“The Smells of London” and their Sources at the Fin de Siècle

By Jess Clark

In September 1889, the London Times printed a complaint from a disturbed Kensington resident. Under the heading “Smells of London,” Arthur Clay challenged “[t]he apathy with which Londoners submit to be bathed in disgusting odours.”[i] The author complained of distressing smells blanketing North Kensington, typically at night and often in the summer. Despite his claims that Londoners didn’t care, the response to his initial letter proved otherwise; Clay’s submission set off some three years of correspondence from displeased and disgusted residents. Despite sanitary initiatives, they described nuisance smells that they ascribed to a number of different sources: polluted waterways, dirty streets, blocked drains, poor ventilation. Contrasting official messages about the efficiency of London’s orderly modern infrastructures, correspondents instead foregrounded olfactory disorder.

In this early etching, George Cruikshank criticizes the expansion of building schemes across London. “Building materials marching out of London of their own accord to build suburban housing over greenfield sites,” 1829. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.

In taking to the London Times, correspondents discovered a forum to express their displeasure over London’s transforming urban smellscapes.[ii] In the wake of rapid growth and residential development, some nineteenth-century Londoners found themselves living next to chemical works and other industrialized sites. The mixing of residential and industrial space proved a recipe for Londoners’ dissatisfaction: in the lack of municipal action, in the lack of private responses, in the horrible stenches that wafted into their homes each and every night.

Indeed, if we look to letters in the Times between 1889 and 1891, many Kensington residents were deeply upset by the smell nuisances. To capture their frustration, they tapped into anxieties around smell’s “subjectiv[ity], variabi[lity], and uncertain[ty],” which had long been the source of its “social and cultural power,” in the words of Will Tullett.[iii] For some, this meant framing smells as night-time invaders of the home—a domestic sanctuary, which was supposed to be a refuge from public, daytime lives. One lady and her young ward, for instance, “both smelt the bad smell” in Eaton Place, Belgravia. She continued, “It awoke me; she was awake. It was very nasty and quite different to any other smell.”[iv] In another example, a letter writer “actually went downstairs in the belief that some part of the house was on fire.” He was not alone. “Other members of my family have had the same experiences, and not long ago searched the whole house from roof to basement for the supposed combustion going on.”[v] In a period of heightened distinction between private and public space, invisible nocturnal smells disturbed the illusion of domestic safety, as an external disorder that penetrated the sanctity of the private abode.

Other authors foregrounded the alleged health effects of these nocturnal smells, suggesting the longstanding influence of miasmatic theories of illness, which had dominated an earlier period. For one author, the smells were “like the breath of Tartarus, death-laden with horrid stenches and health-destroying fumes….” Meanwhile, the vicar of St. Matthews ominously observed “[t]he wonder is that we are alive to tell the tale.”[vi] For these authors, the stench was a disruption but moreover—it was a health hazard. “In my house, which looks across the whole of Hyde Park, the smell leaves us with headaches and sore throats,” explained another author, before demanding “what must be the effects in the narrow streets of small dwellings?”[vii]

Detail from Charles Booth’s “Life and Labour of the People in London” (1898), showing Kensington and the easterly edge of Hammersmith (including its brickfields). Courtesy of LSE Charles Booth’s London, public domain mark.

After three years of correspondence, one question remained; what comprised the horrible smells that so distressed residents of North Kensington in the late 1880s? After considerable debate, the source was allegedly identified: brickfields in neighbouring Hammersmith, which produced a “horrible and nauseous smell” each night “lasting for several hours.” This was not just any stench. Brickmakers burned refuse—garbage—to fire their bricks. What’s more, this “fuel” most likely came from the local government’s efforts to collect vestry rubbish, as part of modernizing efforts in city management. In a compelling twist, attempts to rid London of garbage – a visual nuisance –made for new and horrible smell nuisances for residents. By focusing on the unsightliness of garbage, well-meaning officials neglected a key element of urban life: its smells.

