Tag Archives: Richard Aspin

The Wellcome Library’s Manuscript Recipe Books: Reflections on a Quarter-century of Collecting

By Richard Aspin

Page from Lady Ayscough’s book of ‘Receits of phisick and chirurgery’, dated 1692, the first recorded acquisition for Henry Welcome’s library in 1897 (Wellcome Western MS.1026)

Manuscript recipe books were at the forefront of Henry Wellcome’s collecting activities. Perhaps no other genre of European written artefact spoke more directly to his conception of healthcare as the fundamental preoccupation of human beings. Indeed his first recorded Library acquisition in 1897 was a late 17th-century English manuscript recipe book. At the time of Wellcome’s death in 1936 there were probably between 150 and 200 such books in the collection, depending on how they are defined. Thirty of so of these came from the cookery book collection of John Hodgkin of Reading (1857-1930), purchased at Hodgson’s auctioneers in London in April 1931.

Acquisition of recipe books fell away after 1936, in line with overall retrenchment in the development of the collections; but it is probable that this genre of manuscript suffered disproportionately as the focus of the postwar Wellcome Library and later Institute was firmly directed towards the history of scientific medicine and professional practice. Not more than a dozen manuscript recipe books were acquired between 1936 and 1986. There was no obvious scholarly interest in the history of domestic medicine, and it was not even clear that cookery was a relevant subject for a medical library.

This was the position of the field when I came into post as curator of western manuscripts in 1991. I occasionally purchased manuscript recipe books for the Wellcome collection over the coming years – we had a generous acquisitions allowance and manuscripts of this type were fairly inexpensive – but I had little sense of developing an important research resource. The standout acquisition of the nineties, Lady Ann Fanshawe’s book (MS.7113), which has recently been the subject of a popular monograph[1], was purchased as much for its associational and provenance interest as its content, and the hammer price at auction of £2800 in 1995 (equivalent to just over £5000 today), which now seems nugatory, was deemed somewhat extravagant at the time. When cataloguing recipe books we more or less followed the pattern set by S.A.J. Moorat, who after the war had catalogued the items acquired in Henry Wellcome’s time: scant attention was paid to the nature and content of the recipes beyond a broad indication of whether they were medicinal or culinary.

Little did I know that the growth of research interest in this genre of manuscript was already well under way, and not just in the productions of one or two ladies-bountiful, but in the wider practice of recipe-making and taking among the middling sort in early modern England. How I slowly became aware of this is now difficult to reconstruct: certainly it had nothing to do with proximity to the Wellcome Institute academic history of medicine department, where there seemed to be very little interest in recipes. It was probably largely owing to the growing number of researchers consulting our recipe books in the Wellcome Library, often Americans, and often coming from a literary studies rather than a medical history background.

The phenomenon was sufficiently salient to lead me to propose a seminar series on recipes to the academic department’s programme committee, which duly took place in autumn 2002, and led in due course to the formation of the Medicinal Receipts Research Group the following year. In the meantime the evident research interest in recipes stimulated increased collecting activity, such that well over a hundred additional English manuscript recipe books have entered the collection over the past twenty-five years. Many more could have been added: indeed, along with the growing realisation of the research value of these books has been a recognition of just how ubiquitous this genre of manuscript must have been among the literate population of early modern England.

The growing research interest in recipe books was marked by the microfilming of a substantial proportion of our collection by Thomson Gale in 2003[2], albeit framed within a now rather anachronistic-looking women’s history paradigm. Later, the seventeenth-century books – some seventy or so volumes – were digitised and their contents selectively indexed, so that individual recipe headings could be searched on-line. It was becoming clear that in addition to the evident interest of one or two standout recipe books such as the Fanshawe volume, the generality of books

Remedy for the plague from Lady Ann Fanshawe’s recipe book, mid 17th cent (Wellcome Western MS.7113)

formed in aggregate a substantial research resource that could be used by scholars to illuminate questions such as the circulation of recipes, the relationship between domestic and elite medicine, and the use of exotic drugs.

Paradoxically the prices realised on the open market have not reflected the increased availability of manuscripts for purchase; if in the 1990s we could buy a solid if unremarkable late-seventeenth or eighteenth century recipe book for £350 or £400, this had increased at least tenfold by 2017. Such an exponential price rise almost certainly implies vigorous activity by a new generation of collectors building twenty-first century equivalents of the John Hodgkin cookery book collection. I am not aware of any other public collection in the UK that targets recipe books as a genre of manuscript. The price rise almost certainly means that the period of ‘heroic’ collecting of recipe manuscripts by Wellcome has come to an end. Henceforth acquisitions – of which there seems to be no sign of a diminishing supply – will no doubt be highly selective. In short, the Wellcome’s collection is to all intents and purposes complete.

Richard Aspin was curator of western manuscripts and later head of special collections in the Wellcome Library from 1991 to 2016. He took a leading part in developing the Library’s research collections during that time, including the Wellcome’s unrivalled range of early modern domestic recipe manuscripts, which are today the most-frequently consulted pre-twentieth century manuscript materials in the library. His investigation of the links between two seventeenth-century recipe manuscripts in the collection was published as ‘Who was Elizabeth Okeover?’, in Medical History, 2000, 44: 531-540


[1] Lucy Moore, Lady Fanshawe’s Receipt Book: The Life and Times of a Civil War Heroine (2017)

[2] Women and medicine : remedy books, 1533-1865 : from the Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, London, ed. Sara Pennell (2004)