This months blog was kindly written by Nicola Walker & Lynda Higgs.
Nicola Walker Jakubowski, AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award student. Nicola’s PhD project is in collaboration with Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council and is entitled ‘Industrializing Communities: A Case Study of Cannon Hall’.
Lynda Higgs BA Hons, is an active member of the Friends Of Cannon Hall group.
Like many eighteenth century elite the Spencer Stanhope’s knew how to throw a party. They were connoisseurs of fine dining and social gatherings, Georgian style. Domestic sociability was paramount in eighteenth century polite society and as such it was typical to find friends, local office holders and men of note around the dinner table at Cannon Hall. Much like today the enjoyment and sharing of food was an integral aspect of polite society and ‘satisfying hearty appetites was the soul of hospitality’. The letters and diaries of the Spencer Stanhope family are littered with references to the giving and receiving of gifts of venison, oysters and other luxury foods which were offered as means of gratitude or apology. During the London season John Spencer (1719-1775) would often send gifts of meat to his friends at The Mitre tavern along with his apologies for being absent from the social scene. Another letter records John’s friend Godfrey Bosville of the nearby Gunthwaite estate sending a gift of oysters to apologise for his lack of contact since moving from Yorkshire for a new life with his bride in the capital.
 Hull History Centre, U DDBM/X1/32/9 Letters to John Spencer, Cannon Hall, from Godfrey Bosville.
The value and quality of meats served and expensive foreign imports such as chocolate, tea and exotic spices was a reflection of social standing and success in life. As historian Roy Porter states, ‘in an agrarian society, handsome eating was a token of success; generous hospitality was expected and admired. Englishmen tucked in and took pride in their boards and bellies’. Good eating was a sign of good health, wealth and evident through a size of a man’s stomach. As Dr Johnson declared ‘“Sir,I mind my belly very well, for I look upon it that he who will not mind his belly will scarcely mind anything else.’” Such overindulgence was also used by caricaturists, such as James Gillray to mock the over indulgence of the elite; men with too much money and time on their hands to do anything but serve their own gluttony.
Food then was a social marker and just as today also linked to celebration, hospitality and generosity. The giving and sharing of food was typical at most elite events and there was no celebration more befitting of a banquet than a birthday party. We are fortunate to have recovered menus and table plans for the birthdays of two members of the Spencer Stanhope family, Walter’s at age 13 and John Stanhope, Walter’s uncle. The menus offer a tantalising glimpse of the demands of the kitchens of Cannon Hall and the smells which would have permeated the walls of the fine dining room as it was laid for the enjoyment of the waiting family and guests.
The menus are typical of the period and comprise of plainly prepared roasted or boiled meat and fish, interspersed with more exotic dishes. The traditional English roast beef sits next to turtle and dried pineapple next to stewed pallats. This was the family showing off – demonstrating the ability to produce a huge range of home grown meats and fish and also expensive delicacies. The pinery at Cannon Hall was well known for their annual crop of juicy pineapples, the ‘it’ food of mid-eighteenth century England. Whilst it was typical for the second course to contain lots of creams and jellies, Watty’s menu contains lots more sweet stuff than his uncles. At age 13 he probably had a sweet tooth and was allowed to indulge in such treats at his birthday party, just as children would today.
Interestingly, although there were many dishes on the table, each person typically chose two or three dishes they preferred and ate only those things. After the first course new utensils, dishes and table cloth were placed on the table and the second course of much lighter accompaniments to meat, usually finger food would be served. Meals were often a lengthy affair and could go on for several hours with a third course of nuts, cheese and port concluding the meal. It was typical for wine, beer, ale, soda and water to be served during the meal and guests would usually share drinking vessels which were rinsed out before being offered to another guest, something we would never dream of today! Personal hygiene was, of course, not quite up to today’s expectations.
Historians describe the formality and ritual of the event in which strict rules governed behaviour at the dinner table. Indeed many serious talks must surely have taken place between the family and other local landed men and certainly between Walter and William Wilberforce during after dinner conversations. However, mealtimes were also filled with fun and laughter and the diaries of both John and Walter suggest there was often a great deal of foolery and drunken behaviour amongst guests. During a dinner party in the mid 1760’s one guest caught sight of his horse which had broken free and was galloping across the park towards Cawthorne. In his drunken state the guest ran out of the house and after his horse, spending all night wandering around the village lanes before finally finding his horse and returning to Cannon Hall!
Many of the customs and traditional practices of formal dining originate during this period and food continues to take pride of place at the centre of our celebrations. Whilst some of the combinations and ingredients are not to our taste today (although some of the unusual concoctions of todays acclaimed chefs would not have looked out of place on the tables of eighteenth century Cannon Hall) lots about eighteenth century dining is not so different to today.
 Roy Porter, English Society in the Eighteenth Century
Ice, Ice-House, Baby!!
Speaking of “posh nosh”, by the end of the eighteenth century no banquet was considered complete without iced desserts and wines. Read on and learn how ice was preserved long before the good old fridge was invented….
Natural ice was taken from frozen ponds and streams in winter and stored until warmer months in man made outdoor buildings called ice-houses. Most ice-houses were built in the grounds of country mansions and the ice-house at Cannon Hall is no exception.
Most ice-houses were underground masonry chambers with a drain at their base and a door at their side. Ice was carted from a local source, rammed into a solid block in the ice well and surrounded by insulating layers of straw which would provide sufficient protection from the changing climate to preserve ice all year round. The ice-house would be sealed until the summer months, when the ice was removed as required. Then in autumn the ice-house would be emptied, cleaned and refilled.
We are very proud of our ice-house at Cannon Hall. The Big Lottery Fund & Heritage Lottery Fund, Parks for People grant will provide funds that will help with its renovation and restoration. Surveys have revealed the type to be the ‘cup & dome’ form. It consists of a dome covering the ice well built of masonry with sides sloping downwards to the sump. The strength of the masonry cup and dome structures is enormous which has been a great advantage in the preservation of the Cannon Hall ice-house as it is in remarkably good condition for its 200 year old age.
Our ice-house has drawn lots of attention from enthusiasts to archaeologists. The project team were delighted when Rachael Hall, Archaeologist for The National Trust made a special visit to take a look at the building and talk to us about her experiences. Rachael and her team are currently undergoing the restoration of the ice-house at Hardwick Hall, soon to be completed.