Saturday, 24 September 2016

Book Review: Kate Summerscale, The Wicked Boy (2016) Bloomsbury

Kate Summerscale tells the true-crime story of child murderer Robert Coombes. No author of historical crime-fiction could come up with a more credible storyline of sin and redemption. This morality tale benefits from meticulous research into the crime and its aftermath. In July 1895, ten days after Robert Coombes senior had gone to sea, thirteen-year-old Robert Coombes and his twelve-year-old brother Nattie were arrested for the murder of their mother and sent for trial at the Old Bailey. The criminal trial was fully reported in the newspapers and the story that emerged echoed the plots of the 'penny dreadful' novels favoured by Robert and dealt with evolving theories of criminality, childhood, and insanity. The facts of the case were fairly straight forward as Robert confessed to having stabbed his mother. Although there was an issue of the extent to which the younger brother was his accomplice, Nattie struck a plea and gave evidence against his brother. Robert's lawyers successfully argued that he was insane and he was sentenced to detention in the criminal lunatic asylum at Broadmoor. The seventeen years spent in Broadmoor provided new opportunities for Robert where he trained as a tailor and became a member of the asylum brass band and cricket team. On leaving Broadmoor Robert was discharged into the care of the Salvation Army colony in Essex and from there he left England to join his brother in Australia. In addition to her detailed research, Summerscale creates atmospheric context around each setting of Robert's life, from the crime in the East End docklands; the police investigation and criminal trial; confinement in an asylum; distinguished service in the Australian army during the Gallipoli campaign; and life in 1920's and 30's Australia where Robert undertook the care of a troubled young man, saving him from a similar fate. Robert Coombes died in 1945.

Buy it now from The National Archives on-line bookshop:

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Snail Water - and why.

Dorothea Repp's 1703 recipe would delight any horrid little schoolboy.

Snayle Water
 Take a peck of Garden Snayles in the Shell, wash them well in Beer and take away their froth, put them in a sieve that the Beer may run away from them, heat your Oven hot enough to Kill them and put them in, let them lye ‘till Dead, then take them out pick them, wipe them cleane with a Cloath, stamp them to pieces shells and all, then take a quart of Earth worms, slitt them thro the middle and strowe some salt on them to take away the Blood, then wash them in fair water, stamp them to pieces, set the Lymbeck and in Two Handfull of Angelico as much as Salendine, Baresfoot, Bettony, Woodsorrell, Egrimony. Each 2 Handfulls. 2 quarts of Rosemary flowers, and the Inward rinde of the Barbery Tree and Red Dock Roots the pith cast away, 2 handfulls of Each of them, one handful of Horse Raddish, the pith cast away, one Handfull of Rue, one ounce of Tamarick  one ounce of Fenigrick beaten small, one ounce of Cloves Beaten, then put in ye Snayles and wormes, and the spirits with one drham of Saffron, & 6 ounces of Harts Horne, upon ye Herbs & Wormes then poure on a Gallon and a half of strong Ale and as much spirits of wine, stop up the Lymbeck and let it stand alnight then put the fire under and Reserve ye Water.

The Virtues of it Are

It Revives the Spirits and digest anything that is troublesome to the stomach ‘tis good for gripes in the gutt, or any distemper Occasioned by winde, Tis good against Consumptions and Jaundices
You may sweeten it with syrup of Jully flowers or white sugar Candie, a spoonful or two at most is sufficient at one Time.

How beneficial are these ingredients?

For centuries snails, and to a lesser extent slugs, have been used both as a food and as a treatment for a variety of medical conditions. Hippocrates reportedly recommended the use of crushed snails to relieve inflamed skin.

Accounts dating back to 1340 record the earthworm’s association with medicine, particularly in the treatment of fevers.

Infusions of the Angelica plant are used today in the treatment of sore throats, stomach aches and as a sedative.

Salendine (Celandine) the whole plant is toxic but in small doses the fresh herb has a mild analgesic effects and continues to be used by modern herbalists in the treatment of the liver and gall bladder.

In modern herbal medicine, the root of the baresfoot plant is used for its anti-inflamatory benefits in treating a range of stomach problems, including acid reflux, indigestion and ailments of the liver and prostrate.

Bettony was a common ingredient in the treatment of arthritis and gout. 17th-century herbalist/scientist Nicholas Culpepper (1616-1654) stated that, " preserves the liver and bodies of men from the danger of epidemical diseases, and from witchcraft also". The herb is still used by herbalists in the treatment of gallstones, heartburn and high blood pressure.

The leaves of the wood sorrel are used by modern herbalists in the treatment of stomach conditions and to treat fevers. Externally, the leaves are applied to boils and abscesses.

The barberry tree (berberis-the European Barberry). The berries of this plant have been used in the treatment of urinary and digestive tracts and more commonly by modern herbalists in the treatment of kidney pain and kidney stones.

Egrimony (agrimony) the dried leaves of this plant are commonly made into a tea for the treatment of diarrhoea or to soothe sore throats and coughs.

Rosemary flowers have a mild flavour, which may help to mask to flavour of some of the other ingredients and make the ‘medicine’ more palatable.

