24 October 2012
The Historical Collections
Of the Guildhall Library
Dr Peter Ross
It is the intention of this lecture to narrate something of the history of Guildhall Library and its collections with specific reference to one area in particular – the material relating to cookery, food and drink. In the past, this collection might not have been regarded as worthy of serious attention or description; with the possible exception of material relating to individual food writers, like that of Elizabeth David. But very recent research by my colleague, Val Hart, has begun to throw some light upon the cookery texts donated by a number of individuals in the latter part of the nineteenth century, donations which really form the foundation of this extraordinary collection. Indeed, perhaps the most extraordinary fact about this collection is that the great majority of the books, now numbering more than 10,000, have been acquired through donation and bequest and that only about 10% or less have been purchased. As I hope to demonstrate in this lecture, such a collection is strictly outside the original acquisitions policy of what is essentially a library of London history. But I hope too that I can go some way towards showing that what has been until relatively recently, a ‘Cinderella’ collection deserves its place on the shelves alongside other important collections such as those of the London livery companies, the Sir Thomas More and Charles Lamb collections and, indeed, the Gresham Music collection. But first let us look at the history of Guildhall Library itself so that we can place all this material in its historical context.
The recent publication by the Museum of London on the archaeology of the Guildhall precinct has greatly enhanced our understanding of the history of the Guildhall and its library. This talk draws heavily on that publication and on the writing of Caroline Barron. But first we must go back over 400 years to the great Elizabethan historian of London, John Stow, for our first introduction to the library’s history. Writing in his Survay of London of 1598, Stow noted that, adjoining Guildhall Chapel, on the south side was sometime a fair and large library, built of stone and roofed in slate, with three chambers on the ground floor and a large room above where the books were housed. Desks were provided in this upper room, where the books were chained to the shelves for security, whilst the outside of the building was ornamented with the arms of Richard Whittington and the letters WB for William Bury, the library’s benefactors. Mention of these two City merchants takes us back another 175 years to the founding of the library in the early years of the reign of King Henry VI, when plans for a library within the Guildhall College precinct would have been under consideration. The first Guildhall library was built between March 1423 and September 1425 by the executors of the mercer and former Lord Mayor, Richard Whittington - the Dick Whittington of pantomime fame - and the executors of another mercer, William Bury. Although neither man had specifically made provision for a library in his will, money had been given to the City for charitable purposes and it is likely that the actual initiative to create a library was taken by Whittington’s executor, John Carpenter, the Common Clerk. But it is clear that Whittington had taken an interest in libraries during his lifetime as he had made a donation towards the founding of a library at Greyfriars in the west of the City. On completion of Guildhall Library, probably in September 1425, the City gave full responsibility for its running to the executors and it is likely that John Carpenter, who himself was to donate books to the collection, managed the library until his death in 1442.
According to Stow, before its dissolution, the chapel and college were served by a warden, seven priests, three clerks and four choristers, and it was one of the College priests who was made responsible for the library. By 1444 the library was in the hands of Master John Clipstone, one of the College chaplains, who petitioned the City to be confirmed in his livelihood having ‘great attendance and charge’ in looking after the library. Clipstone died in 1457 and Thomas Mason became keeper. The only other keepers whose names are known are Edmund Alison who died in 1510 and John Church who was keeper in 1536/7.
Apart from Stow’s brief description, we have a few more clues as to what the building looked like and where exactly it was situated. The copperplate map-view of London of 1559 and the derivative Agas map show a building to the south of Guildhall and its chapel that is probably the library. Here we can see a four bayed construction that pushes above the foreground building, indicating that it must have had an upper floor. Although at times schematic, the maps have been shown to be accurate as far as they go when depicting the larger public buildings of the City. The appearance of Guildhall Library may have resembled two contemporary buildings which do survive today – the Vicars’ Library at Wells and Fromond’s Chantry at Winchester College. At the slightly later Wells building the lower floor is occupied by a chapel, but a library was on the upper level, with a roof of wooden beams covered in slates, as at Guildhall. The library above Fromond’s Chantry at Winchester, which also has a chapel on the lower floor, is a more precise contemporary of Guildhall. Both the Wells and Winchester buildings are lit by four windows on each side on the upper level, the same as the building that is depicted in the 16th century maps of London which and we believe to be Guildhall Library. We can only speculate what the interior of the library may have looked like, but it must surely have been very similar to the library at Hereford Cathedral with its wooden shelving, benches and desks, with the books chained to iron rods running along the edges of the shelves.