        

[i] Arthur Clay, “The Smells of London” Times (4 September 1889): 10.

[ii] See Jonathan Reinarz, “Smell and Victorian England,” in Smell and History: A Reader, ed. Mark M. Smith (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2018). On the importance of public complaints in the American context, see Melanie A. Kiechle, Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017).

[iii] William Tullett, “Re-Odorization, Disease, and Emotion in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England,” The Historical Journal 62.3 (2019): 787.

[iv] G. J. Symons et al, “The Smells of London,” The Times (10 September 1889): 6.

[v] J. E. Latton Pickering et al, “Diphtheria in London,” The Times (17 October 1890): 10.

[vi] W. Domett-Stone et al, “Offensive Smells in London,” The Times (20 October 1890): 14.

[vii] E.H. Carbutt, “Diphtheria in London,” The Times (15 October 1890): 7.

My Charming Ancestor: Lost Spells and Sick Cattle

By Catherine Flood

My 6x great grandfather, Timothy Butt, was a charmer. I discovered this recently when I came across a copy of a manuscript he wrote in a box of family papers.[i] Mostly a day book of accounts for his farm in Tillington, Sussex, it also contains a collection of thirty veterinary recipes, dated 1768.[ii] Amongst these, are two verbal charms, one for restoring a bullock that is ‘sprung’ (meaning poisoned in Sussex dialect) and the other for a bullock bitten by an adder.

Searching for some local context to this find brought me to an account of charmers and charming in the village of Fittleworth – just five miles from where Timothy Butt farmed – published by the folklorist Charlotte Latham in 1878. This includes a description of “an ancient dame” who had inherited a verbal charm for snakebite and another for curing giddiness in cattle from her mother, but had lost them both in later years when she moved houses (presumably they were written down). “Much did she grieve,” we are told, “over the loss of her viper charm; it had done such a power of good.”[iii]

Charm ‘For a Bullock that is Stung with an Adder’ in Timothy Butt’s book, 1768. Reproduced with permission of West Sussex Record Office.

It is not impossible that this lost charm was one and the same as my ancestor’s spell for snakebite, or a version of it. If this ancient dame was born around 1800, her mother could easily have known him.[iv] More pertinently, the old woman’s regret at losing it demonstrates that charms were important possessions. While they were commonly practiced for the benefit of the community as a whole, only a few knew and performed the words and restrictions applied to how they were transmitted.[v] It also demonstrates the ease with which such folk texts, carried in the memory or written on ephemeral materials, could disappear. According to Jonathan Roper, Timothy Butt’s book is one of only five known examples of a charmer’s book in English to survive, making it a significant document for the study of English verbal charms.[vi]

The snakebite charm itself appears to be a highly abbreviated, perhaps corrupted, example of a narrative charm that relates a micro-story (or ‘historiola’) in which a powerful protagonist confronts a snake that has bitten his servant and obtains a cure.[vii] The flesh and blood patient is healed by implication. While there is no space in this post to analyse the texts in detail, I reproduce them here in full since neither charm has been published in the last hundred years.[viii] I recommend muttering them aloud to appreciate their ‘incantatory force’ achieved through alliteration and repetition (especially the sibilant s’s used for addressing the snake).[ix]

For a Bulluck that is Sprung say these Words
Our Blesed Saviour for his Sons Sake Pray Down the Bladder
Blow that he may break In the name of the Father and of the
Son and of the Blessed Trinetey Saved may this Black
Bulluck be— or let the Coller be what it will, Name it
Then say the Lords Prayer and so Say it three times

For a Bullock that is Stung with an Adder
take Salt and fresh Grees & anoint the Beast from the heart
then say these Words — Simon Joan Hunt Why Wouldest
Thou thy Sarvant thou Stungest thou my man. I wish it
was thy man. Take Salt and Smare and lay to the Speer
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the
Holy Gost. Amen

As well as being a rare example of a charmer’s book, Timothy Butt’s manuscript is also notable for its veterinary focus.[x] Only one recipe for ‘eye water’ is noted as being adaptable for ‘a Christian.’ The charms are interspersed with the physical remedies and, on the basis of the collection as a whole, we should probably consider Timothy Butt as much a cow doctor as charmer; one whose medical arsenal evidently included powerful words together with kitchen physic, exotic spices, and strong chemicals.

