The Country Housewife’s Family Companion (1750)

The Country Housewife’s Family Companion (1750)

ISBN-10 1-903018-00-5
ISBN-13 978-1-903018-00-2
Published May 2000
420 pages; 220×155 mm; hardback
Price £30

William Ellis

The Country Housewife’s Family Companion (1750)

It is with real pleasure I announce the publication of a facsimile (enlarged by 15% to promote legibility) of this wonderful book. William Ellis lived and farmed at Little Gaddesden in Hertfordshire, although he was originally a London brewer. (His only other book on domestic economy was indeed about brewing.) He wrote several books of husbandry – and was famous enough to be visited by the Swedish traveller Per Kalm, who was shocked to find that Hertfordshire menfolk looked after the cattle and the women did very little indeed except prepare food, ‘which they commonly do very well, though roast beef and puddings form nearly all an Englishman’s eatables’. Ellis wrote about the farm and how to make money from its produce or how to cook it. There is much about farming itself and plenty of medicine; there are long sections on brewing and distilling; there is more about bread and grain cookery than in any other English book of the period I know; there is an almost complete disregard of fancy cookery of French kickshaws to impress the neighbours. This book tells more of the actual product of English country kitchen, and more about regionality and local custom, than its contemporaries. He ‘invariably knew what he was talking about’ (Maclean).

(A superglossary is also available on this web site.)

Review by Jane Jakeman in The Times Literary Supplement (15/06/00)

Review by Elizabeth in Gastronomica (06/01)

Review by Lorna Scammell in The Agricultural History Review

William Ellis, the man and his work.

(The text of the pre-press introduction by Malcolm Thick to the Prospect Edition of William Ellis’s Country Housewifes Family Companion)

William Ellis was born in the 1680s. Little is known of his early life. He had sufficient schooling to write many books but the absence of classical allusions in his works suggests a basic education in a village school, or as an apprentice, rather than that of a gentleman. He was related to the Sherard brothers, both distinguished botanists. From stray comments in his books we learn that, prior to taking up farming, he was for a while an Exciseman. An uncle was a London brewer: Ellis was his executor and spent some time himself as a brewer in London. He may have been apprenticed to his uncle, carrying on the trade after he died.

Often called ‘William Ellis of Little Gaddesden’ because in his books he firmly associates himself with this Hertfordshire village, Ellis probably started farming there in 1717 and so had long experience of country living by the time the Country Housewife was written. Gaddesden parish was then about 30 miles from London, close enough to feel the pull of the London food markets. Situated ‘high up on a wooded spur of the Chilterns’, the parish was at the edge of a plateau falling away gradually to the South East with varying soils of clay, gravel and chalk, and little natural water. When the Country Housewife was written, all but 120 acres of cultivated land had been enclosed. At that time, Little Gaddesden had one long street of houses, most of them with vegetable or flower gardens. This pleasant rural scene was peopled by a fair number of poor landless labourers and itinerant beggars, whose plight enclosure had worsened, as well as farmers such as Ellis. Most of Ellis’ children had grown up and left the farm; in 1748 one son and a daughter lived with him. The farm had been purchased with his second wife’s money and he dissipated much of the rest of her money on ‘early experiments in husbandry’. She was ‘grieved so much’ over the losses that she ‘had not been able to recover herself’ despite his partial return to prosperity by the time the Country Housewife was published.

We are fortunate that the Swedish botanist, Pehr Kalm visited Little Gaddesden in 1748 specifically to meet Ellis, whose reputation as a writer had spread to Europe. He spent three weeks in the village and left an account of rural life there as well as much information about Ellis. Moreover, Ellis put a good deal about his life and work in his own books, the Country Housewife being a notable example.

What sort of man was Ellis? In 1748, in his sixties, he claimed to have been generally healthy all his life apart from occasional attacks of gout. Kalm thought him mercenary and secretive. Some of his neighbours regarded him as eccentric because of the time he spent writing and gullible for believing all the stories they told him. I think both Kalm and the neighbours witnessed Ellis’ talent as a journalist – he was ever willing to listen and he coaxed information from people, giving little in return so as not to disturb the flow. He was a good businessman, employing a number of ways of making money. He kept meticulous accounts and a detailed diary: on many occasions in the Country Housewife he tells us the precise date on which he sold some grain, visited an inn or killed a pig – Oh that his papers had survived! Ellis’ suspicions of rural shopkeepers, warnings against shady dealers generally and remarks on rural thieves portray him as somewhat cagey and cautious. He was however, an honest dealer himself, paying his day labourers in cash each night and settling other bills promptly.

William Ellis is chiefly remembered as a writer. With the re-issues, anonymous works, and other confusions of eighteenth century publishing it is difficult to be certain of his exact output but I believe he wrote eleven books.

Apart from the Country Housewife and a book on brewing, all were agricultural works, many dealing with the husbandry of his own area. Starting in 1731, he produced a stream of books until his death in 1759. An edited collection of his farming works was published in 1772. Ellis wrote the type of book needed at the time, ‘practical advice on routine operations and information on specific techniques or farm animals’. He was described as, ‘Probably the most widely read farming author in 1750’ and, although his posthumous reputation was for many years not high, he is now recognised as a knowledgeable writer on agricultural matters. He was keen to promote new farming methods but was careful to cost them so that farmers could assess their economic worth. Pehr Kalm said of him in 1748 (before he had met him) ‘Mr Ellis was a man who had a great reputation for his Practique… in Rural Economy, but still more for his many writings on the same Art, which latterly he published yearly’.

