Twentieth Century Oliver Twists

Ruth Costello, Archivist

The surviving records of St. Michael’s Hospital in Braintree and the committee which ran both it and the Julien Courtauld Hospital in Braintree have now been catalogued (A/H 19 and A/H 20 respectively).

OS Map of Braintree, 1920s

OS map of Braintree showing the union workhouse, 1920s

St.Michael’s Hospital was the former workhouse for the Braintree Poor Law Union and many of the records deposited relate to the period before and just after the creation of the National Health Service, when the Hospital still maintained people due to poverty rather than illness.

Many of the records have to be closed to researchers as they contain confidential information regarding patients, although staff may be able to release information to next of kin.

One exception is the minutes of St. Michael’s Staff Welfare Committee (A/H 19/1/1/3).  In December 1947, the Committee discussed complaints by male residents concerning insufficient food.  It was suggested that this was due to a lack of understanding by long term residents of the effects of rationing.  At an earlier meeting in October of that year, the Committee had discussed the possibility of using whale meat in stews and meat pudding and decided that it would be a valuable addition to the diet when people had acquired a taste for it.  To modern readers, this would suggest that the quantity of food wasn’t the only problem for residents…

‘To make a cake the Preinces of Oringes way’

We recently brought to you some recipes from the pen of Abigail Abdy, who lived in Kelvedon and Coggeshall in the 1660s and 1670s. She carefully recorded her recipes, for medicines and for food, in a book which she titled ‘Mrs Abigail Abdy her book’ (D/DU 161/623).

Abigail died in 1679, but this was not the end of the use of her book; two more hands fill the remaining pages.

The second hand is a mystery, but in the 1930s Miss A.D.Harrison made a conjecture who the third hand may have belonged to (D/DU 161/661).

Three years after Abigail’s death, her husband Sir Mark Guyon remarried, to a Mrs Augurs, his waiting-maid, and Miss Harrison suggests that it was Mrs Augurs who wrote the later recipes.

The author clearly had her sights set on high society, with her recipes including ‘The Kings majesties excellent receipt for the Plague’, and ‘To make a cake the Preinces of Oringes way’, which is another giant of a cake:

To make a cake The Preinces of Oringes way

Take nine pound of very good flower serced [sifted] and dried and a pound and a half of suger serced and dride a pound of Almons well beten an ounce of spices of all sorts mingell these well into the flower then take a pinte an a halfe of creame and three pound of butter and mingell in the creame a littell hotter then milke from the cow a pinte an a halfe of Ale yeast and pore in the yeast to the flower then pore in the creame with the butter melted in it then put in the eges which is to be foreteene halfe whites well betten then to one a lettell flower over it and cover it up hote and let it stand halfe an houer to worke and then make it up with nine pound of minced resons and put it into a paper hoope. 

We especially like the instruction to use cream ‘a littell hotter then milke from the cow’. 

More recipes from the archives coming soon!

Mrs Abigail Abdy her Booke

As The Great British Bake Off continues on BBC2, we bring you the second in our special series exploring some of the recipe books in our collections. 

Today we look at another of our very earliest recipe books, written by Abigail Abdy, beginning in 1665 (D/DU 161/623).

Title page of Abigail Abdy's book - reading 'Mrs Abigail Abdy her book May the 24th 1665'

Title page of Abigail Abdy’s book – reading ‘Mrs Abigail Abdy her book May the 24th 1665’

Abigail was born in 1644, the daughter of Sir Thomas Abdy of Felix Hall, Kelvedon, a lawyer and landowner. Sometime after 1670 she married Sir Mark Guyon, son of Sir Thomas Guyon, a rich clothier, becoming his second wife.

Much of the book is taken up with medical concoctions, for both humans and animals, such as ‘A very good Drink for ye Rickitts’, ‘A good Receipt for sore eyes, when one has the smallpox’, ‘To make the plague water’, ‘To make cordiall water, good against any infection, as the plague, small pox &c.’, and ‘A very good drinke for a Bullock’.

Given that the book was begun in 1665, during the Great Plague in London, it is not surprising that the recipes concentrate on warding off and treating infection.

