Suffolk: The Ipswich girl Delia Smith calls ‘the best cookery writer in the English language’
Delia Smith calls Eliza Acton ‘the best cookery writer in the English language’. STEVEN RUSSELL enjoys a new book honouring a largely-forgotten woman who grew up in Suffolk and outshines Mrs Beeton
IF Eliza Acton were around today (rather than the 1800s) she’d likely be a celebrity chef – with TV series, public appearances and Jamie Oliver-esque campaigns to help us all eat healthily and economically. At this time of year she’d doubtless have a new book out for Christmas – all the recipes tried and tested, honed and perfected by her own hand.
As it was, Eliza was something of a personality in the first half of the 19th Century. Astonishingly, but crucially, she was the first cookery writer – certainly in England – to feature something we now take for granted: a list of precise measurements and amounts of ingredients.
She was also the first writer to put together a manual for general use in the home, encouraging people to understand the importance of nourishing meals featuring fresh food, while minimising waste, which she abhorred.
Despite being eclipsed for a time by Mrs Isabella Beeton – who, according to Eliza’s modern-day champion, “shamelessly plagiarised Acton’s work while her publisher husband developed and manipulated his wife’s name into a lucrative market brand” – the former Ipswich girl’s works brought success and longevity.
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Biographer Sheila Hardy says recent interest in celebrity chefs and cookery in general has helped Eliza Acton’s star rise again and prompted the reprinting of her books.
The foreword to the biography is written by the Suffolk-based queen of all things culinary – Delia Smith – who lauds her heroine as a gifted communicator.
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“Her book Modern Cookery for Private Families, first published in 1845, has been a great inspiration – and had a great influence on me throughout my own years of cookery writing.”
She adds: “She quite definitely had a very similar mission: to help the inexperienced in a clear and simple way; in her own words ‘which no other cookery book had yet done’.”
Sheila, who lives in Ipswich, has written a dozen or so historical books, including The Diary of a Suffolk Farmer’s Wife; Frances, Lady Nelson; and The Cretingham Murder.
“I had known about Eliza since I adapted her Christmas pudding recipe years ago, but it was when I was trawling through The Ipswich Journal for cases for Arsenic in the Dumplings: A Casebook of Suffolk Poisonings that I came across her connection with Ipswich,” she tells ealife.
Eliza seemed prime material for a fully-blown biography. Trouble was, she hadn’t left much of a trail. There is no archive of personal papers on which to draw. “It is possible that on her death bed she instructed her sister to destroy all her personal papers, thus keeping secret forever both the name of her faithless lover and if she really did give birth to a child out of wedlock,” writes Sheila, tantalisingly.
There’s a mention in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and a little information on the world wide web, but precious little else.
“In the absence of letters and diaries we are forced to look for much of our biographical information from Eliza’s own written work,” says Sheila.
“The poems” – Eliza had a volume published in her mid-20s – “are a great source for providing details of her relationships. From these we learn about her sisters and friends and, most importantly, about the great love affair that ended badly. And from her two books, Modern Cookery and The English Bread Book, we are able to pick up clues about her mature life, her wide circle of friends and acquaintances from all ranks of life.”
The writer’s views on issues of the age also come across: topics such as education, sweatshop conditions in some bakeries and the living conditions of the impoverished. Sheila culled information from old newspapers, too.
Unlike her six sisters and three brothers, Eliza was born not in Ipswich but at Battle, near Hastings – in the early summer of 1799. Her parents, John and Elizabeth, had been married about a year.
John got a job with Suffolk’s Trotman, Halliday & Studd, handling the business side of the brewery outfit. So by 1800 the couple and their baby had moved to a house next to St Peter’s Brewery in Dock Street, Ipswich.
Eliza’s father later became a junior partner, “but it is likely that he had to borrow heavily to do so. The new partnership of Studd, Halliday & Acton announced itself in The Ipswich Journal of 30 March 1811 . . .”
The same publication revealed in the spring of 1816 that the teenage Eliza (backed, it seems, by her family) and a Miss Nicholson were opening a boarding school for young ladies at Claydon, near Ipswich.