Ellis’ reputation as a writer suffered after his death because he wrote too much, too fast. His publisher demanded a steady stream of text and, when writing part-works such as the Modern Husbandman, he might have to supply up to 40,000 words a month. In effect, he was an agricultural journalist. When stuck for copy he improvised. In the Modern Husbandman for January 1744 for instance, correspondence between a gentleman and Ellis over the purchase of a plough is inserted verbatim, including a copy of the Bill of Exchange for £3 3s received in payment. A later critic condemned ‘all those random and ridiculous details which have so disgraced his page’.

Ellis also filled-out his text (the Country Housewife included) with anecdotes of country life – although these tales may have been of interest to his readers who could identify with the situations described, and they are certainly of interest to us. Later critics were unsympathetic. The anonymous editor of his works in 1772 made sure that ‘all his gypsies, wenches, thieves, rogues, &c., are discarded, and his old woman’s tales which filled a page but diminished its value, are thrown aside’.

Ellis the writer was not appreciated by his fellow villagers. One in 1748 told Pehr Kalm ‘that if Mr Ellis did not make more profit out of sitting and scribbling books, and selling the Manuscripts to the Publishers, than he realised from his farming, he would soon have to go and beg – for Mr Ellis mostly sits at home in his room and writes books, and goes sometimes a whole week without going out into his ploughed lands or meadows to look after the work, but mostly trusts his servants, and son who is still a Boy.’ Here was another reason for Ellis’ falling reputation – he wrote about farming but neglected his own farm. Kalm was shocked when, on arriving at Little Gaddesden, he went in search of Ellis in the fields and asked a farmer ‘Who is the owner of this field, which to a great extent stands under water, and is so ill cultivated?’ And ‘Who works on the enclosure away there where the moss has so excessively got the upper hand?’. The answer to both questions was ‘Mr Ellis’. Other gentlemen visited the farm and were similarly disappointed.

Ellis was, however much more than a prolific writer and indifferent farmer. The popularity of his early works caused gentlemen to write and ask advice, encouraged by the practical nature of his books. Ellis wrote back and also took to touring the country providing advice on the ground. He alludes at one point to his ‘four years travels through several Counties in England’ and his knowledge of farming, brewing and food in many parts of England and Wales bears witness to the extent of his travels and his journalistic zeal for gathering information.

The books and the travel publicised his other moneymaking activities. He was an agricultural seedsman, selling seeds of the improving grasses, fodder crops and new strains of grain he wrote about. Ellis relates an anecdote about a gentleman’s pig heard when he was ‘delivering to him some of my profitable Ladyfinger natural grass-seed, Tyne Grass-seed and Honeysuckle grass-seed’. Like other seedsmen of the time, he sold seeds with a page of ‘Directions for their Management’ thrust into each packet. He had a nursery of local varieties of apple, pear, cherry, damson and elder trees for sale; he delivered ornamental fowls – ‘Tame Pheasants, Guinea Hens, and Poland Dunghill Fowls’; he hawked a number of secret recipes, a new type of compound manure, a way to keep rats from granaries; and he sold a variety of new or improved agricultural implements. On pages 303 to 305 is a section headed ‘ADVERTISEMENT’ which is probably a copy of a handbill distributed by Ellis to help sell his wares.

The agricultural implements elicited a good deal of interest at the time but were later dismissed as failures . He did not use the implements he so vigorously advertised on his own farm, or even keep a full set for display (he told Kalm they would be stolen), having them made to order by local craftsmen. Indeed, Ellis used none of the improvements he advocated in print in his own farm. We can only speculate if his domestic economy was run in accordance with the Country Housewife. When the famous four-wheeled seed drill Ellis invented was demonstrated it worked so badly that Kalm remarked acidly ‘Had man for all time past not been able to sow in a better manner than was done here to-day, mankind would long before have died of hunger. But Ellis’ drill was the latest in a number of attempts in England since 1600 to mechanised seed-sowing and later inventors benefited from his and earlier work.

Ellis was, in short, an entrepreneur. Not content, or not cut out to be, an ordinary farmer, he turned a lively mind to many ways of making money. His businesslike manner affronted Kalm, a gentleman and scholar who did not regard knowledge as a marketable commodity. He was shocked when, on taking his leave in April 1748, Ellis gave him a list of secret recipes which he was prepared to divulge only for money and then tried to sell him a 14-day escorted tour of the south of England with instruction on ‘English Rural Economy’ in return for the keep of himself and his horse ‘with twelve to fourteen guineas into the bargain’.

The loss of reputation after his death recalls a similar fate which befell Richard Bradley and I feel that, at bottom, the same prejudices may have been responsible. Both men were working amongst gentlemen and writing books of interest to them but they were not themselves gentlemen, tainted by the need to make money from their ideas. Later readers did not make allowances for this when reading books hastily put together with the immediacy of journalism rather than careful scholarship.

The Country Housewife’s Family Companion.