The recent publication on the Guildhall by the Museum of London contains vivid reconstructions of the 15th century Guildhall precinct that provide us with an idea of how the library may have appeared in the context of the neighbouring college and the Guildhall itself. These demonstrate the somewhat enclosed nature of the precinct occupying, as it does to this day, almost an island site, but the entrance gateways and the narrowness of medieval Guildhall Yard point towards a much more private space than the modern complex.
During the recent archaeological investigation of this site, five foundation piers, built of chalk, mortar and gravel were discovered which appear to be part of the library. However, the best preserved section of the library was the latrine at the west end of the building. The archaeological report seems to take great delight in describing the capacity of this library cesspit which, they claim, contained 2400 gallons of latrine waste up to the black ‘tide mark’ on the walls, and nearly double that volume if it was filled to the top. It is somewhat unclear if this pit, beneath the site of the medieval library but almost within Guildhall Yard, was for public use and accessed from the outside or for the private use of the library staff and visitors inside the building. The city had earlier provided public lavatories in other parts of the town and a new one was to be provided by the executors of Richard Whittington’s will. Thus the City appears to have got its priorities right by providing public lavatories long before they provided a public library.
It has been claimed that Guildhall Library was the first ‘public’ library in England and maybe some citizens were allowed access, but it was primarily for the use of the priests at the college. Little is known about where the library acquired its first books or indeed what they were, as no catalogue survives, but we can guess that most would have been religious works. As early as 1425-7 the library had attracted some private benefaction from the grocer William Chichele, who bequeathed £10 “to be bestowed on books” In 1452 Richard Cordone of Silver Street left at least part of the residue of his goods to the ‘common library of London’. Hugh Damlet, sometime Rector of St Peter’s upon Cornhill, made a bequest to the library in 1476 and, in 1517, one John Graunte bequeathed a Latin-English Dictionary and a Mass book to the library to be “bownde in boards and to be teid with a cheyn to the forseid liberary”. Relatively recent research by Dr. Neil Ker has traced some 20 works which he thought had been in the medieval library, but it is clear that some of these must have been housed in the book-room between the Mayor’s Court and Inner Council Chamber rather than in the library itself. These items, probably legal works, would have been for the use of the officers of the Guildhall rather than the College priests. But it is indeed probable that a number of those works identified by Ker and surviving in other modern libraries were indeed in the medieval Guildhall Library. The modern Guildhall Library now has just one book that we can be certain had been in the medieval library; this is the Aurora of Petrus de Riga, an early thirteenth century metrical version of the Old Testament which bears a fifteenth century inscription in Latin that can be translated as “Master John Martil gave this book to the common library at the Guildhall of the City of London”. The library ‘reacquired’ this book from the antiquarian bookseller, Maggs in October 1926, some two years after it had been sold at auction. One other work which may be a survivor of the original library, a fourteenth century copy of the Chronicles of France can probably be identified with a volume of the Chronicles returned to Guildhall in 1516 after having been a ‘long tyme in the keping of’ Robert Fabyan. It also seems likely that some marginalia in this volume is in hand of the same Robert Fabyan.
