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 -

Tuesday 4 September 2012

A Forked Stick for the Cookold

'A bean for the kinge, a pease for the queen, a cloave for the knave, a forked stick for the cookold and a ragg for the slutt. ' All these objects were concealed in the twelfth cake which Henry Teonge ate on board HMS Assistance in 1675

In our last posting, we mentioned how a threepenny bit coin was included in the Empire Christmas Pudding recipe of 1926 'for luck'. The practice of concealing small objects in food as good luck charms, or for divination purposes, seems to be both ancient and international. In Scotland there was a tradition of hiding a glass ring in a bride pie - whoever got the ring in their portion would sure to be the next one to get married. And there was a very similar custom here in England where a ring would be tossed into a bridal posset. Sometimes gifts or messages were secreted in sugar walnut shells or sugar eggs. The Georgian confectioner Giuliamo Jarrin tells us how to make perfectly seamless hollow sugar eggs in a balancing pan. Hidden inside these 'egg comfits' were all sorts of goodies. Jarrin tells us that,
‘In Paris they put in a number of nicknacks, little almanacks, smelling bottles with essences, and even things of value, for presents.’

From very early times both a bean and a pea were concealed in cakes consumed during revels and celebrations on the feast of the Epiphany, a custom that was practiced in a number of European countries. Whosoever got the bean in their slice became the king of the revels and the pea signified his queen. The most celebrated of these cakes is the gallete des rois, which still survives in France and its former colonies. In nineteenth century France, beans (feves) made out of ceramic started to replace the real ones and a whole host of other small objects were made by the potteries for galletes des rois. There were white rabbits, four leafed clovers, kings, queens, infants, doves and a whole host of other objects, though these novelties continued to be called feves.

Two nineteenth ceramic French feves designed for hiding in galletes des rois - in this case the feves really are beans.
A small collection of nineteenth century French feves for galletes des rois. These now then to be made from plastic.
Two feves in the form of tiny bone playing cards for putting into galletes des rois (early twentieth century). These are French, but sets of cards illustrated with various characters, including a king and queen became very important in the English twelfth-day celebrations from the end of the eighteenth century into the early Victorian period. Though these were not put in the cakes of that period, but blindly picked from the pack by the Twelfth-nighters to indicate the role they had to play for the night.
In England the practice was already ancient when Robert Herrick wrote the following lines in the seventeenth century,

Now, now the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where bean's the king of the sport here;
Beside, we must know
The pea also
Must revel as queen in the court here.

Begin then to choose,
This night, as ye use,
Who shall for the present delight here;
Be a king by the lot,
And who shall not
Be Twelve-day queen for the night here!

From Twelfth Night; Or, King And Queen

HMS Assistance, the ship on which Henry Teonge and his fellow crew members celebrated Twelfth-day in 1676 with a 'great kake".
About a year after Herrick's death in 1674, a naval chaplain called Henry Teonge celebrated both Christmas and Twelfth Day on board a ship in the Eastern Mediterranean in stormy weather. In his diary he describes the twelfth cake made by the ship's cook, 

From The Diary of Henry Teonge. London: 1825
Though very brief, this is is one of the most detailed descriptions from the early modern period of the English version of the custom. Teonge's vivid account paints a marvellous picture of the hilarity of the occasion. My 'great kake' for Twelfth day this year will definitely have in it  'a bean for the kinge, a pease for the queen, a cloave for the knave, a forked stick for the cookold and a ragg for the slutt.' We will make it on my Taste of Christmas Past Cookery Course on November  24-25. I still have a few places left, so if you would like to join the fun please get in touch.

In the first half of the twentieth century manufactured silver charms for concealing in Christmas Puddings became popular, though the most commonly used item was a silver threepenny bit. These are the direct descendants of the bean, pea and other items originally hidden in twelfth cakes
In early modern period England twelfth cakes were also known as wassail cakes. In 1686, in his notes on customs and superstitions Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme, the antiquarian John Aubrey tells us that at,

'Twelve-tyde at night they use in the Countrey to wassaile their Oxen and to have Wassaile-Cakes made.'

Instructions for preparing a Twelfth-day revel, including how to lay out wassail cakes, is given in a remarkable early Tudor manuscript in the Bodleian Library known as 'The Second Northumberland Household Book (Bod]. MS Eng. hist. b. 233. This set of household ordinances was compiled for Henry Algernon Percy, fifth earl of Northumberland (1478-1527) and was compiled between 1519 and 1527. Here is the section of the text that deals with the highly ritualised delivery of wassail cakes to the hall for the earl's table. I have left the English in its original form,

The pauntry to be brought in for the lorde ande the laidy as hereaftir followith with two yomen of the Chaumbre suche as the gentillmen vsshers shall appoint  Furst the yoman of the pauntry to bring in for the lord the Salt the kerving kniffes bread ande trenchers and aftir him a groim with a towell vpon his shulder bering the vassall caike and an outher to be appointed as yoman to bring in for the laidy with an outhir to follow him as groim with A towell vppon hs shulder bering the wassaill caike inlikefourme as the outhir did with two gentillmen vsshers befoir theim and two Marshalles befoir theim and a yoman vsher befoir theim and aftir the said pauntlers haue set the Saltes vppon the bourde and breade and takyn of the groim the wassaill caik and set it down Than the gentillmen vsshers and Marshallis with the yomen vsher to maik their obeisaunce and departe The said yomen pauntelers to stand still vnto the say be deliuerd theim by the kervers when they be comyn and haith takyn the sayes and so the pauntelers to departe when that is doon. 

From The Second Northumberland Household Book (Bod]. MS Eng. hist. b. 233.) 274-288

Wressle Castle in Yorkshire, where Henry Algernon Percy held his twelfth day revels in the early sixteenth century. The wassail cakes would have been baked in the castle bakehouse.
Twelfth night revels at this period, like those given by the Earl of Northumberland in his castle at Wressle, featured an entertainment known as a 'disguising', where the participants dressed up as characters. This tradition continued well into the first half of the nineteenth century, when twelfth-night partygoers would choose cards illustrated with the characters they were required to take on, rather than hunt for a bean, pea or forked stick in their portion of cake. In the later nineteenth century, the twelfth cake went out of fashion and similar novelty items started to find their way into the Christmas pudding.

A much romanticised Victorian depiction of a Twelfth-night revel