Category Archives: Institutions

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)


Workhouse Diets: Paucity or Plenty? [Part II]

By Lesley Hulonce

"Members of the United Cooks' Society preparing a monster plum pudding at Marylebone Workhouse for the Lancashire Operatives," in The Illustrated London News (1863). Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.
“Members of the United Cooks’ Society preparing a monster plum pudding at Marylebone Workhouse for the Lancashire Operatives,” in The Illustrated London News (1863). Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

This is the second part of a post which appeared on Tuesday, 10 May.

As Edward Ostler reported to the 1834 Royal Commission, ‘humanity dictates that the inmates of a workhouse should be fed quite as well as a labourer’s family’, and the food, whilst wholesome, should be ‘of the plainest description’. Ostler described the pre-1834 diet in most workhouses as meat, broth and pea soup, each for two days, with fish on the seventh day. No amounts were given, but Ostler also reported that the diet should be ‘sufficient’.[1] In earlier years of the ‘new’ poor law some guardians had attempted (unsuccessfully) to instigate a system whereby unmarried women of ‘profligate habits’, who had been delivered of two or more children in the workhouse, should be given a reduced diet and wear a ‘badge’ to differentiate them from other women.[2]

Following the formation poor law unions in 1834, the central authorities expected that all meals would be weighed and measured to ensure the amounts stipulated were received by the paupers. Whether or not the quantities were ‘sufficient’ is, and was somewhat subjective. Although the central authorities envisaged that workhouse diets should follow the principle of less eligibility and not be of better quality or higher quantity than the ‘ordinary’ diet of a labourer’s family, this proved unfeasible as many of these labourers’ diets were too poor to sustain health.

Although the diets within workhouses appear ‘sufficient’, the food offered was indeed monotonous; the disallowance of a delicacy such as treacle would have been a blow to the four girls mentioned above. The workhouse dietary for 1837 allowed for five ounces of meat three times a week, one and a half pints of soup three times a week and 12 ounces of rice or suet pudding weekly. Breakfasts were 6 ounces of bread and one and a half pints of gruel and supper either one and a half pints of broth or two ounces of cheese with 7 ounces of bread.[3] Some workhouse soups were a little suspect, as a poor law inspector found that dirty clothes were being boiled up on the stove in a pan next to the broth, and he wisely declined to sample the soup as a result. Over the years, the main changes in workhouse diets were in the variety of foods and quantities more or less remained the same with a little more protein and vegetables and a little fewer carbohydrates. Some dishes were made more palatable, such as the suet pudding, to which was added more suet along with currants and spices. By the 1870s, ‘pie crust’, tea and butter once a week were included in the children’s dietary. The early twentieth century diet of children also included cocoa, porridge, sugar, cake, biscuits, roast beef and mutton, savoury mince, barley soup, bread pudding, boiled bacon and rice milk.[4]

Food was also used as reward as well as punishment. Various treats were given to children throughout the year and most included food that could be considered an indulgence. These treats were promoted as being obtained by good behaviour and by conforming to the projected ethos of work, independence and thrift as adults. One annual trip to a beach also saw the children ‘plentifully regaled with tea and plumcake’ and special teas were often arranged.[5]

The early 20th century diet also included cocoa, porridge, sugar, cake, biscuits, roast beef and mutton, ‘scouse’, savoury mince, barley soup, bread pudding, boiled bacon and rice milk. The local press always appeared deeply moved by both the children’s plight and the guardians’ beneficence. Concerning an earlier outing to Caswell Bay, the Welsh newspaper The Cambrian was ‘glad to find’ that the guardians showed ‘deep interest and kindness towards the children confined in our union’ and on a similar occasion it was reported that the ‘poor’ children ‘gambolled over the hill right merrily’.[1]

So, gruel was a workhouse staple, as it was across Britain for all classes. However, benighted workhouse inmates never had to rely on it as their only form of nutrition. What is gruel anyway? Or ‘skilly’ as it was often called. Basically, its just a watery porridge; here is an 1872 recipe if you want to try it at home.

Gruel recipe 1872:
16 ounces oatmeal

8 pints of water
4 ounces treacle,
Allspice to be used occasionally

"A selection of puddings," in The Book of Household Management by Mrs Beeton (London, 1861). Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.
“A selection of puddings,” in The Book of Household Management by Mrs Beeton (London, 1861). Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

The tedium of these meals was relieved by special teas which were organised by local ladies and on outings in which food was part of the treat. One annual Whitsun trip to a local beach saw children ‘plentifully regaled with tea and plum cake’. At Christmas, guardians would organise a dinner of roast beef and plum pudding for all workhouse inmates, and oranges was also a favoured gift from medical officers. Here’s a recipe for Christmas pudding that might beat us all. 

