Friday, 7 September 2012

Stephen Hales's Syllabub Machine

Dr Stephen Hales FRS (1677-1761)
Many years ago while working on a paper on the subject of syllabub, I came across a reference to an ingenious invention by a certain Dr Hayles for making this frothy, uniquely English dairy dish. I found the citation in Old English Glasses by Albert Hartshorne, who quoted an obscure eighteenth century reference whose source I could not track down, 

“Dr. Hayles hath actually published what has been for some time talked of, a tube of tin with a box of the same at the lower end of it...that is full of small holes. This engine, with the help of a pair of bellows, blows up cream into syllabub with great expedition. This complex machine has already procured the doctor the blessing of the housekeeper in this palace, and of all such as she in the present generation (who know the time and labour required to whip this sort of geer), and will cause his memory to be held in reverence by all housekeepers in the generations that are yet to come.” A. Hartshorne, Old English Glasses, (London and New York: 1897), p. 307.

In my ignorance, I did not know who Dr Hayles was, so I did not have a clue where to look for his publication. I searched for some time in the British Library, the Public Record Office and other archives, but gave up when I got no results. It seemed to me that the doctor had not lived up to the promise of being 'held in reverence by all housekeepers in the generations that are yet to come.' He and his eccentric machine had been entirely forgotten. Despite this I was pretty keen to have a go at rescuing his syllabub engine from oblivion. The brief description quoted by Hartshorne was clear enough, so following the instructions I made the instrument below. It indeed proved to be an excellent and labour saving way of making syllabub and was tremendous fun to use, bringing a smile to the face of anyone who watched it in action. I even demonstrated it on a couple of television programmes, including an episode on eighteenth century food in my own series Hungry for the Past

Syllabub engine Mark I
After a few years it eventually dawned on me who the mysterious Dr. Hayles was. The problem all along had been with the spelling of his name - Hayles rather than Hales. If I had had the wit to work this out in the first place I would have realised that the gentleman in question was none other than the great eighteenth century clergyman botanist and inventor Stephen Hales, noted mainly for his early experiments on the respiration of plants. After searching through Hale's books I noticed that in one work on the distillation of seawater, there was an additional essay at the end entitled An Account of the good Effect of blowing Showers of Air up through MILK, thereby to cure the ill Taste which is occasioned by some Kinds of Food of Cows. (London: 1761).

Dr Hales was very fond of blowing bubbles. The main essay in his book was about blowing air through seawater as it was being distilled to make freshwater for seamen. He also argued that the process of blowing air through milk which had been tainted through cows eating wild garlic or turnips, would get rid of the strong unwanted flavours, especially if the milk was heated during the process. 

The final essay in this book is where Hales published his design for blowing air through milk

In the essay he illustrates the mechanism for blowing the air through the milk. When I saw his engraved plate (below), I realised that it fitted the description in Hartshorne's quotation exactly. However, syllabub does not even get a mention in Hale's essay. Now that I knew the machine was the invention of a Dr Hales rather than a Dr Hayles, I decided to track down Hartshorne's source and found it very quickly. In 1905, Hartshorne edited the letters of the Rev. Edmund Pyle, chaplain in ordinary to King George II between 1729-1763,  in a book called Memoirs of a Royal Chaplain. In it I found a letter which Pyle had written to his friend Samuel Kerrich, a Norfolk vicar. When I read the text of the letter, I realised that Hartshorne had abridged it in Old English Glasses, leaving out a critical passage which indicated that the perforated box was in fact round ('like a box for a Great Seal').

Originally designed for ridding tainted milk of the unpleasant flavours of wild garlic and turnips, Hales's  engine was used in the kitchens of Kensington Palace for making whipped syllabub. A pair of bellows was inserted into the tube at the top.
When I made my machine, I assumed that the box at the lower end of the syllabub engine was cuboid. Although my engine worked perfectly, blowing up ' cream into syllabub, with great exhibition' it looked pretty different to Hales's device for blowing air through tainted milk. Here is the full text of Pyle's letter,


Dear Sir,                                              "Novr 21 1758.

