Happy Christmas! The mysterious and delicious history of Mince Pies…

I love a mince pie, but they are a bit weird, aren’t they? I’ve often wondered just why we eat such strange things at Christmas – and now I’ve found out why!

Back in Ye Olde medieval times, everyone loved a pie. But I’m not talking about your regular pasty from Greggs. I’m talking about some serious pie-age. Meat pies could be stuffed with pretty much anything – beef, pork, game, poultry, offal, four and twenty blackbirds…. Pies were often very elaborate in appearance, designed to be the centrepieces of a banqueting table. Most were savoury, but some were seasoned with honey, or contained dried fruit, fresh fruit or Seville orange juice, for a sweet and sour taste. Meat is still often served with fruit – like cranberry sauce – so it’s not such an odd idea.

mince pie designs from foodhistory.com

In the twelfth century the British started crusading against the Muslims in the middle east – an activity so popular we’ve never stopped!! Anyway, one positive side-effect of all that foreign war was that we started importing exotic spices – cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg – from the middle and far east. Naturally, these spices found their way into the ever-popular pies. Rumour has it that the spices in mince pies are a reference to the three Magi of the nativity – but really our ancestors just liked the taste.


By the 16th and 17th centuries, pies still contained a lot of minced meat, as well as fruits and spices. The meat could be tongue, tripe, beef, veal, or even goose. Here is a typical recipe, from Gervase Markham The English Housewife, (1615).

Take a Legge of Mutton, and cut the best of the flesh from the bone, and parboyl it well then put to it three pound of the best Mutton suet & shred it very small; then spread it abroad, and fashion it with Salt Cloves and Mace: then put in good store of Currants, great Raisins and Prunes clean washed and picked a few Dates sliced, and some Orenge-pils sliced ; then being all well mixt together, put it into a coffin, or into divers coffins, and so bake them and when they are served up, open the lids and strow store of Sugar on the top of the meat and upon the lid. And in this sort you may also bake Beef or Veal, onely the Beef would not be parboyld, and the Veal will ask a double quantity of Suet.

A Scottish recipe for an egg and mince pie

Pies were often called ‘coffins’, the word ‘coffin’ simply meaning a box. They were often an oblong shape, but was never supposed to represent baby Jesus’ crib, despite popular rumours! Some also say that traditionally a mince pie had 13 ingredients, to represent Jesus and the apostles, but this also seems to be a myth. The more prosaic explanation – that there wasn’t a lot of fresh fruit or milk around during the winter to make desserts with – seems to be the most likely. The pies were usually referred to as ‘Christmas pies’ rather than ‘mince pies’.

During the 17th century the poor old mince pie was caught up in that most horrendous episode in British history – the English civil war. Legend has it that fanatically protestant fun-sponge Oliver Cromwell banned them for being too Catholic. That’s not strictly true, but Christmas celebrations were actually outlawed during the interregnum and the puritans loved fasting, so mince pies were pretty much banned by default. It’s no wonder we became a monarchy again, is it???

During the eighteenth century, international trade and Empire played a role in the mince pie’s development. Britain got rich from the slave trade, so we had an awful lot more cheap slave-produced sugar to sweeten our pies with – though they were still meaty.

The Victorians period saw more changes to mince pies. Although most recipes still used beef suet (made from kidney fat), they often dropped the meat entirely. Isabella Beeton gives both vegetarian and meaty recipes in her classic Household Management (1861).

Eliza Acton’s 1845 recipe

The twentieth century hasn’t changed the recipe for mince pies at all, but the rise of mass-produced food and the supermarket means most people now buy them ready-made.

some modern shop-bought mince pies

So next time you bite into a little mince pie, just think – you are tasting the whole of British history in one tasty treat. The crusades, the civil war, slavery, Victorian values and industrialisation – mince pies have got it all. On the other hand, you could just enjoy the crisp, buttery pasty, the sharp tang of citrus, the warming, aromatic spices and the delicious sweetness, and think – yum!