Red dock roots – most commonly used by herbalists for the treatment of ulcers and sores.

Horse radish has antibiotic properties and has long been considered a powerfully effective diuretic, used by herbalists to treat kidney stones and similar conditions.
Rue Culpepper recommends it for sciatica and pains in the joints, others for the treatment of flatulence and as a purgative. 

Tamarick (turmeric) is related to the ginger plant and used by herbalists to treat digestive problems, throat infections,  colds, liver ailments and  to cleanse wounds on the skin

Fenigrick (fenugreek) modern-day supplements of fenugreek are used to treat a wide range of conditions from mouth ulcers to stomach pains and beriberi (caused by vitamin deficiency).

Cloves are commonly used by herbalists for their antioxidant, anti-septic, local anesthetic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-flatulent properties. I remember being given oil of cloves as a child to treat the symptoms of toothache.

As far back as Galen and Hippocrates, saffron was mentioned as a medical treatment for coughs, colds, stomach ailments, insomnia, uterine bleeding, scarlet fever, heart trouble, and flatulence.

Harts Horne - an oil derived from the distillation of deer bones or horns and used to treat diarrhoea.

Lymbeck – a limbeck was a distilling vessel used to refine medicines or conserves.

Jully flowers remain a mystery to me, unless it relates to flowers in bloom during this month. 
The Scottish Ballard ‘The Gardener’ includes the following verse:
Then up comes the gardener-lad
And he gave me profers free,
He gave to me the jully-flowers,
To clothe my gay bodie.

The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Volume 5 by Francis James Child includes this ballad found in ‘Five Excellent New Songs’. Edinburgh 1766 (held at the British Museum)

So not all Dorothea Repps ideas were unfounded and, indeed, many of the ingredients are still used by herbalists today. I, however, am merely reporting on what I have found and do not recommend that the recipe is followed in whole or in part. 

Dorothea Repps’ manuscript (1703) can be found at the Wellcome  Library -

Other sources used in identifying modern uses of herbal remedies:
Shakespeare's Medical Language: A Dictionary: Sujata Lyengar
J. W. Reynolds and W. M. Reynolds, “Earthworms in medicine,” American Journal of Nursing, vol. 72, no. 7, p. 1273, 1972.
J. Stevenson, Oligochaeta, Claredon Press, Oxford, UK, 1930. 

Friday, 27 May 2016

A walk through the ages along the Forge Valley and River Derwent.

The Forge Valley is a dramatic gorge created during the ice age. Human settlement in the area of our walk takes the form of the twin villages of East and West Ayton, joined by an old bridge spanning the River Derwent. In 1872 a railway line was proposed to run from Scarborough to Pickering via Forge Valley to meet the Whitby line at Scalby. However, when it came to the planning stage it was found to run through Lord Londesborough's lands and after objections from his Lordship the railway line was not built. Nevertheless, at the same time the North Eastern Railway applied for powers to construct the line between Pickering and Scarborough, avoiding Lord Londesborough’s lands.

Steam train at Goatherd (fictional Aidensfield in t.v.'s Heartbeat) on the Forge Valley railway line between Pickering and Scarborough.

The two villages lie to the west of Scarborough on the busy A170. The Norman church of St John the Baptist in East Ayton was founded by the de Aiton family around 1150, the same family who built and lived in Ayton Castle from 1120 to 1359. After the de Aitons the castle became the stronghold of the Eures family but now only the shell of the main tower remains.

Ayton Castle

With the aid of the ‘No Through Road: The AA Book of Country Walks’ (1976) we began our walk in West Ayton taking a 4.5 mile route along the banks of the River Derwent. Using an out of date map always adds an edge to our walks when instructions based on landmarks have changed over the intervening 40 years. 

We parked near the bridge at the edge of West Ayton and took a right turn onto a road which leads on to a lane leading to Ayton Castle. During the 16th century it was the home of Sir Ralph Eure who, as constable of Scarborough Castle, defended it against insurgents during the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536.   

This popular uprising in the north of England was the result of Henry VIII’s harsh policies, in particular the suppression of the monasteries. The uprising began in Lincolnshire and spread to Yorkshire, where it was led by Robert Aske, a country squire and lawyer, who called his followers ‘pilgrims’. Even though the rebels were able to summon 30,000 armed men to face the king’s forces, Robert Aske met with the Duke of Norfolk and negotiated a free-pardon for his men if they disbanded. However, Henry revoked the pardon and Robert Aske was executed with more than 200 other rebels.   


Scarborough castle from Scalby

From Ayton castle we followed the track descending down to the riverside and followed a very well maintained path along the valley for 1 mile. Our guidebook informed us that the River Derwent is a noted fishing river and contains trout, black lampreys, crayfish and eels. On the day that we were there in May we were fortunate to see lots of beautiful butterflies.

 After 1 mile we crossed a footbridge to the car park opposite. It is thought that the name of the Forge Valley takes its name from an  eighteenth- century forge which was located at this point. We turned left out of the car park and followed the road, bearing right at a fork in the road onto a forest lane. The AA book for 1976 refers to ‘the forest drive’, now there are 3 possible walking routes at this point so we opted for the one to the extreme right. The path climbs up a fairly steep hill and then follows the edge of the valley through woodland.