We know little more of the history of the first library, its contents or its ‘librarians’ until the Reformation, when, following the Chantries Act of 1548 the chapel, college and library were confiscated by the Crown. Although all were subsequently repurchased by the City – Sir John Gresham was the City’s chief agent in the negotiations - neither the college nor the library was re-founded. Before the end of 1549 and with the assent of the Court of Aldermen, William Cecil, secretary to the Protector, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, removed ‘all such bokes of St. Augustine’s’ works and other as he now desireth that remain in Guildhall Chapel.” The Court of Aldermen clearly thought that the Protector was ‘just borrowing’ the books as they asked, by gentle request upon delivery of the books, that ‘having perused them he will return them to the said library there to remain to such use as they were provided for’ The Protector Somerset, or at least his secretary William Cecil, sent three carts to the City to collect the entire library and removed the books to the Duke’s new mansion, Somerset House on the Strand. As Stow was later to record, this loan was never returned, which would no doubt help to explain why in November 1549 the City decided not to re-establish the collection, even though it had bought the building back from the Crown. It is possible that some books escaped the clutches of the Duke as they may have been in the book-room of the Guildhall, rather than in the Library – this might have been the case with the surviving copy of the Chronicles of France.
It is hardly surprising that the City obeyed the commands of the Duke of Somerset, who was also the King’s uncle, as at this point he was so powerful that he was able to act without reference even to the Privy Council. But the Duke was to fall very quickly in the months after his removal of the library’s books. Following a virtual coup d'état he was arrested, brought before the King and charged, as Edward himself summarized, with "ambition, vainglory, entering into rash wars in mine youth... enriching himself of my treasure, following his own opinion, and doing all by his own authority." In February 1550, John Dudley, Earl of Warwick emerged as the leader of the Council and, in effect, as Somerset's successor. Although Somerset was released from the Tower and restored to the Council, he was executed for felony in January 1552 after scheming to overthrow Dudley's regime. The King noted his uncle's death in his Chronicle with "the duke of Somerset had his head cut off upon Tower Hill between eight and nine o'clock in the morning". The fact that Somerset was charged with felony means that his possessions were not necessarily forfeit to the Crown, as they might have been had he been charged with treason. But exactly what happened to Guildhall Library’s books, presumably then at Somerset House, is unclear. There may be an opportunity in the future to pursue this line of enquiry, but for now it remains a mystery.
In March 1550 the library building at Guildhall was leased to Sir John Ayliffe, keeper of Blackwell Hall Market at an annual rent of £5 on condition that he always use it as a common market hall for the sale of cloth and none otherwise. The desks were then sold, and by John Stow’s day at the end of the century, the building had been lofted throughout and converted in to a storehouse for cloth.
The corporation made no attempt to repair the loss of their library until the year 1824, when on the motion of Mr. Richard Lambert Jones, it was unanimously resolved “that it be referred to a Special Committee to inquire into the best mode of arranging and carrying into effect in the Guildhall a library of all matters relating to this City, the Borough of Southwark, and the County of Middlesex”. Within two months they reported as to what apartments should be appropriated for the purpose and the expense involved in fitting them up, and they directed the Town Clerk to prepare a schedule of all the books in his custody. Within another eighteen months the Committee was able to report that they had acquired a number of valuable books relating to the manners, customs, laws, privileges and history of the City, the Borough of Southwark and the neighbouring counties. In 1828 William Herbert was appointed librarian and the library was opened for use. By the following year the 1,700 volumes with which the library opened had grown to 2,800 and its print collection amounted to nearly 2000 images. Amongst its early acquisitions was a complete set of The London Gazette, purchased for 250 guineas, along with complete sets of the Gentleman’s Magazine, the European Magazine and 380 volumes of newspapers.