This as not, primarily, a cookery book. It is a manual of country living, intended for the wives of husbandmen, yeomen and country gentlemen. The comprehensive title page lists the topics covered, summing up the scope of the book succinctly as ‘SUITABLE DIRECTIONS for whatever relates to the Management and good Oeconomy OF THE Domestick Concerns of a Country Life.’ Recipes and methods of cooking form a sizeable part only of a book which has a great deal to say on the management of farmyard animals (pigs and fowls), preserving both meat and vegetables, bread making, malting, brewing and strong liquors of various sorts, management of the dairy, medicines both for humans and animals, warnings about country thieves and dishonest traders, hints on running a frugal household, advertisements for other works penned by Ellis, and a fascinating collection of anecdotes which defy categorisation. Safe to say that nothing quite like it had been published in England before. Richard Bradley’s Country Housewife of a generation earlier is more narrowly concerned with food, cookery and preserving, without the broad sweep of topics covered by Ellis. One has to look much further back to find comparisons: Markham’s English Housewife of 1615 has the same comprehensive, feel, especially when read as part of his compendium, ‘The Way to Get Wealth’. His handsome 1616 edition of the Maison Rustique contains a good deal on country households but little cookery, whilst Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundred points of Good Husbandry of 1573 covers all aspects of country household management, albeit in much less depth than Ellis. Tusser went through many editions, including one in 1744 only a few years before Ellis’ book. If a sixteenth century work in doggerel had a ready market at that time, maybe Ellis (or, more likely, his publisher) saw a demand for a more up to date and detailed work.

The charm of The Country Housewife is that it has little organisation: Ellis frequently digresses in order to relate a choice anecdote or even, one suspects, just to fill out the work. The book’s idiosyncrasies are apparent from the start. The title page announces the start of The Country Housewife’s Family Companion, and the introduction echoes the title whereas the headings of the first and second parts and the Preface are to The Country Family’s Profitable Director.

The book is in two parts of roughly equal length although part one is not described as such. No evidence has been found that the parts were issued separately but the work does not read as if planned as one volume from the start. Some topics – meal, grain and bread making, the dairy, as well as a miscellany of recipes – occur in both parts. Others – poultry; harvest food and pork preservation; bacon and ham; preserving vegetables and fruit; veal production; pig keeping; cures for cows; brewing and malting – occur only once. The medicine and dairy sections are short and sketchy in the first part and much fuller in the second. The first part ends with a piece praising Scroop Egerton, late Duke of Bridgewater, and reads like a conclusion. I suspect Ellis was pressed by his publisher for a work on rural household management and he quickly gathered together the information to hand and produced the first part. The publisher (then as now, hard taskmasters) said the book was too slim and did not cover everything fully. Ellis did more research, pestered his maid, farm servants, neighbours, friends, visitors, correspondents and casual acquaintances for information, lifted more material from books and, pressed for a finished manuscript, he simply grafted the new material on to the existing text as a second part. The result, rushed and unpolished, is all the more interesting to the historian of rural life.

His publisher may have commissioned the frontispiece as an ironic comment on the book. Unlike other cookery books, here is no flattering portrait of the author, nor an immaculate kitchen with fashionable dressed servants, simply a tranquil farmyard scene. It echoes the frontispiece to Richard Bradley’s Country Housewife of 1736, but his scene is full of people engaged in country pursuits with a glimpse into a busy dairy whereas one person milks a cow at the front of Ellis’ book, in a farmyard flanked by slightly down-at heel buildings and a battered paling fence. The scene recalls Pehr Kalm’s impression of Ellis’ farm – rundown and not worthy of so important a writer.

Ellis as no cook. All his recipes came from others and he did not touch a pot or pan himself. He gained a good deal of culinary information close at home: his maid is frequently cited as a source for recipes and the poor girl must have been fed up with his questioning. Friends and neighbours provided most of his recipes; occasional help came from gentry households but he relied most heavily on the wives of husbandmen and yeomen, who, he also hoped, would be the bulk of his readership. Many recipes are introduced as ‘The Hertfordshire way…’ and this makes the book of interest to local historians. But Ellis also gathered recipes on his travels, asking for details of dishes he ate at inns. On 13th June 1749 ‘baiting at the Cat-Inn at East-Grinstead’ he watched the cook-maid make Sussex pond-pudding and noted the recipe. He obtained a good deal of information on the use of oatmeal from Cheshire and Lancashire visitors to fairs and markets and a scattering of Welsh recipes throughout the book were probably given to him by passing drovers or migrant workers, although a London correspondent passed on the Welsh way of preparing hogs puddings from his wife ‘being what she practised when she lived with her Aunt in Wales’. Letters containing recipes were sometimes inserted straight into the text – a worthy gentleman wrote from London about baked pears in 1735 and a grateful young man, whom Ellis recommended as bailiff to a Devon estate wrote from Plympton with a number of local recipes.

As was common amongst cookery writers at the time, Ellis took recipes from published sources. Many suspected ‘borrowings’ are unacknowledged but the characteristic opening word ‘Take’ which he does not use for recipes written in his own words indicate a printed source. Not that Ellis was bashful about plagiarism, he freely admits to copying from other books. His reading was, however, quite narrow and almost entirely of very old cookery books. He took recipes from works published in the first half of the seventeenth century in the main: Gervase Markham, John Murrell, William Rabisha, Kenelm Digby, although John Houghton from the 1690s was a source and the more recent Country Housewife of Richard Bradley was also mentioned. Either he looked at the old books because they had the traditional, country recipes he sought or, more likely, these were the works he found in a local gentleman’s library to which he had access (that of the Duke of Bridgewater perhaps?).

