with whatever materials were to hand – his philosophy of ‘Merz’ – proved invaluable. Paints were improvised using oil from sardine tins, sculptures formed from leftover porridge and for a paintbrush Schwitters persuaded a fellow internee to donate some (perhaps all) of his presumably very bushy eyebrows.

Cash in the attic?
After the War, Schwitters and his partner, Edith Thomas, moved to Ambleside in the Lake District. He sold the occasional landscape, still-life or portrait, but there was little interest among the locals for the many collages he produced and he struggled financially. On occasion he resorted to asking for bread from the rear of the local bakery and a friend recalled Schwitters and Edith debating whether they could afford to buy an apple. In 2014 a Schwitters collage, Ja – Was? – Bild, sold at Christie’s for £12,400,000.

The Talented Mr Bickerstaff
To boost his meagre earnings while living in the Lake District, Schwitters entered the Ambleside Flower Painting Competition, but a professional artist entering a competition essentially for amateurs was, well, not really cricket. So First Prize was won by ‘Mrs Vartis’ for her roses and Second Prize by ‘Mr Bickerstaff’ for his chrysanthemums.

The pen is mightier than the sword (or at least the knife)

Close-up colour portrait photo of white middle-aged man in a tan fedora hat , cark suit, red shirt and tie, lighting a cigarette with a match

George Melly, 1978 (image Wikimedia)

George Melly, jazz singer, writer and critic, died in 2007 after a life that embraced every tenet of the term ‘Bohemian’. The only predictable aspect of George was his unpredictability, but on one occasion it proved his salvation. Emerging from a Manchester jazz club, Melly was confronted by two muggers who threatened him with a knife. Unwilling to give up his wallet and watch, George suddenly launched into a recital of Schwitters’ abstract sound poem Ursonate. So intimidated were the thieves that they ran off. The wonderful Chuwumbawumba featured the story in their song Ratatatay and you can listen to Schwitters himself reciting the poem here.

True Brit
Following his arrival in Britain, Schwitters heard about the concentration camps. He renounced his status as a German national and never spoke the language again. He also applied for British citizenship. It arrived in the post the day after he died.

Happy Birthday Kurt
By sheer coincidence, the Merz Barn Wall was installed into the Hatton Gallery on 20 June 1966, what would have been Schwitters’ 79th birthday.

Old black-and-white photo of large abstract square wall sculpture being lifted off a the back of an open truck by a lifting hook and strap

Preparing to lift the Merz Barn Wall into the Hatton Gallery

Black and white old photo of large abstract wall sculpture being hoisted into the sky by a large crane

Merz Barn Wall being lifted into the Hatton in 1966

What’s it all about?
When asked what the Merz Barn ‘meant’, Schwitters replied ‘It’s just form and colour, just form and colour.’

Python Hero
Just before his death in 1948, Schwitters declared ‘No-one knows who I am but in sixty years they will’ – but he hadn’t reckoned on Monty Python. In the very first episode of Flying Circus in October 1969, they mentioned Schwitters in a sketch about famous artists competing in a cycle road race: ‘And right at the back of this group, our very own Kurt Schwitters!’ You can see the clip here.

He liked Guinea Pigs

Old photo of white middle-aged man indoors holding two guinea pigs with water-filled glass jars and cases in backgroundAww…



‘Revitalising The Hatton Gallery’ is funded by Heritage Lottery Fund.            Logo for heritage Lottery Fund




The Willington Waggonway Research Programme

You may remember the remains of a section of a wooden waggonway were discovered underneath the former Neptune Shipyard not far from Segedunum Roman Fort in the summer of 2013. Before being redeveloped, the site was investigated by archaeologists due to its close proximity to Segedunum and therefore the potential for Roman remains in the area. The unexpected discovery of the rare and substantial remains of an early railway instead was a very welcome surprise. Constructed in 1785, the section of waggonway was identified as part of the route of the Willington Waggonway by local historian and author Les Turnbull. The Willington Waggonway was the collective name for a series of waggonways which were used by horse-drawn waggons to transport coal from collieries at Willington Quay and Bigges Main on the edge of Wallsend to the Tyne for shipment.