The charm for a ‘sprung’ bullock is probably intended for curing ‘the blain,’ an often fatal cattle disease in which small black blisters or ‘bladders’ appeared at the root of the animal’s tongue. Early modern veterinary books are ambivalent about the cause of this disorder, but it was generally thought to be the result of ingesting ‘some poisonous thing.’[xi] The remedy they recommend is to ‘break’ the bladders between finger and thumb, or lance them with a sharp knife. This was a risky operation and the charm offered a less invasive method of ‘praying down’ the dangerous blisters.

Two of the recipes are attributed to neighbours, which suggests the others probably derived from family tradition. Timothy Butt hailed from a long line of yeoman farmers. Born in 1743, he was 25 years old and establishing a family of his own at the time he wrote down the recipes (he and his wife Jane went on to have at least 19 children). It seems likely that the creation of this collection represents a passing on of knowledge from one generation of animal caretakers to the next.

Inula Helenium, Elecampane, paper collage by Mary Delany, 1778. Elecampane, also known as horse-heal, was a herb widely grown in Sussex gardens for medicinal and veterinary purposes. Following the logic that like cures like, it appears in one of Timothy Butt’s recipes for the ‘yellows’ (jaundice) along with other yellow flowers and spices (celandine, turmeric, and saffron).
British Museum (https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1897-0505-466). Copyright The Trustees of the British Museum.

Furthermore, the recipes are concerned entirely with the larger and more valuable farm animals: oxen (or ‘bullocks’), horses and occasionally pigs. This probably reflects a gendered division of labour whereby the farmer’s wife would have been responsible for the medical care of the family, the dairy cows and the smaller animals around the farmyard, while the farmer tended to the animals who worked alongside him in the fields and forests in plough teams and timber tugs.[xii] Oxen remained the most important source of draught power in Sussex in the late 18th century and are named in over half of Timothy Butt’s recipes. The fact that one third of the recipes are also for strains and injuries is suggestive of the physical toll this labour could exact.

Sussex Oxen, hand coloured etching, 1808. Oxen often worked in the same pair for life. A team of six to eight pairs was used to pull a plough in Sussex. 
Wellcome Collection (https://wellcomecollection.org/works/uztak924)

The animals themselves remain mute in these recipes. Only in one instruction to apply a plaster of pitch, tar, and clay ‘hot as the bullock can abide,’ do we get a hint of the animal as a responsive agent in the healing process. When it comes to charming, it can be even trickier to account for the animal, since the verbal nature of the medium tends to focus attention on the thought-world of the human participants. And yet the performance of a charm could involve sounds, substances, and touch, becoming an embodied experience for both charmer and non-human charmee. The snakebite charm, for instance, calls for ritually anointing the beast ‘from the heart’ with salt and fat. It is not impossible to imagine that intentional touch and the whispering of words may have comforted both the charmer and his beast during a medical crisis. Charming, indeed, could provide rich ground for the study of human-animal relations in the early modern period.


Notes:

[i] The original is held in West Sussex Record Office, Add Mss 1593.

[ii] Timothy Butt was the tenant farmer at Grittenham Farm, just over a mile to the west of Tillington village.

[iii] Charlotte Latham, ‘Some West Sussex Superstitions Lingering in 1868,’ Folk-Lore Record,1 1878: pp. 36-37.