It closed in July, 1820, the year after Eliza and one or more of her sisters took a house at Great Bealings, near Woodbridge, to launch a similar school. It later moved into Woodbridge itself.
In October, 1826, Poems by Eliza Acton was published by Richard Deck of Ipswich, supported by subscribers willing to pay in advance for a copy. It was so successful that within a month Deck ordered a reprint.
The writer, says Sheila, displayed in some of her 61 poems a strong depth of feeling – “she must have evoked many of her readers’ deepest emotions as she describes both accurately and acutely the desperation and despair felt when a love affair ends, the deep depression which illness (or a broken heart) brings, and the longing for death that these states induce”.
Some of the poems were clearly for or about a never-named, supposedly French officer to whom she was said to have been engaged. Judging by L’Abandonn�e, it seems he “whisper’d in another’s ear” the words the author “lov’d to hear”, and broke her heart.
Sheila also talks about claims in the 1965 book First Catch Your Hare: A History of the Recipe Makers in which Mary Aylett, and Olive Ordish air claims that Eliza had a daughter in 1826 – a girl who was absorbed into the family as of one of Eliza’s sisters.
Using the various clues, the historian can find no evidence to support the claims of a baby.
There was genuine drama, though, for the young woman’s father. It was announced that the brewing partnership had been dissolved, and early in 1827 an advert heralded the sale of the Actons’ furniture.
In the November the London Gazette revealed bankruptcy proceedings against John Acton. Said to be living in exile in Calais, France, he was required to surrender himself to the Commissioners of Bankrupts on various dates and make full disclosure of his estate. He didn’t turn up.
In the May of 1828 a business partnership that had lasted less than 15 years came to an end in public fashion, with the stock of the late firm of Studd, Halliday & Acton advertised for sale. As well as wines, spirits, beer and equipment – including two dray horses – the brewery owned Ipswich inns such as The Golden Lion, The King’s Head and The Black Horse, and a small share in The Great White Horse. In Harwich it had The Swan and The Golden Lion.
Elizabeth Acton had family and friends in Kent, and rented a large house in Tonbridge – Bordyke House – where she took in high-class lodgers. Perhaps, muses Sheila, it was here that Eliza’s interest in cookery grew and new recipes were developed after she returned from a spell in France to join her mother and siblings.
John Acton, meanwhile, doesn’t ever seem to have appeared in Tonbridge; but he and his wife are recorded in lodgings in Grundisburgh, near Woodbridge, on the night of the 1841 census. He would die in Hastings – where he’d been born – in 1847, aged 71.
At some stage Eliza made an appointment to see Mr Longman, the publisher. “The apocryphal story relates that when she turned up with a folio of poems which she thought he might publish, he waved her proposal aside with the words ‘Don’t bring me poems, madam, bring me a cookery book!’
“No-one knows if this is what actually occurred, but Longman was responding, as publishers have always done, to what was considered to be the contemporary taste of the public,” says Sheila.
The rapid growth of the middle classes and their spending power had seen the opening of more shops selling foodstuffs. Exotic imported fruit and vegetables, spices and preserves, filled grocery shelves with unfamiliar foods. Help was needed to guide people through the maze.
Until then, most books had been produced by chefs who ran kitchens for wealthy households used to entertaining on a grand scale, explains Sheila. This bore no resemblance to the food eaten by those who did not live in big country estates.
According to Eliza, her Modern Cookery took a decade to produce. The first advert for it came in The Morning Chronicle in January, 1845. The book reduced cookery to “a system of easy practice for the use of private families”, with a series of recipes “all of which have been strictly tested, and are given with the most minute exactness”.
Sheila says: “It was this minute exactness which was to make Eliza’s receipts (an old word for recipes) stand out from all those which had preceded it, and so set the tone for all future cookery writers. It was she who, for the first time, gave a brief but exact summary of the ingredients used in a dish.”
Modern Cookery sold well, with the second edition also snapped up by American publishers. Eliza’s first payment of �67 11s 2d from Longmans was followed by greater annual sums for another couple of years – very impressive amounts for the time.
“Had Eliza had a daughter, I believe that she would either have acknowledged her as such at some point, or if she felt she could not go that far, then I am convinced she would have had her living openly with her as a niece or god-daughter, as Lady Hamilton did with Horatia Nelson,” writes Sheila.