1930s Recipe for workhouse Christmas pudding for 300 (yes, 300!)
36 lbs Currants

42lbs Sultanas
9 lbs Dates
9lbs Mixed Peel
26 lbs Flour
16 lbs Breadcrumbs
24 lbs Margarine
26 lbs Demerara Sugar
102 lbs Golden Syrup
102 lbs Marmalade
144 Eggs
2lbs 10oz Mixed Spice
13 lbs Carrots

Although these workhouse food strategies could be described as humane, their main objective was to curtail what was perceived as a ‘once a pauper, always a pauper’ culture thought prevalent among the destitute in Victorian Britain.

Sounds rather familiar…

[1] The Cambrian, 23 July 1858, 24 May 1861.

[1] Royal Commission of Inquiry into Administration and Practical Operation of Poor Laws, 1834, appendix C, 173.

[2] WGAS, U/S 1/1, Guardians’ Minutes, 20 June, 4 July 1850.

[3] TNA, MH12/16437, 29 May 1837.

[4] WGAS, U/S 1/33, 20 December 1900.

[5] The Cambrian, 15 June 1860.

Dr Lesley Hulonce is historian and lecturer of health humanities in the College of Human and Health Sciences at Swansea University. She is co-director of the Research Group for Health, History and Culture and her research interests include the histories of children, disability, poverty, gender and prostitution via state and voluntary action. She is completing her first monograph about the lives of pauper children in England and Wales which will be published in August.

Workhouse Diets: Paucity or Plenty? [Part I]

By Lesley Hulonce

Draft ‘Dietary’ from 1872, source TNA MH12 16439. Image courtesy of the author.
Draft ‘Dietary’ from 1872, source TNA MH12 16439. Image courtesy of the author.

‘All we ever get is gruel’, sang the workhouse lads in the 1968 film Oliver! But were workhouse boys like Oliver Twist really forced to bravely step forward and beg for more food?

Certainly, in some poor law unions in Britain poor diets generated widely reported scandals. At Andover workhouse the diet was found to be extremely meagre in quantity, resulting partly from the ‘dishonesty’ of the workhouse master. In consequence, inmates who were employed in bone crushing ‘ate the gristle and marrow of the bones they were set to break’. The subsequent inquiry also found that if the workhouse visiting committee had ‘acted regularly and duly in the discharge of their important duties’, the scandals could not have occurred.[1] The regular presence and intervention of poor law guardians was vital to the treatment of workhouse inmates and many of the perceived ‘cruelties’ of the poor law were mitigated by the goodwill of some poor law union guardians (Henriques, ‘How Cruel’).

Similarly, the strict application of poor law principles in the Bakewell union in 1855 led to such a serious deterioration of health that an inspector had to implement a much improved diet and exercise regime (Hopkins, Childhood Transformed, 174). This potent imagery appears to have coloured some historians’ view of workhouse diets. Crompton’s assertion that an already ‘inadequate’ diet was aggravated by ‘institutionalised starving’ as punishment, is one example. In her extensive analysis of 3,000 workhouse and prison diets, Johnston argues however that ‘starvation had no role in the policies of either institution’. (Johnston, Diet in Workhouses and Prisons, 5) Crompton cites software ‘Super Diet’ written by the University of Surrey, which was used to determine that the workhouse diets revealed up to a 56% deficiency in energy content, 50% shortfall in vitamin C, hardly any vitamin D and a ‘serious’ deficiency in calcium. The diets were compared with ‘what would be regarded today as a balanced diet’ (Crompton, Workhouse Children, 67).

Of course, it could be argued that the diet was still ‘inadequate’ by today’s benchmarks, but such anachronistic comparisons could be made concerning most social conditions of the nineteenth century and is not helpful to our understanding of the period. In practice however, diet and conditions in workhouses often exceeded those found in the homes of many poor families, but nonetheless a deterrent remained owing to the widely held punitive and humiliating reputation of the workhouse.

Children were assured of receiving a fixed amount of food and did not have to compete for food with the adults and siblings in their family. As Ross argues, death by starvation was still a ‘regular occurrence’ up to and after 1870 (Ross, Love and Toil, 27). In poor law workhouses, diets were also used as a means of control with punishments often taking the form of a modification of rations. This appears to be generally the substitution of one meal for bread and water or in the case of girls (who could not be beaten), a dinner of potatoes instead of the day’s predetermined food. Four young girls who had damaged a partition in the workhouse were punished by their dinner allowance being halved and their treacle ration withdrawn.[2] Workhouse food was monotonous, under-seasoned and probably badly cooked, but the quantities were sufficient and it was designed to deter rather than starve.