 Alongside these mixtures are recipes much more recognisable to modern eyes, such as these for macaroons and sugar cake: 

Abigail Adby's recipe for macaroons

Abigail Adby’s recipe for macaroons

To make mackaromes

Take 2 pound of Veliney Almonds to a pound of double refined sugar, it must be beaten & searced [sifted] then take your almonds and lay them in water, overnight, & let them lye till the next morning, & then blaunch [blanch] them & put them into a mortar, & beat them & as you beat them, put some sugar amongst them, & onely wet your pestle with rose water to keepe them, from oyling, this must be beat but half as much as Marchpain then take the whites of 2 or 3 eggs and beat them till they froath, then put the Almonds into a dish upon a Chafinedish [chafing dish] of Coales & put in the froath of your eggs, & keepe it stirring or  else it will burne to the dish you must stirre it till it be through hott then lay it upon wafers the ovin must be something hotter than for marchpain.


Abigail Adby's recipe for sugar cake

Abigail Adby’s recipe for sugar cake – including the instruction to beat the mixture for an hour!

 To make sugar Cakes

Take a pound of flower, halfe of it [rice] flower a pound of sugar finely sifted, 8 or 9 eggs halfe the whites, but all the yolkes, beat the eggs very well with rose water, then put in ye [the] flower, by degrees then beat it a little, then put in the sugar too by degrees it must be beaten about an houre then your Ovin bring of a good heat, beat them up, putting in a few Coliander seeds, then your pans being well buttered, put them in the Oven, being well hett, set them & when they be rissen take them out, knocking them out, scraping the botomes of the pans, then if they be not baked enough put them in againe, & let them stand a little longer.


Abigail died in 1679, aged just 35. Joseph Bufton, the Coggeshall diarist, records that she was buried quickly, late in the evening by torches, without a sermon, suggesting that she had died of an infectious illness, possibly the plague. This was not, however, the end for Abigail’s book – find out more in our next post, coming soon!

If you’re visiting the Record Office soon, look out for our display of recipe books in Reception, or pop up to the Searchroom to order Abigail’s book (D/DU 161/623), or Miss A.D. Harrison’s article about it (D/DU 161/661).

Dr Nick Barratt at the Essex Record Office

Ahead of his keynote speech at our Discovery Day on 8 September, Dr Nick Barratt recently dropped in for a chat. Here he is in the Essex County Council chamber, talking about Essex history, and why archives are so important:

Dr Barratt’s talk, ‘Why do we still need archives when we’ve got the internet?’, is at 1.30pm, and entry is free. Places are limited, so guarantee your seat by pre-booking on 01245 244620. See our events page for more details about the our Discovery Day and other great events.

The Discovery Day is part of Heritage Open Days.

‘To make a good cake’

Today, not only is it Julia Child’s 100th birthday, but last night the third series of The Great British Bake Off began on BBC2, and we thought that this was a good excuse to delve into some of the recipe books in our archive. People in the past enjoyed their cooking (or their eating) just as much as we do today, and went to great lengths to produce elaborate edible creations.

In this first of a special series of posts about some of the handwritten recipe books which are held at the ERO, we begin with one of the earliest recipe books in our collections, dating from around 1680 (D/DU 138/2).

Unfortunately there is no name inscribed on the book to give us a clue to its author, but we do know that it was handed down between generations of the Clapton-Rolfe family of Rayne Hall.

The first recipe in the book is for a cake of enormous proportions:

(Click for larger version)

Take 6 pound of fflower & 5 pound of butter and worke or rub it into your flower then take 3 poynts of ale east [yeast] and putt itt in the meddle of your flower and butter, 3 nutmegs, beate & sett it by to rise then take a poynt of Milk or Creame & half a poynt of Sack [white whine], make a possett [made by boiling the milk or cream before mixing it with the wine] & put 5 yellows of Eggs into your possett & Suger according to your pallet, then take a graine of Musk and Ambergrease [a waxy substance that originates in the intestines of the sperm whale, with a pleasant smell, which is also used in perfumery], and grinde itt with a little Suger well together, then mix all this together & worke it with your hande till itt bee prety stiff, then worke in 8 pounds of currantes & a pound of Carrawayes and sume Candied Oringe and Lemon peale & scitterun [citron] slices & soe worke itt till it bee all alike, butter your hoope and papers well, & putt your Cake into it, & bake itt.

And for the icing:

Then take 5 whites of Eggs & double refined Suger sifted throu a Sciprus Sive [a sieve made of cypress wood, which was durable and had a nice smell] & put into your whites of Eggs till it bee thick enough to spread with a knive, & beate itt till itt looke glassy & clare [clear], you can’t beate it too much, when your Cake is drawen spread your Ice one itt with a knife, & lett it dry: but put itt no more into ye [the] Oven for itt will make your Ice yellow.