The excavated remains of the Willington Waggonway. Photograph © The Archaeological Practice Ltd.


During the 18th century, the North East emerged as the centre of mining technology and earned a place on the world stage because of the skills of its engineers and miners. The site is considered to be internationally significant for the archaeological record in terms of the development of railway technology. Only one other wooden waggonway has previously been professionally excavated and recorded in Tyne and Wear, that at Fencehouses on Wearside in 1995. However, no recovery of the remains were carried out and the extent of their survival is unknown. The discovery of a section of the Willington Waggonway presents a rare opportunity to study the substantial and well-preserved remains of one of Tyneside’s wooden waggonways.


Excavation Plan. Image © The Archaeological Practice Ltd.

The significance

The excavation at the Neptune shipyard unearthed the most complete and best-preserved section of early wooden railway to have been found anywhere in the world. It also included the only ‘wash hole’ for cleaning and wetting waggon wheels to have ever been professionally excavated and recorded. We knew that wash holes existed through documentary sources, but none had been discovered previously. This gives us an amazing opportunity to learn about their construction and how they were used by the large volume of traffic on the waggonway.


Excavated Wash Hole. Photograph © The Archaeological Practice Ltd.

Re-used ships’ timbers also appear to have been used in the construction or the maintenance of the waggonway. If these timbers originate from types of vessels which no longer survive then there is also the potential to learn about their construction.

Re-used ship timber. Photograph © The Archaeological Practice Ltd.

Peg in piece of re-used ship timber. Photograph © The Archaeological Practice Ltd.

Perhaps most significantly, the excavated remains of the Willington Waggonway is the earliest railway that has been discovered which was built to what became the international ‘standard’ gauge, defined as 4’ 8 1/2” or 1435mm. The later Killingworth Waggonway, which was used by George Stephenson during his development of the steam locomotive, used part of the Willington Waggonway to reach the river Tyne. The gauge of the Willington Waggonway (based on the earlier Benton Way) therefore set the gauge for the Killingworth Waggonway and ultimately the rest of the world. Today approximately 55% of railways in the world are standard gauge.

Studying and analysing such a significant and well preserved early railway will allow us to contribute new information to the archaeological record as well as increase our understanding of the technology and innovations of the time.

What’s happened in the last 3 years?

Thanks to the Arts Council England PRISM (The Preservation of Industrial and Scientific Material) fund, TWAM was able to rescue wooden and stone components within a zone 6 metres in length across the width of the waggonway. Representative and significant components were also collected from other locations on the site.

Timbers in storage prior to conservation. Photograph © The Archaeological Practice Ltd.

Samples of the timbers were analysed at the conservation laboratories of the York Archaeological Trust, providing a baseline assessment of the condition of the timbers in general and of their treatment needs. Based on the results, the timbers required consolidation with Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) wax followed by freeze-drying, a process which can take between 24 and 36 months.

What’s next?

Last summer, TWAM secured funding from the Arts Council England Designation Development Fund which will allow us to research, carry out scientific analysis and explore how the waggonway may be displayed in the future. We also intend to create a scale model, develop a publication as well as run both family friendly and specialist events. The project is now underway and will conclude at the end of March 2018.

The timbers will return to the North East in February 2017 to their new home in the Regional Museum Store at Beamish where the stone components are currently stored. Our hope is that this project will be a step towards full scale reconstruction and public display in the future.

Keep an eye out for regular blog posts on the progress of the project as we uncover the secrets of the Willington Waggonway!

Drawing of washpool in use

Reconstruction drawing of the excavated section of waggonway in use. Image © The Archaeological Practice Ltd.

