Tag Archives: sugar

Sugar loaves and coal scuttles


JMW_Turner Coal_Boats_Loading,_North_Shields_-_Google_Art_Project

Coal boats loading at North Shields c.1795 – J M W Turner  (via Wikimedia Commons)


It’s that time of year when preserving garden produce for the winter is on my mind. It’s been a fantastic year for fruit in the UK and there is a glut of apples and pears, we’ve had a huge crop of blackberries and the wild rowan trees are covered in berries.

Checking the cupboard for sugar to make crab apple and blackberry jelly I found some left from last year that had hardened in the packet and that made me think of the labour involved in preparing sugar for use in the eighteenth century. Once the cane was cut and the juice boiled and crystalised most was packed into barrels for transport to Europe and further processing there. Only a small amount was ‘clayed’, further refined into white sugar loaves, in Jamaica. This was to protect the interests of the sugar bakers in Britain.

Either way the sugar bought by the eighteenth century housewife came in hard loaves from which the sugar had to be rasped or broken off and then pounded to the consistency required. Imagine taking a bag of modern sugar crystals and pounding it down to produce your own icing sugar and you will get an idea of the sheer physical labour involved and the time it took.

Then remember that to cook using your sugar you would have to light and tend your kitchen fire. By the eighteenth century London was dependent on imported coal as the medieval forests that once covered the country had been cut down for domestic fuel and for early industry. You would have ordered your coal using the old measure of a ‘chaldron of coals’, an amount which could vary from about 2000 pounds weight upwards. A London chaldron was defined as “36 bushels heaped up, each bushel to contain a Winchester bushel and one quart, and to be 1912 inches in diameter” (source:Wikipedia). The weight of this was about 3136 pounds so it was no wonder that a limit was put on the amount that could be drawn in one wagon – incidentally to protect the road from excessive wear rather than the horses from exhaustion!

When the coal was delivered to your house you would have to inspect it to make sure the merchant was not cheating you by including poor quality coal, wet coal or a load full of small dust called ‘slack’. It would be shovelled by hand from the wagon into your cellar or shed and from there you or your servants would have to scoop it up into the coal scuttles for use in kitchen and living rooms. Little wonder that only the well to do had fires in their bedrooms in even the coldest of weather.

Everything that happened in the eighteenth century household involved physical labour on the part of the householder or the servants. Preparing meals meant walking to market for the ingredients, scrubbing and preparing the vegetables, plucking the poultry, rendering your own fat from pork or beef to produce dripping, beating the eggs and ingredients for cakes (my grandmother beat fat and sugar for an eggless sponge by hand – that is using her own hand not a beater, the beating took up to half an hour but she made a superbly light sponge!). Even so simple an act as writing a letter might still involve mixing your own ink, and would require you to cut your own quills – paper you could at least buy ready made.

Leaving aside the digital revolution, think of any task you now undertake and then take yourself back to a time when there was no electricity, and virtually no machinery to assist. You could buy the cloth and thread for your clothes, but you or someone else would have to make the pattern, cut the cloth and sew them by hand. When they got dirty they would have to be washed by hand using soap you made yourself, although in London the air was now so filled with soot that those who could afford it sent their linen out of town to washer women in the outlying villages. If the weather was cold the water might freeze in the pump and in any case it would all have to be carried by hand to where it was needed.

In eighteenth century Jamaica the source of cheap labour that made all this possible was of course enslaved, while London and the growing cities such as Manchester and Birmingham were sucking in labour from the surrounding countryside. The nineteenth century would see a huge change with a move from human to machine power and a gradual increase in the cost of labour, with a corresponding decrease in the relative cost of machine power. We are much closer to this nineteenth century world than we are to that of the eighteenth.

So next time you put sugar in your coffee, boil a kettle, load the washing machine, cut the lawn or drive to the supermarket to load up with ready prepared goods, just pause for a moment and imagine having to do all these tasks the eighteenth century way.