Right from the start the committee realised that its mission was to create the greatest collection of London books in existence and, although the library has since developed in other directions, this objective has never been lost sight of, and books relating to London have always had a first claim in considering proposed purchases and donations. The current collection is known to be the greatest on the history of a single city anywhere in the world. By 1831 it was already clear that the library had outgrown it accommodation, although it is unclear exactly what space the library was occupying. For a time it may have used the rooms above the porch of Guildhall itself. In 1832 the library contained 3200 volumes and by 1835 it had reached a total of 4,800. The Committee, although still giving preference to London related books, was acquiring the works of “all the best English historians, ancient and modern” as well as works on the Constitution and Parliament along with dictionaries and glossaries. Five years later the number of books had grown to nearly 10,000, including an extensive series of City Pageants and Royal Progresses, and accounts of the Plague and the Great Fire. In 1843 the library acquired what is possibly its most precious possession – a deed of purchase for a property in Blackfriars signed by William Shakespeare. The deed was bought at auction and the City paid £145 – the equivalent of around £10,000 today. This was possibly one of the canniest investments by the City, as should the signature come on the market today it is believed that bidding would probably start at around 5 million pounds and might sell, according to some estimates, for as much as £50,000,000.
In 1847 Mr. Philip Solomons presented 400 volumes of Hebrew literature, and 950 proclamations from the reign of Charles I to that of William III were purchased. In 1853 the Library Committee reported in favour of establishing a free library for the use of the inhabitants of the City of London – up until this point the main purpose of the library was to serve the officers of the Corporation. However, at a public meeting held in 1855 the proposal to adopt the Library Act and introduce a free public library was rejected by the rate payers.
In 1857 the use of Guildhall Library appears to have been small, as in six months just 532 visitors were reported. In 1862 the book budget was increased from £200 to £300 per annum and in the following year the library of the Dutch Church, Austin Friars was accepted. This collection of mostly theological works included the first edition of Froissart’s Chronicles of 1495, Livy’s Decades of 1485 and the first Dutch version of the Bible of 1477. In 1865 Mr. William Overall was appointed librarian and within 18 months of his appointment the Guildhall Improvement Committee recommended the building of a new library at the cost of £25,000. However, this scheme did not get off the ground until a meeting of the Common Council in July 1869 approved the motion. Designed by the then City architect, Sir Horace Jones, architect of Tower Bridge, it comprised the library, which could be converted into a reception space for ceremonial purposes, the newspaper and directory-room, the committee room, with the Guildhall Museum and the strong-room occupying the basement. Exclusive of site, the building cost £57,870 16s. 5d. and was finished in 1872. The library opened on 5th November that year and on 13th February 1873 the Court of Common Council passed the following resolution “That considering the additional accommodation provided for readers in the new library, and fully recognising the paramount obligation of every municipality to afford its citizens the fullest opportunity of acquiring an intimate knowledge of the literary treasures in its possession, the Court hereby declares that its library shall henceforth be devoted to the free use of the public.” The philosophy of the library at this time is reflected in the choice of portrait sculptures in the spandrils of the arcade. Personages were chosen to represent History, Poetry, Printing, Botany etc. and so we find depicted, amongst others; Stow and Camden, Shakespeare and Milton, Guttenberg and Caxton, Purcell and Handel, Ray and Gerard.
The stock of books continued rapidly to increase. In 1873 the Clockmakers’ Company deposited their library and museum at Guildhall, where both remain today. Some other livery companies followed suit with their own libraries, including the Gardeners’ and the Spectacle Makers. In 1889 a large gift of duplicate books was received from the British Museum. In 1891 the Parish Clerks deposited the London Bills of Mortality, an extraordinary statistical record of disease in London from 1664 to 1829. We have added to this particular collection and can now extend the dates from the end of the sixteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth. This monument to weekly record keeping is the longest continuous record of disease and mortality anywhere in the world. Utilising these records historians have been able to trace, for instance, the relentless march of the Plague, week by week and parish by parish as it progressed across the City in 1665.