As to the recipes themselves, this is the best book in the period to look for plain country fare, the everyday food of labourers, husbandmen and yeomen. Although he had lived in London and must have made frequent journeys there on business, Ellis ignores all fashionable food. There are no ragouts or fricassees here, nothing a la creme, no bisques, not a salad, and butter the only sauce. Meat recipes are for plain roasted joints, roasted baked and fried offal, and cheaper cuts such as ox cheek. Many recipes are given for brawn and haslet. Meat could also be boiled, placed in pies or used to flavour puddings. Puddings, both savoury and sweet, abound . Ellis explained that ‘PUDDING is so necessary a Part of an Englishman’s FOOD, that it and Beef are accounted the Victuals they most love’. Black-, white- and hogs-puddings were by-products of killing a pig. Ellis was very fond of apple pies, accounting them ‘some of the cheapest and most agreeable Food a Farmer’s Family can make use of’ and filling two pages with a poem in their praise. Apple pasties could be pocketed and eaten by farmers and their servants in the fields. Ellis had his maid make apple pasties every week or ten days ‘from August to all the Time when my hoarded apples last’. Peas soup, broth, gruels, frumenty, porridge, possets and suchlike wet and stodgy foods reflect a diet which in some ways had changed little in centuries.

The common thread running through the recipes is economy. ‘Cheap’ is the word most frequently encountered in the recipe headings. The apple pies were, ‘a main part of a prudent, frugal Farmer’s Family-Food’; pancakes were ‘one of the cheapest and most serviceable Dishes of a Farmer’s Family in particular’; potatoes were of use ‘to save much Consumption of eggs, Meat, and Bread’. Frugal housewives were singled out for praise. Mindful that some of his readers were richer than others, some dishes have plain recipes for the poor and variants with added cream, meat, fruit or sugar for the gentry.

Over thirty pages are devoted to victualling harvest workers in Hertfordshire, an important part of a country housewife’s year. Bringing in the harvest was vital to the prosperity of corn growing counties like Hertfordshire and extra labour was employed for the period – at harvest time good workers found themselves, for a short period, much in demand. Ellis explained, ‘In this County we hire harvest-men long before Harvest, by Way of Security, that we may not be at a Loss for them when we most want them; and give each Man Thirty or Six and Thirty Shillings for his Month’s Service, besides victualling and lodging them in the House all that Time, for then they are ready early and late to do our Work’. In providing for these men ‘she that can do it cheapest, and most satisfactory, is the best Housewife’. Ellis advised laying in a good store of root and green vegetables, a stock of suet for puddings, and fattening up a beast to slaughter for meat; a broken mouthed ewe, a Welsh Runt, or a 20 to 30 stone hog. He favoured the hog and went into great detail on how to kill and preserve a hog in hot weather and the culinary uses of every part of the animal, as well as the art of making bacon and sausages.

The knack of harvest victualling was to have the men content with the variety, quality and amount of food, whilst not spending too lavishly and making sure that they worked hard. During the wheat harvest they worked from four in the morning until eight at night, eating five times a day and subsisting on a diet of apple pie, cheese, bread, milk-porridge, hashed meat, boiled meat with vegetables, plum pudding, and cake, washed down with small and strong beer. Dinner at one o’clock was taken in the fields and was not to be late lest the men left off work to wait for it. Strong ale and cheese in the early evening kept their spirits up and spiced loaf or seed-cake provided variety at supper.

Ellis begins both the first and second parts of his book with discussions of bread grains, meal and flour. He tackles the subject from the viewpoint of a farmer, with opening paragraphs on the main types of wheat sown in England. Although these sections contain a fair number of bread recipes from books, neighbours and his own household, here, as in other parts of the book, it is household economy that concerns him most. He discusses whether a farmer should use his own wheat for bread or, if it is top quality, sell it and buy in the grade of meal appropriate to his family circumstances. Mixtures of barley and wheat (maslin) and other grains and pulses in bread-making are considered, balancing economy and palatability. The example of the careful way a labourer’s wife made best use of a bushel of barley, or a yeoman’s household subsisted on barley-bread are calculated to encourage frugality. Ellis covers the storage of meal to prevent its decay or infestation, how to make and keep yeast, and how not to be cheated by millers. The first sections on bread touches on oatmeal and much more space is devoted to this food in the second part, including recipes from Cheshire and Lancashire. Ellis met men and women from Manchester at local fairs and was told that they lived largely on oatcakes. He also questioned Pehr Kalm on the diet of Scandinavians, learning that the ‘bread’ of Laplanders was dried fish, some Norwegians made bread from ground bark and Swedes made do with flour of ground buck-bean and marsh-trefoil root.

Apart from potatoes and dried peas, Ellis does not bother much with recipes for vegetables, contenting himself with describing ways of preserving roots, greens such as cabbages and beans, onions and garlic. Peas soup, porridge or pudding he regarded as cheap and filling meals and potatoes were also recommended as meat substitutes. They were becoming more popular in Southern England at this time: in the North they were already a staple and Ellis remarks that ‘At Manchester, a great Market in Lancashire, Potatoes stand in many Sacks as well as Oatemeal for publick Sale’. Advice is also provided on preserving a wide variety of fruit and producing syrups from fruit juices. Although Ellis is addressing a country audience, not bothering with the delicate vegetables produced for London tables, he brings out the importance of preserving fruit and vegetables in season, to provide variety throughout the year.