A Missing Miniature – Robert Cooper Lee

Robert Cooper Lee Miniature resized 350

I had always wondered if somewhere there existed an image of Robert Cooper Lee. When he returned to England in 1771 he joined the upper echelons of society, people who often commissioned portraits of themselves either to grace the walls of their homes or to present to friends or family. Indeed we know that he had commissioned Francis Cotes to paint a portrait of his daughter Frances in 1769 when she was at school in England and the family were in Jamaica. Given the high rates of child mortality this might have been their last view of their daughter. Happily she survived as did her portrait, which is in the Milwaukee Art Museum and now graces the cover of  A Parcel of Ribbons.

This black and white image of Robert Cooper Lee is a copy taken from a Christies’ Sale catalogue in 1979 when this miniature was sold. The person who found it is currently trying to establish whether a better image exists, and even whether the purchaser can be discovered so that the original can be photographed in colour in its original gold frame.

Judging by the costume it was painted some time in the 1780s. Robert Cooper Lee died in 1794 aged fifty-nine. You might notice that he is not smiling. There is a whole history of picture making that relates to the smile – it is only in recent times, with the benefits of modern dentistry, that people smile for their pictures. Before then they did not wish to expose their bad teeth to view! Given that Robert Cooper Lee had spent two decades in the sugar producing colony of Jamaica, had probably chewed on raw cane and certainly used sugar in both food and drink, the chances are that by his fifties his teeth were not good.

Another interesting aspect of the portrait is comparing it with his daughter Frances. It is impossible to know about colouring, since he wears a wig and we cannot judge the colour of his eyes, but the angle of the face is similar to that in his daughter’s lovely portrait and I don’t think it is fanciful to say that she looked very like her father.

It has been a good week for my Parcel of Ribbons as I’m delighted to say it received a very good review in the June issue of Family Tree Magazine, which called it ‘family history gold dust’ ! There was also a lovely write-up on the Good Reads website.

If you know of the current whereabouts of the Robert Cooper Lee miniature do please get in touch!


Inoculation, Vaccination and an old controversy

Benjamin Moseley on Vaccination resized 450

Morning P0st 17 May 1810 from British Newspaper Archive

While researching something else entirely I came across Dr Benjamin Moseley and an old controversy with very modern echoes.

Benjamin Moseley was born about 1746, son of Edward Moseley of St Osyth on the north Essex coast. On the 22nd of October 1765 he was granted the Freedom of the City of London by Redemption, paying forty-six shillings and eight pence for admission to the Company of Woolmen. His father was recorded as ‘Gent’ and, combined with the location of the family, this suggests that they had made their money as sheep farmers supplying fine English wool to the world.

Benjamin was trained as a doctor in London, Leiden and Paris and settled in Kingston, Jamaica about 1767, practising as a surgeon apothecary and eventually becoming Surgeon General. He also served as an Assistant Judge in the parish of St Andrew. On the 9th of January 1768 he married Martha Clare, by licence, in Spanish Town. Of their children only two outlived their father, a son William Henry born about 1777 who in due course followed his father into medicine as an Army doctor but who died only four years after his father; and a daughter named Martha Elizabeth born about 1781. Nothing more is known of Martha Clare who may have died in Jamaica.

There is an interesting note on the parish register for St Osyth –  “At front: note of outbreak of smallpox from which 86 persons died, 1737-1738” (now held at the Essex Record Office in whose SEAX database I found it). St Osyth is a very small place, so the village memory of this disastrous event may have coloured Benjamin’s childhood. In any case when he arrived in Jamaica he would have become very aware of the devastating effect of smallpox epidemics.

Normal mortality in such epidemics was about 30 percent, although a milder form had only a one percent mortality, however there was a hemorrhagic form that was almost invariably fatal. No wonder then that a slave who could be certified to have had the disease and have recovered, usually evident from the sometimes terrible scarring it caused, commanded a higher price. By the second half of the eighteenth century most planters were having all their slaves inoculated.