Eliza carried out research for a book called Invalid Cookery, started in 1851, and revised Modern Cookery. “Then she became totally immersed in the research for The English Bread Book. This took over the next two years of her life . . .”
The cook’s priorities and preoccupations often came through in her writings. She set out, for instance, a healthy way of preparing the nourishment essential to staple daily fare. “She realised that ‘elegant superfluities or luxurious novelties’ would have looked more attractive in the book but would not have been as useful . . . Instead, she had used the space she might have allotted to such frivolous things to the more homely subject of how best to cook and serve vegetables, and for making good, unadulterated bread . . .”
The English Bread Book turned out to be “much darker in tone than her previous work” and a more scientific study. She criticised unscrupulous bakers who mixed alum with flour, argued for an overhaul of the trade to ensure loaves were pure, said children should be taught to make bread, and that women needed appliances in the home so they could do so.
Eliza’s success led to her style being copied, of course – an irritation that in 1855 prompted her to complain bitterly. Within a year or so, points out Sheila, Mrs Beeton had not only plundered her recipes – “a third of Eliza’s soups and a quarter of her fish dishes, for example” – but aped the innovation of listing the exact amounts of ingredients.
“Clever plagiarist that she was, she put the list first rather than at the end and thus for generations she received the credit for this most important part of every recipe.”
Sheila adds that “it is doubtful if, beyond the cookery training she received at school in Germany, she ever did a great deal of practical cooking” and did not test recipes for herself.
Samuel Beeton, a printer/publisher, had realised the potential riches to be made from Britain’s new literate class. “It was Beeton’s The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, started in 1852, that was to set the pattern for women’s magazines for many years to come and would be instrumental in turning his wife into ‘a cookery-writer extraordinaire’” – albeit that Mrs Beeton was in 1857 a young bride of 21 and not a middle-aged woman who had spent her life at the stove!
By the time The English Bread Book was completed early in 1857, there was strong evidence that Eliza had worn herself out, says her biographer. She died in February, 1859, at Hampstead in London. While the cause of death is recorded as “Premature old age”, Sheila speculates that this might be a euphemism for dementia.
Eliza was buried in the local churchyard. Her headstone inscription included the line “formerly of Ipswich . . .” Why, after so long away from the town? asks Sheila.
“Was it that Eliza herself retained much affection for the place and in her last days her memories of early years there had returned to give her comfort? Or was the family conscious that their father always liked to be referred to as ‘gentleman’ of that place?”
There wasn’t much money to leave. Eliza had four years earlier given up the rights of Modern Cookery to Longmans for �300 – not a fortune, “but to her it bought security, in the form of an annuity, allowing her to live a comfortable but hardly luxurious life”.
There wasn’t a will, either. “But Eliza Acton left a far greater legacy than she could ever have dreamed of. Her Modern Cookery was still being bought in large numbers” – and, says Sheila, “She had set the standard for good, common-sense cookery in the homes of Britain, the Commonwealth and the Americas.”
She adds: “Those female domestic servants trained in the principles of good cookery as laid down by Acton were to become the mothers of lower-middle and working-class families who knew the value of good, simple and nutritious meals. They were the women who were able to face the shortages of two world wars using knowledge and adaptability to keep their families fed healthily.”
Sheila tells ealife: “Incidentally, Tonbridge is honouring Eliza with a blue plaque on her home there. It would be nice to think that Ipswich might at least recognize her as one of their own.
“A lady asked me recently what I was writing about and, when I told her, said ‘Eliza who? Never heard of her.’ If I have managed to change that somewhat I shall be satisfied.”
Postscript: This week, Sheila heard the TV news item about cheap but nutritious breakfasts, which talked about Mrs Beeton’s interest in bread and making sandwiches. “Unfortunately I don’t text, so couldn’t send off a big correction that it was Eliza Acton who first drew attention to the dire state of English bread – another example of how Mrs B took Eliza’s work and has since been regarded as the innovator! My blood pressure rose, as you can imagine!”
* The Real Mrs Beeton: The Story of Eliza Acton is published by The History Press at about �16.