We walked until we came to some farm buildings which, if we were on the right track, belong to Osborne Lodge. A low mound of earth, known as a ‘Skell Dike’, lies about 400 yards from the farm and is believed to have been a boundary wall dating back to the time of the Angles, which suggests that there has been a farm on that site for about 1,500 years

After the farm we began our descent down an old track which once served Whetsone Quarry. As the name suggests, the quarry once produced sandstone used for knife-sharpening. The track came out onto the main road which brought us back into the village of East Ayton.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Diet Cake, the Eighteenth-Century Way

Dorothea Repps’ 1703 recipe for ‘Diet Cake’ demonstrates the changing use of language over time. We use the word ‘diet’ when taking about any food or drink stuffs we consume but something advertised as a ‘diet cake’ would now be taken to indicate its’ benefit in helping a person lose weight. Clearly, this was not the intention here, though looking at the instructions more closely, the cook was expected to devote a total of 2 ¾ hours to beating the ingredients - a good workout for the upper arms.

Diet Cake
Take 8 eggs and beat them a quarter of an houre. Then take a pound and a quarter of Refined sugar finely beaten and seared, beat them together a quarter of an houre or more, then take a pound of the best flower and mingle them all together, and beat them 2 houres, then put in halfe an ounce of Aniseeds, and bake them upon a plate, Your Oven must be as hot as will bake a penny loaf.[1]

It is possible to make a sponge cake using only sugar, eggs and flour (no butter or oil) and while modern instructions would be to beat the eggs and sugar well, the flour should be folded in lightly to give a light, fluffy sponge. Beating the mixture for 2 hours would result in a much harder, rubbery texture - this would have been much more of a loaf for slicing, than a cake as we know it.

The volume of ingredients required for Dorethea’s recipes points to batch baking, which was common up until very recent times. Heating a brick or cast-iron oven to the required temperature took time and valuable fuel, so it was more cost-effective to cook in large batches, particularly when baking for a large household. The requirement for seared sugar possibly relates to the need to remove any moisture from the sugar, as a result of damp conditions in the pantry.

By the early 18th century, technical advances meant that the refinement of wheat flour was more highly developed, though restricted by price to the upper classes – leaving the poor to flour made from rye or other unrefined grains.  At the same time, many innovations in our culinary culture resulted from the importation of new foodstuffs and from the New World and the greater availability of refined sugar from the Carribean was of particular significance in the development of cake-making. At the beginning of the modern period, 1 kilogram of sugar was equivalent in price to 100 kilograms of wheat,[2] however, sugar prices began to fall after the discovery of the Americas and sugar became much cheaper. With refined sugar and the ‘best’ flour listed amongst the ingredients for Dorothea’s Diet Cake, we can tell that her recipes were aimed at the richer pocket.

[1] Dorothea Repps’ manuscript (1703) can be found at the Wellcome Library
[2] EGO, Food And Drink, by Gunther Hirschfelder, Manuel Trummer.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Welsh Cakes - The Eighteenth Century Way

Dorothea Repps’ manuscript recipe Book, written in 1703, can be found at the Wellcome Library.[1]
I was interested to see that her manuscript includes a recipe for Welsh Cakes.

Take halfe a peck of fine white flower and Dry it in your Oven, put to it halfe a pound of fine powder sugar, and a little salt, 3 grated Nuttmegs, mingle it together, and put in a pound and a quarter of Currants washed picked and dried in a Cloath, mingle them with flower and make it into a paste with 4 yolks of Eggs, 6 spoonfuls of Ale yest, 2 pound and a half of new Butter melted, When your paste is made cover it and sett it by ye fire, halfe an hour after divide it into 3 pieces, mould them and Rowle them out, and lay them one on the Top of ye other. Lay between them Raisons of the Sunne stoned; garnish the Topp and sides as you please with the same paste. An hour and a halfe will bake it.

The recipe appears at first to be very similar to that for modern Welsh Cakes, a mixture of flour, butter, eggs, sugar and dried fruit with a little spice. However, a modern welsh cake is made by combining the dried goods with cold butter and egg to form a pastry before rolling out into small rounds and baking on an open griddle. Rather, Repps’ method of baking is more akin to that used for a traditional Bara Brith, a spiced fruit loaf baked slowly in a low oven.
A modern baker might not be familiar with the peck weight which has been in use since the early fourteenth century, when it was introduced as a measure for flour. An eighteenth-century guide to weights and measures states that a bushel of flour weighs 56 lbs and, as there are 4 pecks in a bushel, the half-peck of flour required for this recipe would be equivalent to 7 lbs dry weight.[2]  Whereas a modern recipe for a fruit loaf might be based on 1 lb (half a kilo) of flour, Repps recipe would result in very large loaf. The need to dry the flour first would come as a result of damp conditions in the pantry.

Who will be the first person to send me a post saying that they have tried this recipe, though possible using reduced measures?

[2] The London adviser and guide: containing every instruction and information useful and necessary to persons living in London, and coming to reside there, by the Rev. Dr. John Trusler (1735-1820).