The dairy was, from earliest times, the domain of the farmer’s wife, deriving its name from the Middle English ‘dey’, a serving maid, and ‘erie’, her place of work. After an unsatisfactory attempt to cover the topic in part one, Ellis does give a full description of dairying in the second part of the book. But there is more here than dairying, he has much to say on improved grasses and fodder crops for cattle, including an advertisement for his own seed business. We learn about specialities in other many parts of the country: correspondents write about Devonshire clotted cream and a dairymaid reveals Somerset dairying methods. Welsh butter producers coloured their butter with marigold flowers to make it a pleasing yellow colour. Cheese making in Somerset, Cheshire, Wales, Gloucestershire and Shropshire are described, largely thanks to talkative dairymaids and Ellis also mentions a mixed ewes milk and cows milk cheese made in the Vale of Glamorgan. Cheese, durable and portable, was a major item of commerce for many areas. Butter too was a valuable commodity. Dairies near London sold it fresh but those further afield salted it in pots or barrels for sale and country people did the same with butter for use at home. Ellis met a grazier from Towcester on the road who told him he sold butter to London the year round.

The section on veal calf production was included as this part of a farm was supervised by the farmer’s wife. It was a by-product of dairying which, Ellis claimed, might be at some times more profitable than butter or cheese. He sold his calves at Leighton market to specialist calf-rearers who prepared them for the London markets (the pull of London’s demand is evident here as in many aspects of Hertfordshire husbandry). The descriptions of cramming calves for market and bleeding them to produce the white flesh demanded by London customers are not pleasant reading but they do further remind us that, by the mid-eighteenth century, many farmers near the capital tailored their production to the whims of consumers and thereby made a good living.

Ellis gives advice on other ‘farmyard’ activities such as pig keeping, poultry, and eggs which had traditionally been tasks for the country housewife to perform, producing food for the family, or at most pin money for wives and daughters. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, such was the demand from London for eggs, fowls, milk and cheese, as well the butter and veal mentioned above, that these by-occupations had economic importance, especially in counties like Hertfordshire near to the capital. Ellis notes that Hertfordshire ‘Dunghill Fowls’ and their eggs were highly esteemed in London ‘insomuch that the very cryers of eggs about London Streets take particular care to make the Word Hertfordshire be well known’. The money to be made from poultry was recognised by Hertfordshire farmers, who let their wives have all the profit, but only to buy ‘what we call common or trivial Necessaries in the House, as Sugar, Plumbs, Spices, Salt, Oatmeal &c. &c.’. These ‘trivial’ items form part of many of Ellis’ recipes and were luxuries which lifted an otherwise monotonous diet. Ellis recognised that some poultry keeping had become big business, no longer the province of wives. Turkeys and geese were kept in large flocks in East Anglia, great droves being driven to London for sale to poulterers.

Brewing was another occupation once largely the preserve of the housewife but increasingly becoming a business controlled by men. In London the alewives had given way to big brewers: in 1750 Sir William Calvert’s brewery produced 56,000 barrels a year and Truman’s sold 46,000 barrels. In the country however, a large number of alehouses still brewed their own beer and nationally 60 per cent of beer was still brewed at home in the 1750s. Ellis devotes only a few pages to brewing in the Country Housewife, readers wanting more probably picked up the advertisements in the text for his book on the subject.

Ellis had no medical training that we know of but as head of a rural household he had to have some knowledge of medicine to keep himself and family well, and he draws on this knowledge to provide many of the prescriptions in the book, sometimes telling us of specific ills he has cured. The medical sections of the book provide an insight into the social history of medicine in eighteenth century Hertfordshire and remind us that life was hard at a time when so many ailments were likely to lead to death.

In his usual disordered fashion, Ellis imposed no system on the sections on medicine. In the first part a passage headed ‘Of Cheap, Approved, and Experienced MEDICINES and REMEDIES for Divers DISEASES incident to Human Bodies’ gives out after 17 pages with some sensational tales of poisoning. The more modest heading ‘Diseases and Medicines’ in part two opens a more substantial section of over 50 pages. One has the impression that here, as with other parts of the book, Ellis knew he had to cover this topic but he made a start with little research and had to come back to it . (The first medical section is largely composed of letters to Ellis from various gentlemen with advice and prescriptions). In the end however, he covered much ground, giving advice on the most troublesome diseases of his time, notably ague, consumption, diabetes, scurvy, smallpox, gout, dropsy, jaundice, King’s evil, measles, palsey, rheumatism, digestive disorders, swellings and skin diseases. Sprains, cuts and wounds, hazards of hard labour and crude tools are dealt with, as well as ailments of damp, cold, dirty living with a poor diet: lice, worms and other parasites, sore eyes, sore throats, coughs, indigestion, cramp, chilblains, chaps, toothache and general aches and pains.

Ellis obtained his cures from many sources. He looked for some of his medicines in books. He made however, only about 20 references to books and those he identified were contemporary, unlike the cookery books he used. Several times he referred to ‘Dr Quincy’, consulting his Pharmacopoeia officinalis of 1749.

He also used Thomas Dover’s The ancient physicians legacy of 1733 and publications of the celebrated Low Countries physician Herman Boerhaave. As might be expected, the prescriptions from these sources usually meant a trip to the apothecary for mercury, sulphur, turpentine, ‘bark’ (quinine) and the like.

Most of Ellis’ medical advice came from his friends and acquaintances. Margaret Pelling has shown that medicine was of concern to all classes in Early Modern England and that, especially in towns, recipes for cures circulated freely, often across class boundaries. There were many more men and women engaged full- or part-time in medicine than the university educated doctors or formally apprenticed apothecaries, a situation reflected in Ellis’ book.