" I have a favour of yours to acknowledge. There is a great dearth of literary news. The only articles, of that sort, that I know of, are: That Dr. Hales hath actually published; what has been some time talked of; a tube of tin, with a box, of the same, at the lower end of it, (like a box for a Great Seal,) that is full of very small holes. This engine, with the help of a pair of bellows, blows up cream into syllabub, with great expedition. This complex machine has already procured the Dr. the blessing of the housekeeper of this palace, and of all such as she is, in the present generation, (who know the time & labour required to whip this sort of geer: and will cause his memory to be had in reverence, all housekeepers, in the generations that are yet for to come."

The mention by Pyle of 'the housekeeper of this palace' is very interesting. This was Kensington Palace where Pyle was chaplain. Hales too had strong royal connections. By the middle of the eighteenth century he had become a well known public figure. So much so that Prince Frederick of Wales, the heir to the throne, frequently drove from his palace at Kew to observe the doctor's curious experiments at his laboratory in Teddington. Frederick's wife Princess Augusta often accompanied him on these excursions and became very fond of Dr Hales. When Frederick died in 1751, Hales was appointed Clerk of the Closet to the Princess Dowager. In the summer he frequently visited the princess at Kew and advised her on her gardens and greenhouses. He also thought up amusements for the princess and her children, including the Prince of Wales, who would eventually become King George III. One of these diversions was making pictures out of rare dried sea mosses (species of seaweed with a feathery appearance) sent to Hales by a fellow botanist. One day, probably in 1758, at Leicester House, the princess's winter residence, he amused the royal children by making syllabub with an 'ingenious machine'. This was the year which Pyle wrote his letter referring to the published design. So it looks like the Doctor brought his invention to Leicester House just to give the children a good laugh. But it must have been spotted by the housekeeper of Kensington Palace who put it to serious use.

Frederick Prince of Wales with his sisters in front of Kew Palace by Philip Mercier 1733.

Frederick's wife Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha (1719-1772), oil on canvas by Charles Philips. In 1751 Dr Hales was appointed the princess's Clerk to the Closet.

The highly inventive Dr Hales was very fond of experimenting with air. He placed this windmill on the roof of Newgate prison to ventilate the airless cells below. It was a huge success. Hales's brother William had died of gaol fever in Newgate. He was also celebrated for designing ventilation systems for ships and advocated fumigating biscuit and other sea stores with sulphur dioxide to kill weevils and other insects. Another of Hale's remarkable inventions was a system of salting whole carcasses of meat by pumping saline solution through the animals' blood vessels. 
Kensington Palace where the royal housekeeper used Hales's syllabub engine.
Leicester House formerly on Leicester Square, the residence of Frederick Prince of Wales and Princess Augusta. It was here that Hales amused the royal children with his syllabub engine.
Now that I have found Hales's drawing, I am making a Mark II version of his syllabub engine which will be exactly like the original. Once it is completed I will post a video of it being used, which I hope you will find an amusing diversion. Despite the speed with which this device pumps up syllabub, it never seems to have caught on in England. However, at some time in the nineteenth century on the other side of the Atlantic in the Southern States, utensils which used a similar pumping action started to become popular for whipping up cream and syllabub. However, I suspect that these churns were invented without knowledge of Hales's device. Though strangely enough earlier in his career Hales was one of the original twenty-one trustees of Georgia in the early history of the colony. He also had strong connections with the Carolinas. And it was in the Southern States that these devices became popular. Coincidence? Almost certainly. 

A reproduction of  a nineteenth century American syllabub churn. Photo courtesy of John Chaney
Another view of the syllabub churn above. Photo courtesy of John Chaney
Tildens 1865 USA patent churn - with a turbine which whips up the cream when the cylinder is shaken
Whether making syllabub by milking a cow into a bowl, as in this romantic 19th century illustration, or by blowing air through the cream with an eccentric bellows operated engine, this bucolic activity seems to have entertained generations of children, including a few royal ones.
If you would like to know more about syllabub there are some other posts dealing with the subject on this blog -

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