[iv] Jonathan Roper notes that charms in the English cultural tradition sometimes show a greater continuity over the years than from place to place in the same period of time; Jonathan Roper, ‘Towards a Poetics, Rhetorics and Proxemics of Verbal Charms,’ Folkore, 24, 2003: pp. 27.

[v] See for example Owen Davies, ‘Charmers and Charming in England and Wales from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Century,’ Folklore, 109, 1998: pp. 42-43.

[vi] Jonathan Roper, English Verbal Charms, Helsinki, 2005: pp. 174.

[vii] I have found two other variations of this charm-type, both recorded in the nineteenth century, which shed more light on the narrative. See Henry George Nicholls, The Personalities of the Forest of Dean, 1863. The Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature, 17, 1885: pp. 121. The cryptic words ‘Simon Joan Hunt’ in Timothy Butt’s charm may represent an extreme abbreviation/corruption of the scenario of the historiola in which someone goes hunting/into the woods.

[viii] Timothy Butts charms were published in Sussex Archeological Collections, 52, 1908: pp. 187-9, and Notes and Queries, 1922 twelfth series, 11: pp. 147.

[ix] ‘Incantatory force’ is a phrase used by John Miles Foley in ‘Epic and Charm in Old English and Serbo-Croatian Oral Tradition,’ Comparative Criticism: A Yearbook 2. Cambridge: 1980: pp. 82.  

[x] In a study of seventy-five seventeenth and early eighteenth century recipe books in the Wellcome Collection, Louse Hill Curth found only 11 containing veterinary recipes. Louise Hill Curth A Plaine and Easie Waie to Remedie a Horse: Equine Medicine in Early Modern England, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2013, pp. 191.

[xi] Michael Harward, The Herdsman’s Mate, Dublin, 1673: pp. 33-4.

[xii] See for example Louise Hill Curth, The Care of Brute Beasts: A Social and Cultural Study of Veterinary Medicine in Early Modern England, Leiden, 2009, pp. 69.

 

Novel Liquids: Brandy, Shrub, and Early Modern “Cocktails”

A receipt 'To make Shrub' from a ‘Book of Receipts for Cookery and Pastry 1732 & c.’, attributed to Sarah Tully. (Wellcome Collection, MS.8687, p. 131).
A receipt ‘To make Shrub’ from a ‘Book of Receipts for Cookery and Pastry 1732 & c.’, attributed to Sarah Tully. (Wellcome Collection, MS.8687, p. 131).

Tyler Rainford

Everyone has a favourite drink. Whether it’s a pint of pale ale, a smooth glass of merlot, or a certain cocktail for when we’re feeling fancy, we know what we like and what we’d rather avoid. We’re also very particular about how we drink it. Hold the ice. Shaken not stirred. Deviations from the norm can be seen as a form of alcoholic sacrilege, as today’s debates over the merits of the pre-mixed or pre-batched cocktail might indicate. Everyone has their preferences. In many ways, early modern Britons were similarly pedantic, and recipe books from the period indicate an intense interest in what went into any one drink. This was particularly clear following the emergence of distilled alcohols, which we commonly refer to as “spirits”.

Spirits had long played a vital role in the maintenance of household health and wellbeing in the early modern period. Featuring prominently in English receipt books alongside a host of physicks, syrups, and salves, these curious cordials were designed to alleviate the ailing body and bring a physical respite to the suffering drinker. However, as the seventeenth century progressed, their medical function became increasingly opaque. By the early eighteenth century, distilled spirits were also consumed for their apparent intoxicating effects, fiery flavours, and socially lubricating potential. Although not all contemporaries were enthused by the emergence of these new tipples, recipe book writers demonstrated an acute awareness of how these liquors could be crafted to serve individual tastes and personal pleasures.