The Chapman bequest of 1895 brought to the library hundreds of 19th century plays, whilst the purchase of the Alfred Cock collection added works relating to Sir Thomas More. Guildhall Library would seem to be an appropriate home for this material as More was born in Milk Street, just across the road from Guildhall, married in the local parish of St Mary, Aldermanbury, and may indeed have been a reader at the original Guildhall Library. Donations and purchases continued apace over the next few decades including part of the library of the London Institution on its closure in 1913. It was from there that the library acquired its Shakespeare First Folio. But there were dispersals too; the Corporation’s private lending library (of which catalogues were published in 1900 and 1911) was partly dispersed and partly added to the general reference collection. The library of the Dutch Church in Austin Friars, deposited in 1863, was removed in the 1930’s, and mostly incorporated in Lambeth Palace Library, but some notable books were sold. The Bible collection has been given to the British & Foreign Bible Society, while the Phelips collection of erotica went the British Museum. The National Dickens Library, given in 1908, was returned to the Dickens Fellowship in 1926, and is now in the Dickens House Museum. 28,000 books including c.10,000 published pre-1851 were destroyed when an incendiary bomb fell on the library on the night of 29th – 30th December 1940. Losses included all the sale catalogues, the Swedenborgian collection, and the collection of the Fanmakers’ Company. As a result of this damage 83,000 books were subsequently removed to the vaults of the Old Bailey where they spent the rest of the war. The Elzevier collection (along with other Dutch books) was given to the University of London Library in 1950. One of the most significant deposits in the 1950s was the Gresham College Library with its very important collection of early music, including an autograph manuscript by Purcell and the earliest surviving text of Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium. Other collections that have found their home at Guildhall include; 3,000 books and pamphlets by or about the essayist, Charles Lamb, which form the Charles Lamb Society Library, 54 books on fencing, a library of material relating to archery, 106 pre-1851 books on shorthand, the Antiquarian Horological Society collection, and 75 items from Elkanah Settle including many of his presentation bindings.
The bombing during the Second World War devastated the area around Guildhall and for the second time in its 600 year history the hall itself had lost its roof - the first time had been during the Great Fire of 1666. Bombing had slightly damaged the library, but had destroyed the Council Chamber and many of the offices belonging to the Corporation. Much of the 1950s and 60s were spent making good these losses and new offices were built to the north, though the council chamber was not rebuilt. The Corporation decided that in developing the West Wing they would incorporate a new modern library more suitable, so they thought, for a modern collection. They also had their eye on the Victorian library building which they wanted to use as a permanent ‘ceremonial’ and reception space. Thus it was that in 1974 the present incarnation of Guildhall Library opened, designed over five floors, two of which were purpose built for the storage of the now vast printed book and manuscript collections. This library was originally laid out with three sections, Printed Books, Prints and Maps and Manuscripts, but this has more recently been adapted to accommodate the City Business Library. The Print Room moved to London Metropolitan Archives along with some of the manuscript collections. But all the printed books remain on site and can be accessed, even where they are stored three floors below ground, in less than 15 minutes. Despite its extraordinary history and collections Guildhall Library remains a public reference library, open to everyone without formality.
So how, after detailing the above historical collections, many closely related to London’s history, is it that Guildhall Library has acquired 10,000 books on food, cookery and wine? The short answer is that it has been serendipitously and without the intention to build up such a vast and now very important public collection. We can trace its origin, however, back to the late 19th century when, in 1887, the widow of Thomas Staples, Master of the Cooks’ Company, gave 239 cookery books, 75 of which dated from before 1851, to the library. This was added to by the deposit of a small library by the Cooks Company itself and a bequest by Robert Miller, wine merchant and Master of the Company, in 1888 to 1899. From a total of 195 books which Miller bequeathed to the library, 76 were food or cookery related and included: Hall’s The Queen’s Royal Cookery of 1719, and The Queen’s Closet Opened, A Queen’s Delight and The Compleat Cook – all from 1671, Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple of 1755, an early 17th century manuscript recipe book and many others.
