I have spent the last month immersed in cookery books; old ones from the 17th through to the mid 20th century. They are mainly handmade books — collations of recipes, medicines and kitchen wisdom from women in humble circumstances. I’ve met some extraordinary collators. One of those is Anne Hughes, the wife of an English farmer of the late 18th century.
As a farmer’s wife, Anne worked hard, often from dawn through to the late night hours. She fed livestock and cared for young animals. She cooked, baked, cleaned and sewed. Despite this, over a 12-month period she managed to keep a journal. It’s a collection of diary entries, recipes and thoughts.
Anne’s husband John was a moderate success as a farmer and she had the help of a domestic servant, a young woman called Sarah. It was just as well, for Anne was constantly caring for those around her. She fretted over the health and well-being of family, friends and neighbours. She cared for those in difficult circumstances, often strangers. She responded compassionately to the itinerant labourers who came to her door in search of food or work. Her deepest concern was for the hungry and homeless women and children connected to these men. Her husband John did not approve.
“I went back home to get some sheets and a blanket to make the poor soul better, and some milk for her to drink which did warm her. I then went home with her blessing. I did not tell John of me giving her the sheets and blanket, he bein’ a mere man, so it is not wise to do so.”
Anne was also concerned for the welfare of her young servant. Having benefited herself from a level of education, Anne was committed to teaching Sarah to read and write, even though her domestic skills needed work. Once again, husband John did not approve. He was no fan of young Sarah. On their third wedding anniversary, Anne writes in her journal that she “did do my butter makin’” while she left Sarah “to cook most of the dinner.” The results were ordinary. Anne wrote matter-of-factly, “Sarah did burn the dinner, like she always do, and John was very cross thereby. He mislikens Sarah’s cookin’, so I do sometimes have to let him think it is me. Men be very tiresome sometimes.”
Clearly Anne’s husband was hard work. Regardless, Anne felt gratitude for having “married well” and having the basic necessities and even some luxuries in life. “I do feel that God be very good to me and has favoured me much, with a good home and plenty to eat and to keep me warm. And, even better, I am able to read and write.”
Thank you dear Anne. You’re an inspiration. I think I might go do some butter makin’!