While there was little that could be done to treat the disease once caught, knowledge of inoculation had spread from China, India and the Arab world into Europe by the eighteenth century. The technique involved taking some of the pus from the lesions of an infected person and introducing it into the person to be inoculated via a small cut or scratch.  Sometimes the person doing the inoculating would travel around taking the sick person with them to provide live material. Sometimes dried matter was used and was inhaled. The result was that the person being inoculated caught smallpox, but usually in a mild form, from which they recovered in a couple of weeks or so. However there were fatalities. One high profile death was that of the young Prince Octavius, son of George III who had all his children inoculated.

smallpox resized 250

A boy suffering from smallpox (CDC website)

At the end of the eighteenth century Edward Jenner made a scientific study of inoculation using cowpox – hence the new term vaccination – first inoculating with cowpox and then testing its efficacy by infecting his subjects with smallpox. The cowpox made them slightly unwell, and they failed to catch smallpox. In due course vaccination replaced inoculation with smallpox as being the safer option.

It was not however uncontroversial. Benjamin Moseley had written a number of treatises – on the benefits of coffee and sugar (in which he had a financial interest!) and on dysentery, another killer scourge in Jamaica especially amongst the troops stationed there. He has a small place in history however as a vocal and high profile opponent of vaccination.

Benjamin Moseley on Coffee resized 450

He was not opposed to the principle of inoculation and like many doctors made a living using the traditional method. However the arguments against introducing animal matter into humans, mainly children, have a modern parallel in those who oppose, for example, the use of pig heart valves in humans. Although the notion featuring in cartoons of the time, that those vaccinated with cowpox might turn into cows seems extreme to us now, given that the understanding of disease and its causes was rudimentary, the anxieties are understandable.

According to Sam Kean, writing about a new video game teaching about vaccination, Moseley argued that vaccination would degrade people spiritually, making them near-brutes. Why, “owing to vaccination,” he wrote, “British ladies might wander in the fields to receive the embraces of the bull.” He even prophesied “a new Pasiphaë”—the mythological queen who had sex with a cow and gave birth to the Minotaur. Lisa Rosner, a historian at Stockton College helping develop the video game on vaccination, calls Moseley a talented demagogue: “He really had his finger on the pulse of what people are afraid of.”

Although eventually vaccination resulted in the world-wide banishing of smallpox in the wild to a small number of (hopefully) very secure laboratories, the same is not true of measles. Also an epidemic killer, routine vaccination, compulsory before school admission in some countries, has significantly reduced but not yet eliminated the disease. Recent outbreaks in the UK have been attributed to a scare a decade ago, echoing Moseley, that the vaccine could cause autism. That claim has been totally discredited but a generation of children grew up who had neither had measles nor been vaccinated, with the result that mass vaccination is now being offered to those who had missed out in order to contain the spread of what can be a fatal illness.

Benjamin Moseley had built up a large and wealthy clientelle in England based around his Jamaican connections. This gave him both influence and access to the means of  widely publicising his views. Similarly in the MMR vaccination scandal in the UK, access to media, happy to play on the natural fears of parents who only want the best for their children, facilitated the spread of a scientifically discredited theory. It seems little had changed in two hundred years.





A Parcel of Ribbons – The Book – Now available

Support independent publishing

Available in perfect bound paperback 6″ x 9″ – 374 pages with illustrations.

ISBN: 9781105809743

Also available via Amazon

When I set up this website it was with the aim of sharing material I had come across during research into my family history. In particular I was looking for the origin of the story that in my mother’s family there had been an ‘Indian Princess’.

It may seem a long way from an Indian Princess to Jamaica but the trail that led me there was illuminated by the discovery of a wonderful collection of family letters.

I can now share these and the story of the remarkable Lee family with you. I do hope you enjoy their story as much as I have enjoyed writing about it.

Sugar and Medicine

Papaver somniferum, Opium Poppy – By Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen via Wikimedia Commons

Sugar, which was so crucial to the development of Jamaica in the eighteenth century, is now something we take completely for granted. It is easy to forget that it was originally such a luxury that it was only available to the very rich, and that apart from flavouring food and conspicuous consumption in medieval sugar sculptures, it was also used as medicine.

There is a long tradition in believing that if something tastes nasty it must be doing you good! Equally it was often the case that if something did taste nasty or bitter it could be made more palatable by being sweetened with honey or sugar.

I came across one reference which highlighted this use of sugar in the Lee family letters, where Frances, who suffered from severe abdominal pain throughout her (long) life, wrote that she found relief by taking ‘Black Drop’ on the advice of the royal doctor Sir Richard Jebb.