By any measure these bequests and donations were remarkable collections for individuals to have acquired in the middle to late 19th century. Very few people were collecting cookery books at this time, certainly not material from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Collectors of antiquarian books may have acquired examples of recipe books as part of their general collections relating to the history of the book or of printing for instance, but not many were actually interested in the subject matter of these books. Thomas Staples, however, had a professional interest as well as an antiquarian one in acquiring cookery material. Both he and his brother, John, were closely involved in catering to the City’s institutions, livery companies and to the Corporation. They were the proprietors of the Albion Tavern in Aldersgate Street where many organisations held their banquets and the tavern provided food for civic occasions elsewhere - in 1864 for instance the City Press records that the Lord Mayor’s Day banquet was well served by Messrs. Staples, of the Albion. In that same year they converted their business into a ‘limited liability undertaking’ and continued to manage its affairs as managing directors. The Staples brothers were also successful wine merchants and acquired a significant fortune and influence in the City.
When Thomas Staples died in March 1896 he left a considerable fortune of nearly £50,000 to his widow. She, with some hast it seems, made sure that Thomas’s collection of cookery books was passed to Guildhall Library, the first such bequest of its kind and the foundation of the food and wine collections that we see today. However, on its arrival at the library the material was not catalogued as a discrete collection, but was subsumed into the general reference collections. It is only now, with the aid of the surviving acquisitions registers, that we are discovering how important this collection, the donations from the Cooks’ Company and the Robert Miller bequest, actually were. Modern online catalogues now allow us to draw together records and recreate collections even where the material has been physically dispersed across the miles of shelving in the library. This research has revealed that the earliest cookery book in the collection was acquired through these Victorian donations. Cristoforo da Messisbugo was a steward of the House of Este in Ferrara, serving from 1524 to 1548 at the court of Alfonso I and then Ercole II, where he organized many grand banquets. His cookbook, the title of which translates into English as A New Book on How to Prepare All Types of Dishes was first printed in 1549 in Ferarra and eventually appeared in ten editions. It was intended for those who prepared princely feasts and discussed not just recipes, but also logistics, decor, and cooking equipment. Guildhall Library’s copy is the 1589 edition and it appears to retain its original 16th century binding. I am intrigued to know just where Staples acquired his copy and if he could in fact read Italian, but it is by no means the only early Italian cookery book he owned as the bequest also included Mattia Geigher’s Tre Trattati, - a book of carving instructions published in Padua in 1639 and containing detailed diagrams for carving various cooked animals, birds and fish, and illustrated instructions on how to fold napkins into numerous decorative shapes.
By the early 20th century it was clear that the food related collections at Guildhall were beginning to attract scholars and writers on food, most notable amongst these being André Simon, the French-born wine merchant, gourmet and prolific writer on food and wine. In his 66 year writing career Simon wrote 104 books, carrying out much of his research at Guildhall Library, which was to later acquire the library of the Wine Trade Club that Simon had helped to set up. Simon naturally built up an extensive library of his own and also helped found the Wine and Food Society which eventually became the International Wine and Food Society. Much of Simon’s private library was acquired by the Society who in turn added from their own collections bringing the total up to around 3,000 books. Eventually, this material also came to Guildhall Library where it is now known as the André Simon Collection. In February 1965, Simon established the André Simon Award for gastronomic literature, with a prize of 100 guineas. The Award continues to this day, although now the prize is £2000, and is judged by the Trustees of the André Simon Memorial Fund. Each year all of the shortlisted books for the award are donated to the Andre Simon Collection and the library continues to add further donations from individuals and institutions so that this particular collection continues to grow. The strength of the Andre Simon Collection is in later nineteenth and twentieth century material with extensive holdings of works by Ambrose Heath, Elizabeth Craig and even Fanny Cradock. But the collection also contains hundreds of examples of cookery pamphlets and ephemera, wine lists, menus, product and recipe leaflets - material that is often overlooked by other institutions.