About 40 of his cures were provided by the gentry, a reflection of Ellis’ contact with gentlemen in the course of his business: for example a cure for consumption provided by a Derbyshire gentleman. The ‘Gentleman Traveller’ who regulated his system with Flower of Brimstone was probably encountered in a London coffee shop or booksellers. Most medical advice from the gentry was obtained locally: a local gentlemen had a cure for gout, (an affliction of the affluent), whilst a lucky man treated for the Gravel ‘by a Lord in Hertfordshire with a seven-year old Bottle of Perry, voided almost a Handfull of small stones’.

The diseases on which the gentry advised: colic, gout, indigestion and loss of appetite, piles and pimples, reflected no doubt the problems which particularly concerned them but they were by no means indifferent to the illnesses of the poor. Ellis extolled ‘The Character of a Lord’s great and unparallel’d Charity’. This local magnate, possibly the late Duke of Bridgewater, ‘although he was not bred a Physician, extends his Charity in a very uncommon Manner; for he not only visits the Sick in the most contagious Illness, but supplies them with Medicines at his own Cost’.

Some remedies originated from local medical professionals. Doctors like Dr Woodhouse, or Mr Goodwyn, a ‘Country Apothecary’, both of Berkhamstead, performed cures about which Ellis got to hear. Such lofty professionals were, as Margaret Pelling found, often willing to help the poor for little or nothing. Ellis told of a ‘poor Widow and Chair-woman’ living near him who ‘applying herself to a Physician, he out of charity bid her stamp the Leaves of Plantane and Nettles together, and take a Tea-cup of their Juice’ to stop her spitting blood. One wonders if this was a country remedy suitable to her means whereas a higher-class patient would have been provided with something made up by an apothecary. In another instance a girl in Little Gaddesden whose arm would not stop bleeding from a wound ‘cried mightily as she stood at the Door of her Mother’s House’ until ‘a Hempstead Surgeon, coming accidently by’ advised applying hogs dung to the wound. Ellis is ambivalent about doctors, giving them credit for successful cures but finding other cases where their treatment did not work, or they despaired of a cure and effective treatment was eventually provided by a neighbour or ‘Country Housewife’.

Many of the prescriptions in the book originated from ‘Country housewives’ by which Ellis meant women skilled in medicine. They had cures for both minor and serious illnesses, predominantly using herbs, vegetables and other homely ingredients – butter, treacle, honey, beer or pepper. Whilst some may have been no more then neighbours handing on the wisdom they themselves had been taught, some were called ‘Doctresses’ by Ellis and clearly were highly regarded locally. Not all unlicensed local practitioners were women, Ellis heard of a cure for the itch provided an Exciseman of Ivinghoe ‘who also acted as a Surgeon’. One enterprising yeoman’s wife, Mrs Sibley of Water-End, produced a herbal tonic said to cure a range of diseases, sold at 18d a quart and Ellis was a sales-agent for a friend ‘a most ingenious Chymist’ who produced a healing balsam at one shilling a sealed bottle. Ellis may have obtained one of his favourite prescriptions, a fearsome concoction of water and mercury, from this same friend.

Beggars were surprisingly skilled at medicine and Ellis talked to a number of them about remedies for the diseases to which they were prone – lice, skin diseases such as the itch, and rheumatism. A case of ‘Scald-Head’ which defeated a local physician was cured by a passing Beggar Woman, as was a young man crippled with rheumatism. The recurrence of medical advice offered by passing beggars leads one to speculate that they may have made a living from it.

The medicines suggested by Ellis are, as one would expect, predominantly either herbal or composed of ingredients available in a farm kitchen. Camomile, elder, rue, lavender, nettles, chickweed and sweet cicely from garden and hedgerow; mutton fat, honey, butter, vinegar, milk, eggs, ashes, hogs dung and the like; as well as groceries obtainable locally: tobacco, sugar, strong spirits, figs, prunes or pepper. Relatively few cures needed recourse to an apothecary for drugs or chemicals. Whilst there is often a touching faith in the power of homely ingredients to tackle serious illnesses such as consumption or diabetes, very few instances of magic or sympathetic medicine are included in the book.


For many readers the attraction of this book will not be the culinary or social history found therein but the many eccentricities it contains. The frequent advertisements for Ellis’ other books, his implements, seeds, and other merchandise; his warnings about thieves and rural shopkeepers; the obituary of his late landlord; a digression on the food of Scandinavians; letters from friends and acquaintances; the tales and anecdotes of rural life with which this and his other books were filled and which so exasperated a later editor; and details of his own household. Ellis was discursive but never dull.

Malcolm Thick, Harwell, January 2000.

Review by Jane Jakeman in The Times Literary Supplement (15 Jun 2000)

The eighteenth century was an era of stern domestic moralizing. There was a proliferation of manuals aimed at newly literate social groups, particularly servants and women of all classes. Recipe books began to change character accordingly. The cheerful spectacle of upper-class wastrels having fun which had been implicit in The Accomplish’t Cook, the seventeenth-century work by Robert May, for example, where court feasts featured pastry stags with claret running from their arrow wounds, or live frogs in a mock pie, which “makes the ladies to skip and shriek”, gave way to prosaic recipes for broths and puddings. Some works were by chefs such as John Farley, head cook at a London tavern, adapting their repertoires for small kitchens; many, such as the famous compilation of Hannah Glasse, were expanded to include recommendations for preserving, dairying and “domestic œconomy”.