This newfound taste for distilled spirits was most evident in the case of flavoured brandies, and recipes abound for brandies made from, or infused with, a host of fruits, sugars, and spices. Cherries, raspberries, oranges, and lemons were enthusiastically squashed and squeezed into this heady mix. An anonymous receipt book, possibly kept at Worth House, near Tiverton in Devon between 1714 and 1773, even contained a recipe for rhubarb brandy, combining rhubarb, cardamom seeds, saffron and nutmeg. The author considered it an ‘an excellent receipt’ but suggested no obvious medical benefits.

Another popular beverage, infused with the juices and rinds of citrus fruits, was shrub. Although relatively time consuming, this fruity liquor was easy to make and did not require the use of a still.  An example from the receipt book of Rebecca Tallamy, likely kept between 1735 and 1738, dictated:

To a Gallon of good Rum put a Quart of Juce fresh squees’d & strain’d, two pounds of good Loaf sugar, take half the Lemon rinds & six of Oranges & steep them one night in the Juce & Rum then strain it through a Coarse Cloth or Bag into a vessel or Bottle, Shake it three or four Times a day for Fourteen Days then let stand to settle till it is as water, then draw it off in Bottles Cork them well & hosen them down, besure not to put in any decay’d fruit nor a Sweet one.

(Wellcome Collection, MS.4759, fo. 173v.)

On the one hand, Tallamy’s receipt for shrub was straightforward. It contained three key ingredients – citrus fruits, sugar, and a form of liquor – that were to be mixed, strained, and shaken to produce what we might define as an early modern cocktail. However, beyond these three basic ingredients, there was no one prescriptive formula to be followed. Contemporaries either made do with what they had or adapted receipts to suit their individual tastes and preferences. The only restriction was to avoid using overripe or rotten fruit. Beyond this, the choice was theirs to make.

Another receipt book, supposedly belonging to Sarah Tully (c. 1708/9 – 1736), contained two recipes for shrub, each written in a different hand. One specified it should be made with brandy and three pints of boiling milk, whereas another suggested the reader could substitute the brandy for rum, ‘if you think Proper’, but made no mention of milk. Despite being penned only a few pages apart; these two receipts were considerably different, suggesting there was no one ‘proper’ way to make shrub. Personal preferences were paramount and could change over time. Another receipt book, likely composed by Anne Lisle in 1748, used the juice from ripe currants alongside a gallon of rum, brandy, or arrack, suggesting the choice of liquor was subject to taste. Similarly, a receipt book belonging to Anne Talbot of Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire claimed shrub could be mixed with white wine, cider, or brandy. The reader could choose ‘which [they] please’.

Clearly, shrub was a liqueur drunk for pleasure. But how was it consumed? Although some contemporaries might have drunk shrub as it was, it was frequently mixed with water to make punch: an immensely popular beverage with fascinating maritime origins. This choice is understandable. Undiluted, shrub was likely very strong, and very tart. Its zing needed to be tamed and receipt book authors made this clear. Sarah Tully’s receipt referenced above suggested that the liquor could be mixed with water to create an ‘Excellent punch at once’. Another receipt book, attributed to Mary Bent, contained a receipt for shrub with the addendum: ‘In Makeing the punch put two pints of Watter to one of Shrubb’. Shrub could be quickly transformed at a moment’s notice, suggesting it was a highly adaptable beverage.

In this respect, rather than being served as a drink in and of itself, shrub could be compared to an alcoholic squash, or a premixed cocktail. A point that might give some snobbish mixologists today pause for thought. It was bottled, sealed, and stored in keen anticipation of revels to come. Preparation was a fundamental part of this process. The prevalence of shrub in contemporary receipt books provides but one example of how individualised and adaptable the landscape of drink could be in early eighteenth-century England.

****

Tyler Rainford is a second year PhD student at the University of Bristol, funded by the SWW DTP. His research explores the role of intoxicants in early modern England, with a specific focus on how distilled spirits informed ideas about the self and society over the course of this period. More broadly, he is interested in consumption, work, and identity in the early modern Atlantic world, c. 1600 – 1800.