Variously known as Kendal Black Drop (and also Lancaster and Armstrong’s Black Drop, and Quaker’s or Toustall’s Black Drop after a certain Dr Toustall of Durham who was said to have invented it) it was made from opium and flavoured with sugar and spices.

Here is a recipe from Henriette Kress’s website   – to be followed by qualified herbalists only!

BLACK DROP.—Black, or Quaker’s drop, is variously made; the Edinburgh formula is: Take of opium, 4 ounces; distilled vinegar, 16 fluid ounces. Cut the opium into small fragments, triturate it into a pulp with a little of the vinegar, add the rest of the vinegar, macerate in a closed vessel for 7 days, and agitate occasionally. Then strain and express strongly, and filter.” The aromatics added in some formulae are unnecessary (see also Acetum Opii).

Another popular recipe requiring sugar was Syrup of Poppies used for pain control and as a sedative.

SYRUP OF POPPIES.—A syrup of poppies may be made by depriving of their seeds, poppy-heads, 9 ounces; reduce them to a coarse powder, moisten them thoroughly with diluted alcohol and digest for 48 hours; then transfer the whole to a percolator, and gradually pour upon it diluted alcohol until 2 pints of the filtered liquor are obtained; then evaporate by means of a water-bath to 8 fluid ounces, filter, add sugar, 15 ounces; proceed in the manner directed for simple syrup. When cool, add best French brandy, 2 fluid ounces, and mix (C. W. Epting). (See also Syrupus Papaveris.)

Many medicines were made up in the form of syrups, and pills could be rolled in powdered sugar to make them more palatable. By the nineteenth century when sugar was plentiful doctors would sometimes simply sell sugar pills. Given that a placebo may be effective in about one third of ailments this is not as callous as it may sound, although such a deception is now regarded as unethical.


Blue dye, linen underwear and Wright of Derby

José Mariano da Conceicao Velloso - O fazendeiro do Brazil - cultivadorIndigo cultivation in Brazil

By José Mariano da Conceição Velloso [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We think of Jamaica as the great home of sugar production in the eighteenth century, which of course it was, but in the early days of colonisation and well into the eighteenth century indigo was also an important crop. Although the image above is from Brazil, the method of cultivation and the use of slave labour was much the same in Jamaica.

Originating in India the indigofera tinctoria plant came to replace the use of woad for blue dye in medieval Europe, and the colour is perhaps most familiar to us now for its use in dying denim jeans, although synthetic dyes now widely replace natural indigo.

To make the dye the plant is usually cut and placed into large fermentation vats for about 15 hours after which the yellow liquid can be used immediately for dying cloth, which turns blue as it is removed on contact with the air. Alternatively the liquid is strained off through a series of large vats and agitated to oxygenate it until it changes colour and finally precipitates out as flakes. The pulp is strained, boiled with fresh water to remove impurities and filtered through coarse linen or woollen bags, until finally it can be cut into cakes and air dried ready for transport or sale.

Indian indigo dye lump

Modern Indigo block from India

Photo by Evan Izer (Palladian) (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

There was huge demand for blue dye in the eighteenth century and although the East India Company developed cultivation in Bengal that would eventually displace other areas, indigo was cultivated in Jamaica from the second half of the seventeenth century as a possible alternative to tobacco and one needing a smaller labour force than sugar, labour that was mostly required for cutting and processing the plants.

When Thomas Modyford surveyed Jamaica in 1670 he recorded “49 Indigo works which may produce about 49,000 weight of Indigo per annum, to which many more works are daily adding”.

The Newcastle Courant for Wednesday 15 October 1712 reported that “Yesterday arrived the Providence Galley from Jamaica, but last from Shields, laden with Sugar, Cacao, Indigo etc.”

Twenty years later the Derby Mercury of Thursday, 24 August 1732 reported a serious shortage of indigo with the arrival of a ship at Bristol ten days earlier.  “The last Ship arrived here from Jamaica has brought but one small Barrel of Indigo, that Commodity being very scarce there, so that we shall receive but very little, if any, this Year which is likely to make a great Alteration in the Price, Indigo being already in very great Demand here.”