Most assumed a metropolitan readership. William Ellis’s The Country Housewife’s Family Companion is not really a recipe book, but advice for small farmers and rural housewives assembled by an eighteenth-century Hertfordshire agriculturalist with an endearing compulsion to write down every detail of daily life. The book – which in this edition is provided with an efficient introduction and glossary – belongs to some extent with the agricultural manuals that were a feature of the age, but assumes a poorer level of society than the squirearchy, much of it being aimed at villagers. Take the matter of small cakes normally made with butter and eggs. “Our way is to make use of no butter”, says Ellis, “neither do we use any eggs … we think them a cheap and pleasant food to our workmen.”

Sometimes this virtuous rural economizing descends from comedy to horror. “A poor woman that lived a mile from my house, in time of famine having no victuals, made her eldest daughter follow the man that shovel’d away the snow in a sort of path for the sheep to come at turneps; here she pull’d some up and boiled them to a mash … and it sustained them much.”

Ellis’s habit of directly transcribing instructions and anecdotes gives the book something of the bustling journalistic style of Defoe. The animal husbandry is especially lively: “A Sow poison’d by drinking Broth”, or the account of a sick cow cured: “By giving her a penny-worth of pepper in half a pint of gin, the cow immediately discharged abundance of wind.” There is a section on thefts and robberies and how to prevent them, vigorously peopled by bakers who adulterate their flour with alum, threshers stealing corn and the villainous servant who makes a duplicate key to the wine-cellar.

Particularly dramatic are the medical notes, which include treatment by “doctoresses” as Ellis terms them. “Madam Howard’s Diet Drink” for scurvy would certainly have been successful, since it contained Seville oranges. And the Hertfordshire woman whose notion was that “disease cannot so well be drove out, if they take the strength of the blood away” is sadly displaced by “the notions and practice of the famous Dr. Boerhaave and Dr. Dover, who are recorded for bleeding plentifully in all fevers“. What Ellis records is a sub-culture of old country remedies clinging stubbornly on, as a more formal and official “educated“ medicine killed off those who could afford it. (One should perhaps not romanticize the “doctoresses” too much: curing jaundice by drinking live lice in ale cannot have done much for the jaundice, though at least it presumably reduced the lice-count.)

Ellis himself was not particularly successful. He invented some agricultural machines, but did not use them on his own farm. His four wheel seed-drill worked hopelessly badly. One of his neighbours told a visitor, “Mr. Ellis mostly sits at home in his room and writes books, and goes sometimes a whole week without going into his ploughed lands or meadows to look after the work.”

What was William Ellis doing sitting inside all day? Writing this book and drinking coffee, presumably. His classic instructions for making coffee cannot be bettered, and are still the o altitudine of the caffeine devotee: simply pour boiling water over the freshly ground beans, allow the coffee to stand for a few minutes and then decant the liquid off. “If you boil coffee, as the common way is, the spirit goes away, so that it will not be so strong nor quick to the taste; for obtaining the spirit is the main thing to be desired.” Exactly so.

Review by Elizabeth in Gastronomica (Jun 2001)

William Ellis’s “manual of country living,” as Malcolm Thick calls this book in his informative introduction, is a guide to domestic economy in an English village in the mid-eighteenth century. Where Hannah Glasse wrote her cookbook, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747), for gentlewomen and their servants, often living in town, Ellis’s directory is for life on the farm at virtually the same time. For the twentieth-century reader, it is a window into a community of gentry, yeomen, farmers, and laborers dependent on each other for their daily bread. Ellis, an unabashed John Bull, cares not for the fricassees of fashionable life, but for putting food on the table and in the belly.

At this period, the English countryside was undergoing profound changes as the progressive enclosure of fields and pastureland, by fences and hedgerows, kept poorer people from reaping its bounty, literally. Ellis begins with a detailed discussion of grain grown in his region – wheat, barley, and oats – and how to grind and store it profitably. He does not disguise his aim of wanting to stretch food as far as possible, telling where one can and cannot cut corners, not so much in preparation but in ingredients. Servants, neighbors, acquaintances, passersby, correspondents, authors, people he happened to meet here or there have given him their methods and recipes for making bread and pastry dishes that he presents to the reader. He conveys his curiosity about them and, unlike Mrs. Glasse, gives them credit in his discursive prose.

Ellis lived in the small village of Little Gaddesden, in Hertfordshire, about thirty miles northwest of London, in the Chiltern Hills. He describes the region as “abounding with many hills, dry soils, gravelly rivers, plenty of most sorts of grain, and allow’d by professors of physick to be the healthiest air in England…” The London market was close enough for his poultry and eggs, and he was proud that street criers distinguished them as “Hertfordshire” eggs and fowl. Butter, if kept sweet and fresh, could fetch good prices in London, too, and Ellis gives precise directions to the housewife on how to guide her dairymaid to realize this potential. On the working farm, anything associated with the dairy – milk, butter, cheese, eggs, veal calves – was the domain of the farmer’s wife, and so she could keep profits from their sale for sugar, spices, and other staples to enliven a hearty but often stodgy diet.