Part II of this post will appear on Thursday, 12 May.

[1] Report from the Select Committee on Andover Union, 1846, paper nos. 663-I; 663-II, iv-v.

[2] WGAS, U/S 24, WGAS, Workhouse Punishment Book, 2710 January 1855.

Dr Lesley Hulonce is historian and lecturer of health humanities in the College of Human and Health Sciences at Swansea University. She is co-director of the Research Group for Health, History and Culture and her research interests include the histories of children, disability, poverty, gender and prostitution via state and voluntary action. She is completing her first monograph about the lives of pauper children in England and Wales which will be published in August.

First Monday Library Chat: New York Public Library

Founded in 1895, the New York Public Library (NYPL) is the largest public library system in the US, serving more than 17 million patrons per year. NYPL holds nearly 10,000 archival and manuscript collections, comprising over 50,000 linear feet of material in nearly every format imaginable. Today I am talking with Thomas Lannon, Acting Charles J. Liebman Curator of Manuscripts in the Manuscripts and Archives Division at the NYPL.


Can you give us a broad overview of the scope of recipe books in the NYPL?

This is a difficult question to answer, but I could say the NYPL holds over 80,000 items, which includes over 15,000 cookbooks, over 25,000 menus, plus periodicals, prints, rare books and manuscripts related to culinary studies.

Any broad overview of NYPL’s culinary collections is difficult to prepare and quickly turns into a crowded list. Such a list might include references to standard American cookbooks such as American Cookery by Amelia Simmons (1796), with its recipes for Indian Pudding and Apple Pie, and the 1824 edition of The Virginia House-wife by Mary Randolph, among the holdings. European cookbooks begin with the 14th century manuscript of the Forme of Curry and also include early printed books such as Platina’s De Honest Volupata et Valetudine (1498), Girolamo Ruscelli’s The Secrets of Reverende Maister Alexis of Piemont (1558), and Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy (1747.) My language skills would be tested to list the continental works of French gastronomists such as Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin and Auguste Escoffier. And I have a hunch the German baroque cake designs in Neues saltzburgisches Koch-Buch (1719) are worth looking into. As the 19th century hit and its insatiable spirit for invention carried the day, The Library collected pioneering works on food technology and professional newsletters on food products, preservation and the manufacturing industry.

Also worth mentioning in an overview is the Whitney Cookery collection, primarily English works, including some of the rarest recipe books held at The Library. A gift from the estate of Helen Hay Whitney, a copy of The Good Hous-wives Treasurie (London, 1588) is among its highlights. I mentioned the Forme of Curry, the earliest English manuscript at The Library, is also from the Whitney Collection. The manuscript, Dissertations on Cookery, by Mary Ellen Meredith, daughter of the Romantic poet Thomas Love Peacock and first wife of the Victorian poet George Meredith is another resource to consider. In sum, there are 17 manuscript recipe books in the Whitney Collection composed between the 14th and 19th centuries and include manuscript receipt collections associated with Joane Yate, Lady Anne Morton, and Hester Denbigh.

Whitney Recipe 13
Whitney #13, Collection of Medical and Cookery Recipes. Inscribed: Mary Bromehead her book given her by Aunt 1761

Additionally, The Library has great resources on alcoholic beverages. The Liebmann collection of American historical documents relating to spirituous liquors boasts 226 manuscript items relative to the production and use of whiskey, rum, and brandy in the United States between 1665 and 1910. We’ve also recently added important new acquisitions documenting the long history of libations in New York City. The Henry Günther material on brewers’ guilds includes the Protokollbuch of the Vereins der Vereinigten Braumeister der Stadt New-York, or minute book of the Master Brewers Association of New York. Through this unique volume we can trace the founding of the German-American beer guild, its constitution, by-laws, meeting minutes, and discover a member list. This should be viewed by anyone interested in the story of lager beer in America.

We’ve also recently added the records of DuVivier and Co., a New York City-based importer and distributor of wine and spirits founded in 1856. DuVivier & Co. were the first to import brands such as Perrier-Jouet, Hennessy, John Walker & Sons, Jameson, Plymouth Gin, Guinness Stout, and Bass Ale into the United States. The DuVivier and Co. records are a large archive, over 75 volumes, and include accounts, operations journals, and salesman books. The operations journals are particularly interesting as they show how DuVivier not only imported alcohol, but created apéritifs in various combinations. Through these journals, researchers will be able discover recipes and formulas for many popular spirits found in fin de siècle New York City barrooms.