By the 1970s the collections were becoming better known and amongst our readers and researchers was Elizabeth David, arguably the most important English food writer of the 20th century. By this time David’s writing was increasingly based on research into the social history of food and cooking. She moved away from ‘recipe’ books as such, so that her later publications often contained a fully researched history of the subject. In my opinion her masterpiece is English Bread and Yeast Cookery published in 1977. The simplest way to demonstrate the extensive nature of David’s commitment to researching and writing the history of her subjects is to point out that the first bread recipe in this book does not appear until page 256! David’s researches clearly took her all over the country, but she made regular research forays to Guildhall and one story of those visits has been passed on to me by a former colleague at the library. Elizabeth David would usually visit on a Saturday, arriving in the morning she would stop by the fish pond, which is still on the corner of Gresham Street and Aldermanbury and just outside the library, where she would lower into the water a string bag containing a bottle of white wine. Come lunchtime and having completed several hours of research, she would return to the pond and retrieve the nicely chilled wine to enjoy with her picnic lunch. When Elizabeth David died in 1992, Guildhall Library was invited by her executors to acquire much of her extensive cookery book collection. This was ahead of the now famous auction which took place at Phillips some months later. Although this was one of the few occasions that the library paid for a collection of cookery books, and at the time might have felt that the asking price was somewhat high, it was quickly realised that we may actually have acquired a bargain, when at auction everything else went way over estimate - one collector paying £300 for an earthenware jug containing several wooden spoons. But the historical value of preserving at least part of Elizabeth David’s personal library far outweighs the monetary cost of acquiring it and making it available to the public. When the books first arrived at the library it was realised that they contained hundreds of post-it notes, scraps of paper, postcards, and even parts of unpublished essays. David, a very private individual, had recorded her often caustic remarks about the books, the authors and even individual recipes on these ephemeral scraps. My colleague, Chris Nicols, spent many hours removing each item, recording where it was from and mounting them on acid-free paper. These are now preserved at the library and the public can read David’s comments where she describes, for example, Fanny and Johnny Cradock as “possibly demented” , the American food writer Waverly Root as “a pitiful phoney” and an Ulster Women’s Institute recipe for Italian salad as “possibly the worst recipe ever devised”
What then is the use of a collection of so many food related works? Surely cookery books are just practical manuals of instruction? But, as the food historian Eileen White has written, they can be the starting point of studies relating to topics far more diverse than merely food preparation. White goes on to say that although recipes might not be literature, they can be used for literary and linguistic study. Until recently cookery books were not generally perceived as a source of academic study: but they can have the same intellectual, theological, historical or literary values as almost any other Guildhall Library collection. Everyone must eat and the history of the procurement, preparation and presentation of food over the centuries must be of interest to many and is part of the social and economic life of any society. To quote from Eileen White one last time, cookery books reflect the expansion of international trade, reveal the essentials of everyday life and embody attitudes and personalities. Like any text, they can be examined for sources, derivations and dissemination, and can inspire a search for the background of an author. They can be used by people other than cooks. (Eileen White The English Cookery Book: Historical Essays Prospect Books, 2004)
Perhaps I can demonstrate briefly the value of this by taking examples from different centuries. Take The Court and Kitchen of Elizabeth, commonly called Joan Cromwell. Published in 1664, after the restoration of King Charles. This book sought to denigrate Elizabeth Cromwell by indicating her shortcomings as a hostess. It was a piece of royalist propaganda showing the Protector’s household as a ‘world turned upside down’ in which Oliver’s excesses are kept under control by his wife. Thus this book reflects the politics and personalities of its age. We can contrast the depiction of Elizabeth Cromwell with Henrietta Maria in The Queen’s Closet Opened , where she is transformed from a detested French catholic queen into a good housewife. During the Commonwealth period many distinguished chefs, who had served in aristocratic royalist houses, had lost their jobs, and this is likely to be the reason for the sudden wave of new cookery books at this time, as these professionals would have been searching for new ways to make money. The political situation in the 17th century also meant that many people were moving up the social scale, and it is in this era that cookery books begin to instruct those unfamiliar with the etiquette of the wealthy, guiding them on subjects such as menus or servant behaviour. Following the restoration, French cuisine had enlivened the English palate, flavouring its food with anchovies, capers and wine, and introducing coulis, roux, ragouts and fricassé. There was a renewed interest in the customs of the old aristocracy, and cookery books appeared to be opening doors onto the secrets of the wealthy.