The seasonal rhythms tell us much about farming life. In the month-long autumn wheat harvest (the Lenten harvest was shorter), Ellis’s laborers worked from four in the morning to eight at night, for thirty or thirty-six shillings. They stayed in his house, where they were less apt to waste time. To get the best workers during this intense period, he hired them well ahead. Ellis gives details of the five separate meals, served punctually, and the quart of beer ration that he gave them over the course of their workday. Their victuals consisted of “beef, bacon or pickled pork, beans, pease, pudding, pyes, pasties, cheese, milk, with other culinary preparations,” and plenty of vegetables, he writes. The farmer’s wife known for providing such food got the best hands. “Our housewife’s art lies in furnishing variety of eatables, and yet to do it in the most frugal manner. And that it may be so done not only in harvest-time, but also at all other times throughout the year, is the main design of my writing this treatise of the Country Housewife.“

Besides the harvestman’s piece of bacon or salt-pork, “which proves a good friend to his pocket,” cheese was especially important during harvest as quick, portable, and nourishing. The second half of the book, on similar topics but with new content, gives methods of making traditional hard English cheeses such as Leicestershire, Cheshire, and Gloucestershire, told to Ellis by dairymaids from those counties. Among fresh cream cheeses, he mentions a Welsh cheese from the Vale of Glamorgan, made from the rich milk of Brecknockshire sheeps’ milk mixed with cows’ milk that sounds tantalizing – yet another cheese of that great tradition now lost to us.

Farmyard animals take up a large part of the book – not so much the roast beef of Old England, as porkers, bacon hogs, and swine used in every way imaginable. He tells how to butcher, salt, and process the meat to preserve it for bacon, pickled pork, and ham. Directions for sausages, brawn, haslet, chitterlins, meat pies, and countless puddings are given. Many, especially in northern England, he says, eat pork as almost the sole meat, along with a regular complement of boiled puddings and baked pies. He also discusses fruits and vegetables, including the recently established potato, which he values for being cheap, nourishing, filling, and versatile. Mrs. Glasse includes a single potato recipe.

To a modern reader, Ellis’s practical, no-nonsense style can clarify mysteries of the farmyard and shake some of our modern assumptions. On bacon, for instance, that “we can not have too fat nor too large a flitch,” he reminds us of a world where neighbors often went hungry, thus fat was desirable. Apart from his medicinal recipes for animals and people, Ellis shrewdly observes that smoked meat can be unwholesome, that whole-wheat bread is healthier, that potatoes are better with skins removed after boiling, and that apples ward off scurvy. In one small aside, he remarks that swine fattened on butchers’ offal is bad practice – advice that British farmers today wish they had heeded.

In this microcosm of Little Gaddesden, Ellis cannot resist including neighborhood gossip, cautionary tales, warnings about adulterated food, advertisements for his seeds or tools, testimonials from various individuals, or experience from a lifetime of his own farming. He writes with exuberance yet not a trace of wishful thinking. In this handsome volume with its helpful glossary, Prospect Books gives us the sights and smells, tastes and textures of everyday life in the eighteenth-century English countryside.

Review by Lorna Scammell in The Agricultural History Review

This facsimile of a book published in 1750 has an informative introduction by historian Malcolm Thick (the introduction is available on-line on the publisher's web site at, a site which also has other interesting material.) It is one of several facsimile editions of texts likely to be of interest to historians of agriculture, social life and food. As the introduction to the book points out, Ellis wrote in a rather breathless style, but as it is based on the personal experience of the author as a farmer and trader over fifty years, it has a certain authority in spite of (or even because of) the style. Read this book, or at least browse in it, for explicit detail about eighteenth-century trade, agriculture and social life. However, there are valuable insights here into social position, food, work and consumption, and the book is as valuable for these as for the explicit detail.

There is a great deal about social position; sometimes this is explicit because Ellis carefully specifies whether he is addressing gentlemen, yeomen, farmers, labourers or servants. Sometimes it is implicit, such as in the commentary on many of the recipes. Writing about staple foods (bread, pies, fruit, meat, cheese and so on) is aimed at the whole of the population from gentlemen to labourers’ wives. The different social groups are presented as eating the same kinds of dishes but a food hierarchy emerges from his comments. The better-off will be able to add to the basics (like puddings, pottage and so on) such extras as cream, eggs, dried fruit, spices, herbs and pepper. Apple puddings are regarded as an excellent staple food for farmers and labourers, but puddings with other fruit and spices (like gooseberries or plums) are appropriate for the better-off. He approves of oatmeal, which is portrayed as preserving ‘the lives of millions of people in sound health’. And he approves of milk porridge which ‘is much in use from the lord to the peasant’. On the other hand, he does not approve of the poorer sort substituting a ‘tea breakfast’ for porridge because this is both too expensive and ‘unwholesome’. He does, however, expect the likes of gentlemen and yeomen to have a ‘tea breakfast’ and recommends some breads and other food for this. Yet this is not just a conventional view of social distinction, with one sort of food appropriate for the rich and another for the poor. It is firmly rooted in a humane concern for the well-being of all levels of society, and especially those who have to do heavy manual work. There is the implication that, although there was a potential for everyone to have enough to eat, the household had to be properly managed and that farmers and labourers needed to be careful to get as much out of their food as possible, making small amounts of meat go a long way with vegetables and especially potatoes for example.

There are valuable descriptions of the use of various utensils in the kitchen and dairy but attitudes to consumption in general are implied. Ellis warns against buying staple foods in shops because he thinks these items over-priced. So it is better to keep pigs than buy bacon from a butcher; better to bake your own bread than buy from a baker. He also warns that you should not give your children or servants the opportunity of being corrupted by buying in a shop where there might be gossip.

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