On the Origin of Species – Charles Darwin and the Natural History Society of Northumbria. A Guest Post by Rebekka Noonan

My name is Rebekka Noonan and I am a Psychology student at Newcastle University. During my time as a volunteer in the Great North Museum: Hancock Library, I have discovered the fascinating links between Charles Darwin and the Natural History Society of Northumbria.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) is perhaps one of the best known scientists in modern human history, with his theories concerning the evolution of all known life forms defining much of our understanding of natural history. What is perhaps less well known about Darwin, however, are the links that he has to the  Natural History Society of Northumbria (NHSN). This society is based in the Great North Museum: Hancock and also has its Library located there.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

The NHSN has built up a wonderful library of books since its formation in 1829.  This includes a rare first edition of Darwin’s seminal text “On the Origin of Species” which outlines Darwin’s theory of transmutation and evolution. The book was based on his many years of work in accumulating evidence to support his theory, beginning with his famous trip on the HMS Beagle in the early 1830s. Despite this, “On the Origin of Species” was only published in 1859 despite the core ideas of his influential theory being present in Notebooks that he produced as early as 1837.  In these, Darwin had begun to comment on the role of selective breeding in evolution, viewing selection to be ‘the keystone of man’s success’. In fact, Darwin’s complete theory is thought to have been prepared as early as 1844, yet its appearance in print was delayed by many obstacles that prevented its immediate publication as a combination of evidence and theory into a cohesive body of work.

Alongside his ill health, one other concern that plagued Darwin in his apparent reluctance to publish was the potential impact that such a work, which rejected the existence of an almighty divine creator of all creatures, would have on a highly religious population, a population that included his religious wife Emma Wedgewood.

Interestingly, the copy of “On the Origin of Species” in the NHSN’s possession was bequeathed by a person who rejected the ideas put forward in Darwin’s work – William C Hewitson. Hewitson (1806-1878) was from Newcastle upon Tyne and a founder member of the NHSN.

William C. Hewitson

William C. Hewitson

He was also a wealthy collector of birds, illustrated books (many of which, along with “On the Origin of Species”, were donated after Hewitson’s death to the NHSN and remain in its present day collection), and perhaps most notably, butterflies, which Hewitson viewed as being perfect and coming from the hands of the creator. It is fitting then in his work “Illustrations of New Species of Exotic Butterflies” (also in the NHSN Library) Hewitson noted that if he could ‘find one grain of truth in the chaotic jumble of Mr. Darwin, his lifelong pleasure and occupation would be taken from him.’

Image from Hewitson's Illustrations of New Species of exotic butterflies

Image from Hewitson’s “Illustrations of New Species of exotic butterflies”

Hewitson, however, is not Darwin’s sole link with the NHSN, as another founding member of the society, Albany Hancock (1806-1873), engaged in correspondence with Darwin. Albany Hancock was the older brother of John Hancock and was a highly respected and skilled anatomist and artist, with wide ranging zoological interests. The letters received by Hancock from Darwin are transcribed in the “Natural History Transactions of Northumberland and Durham, Volume VIII 1880-89″. The correspondence began in late September 1849 after Darwin wrote to Hancock concerning the latter’s work on the burrowing barnacle, which began a lengthy correspondence of which 20 known letters were detailed in the Transactions. The subject of the correspondence concerned theoretical discussion of barnacles, in particular anatomical adaptations concerning boring, mostly centering around Hancock’s Alcippe Lampus. Within the correspondence there is documentation of the exchange of specimens, paired with the post examination thoughts of each. Unfortunately the Transactions only contain the letters received by Hancock from Darwin and not those that were sent by him, so the full correspondence from both sides is not recorded. Despite this there does appear to be much mutual interest and respect between the two, with Hancock being later noted as a supporter of Darwin.

Albany Hancock

Albany Hancock

The NHSN library also contains a first edition of a two volume work written by Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (1731 – 1802). The book is titled “Zoonomia, or, the Laws of Organic Life”, published 1794 – 6. Despite the fact that both Darwins were never alive at the same time, Charles was a great studier and commenter on his grandfather’s publication.  “Zoonomia” was one of the first naturalist works and touched upon the idea of a common ancestor, and the idea of natural selection of which Erasmus said ‘the strongest and most active animal should propagate the species, which should thence become improved’. These ideas can be clearly seen in the acclaimed works that were produced by his grandson and which still resonate so powerfully to this day.

Erasmus Darwin's "Zoonomia"

Erasmus Darwin’s “Zoonomia”

All of the books that are mentioned in the above article are included in the collection of the Natural History Society of Northumbria which is located in the Great North Museum: Hancock Library. The Library is free to use and is open to everyone. Further information about the Library can be found at the following website https://greatnorthmuseum.org.uk/collections/library-and-archives