The Family Friend or Housekeeper’s Instructor

By Loveday Herridge

In today’s Heritage Open Days blog, we introduce you to Priscilla Haslehurst of Sheffield.

Being a housekeeper in a respectable early nineteenth-century family was certainly not for the faint-hearted. You needed to know how to skin, gut, pluck and kill, to wrestle with a live 30 pound turtle, to thread larks onto a bird spit, to use pigs’ bladders like cling film. You needed strong arms and stamina, to carry large quantities of liquid for boiling, to beat ingredients together ‘for an hour or more’, to work for two days on a single dish. Your knowledge of roasting, boiling, pounding, cutting, frying, stewing, skimming, shredding, rubbing, broiling, fricasséeing, chopping, dressing, scoring, paring and straining must be confident. You needed to be familiar with the anatomy of animals and fish to prepare them for cooking, to have dramatic flair in creating eye-catching scenes for the table – a hen’s nest, a fish pond, Solomon’s Temple, the moon and stars, a floating island – artfully made from moulds with coloured blancmange and jelly, and you must have a deft hand to spin a silver or gold sugar web to cover sweetmeats. In the absence of refrigeration you must be willing to dry, bottle, pot, preserve and pickle, to make mushroom powder and preserved pineapples that would keep several years.

All these skills and more are utilised in a recipe book created by Sheffield’s Priscilla Haslehurst, copies of which can be found in Sheffield’s Central Library’s collections. Her first edition of The Family Friend or Housekeeper’s Instructor, containing a very complete collection of original and approved Receipts, in every branch of cookery, confectionary etc was published in 1802, and printed by James Montgomery, editor of the Sheffield Iris newspaper, and later poet, hymn writer and philanthropist. The second edition was also printed in 1802, this time by John Crome, radical printer, for whom a job like Ms Haslehurst’s might have financed some of his more revolutionary publications. (Crome would probably have been aware that he printed the book following a time of hunger in Sheffield; Sheffield’s first soup kitchens appeared in the severe winter of 1799-1800 after a disastrous harvest.) The book was successful and went into at least eight editions, and was sold in London as well as Sheffield and elsewhere. By the time of its 1814 edition the title of the book was The Family Friend and Young Woman’s Companion or Housekeeper’s Instructor, containing a very complete collection…etc, indicating who properly should be purchasing the book and occupying themselves with the recipes.

Haslehurst includes this paragraph in the introduction to her collection:

As the information contained in this little volume, is not carelessly copied from any similar work, but is really the fruit of twelve years of valuable experience, as housekeeper in very respectable families, and twenty years of diligent practice, as a confectioner and instructor of young persons in this necessary domestic knowledge in Sheffield, the author humbly hopes, by the accomplishment of her work, to deserve that patronage which has enabled her to lay it before the public, and which she gratefully acknowledges.

By ‘patronage’ Haslehurst means, I think, the subscriptions of the people listed at the end of the book. It was customary that the costs of publishing books were borne by friends of the author, or by people who wished to be seen as associated with the book. In this case there are 306 names listed, for the most part the wives, daughters and sisters of eminent Sheffield families, the wealthy industrialists and professional men who could provide elaborate feasts for their friends, families and colleagues. 

And what a surprising variety of different ingredients are used in the recipes in the book! Many varieties of fish, including anchovies, shellfish and lobster, in a town that is as far from the sea (though close to many rivers) as any in the country. There are many foods likely to have been brought to Yorkshire from milder counties in England (for example, soft fruit like Kentish cherries), as well as foods that are clearly imported – spices (such as cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, caraway seeds, saffron, mace and peppercorns), macaroni, Parmesan cheese, vermicelli, rice, ginger, Seville oranges, Jordan almonds, Malaga raisins, brandy, wine and lemons. The markets of Sheffield must have been lively and abundant places. Local butchers and dairies presumably produced the copious amounts of meat, butter and cream for Haslehurst’s kitchens. If the garden of the house where these recipes were utilised could not provide the required vegetables, individual local gardeners must have been ready to sell the elder buds, nasturtium buds, herbs, garlic, spinach, celery, carrots, walnuts, penny royal, leeks, raspberries, damsons, tansey, saffron, rosewater, berries, quinces, and so much more, that the recipes required.

Among the family recipes, which Haslehurst hopes will be ‘useful and agreeable, economical and elegant’, both familiar (Beef Steak Pie) and unfamiliar (Pickled Oysters, or Pigeons Compote), is the remarkable Portable Soup for Travellers, the precursor of packet soup and Oxo cubes, and surely one to try.

Take three large legs of veal, and one of beef, the lean part of half a ham, cut them in small pieces; put a quarter of a pound of butter at the bottom of a large cauldron, then lay in the meat and bones, with four ounces of anchovies, two ounces of mace; cut off the green leaves of five or six heads of celery, wash the heads quite clean, cut them small, put them in with three large carrots cut thin, cover the cauldron close and set it over moderate fire; when you find the gravy begins to draw, keep taking it up until you have got it all out; then put water in to cover the meat, set it on the fire again and let it boil slowly for four hours, strain it through a hair sieve into a clean pan and let it boil three parts away, then strain the gravy that you drew from the meat into the pan, let it boil gently and keep scumming the fat off very clean as it rises till it looks like thick glue; you must take great care when it is nearly enough that it does not burn; put in cayenne pepper to your taste, then pour it upon flat earthen dishes a quarter of an inch thick, and let it stand till the next day, and cut it with round tins a little larger than a crown piece, lay the cakes on dishes and set them in the sun to dry: this soup will answer best to be made in frosty weather; when the cakes are dry, put them in a tin box with writing paper, betwixt every cake and keep them in a dry place, this is a very useful soup to be kept in gentlemen’s families, for by pouring a pint of boiling water on one of the cakes, and a little salt, it will make a good basin of broth.  A little boiling water poured on it will make gravy for a turkey or fowls and the longer it is kept the better. N.B.  Remember to keep turning the cakes as they dry.

One thought on “The Family Friend or Housekeeper’s Instructor

  1. A fascinating read! I am full of admiration for those women, housewives and housekeepers who mastered all those skills. Also I was impressed for the recipe for the proto-Oxo cube( don’t think I’ll be trying it though)

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