As well as making us grateful for the modern use of full stops, this recipe uses fairly staggering quantities used – 6 pounds of flour, 8 pounds of currants – and must have been quite an extravagant affair.

Eliza Vaughan, who wrote about the recipe book in the 1930s, imagined the cake as an ‘ice-coated monster’ crowning the tea table at Rayne Hall, or being prepared perhaps as a wedding cake.

The book also includes a recipe for a pound cake, which is much more recognisable to modern eyes:

(Click for larger version)

Take a pound of fflower & drey itt by the fire, & A pound of butter & wash itt in Rose water, & A pound of suger well beten, & worke your butter in ye suger a grate while; then take 6 yelkes & 4 whites of Eggs & halfe a Nutmeg grated; then worke all together A grate while & you mush bake them in such pans, & bake them in A slow oven.

The book includes just 12 recipes in total, but also covers the art of pastry making and the preparation of certain meats, including chicken, rabbit, veal, lamb, pigeon, and turkey.

You can view digital images of the rest of the book on Seax here. Look out for more baking-themed posts over the next few weeks!

Further reading: Eliza Vaughan, ‘High baked meates and patty pan past’, in Essex Review, 1937, vol. 46

New accession: Old Harwich in photographs

The ERO has recently acquired a photograph album which contains some fantastic pictures of Harwich in the 1850s. Here we bring you an exclusive sneak peak at its contents before it is treated in our Conservation Studio and digitised. 

The album, although rather dilapidated, contains 47 rare salt paper prints of Harwich which seem to date from about 1855. Many of the photographs have faded, but despite this the images remain remarkably sharp.


They capture a moment when Harwich was being transformed by the rebuilding of the quay, the arrival of the railway and new developments such as Orwell Terrace. The album seems to have used the new technology of photography to deliberately create a record of these momentous changes.

Harwich was – and is – a busy port on Essex’s north sea coast. In the 1850s, the town’s quays were extended through land reclamation

The railway arrives in Harwich

An Atlas Works locomotive

The album includes images of the High Lighthouse, St Nicholas’s church, Orwell Terrace and Cliff House. They also show the short-lived first station in Harwich and works to reclaim land in Bathside to extend the quays.

Harwich’s short-lived first station

The album may have some personal connection with Robert Bagshaw who was the investor who built Orwell Terrace and Cliff House, and who was instrumental in bringing the railway to Harwich. Unfortunately the album does not have any contemporary indication of ownership. 


Orwell Terrace

Top-hatted men, probably investors in the new developments, in one of the streets of Harwich

The album also includes a photo-montage of many different people, almost exclusively men, who are possibly a mixture of local residents and people involved in the building works. The identification of the faces featured will be a challenge for dedicated enthusiasts!

The album has been catalogued as A13438, and we will now do everything that we can to preserve the images.

The album was purchased for the ERO by the Friends of Historic Essex, and we would like to thank them for this fascinating addition to the ERO’s collections.

Evacuees’ voices at ERO

By Martin Astell, Sound and Video Archivist

The Essex Sound and Video Archive has recently added to SEAX a collection of oral history interviews which focus on childhood experiences during World War II (SA 48).

The collection includes a number of interviewees who were evacuated from their homes to ‘safer’ parts of the country. The evacuation of children can be portrayed as an example of how the nation ‘pulled together’ during World War II to help one another through the crisis. However, the individual stories told by those who experienced evacuation can help to present a more complex narrative.

The recordings in this collection include an account of being treated very poorly by the family which had taken the interviewee into their home (SA 48/1/1) and another of the local children being told not to mix with the evacuees from London and being strictly segregated within school (SA 48/8/1). This interviewee also states that she and her siblings returned to Chingford despite the clear risk of being bombed because her mother, who had accompanied the children in their privately arranged evacuation while her husband remained at home, was in danger of falling into an affair with another man.

This collection has been catalogued with the help of volunteers, and joins our existing Sound and Video Archive sources material on the Second World War. You can download a guide to these sources by clicking the link below.

ESVA Sources on the Second World War

All of the recordings in the source list can be ordered in the Searchroom, and listened to or watched in the Essex Sound and Video Archive.