At just about this time when there was a scarcity of Indigo from Jamaica, South Carolina was developing an industry to displace Jamaica as a main exporter, while Jamaica increasingly found greater profit to be made by the export of sugar. Nevertheless, it was still possible to make a good living as an Indigo planter which remained a minor export crop along with cocoa, ginger and pimento.

Dyeing blue linen

Take half a pound of indigo, and grind it well with a little lime water into an impalpable paste. Put it into 10 gallons of cold water, and add half a pound of Potash. 1 lb green copperas, 3 lbs quicklime. Let the whole stand till there forms on the surface a copper coloured head, and the liquor underneath appears yellow-green. Dip the linen in this liquor till it has acquired the shade of colour desired.

Josiah Wedgwood’s Commonplace Book n.d., page 44 Wedgwood MS 39-28408. (http://www.gutenberg-e.org/lowengard/C_Chap35.html)

Linen was widely used for shirts and underwear and perhaps surprisingly it was sometimes dyed blue, whether for fashion or because it showed the dirt less is unclear. There is a set of blue dyed linen panniers – hoops for supporting a skirt – illustrated in the fascinating “The History of Underclothes” by C Willett and Phillis Cunnington (Dover, 1992), and a wonderful seventeenth century description of young women running a race in their differently coloured drawers.

For the more up-market uses of indigo you have only to look at the wonderful portraits by Joseph Wright of Derby in which so many of the prosperous provincial ladies wore blue satin.

And while I’m on the subject of Joseph Wright, The Derby Museums and Art Gallery are opening a newly refurbished gallery displaying Wright’s works on February 25th 2012. Do visit if you can.

A Bowl of Christmas Cheer

 Modern copy of a Famille Rose Punch Bowl (chipped on the rim just as the real thing often was!)


Christmas as we know it was largely a Victorian invention – Charles Dickens and Prince Albert fixed the white Christmas and the decorated fir tree as a permanent part of British celebrations. Christmas cards were made possible when the penny post was enhanced by the invention of the postage stamp in 1840 and extended to the Empire in 1898. Santa Claus in his red suit achieved his permanent image thanks to Coca Cola in the 1930s. But even in the 1950s in Scotland Christmas Day was not a public holiday and many had to work, celebrating at New Year instead.

In the eighteenth century much of life went on as normal on Christmas Day, children were baptised, people were married and buried, and trade often carried on. Many would have gone to church, but it was not a hugely religious age and many would not have done. Old English customs such as mummers and carol singing were imported. Slaves could expect a doubling of their meagre rations, normally about half a pound of salt fish per day supplemented by whatever they could grow in their provision grounds.

Jamaican colonists by contrast fed extremely well and needed little excuse for socialising. In Jamaica at all times of year a bowl of rum punch was an essential part of any social occasion. Back home in England it had originally been mainly brandy punch. Originating from the East Indies and the Hindi word ‘panch’, it was made from alcohol, sugar, lemons, water and tea or spices. One contemporary recipe called for two pints of claret and half a pint of brandy with grated nutmeg, sugar and lemon juice added and served with a piece of toast floating on the top. A hot punch would be made by plunging a red hot poker from the fire into the bowl.

Barbadian punch was made with “One of Sour, Two of Sweet, Three of Strong, Four of Weak” – instead of lemons it used limes, sugar, rum and water with a dash of bitters or nutmeg. Variations of this recipe used additional fruit juices – pineapple and orange with cayenne pepper, bitters and liqueurs such as Curaçao. Syrups such as Grenadine were also added. The result came to be known as Planters’ Punch.

Punch could be served in a china or porcelain bowl, or a silver or silver gilt one. An online search for eighteenth century punch bowls brings up many beautiful objects, often imported from China before the quality European ceramic industry was established. Old china bowls often have chips on their rims where the punch ladle has made clumsy contact. Later bowls may have sets of matching cups, or were made of glass with individual glasses. Convivial images of the preparation and drinking of punch were created by Gilray, Hogarth and others.


Whatever your preference for Christmas cheer, be it alcoholic or otherwise, may I wish everyone a very Happy Christmas and a Peaceful New Year.