By the middle of the eighteenth century women cookery book writers were the dominant force and Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747) was the great bestseller of the age. It is now recognised that she ‘borrowed’ many of her recipes from contemporary writers and, although she claimed to be hostile to the influence of French cuisine, she plagiarised and adapted the style to suit English tastes and the pockets of her audience, - her intention being that the book should be used by the mistress of the house to instruct her ignorant cook. Glasse offered shortcuts to achieve the rich sauces and suggested ways to create dishes with decorative impact using simpler ingredients. Take for example her recipe to Make Catchup up to Keep Twenty Years. Recipes like this which demonstrate the preservation of food took up a lot of space in cookery and household instruction books in the eighteenth century. The books also reflected the influence of Britain overseas as she expanded her colonies and founded an empire. It was a two way phenomenon, with British food and ideas going one way and new recipes and ingredients coming back the other.
One final example, from the 20th century, takes us in a completely different direction. The Isobar menu dates from the late 1930s and comes from the Christopher Driver Collection at Guildhall Library – Driver was the editor of the Good Food Guide. The Isobar was in the basement of the Lawn Road Flats, a radically designed Modernist building in North London also known as the Isokon Building. From the starting point of a single menu we can take our research in several different directions. We can, for instance, use it to trace fashions in middle class housing – the studio style, modernist flats were equipped with tiny kitchens because the occupants were expected to dine out or eat in the dining room in the basement This experimental communal style of living attracted several ‘champagne socialists’ who took up residence at this time, including Raymond Postgate, who was later to found and edit the Good Food Guide. Philip Harben, who was employed in the basement restaurant of the Isokon building, went on to become one of television’s first celebrity chefs.
The Food and Wine collections continue to grow and more recent donations include the library of Christopher Driver, sometime editor of the Good Food Guide, the Hallgarten and Linklaters collections of wine related material, the collection of potter and food historian Mary Wondrausch and, most recently, a library created by the members of the Guild of Food Writers. Just a few weeks ago we received a donation of hundreds of ‘review copy cookery books from the offices of the publishers Olive and BBC Good Food magazines.
What is the future of this collection? Over the last few years the history of food and cooking has become a serious subject for academic research and the papers published by the Oxford Symposium on Food History and the perhaps less serious, but much more interesting, Leeds Symposium have led the way in this direction. The media having possibly achieved overkill with the ‘celebrity‘ chef is now taking a slightly more serious interest in food history with documentaries narrating the history of food, cooking and servants and dramas about Fanny Cradock and Elizabeth David. Television and radio producers along with newspaper journalists are beginning to discover the collections at Guildhall Library and in the last two years the food collections have featured a number of times on Radio Four’s The Food Programme, the Great British Bake Off and numerous other documentaries, including those on the lives of 18th century cookbook writer Hannah Glasse and Mrs Beeton, as well as featuring in articles in The Guardian, The Times, The Observer and the food journal Fire and Knives. What was once a disparate assortment of collections is now being brought together, developed and publicised. In the past, the collections have relied on the personal interests of some of the Guildhall staff, like the former Principal Reference Librarian, Irene Gilchrist, to make sure that they were developed and their place on the shelves justified. But now the library is becoming a recognised destination for the history of food and attracting further important donations and bequests. Our only concern is the speed with which the collection is growing; it is already the largest public collection in the country. Each year over 20,000 cookery book titles are published and sales of cookery and craft books account for 10% of all book sales. It is not the purpose of our collection to be comprehensive, but we should attempt at least to collect the most important, most influential and indeed the most typical publications of our age, so that in the future, the modern material is as highly regarded and as interesting as that collected by our Victorian benefactors Thomas Staples and Robert Miller.
© Dr Peter Ross 2012