Cider Brandy Recipe
“Cider brandy” from Operations Journal, Vol. 38. Duvivier & Co. Records

How are these materials dispersed between different collections across The Library? I know you’re in Manuscripts and Archives, but are there other divisions we should consult within the NYPL?

Indeed, materials related to cookery are spread out over several collections, or locations within The Library. I think this fact is often overlooked and people assume there is some room dedicated to culinary material. Naturally, any library presents a challenge to the curious.

With tools like OCLC WorldCat and ArchiveGrid available freely over the internet, researchers should be able to locate anything held in most libraries. Locally, at NYPL there is a catalog for printed material as well as for unpublished, archival collections. If someone is looking for a specific periodical, it will likely be cataloged and anyone should be capable of locating it. The key to real achievement is to learn how to determine in a catalog record where some item is held, i.e. the item location.

Could you highlight a few recipe-related materials found in the NYPL’s Manuscripts and Archives Division?

I’d like to highlight here a few items which have only recently been made available to research in hopes that new researchers will emerge as a result of this blog post:

The Tolley baking records document the career of the Tolley family in American commercial baking industry. John W. Tolley and his son Albert E. Tolley were prominent bakers during the early part of the 20th century and affiliated with the Continental Baking Company and most importantly with the Ward Baking Company. The Ward Bakery Company had bakeries in several northeastern cities. For example, one of Brooklyn’s largest commercial bakeries was located on Pacific Street and Vanderbilt Avenue. The building was knocked down for the creation for the Barclays Center, but in the 1920s it produced millions of loaves of bread that would roll down their assembly line to feed the roaring suburb.

Tolley Baking Records
Tolley Baking Records

The Tolley baking records include the recipe books of Albert E. Tolley. The recipe for Ward’s Fine Bread is held in his Complete Set of Formulas Used in Eastern Bakeries 1924-1925. This recipe book includes an index of every major product created by the Ward Baking Company and tells the story of the rise of industrial baking in the United States.

With projects like What’s on the Menu?, the NYPL is also at the forefront of digital library initiatives. Do you have any new digital projects that may interest our audience?

With support from the The Polonsky Foundation, The New York Public Library is currently digitizing upwards of 50,000 pages of historic early American manuscript material. The Early American Manuscripts Project will allow students, researchers, and the general public to revisit major political events of the era from new perspectives and to explore currents of everyday social, cultural, and economic life in the colonial, revolutionary, and early national periods. The project will present on-line for the first time high-quality facsimiles of key documents from America’s Founding, including the papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison.

George Washington's Small Beer Recipe
George Washington’s notebook as a Virginia colonel, “Recipe for Small Beer”


Drawing on the full breadth of The Library’s manuscript collections, we also hope to make widely available less well-known manuscript sources, including business papers of Atlantic merchants, diaries of people ranging from elite New York women to Christian Indian preachers, and organizational records of voluntary associations and philanthropic organizations. Over the next two years, this trove of manuscript sources, previously available only at The Library, will be made freely available through

We’ll be featuring the Manuscript Cookbooks Survey this month. Can you tell me more about the NYPL’s involvement with this project?

The Manuscript Cookbooks Survey is a database of pre-1865 English-language manuscript cookbooks. In compiling this database, the Survey team aims to give culinary historians, food writers, and others enhanced access to these important, fascinating materials, which too often lie neglected in our libraries, historical sites, and other public institutions. I encourage people to use the survey to find cookbooks in libraries and likewise I hope more libraries can include their records in the Survey. The project includes a database that can be browsed by institution and most of NYPL’s manuscript cookbooks can be found there. All credit goes to the team who created the database, including Principal Researcher Stephen Schmidt.  

Cake Recipes
Recipes for cakes from Matilda Livingston Rogers’s cookbook.

I’m sure our readers would love to use your materials! Are there links to digitized resources? What fellowships are available?

The NYPL’s Digital Collections platform features hundreds of the thousands of digital items, including 18,000+ menus that were digitized as part of the What’s on the Menu? project. Researchers can also stay up to date on archival collections which have been digitized.

The Library offers short-term fellowships for scholars interested in accessing material which has not been digitized. The purpose of the fellowships has been to alleviate travel cost and offer support for individuals needing to conduct on-site research in the Library’s special collections. In the last two years we offered additional fellowships for food studies with support from the Pine Tree Foundation.

If you have any questions about the NYPL’s recipe collections, you can email Thomas Lannon at