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Rebecah Child: a manuscript ‘receipt’ book

By Lauren Hepburn

Rebecah Child, the Marchioness of Worcester, was not alone in personally collecting an extensive range of recipes for her household. Manuscript ‘receipt’ (recipe) books such as Child’s were commonly kept by elite women in early modern England and typically collated intergenerationally, as Child’s was – having been successively added to by herself, her daughter and granddaughter between 1690 and the end of the 18th century. Transcribing diverse recipes was integral to a woman’s domestic leadership of household and estate, resulting in one-of-a-kind texts with a deeply personal connection to their owner-editors.

Rarely are these manuscript cookbooks, which were ‘most often produced informally [and] unattributed’ (British Library), so diligently organised as the Child family’s is. The 140-page dossier is neatly numbered and indexed; recipes are credited to their original authors (p. 95, for example, is dedicated to a household cook: “Cooke Smith’s receipts”); where applicable, they are also credited to whomever shared them with Child: “Lord Herbert and Lady Betty’s diet drink; prescribed by Sir Charles Scarborough” (p. 11). Particularly remarkable is the conscientious citation of publications Child borrowed from: “Printed by the license of the Inquisitors & Ordinary in the College of St Paul and of the Society of Jesus in God” (p. 15). The interaction between manuscripts and printed texts during this period is a rich source of study, particularly with regard to the female-led domestic sphere.

[The] printed books of household management that emerged parallel to domestic manuscripts marketed themselves by adapting–indeed extending–ideas of community, imparting a sense that (like the manuscripts) they would insert readers into a community, “a context” relevant to readers’ lives (Sherman).

Certainly Child’s manuscript evidences one way in which the branches of her community came together. Alongside recipes taken from or shared with medical professionals and household staff, there are those identified as having been provided by close relations (“My Grandmother’s Cordiall Water” at p. 11), local women (“Mrs Frith’s chicken broth” at p. 27), family in-laws (several recipes are credited to the Stanhope family, into which Child’s granddaughter Caroline married), and fellow members of the aristocracy (“My Lord Fitzwilliams Receipt for the Gaundice” at p. 99). The very words ‘receipt’ and ‘recipe’ (the latter emerging during the 18th century) embody this exchange: recipere from the Latin, ‘to take’; recipe, ‘receive’.

The ability to trace the social history of certain entries is extraordinary: “A cure for the bite of a mad dog or cat, given by Mr Fisher to my Lord” outlines, beneath the methodology itself, a detailed provenance:

This receipt was coppied [sic] out of Northallerton Church booke where a Charitable Physician write it after the restoration of R: James, who purchased it from the author with money & had it proclaimed in every town in England but was lost in the great troubles or rebellion until this charitable physician revived it again at Northallerton & is now in great reputation in Yorkshire (p. 56).

Medicinal recipes such as these also offer a vivid glimpse into the relationship between women, science, and medicine. As scholar Katherine Allen has noted, “an acknowledgment of women’s engagement with medicine in the home is integral to any broader investigation of women’s roles in science and is indicative of the cultural and social significance of science in daily life”. Indeed, the seemingly experience-based advice that accompanies a remedy for jaundice on p. 99 demonstrates an active involvement in the administering of treatment: “If you find difficulty in taking it all in one day you may take it three mornings together. Before taking it shake the bottle & if you think it will check your stomack [sic] you may strain it before you take it”. It was standard practice to record medicinal and cookery recipes together, since “the relationship between diet, health, food and medicine was very close in the 17th century” (British Library). This firmly positioned at-home treatments within the women’s domain.

Left: Sir Josiah Child

Another elucidating theme running through this collection is the family’s connection to international trade, the adoption of foreign foods into their diet, and their adaptation on being replicated at home. This can be seen in both the source of the recipes (for example “a receipt for a Flux from Mr Stratton of Fort St. George in the East Indies” listed at p. 109, Mr Stratton being George Stratton, an East India Company official who moved to Fort St. George in 1751) and in the foodstuffs themselves (“To pickel mellons ‘like’ mangos” at p. 61; “To make Polow or Pilaw” credited to Rebecah’s brother Richard’s cook; “To make the Indian pickle” p. 108). The appearance of ingredients such as coffee, cocoa, and sugar in the wealthier spheres of British life was due to the establishment of the slave trade in the Caribbean and Americas, and the plantations which relied upon it. Manuscripts such as this form an important record of the impact the colonial expansionist project had on domestic life, and are thus a potent reminder of the normalisation of such violence in British society at the time. As the daughter of Sir Josiah Child, who became Governor of the East India Company in 1681, Rebecah and her family were direct recipients of the benefits of colonial exploitation. It is for this reason as much as any other that manuscripts such as this are an important contribution to our understanding of British history.

Manuscript cookbooks from this period offer far-reaching insights into the lifestyles, communities, domestic practices, culinary trends and traditions, medicinal remedies, and even the very personalities of those who compiled them; Child’s richly detailed and carefully edited version is exemplary.


This item appears in our recent catalogue, Spring 2021.