Remembering, Repeating, and Coming To in Early Modern English Recipes

By Katie Kadue

Recipes for food preservation document the fight against oblivion. All recipes are mnemonic: they function both as technical reminders and as records of past practices, passed down as “receipts,” as they were called in early modern England, from one generation to the next. But some early modern recipes proposed a more literal form of re-membering, promising to reverse the process of decay and return organic materials to their previous, livelier states. 

Frontispiece of The Queen-Like Closet, or Rich Cabinet, 1675. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

 

Consider a recipe from Hannah Woolley’s evocatively titled The Queen-like Closet, or Rich Cabinet, stored with all manner of rare receipts for preserving, candying, and cookery, first published in 1670. This recipe for “Walnut water, or the Water of Life,” describes how to gather and distill green walnuts and “keep” the resulting liquid before proceeding to catalog its many “virtues,” concluding:

It is good for all infirmities of the Body, and driveth out all Corruption, and inward Bruises … ; whosoever drinketh much of it, shall live so long as Nature shall continue in him.

Finally, if you have any Wine that is turned, put in a little Viol or Glass full of it, and keep it close stopped, and within four days it will come to it self again. 

If in a way the walnut water memorializes, in distilled form, the walnuts gathered in the summer for months or years to come, it also “driveth out all Corruption” and so recalls human bodies to healthier versions of themselves. Even soured wine can benefit from this panacea: “within four days it will come to it self again.” Despite a timeline similar to that between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, this is less resurrection than correction, as if the turned wine had merely forgotten itself and needed to be given smelling salts to come back to its senses.

This ordinary miracle of physical remembrance encoded in recipes, the promise that bodies and other matter can overcome the degradation of time and come to themselves again, was also a subject of fascination for poets like Edmund Spenser, whose Faerie Queene (1590–96) frequently depicts characters who forget themselves and can only be brought back to life and cognition through the interventions of something like culinary or medicinal preservation.

In book I, the knight Redcrosse, scorched by a dragon, falls backward into a “well of life” that recalls Woolley’s “water of life”: he marinates there overnight and emerges in the morning as a “new-borne knight,” “drenched” from the thorough steeping, like rehydrated fruit, or like the dried artichokes that one recipe in John Nott’s Cook’s and Confectioner’s Dictionary (1723) promises “will come to themselves, and be as fresh as at first,” when soaked in warm water. Having slept it off, the next day Redcrosse is again knocked out by the dragon, and—rinse and repeat—he again revives, this time thanks to the virtues of a healing “Balme” not unlike those described in contemporary recipe books, except this one trickles down directly from the tree of life.

In book III of Spenser’s poem, at the heart of the Garden of Adonis, we learn that this place is peopled by lovers—Hyacinthus, Narcissus—who have metamorphosed into “fresh” flowers and “to whom sweet Poets verse hath giuen endlesse date”: the memorialization of men being, after all, one of the primary functions of poetry since Homer. But a more mundane and domestic art of memory is also at work here. Adonis, having been impaled by a boar, undergoes a similar reconstitution as Redcrosse when his caregiver Venus thoroughly seasons him with “flowres and pretious spycery,” making his body like the sugared flowers that, in another of Woolley’s recipes, can be carefully arranged so that they “look as though they were new gathered.”

The Metamorphosis of the Dead Adonis, Marcantonio Franceschini, c. 1700. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

 

As a result of this spice regimen, Adonis—who corresponds, in Spenser’s allegory, to matter itself—will not altogether die; repeatedly brought back to himself, he will not, the poet assures us, be “forgot.” Like the authors of recipe collections, Spenser reminds us that both culinary techniques and writing have the capacity to recollect what would otherwise be scattered and lost.


About

Katie Kadue is a Harper-Schmidt Fellow and Collegiate Assistant Professor in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. Her book, Domestic Georgic: Labors of Preservation from Rabelais to Milton, is forthcoming from University of Chicago Press in fall 2021.

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