Archives and History News: First World War collections under threat, Downton Abbey, and digital asylum records

In case you hadn’t noticed, some kind of global conflict thing started 100 years ago. The Tower of London’s moat became a beautiful sea of ceramic poppies to commemorate British soldiers who died during the First World War. The Imperial War Museum re-opened its revamped galleries to much fanfare. Then the government decided to slash the museum’s funding by £4 million! The museum will absorb these cuts by closing its library, slashing or shutting down education services, and cutting jobs. So now we can see exactly how our government really feel about this important aspect of our history. It’s all right for people to enjoy art installations, as long as they don’t start actually, you know, learning anything, doing any research, or finding things out for themselves. Heritage is lovely – as long as we don’t have to pay for it, and everyone involved is a volunteer. This is a shocking scandal. Yes I know we could spend our money on far more worthy things than heritage, blah blah, but it’s the sheer hypocrisy of the thing that makes my blood boil. If you feel as strongly outraged as I do, please sign this petition to prevent the funding cuts. Please also publicise this, and urge others to sign the petition.

The Imperial War Museum

You can see an example of the kinds of research and learning about the war that we could be doing on the Blog Africa in Words. It has started a series looking at The First World War in Africa, with lots of information promised on archives and other research sources.  http://africainwords.com/2014/11/20/africa-ww1/

Nigerian troops during the First World War

In other news, it turns out that standing up for our heritage CAN make a difference. The archive of the Hulton family from Lancashire, spanning nearly a thousand years of history, was put up for sale recently. From plague and Henry VIII’s reformation to the coming of the railways, this aristocratic family and their servants bore witness to it all. Luckily for the archive, it happened to have Julian Fellowes to write a little series called Downton Abbey. The ensuing media campaign has ensured that funds have been raised to keep the archive in the hands of the nation. 

There’s even more good news for the continuing accessibility of our historical records. The Wellcome Library has announced plans to digitize over 800,000 pages of archives of mental health care from the 18th to 20th centuries. This promises to make the records easily available to far more researchers. The Wellcome are one of the few organisations that has a really great digital records management programme as well, so we can be pretty sure that these on-line records will remain accessible for a long time to come.

Artwork by a patient from Chricton Royal Hospital


My top ten nineteenth century movies!

10 The Muppets Christmas carol

Because Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without a Victorian novella turned into a musical featuring jolly brightly coloured puppets, would it?  Christmas also wouldn’t be Christmas if Dickens hadn’t more or less invented it. He decided it was a family time, mainly about giving presents to children and feeling vaguely charitable, and that we should all eat a specific meal. And we’ve carried on like that ever since. That’s even freakier than Michael Caine’s singing, eh?

9 Babette’s feast

A woman flees Paris and is taken in by an poor and austere religious community in windswept nineteenth century Denmark. Years later, she wins the lottery and celebrates by preparing a spectacular, decadent gourmet feast for 12 of the villagers. The guests worry that it’s all so luxurious that some kind of devilry may be involved. The agree to eat the meal out of politeness, but never to praise the food or show any sign of pleasure in it. But the food isn’t devilish at all: it heals old wounds, elevates the human spirit, and brings the diners together. This humorous, wonderfully acted  film is subtly religious and a wonderful hymn to friendship and to cuisine as an art form.

8 Wilde

This movie charts Oscar Wilde’s successes and final fall from grace. Stephen Fry and Jude Law are perfectly cast as Wilde and his childish, petulant lover Lord Alfred Douglas or ‘Bosie’.  It’s like watching Greek tragedy or a car-crash in slow motion: we all know that Wilde has only got one place to go and that it’s Reading gaol. Character is destiny, and Wilde just can’t help pursuing a totally lost cause, despite the protestations of his friends, despite Bosie being awful, despite all common sense. A moving and complex portrait.

7 The elephant man

David Lynch directs and John Hurt and a massive amount of prosthetic make-up star in the story of Joseph Merrick, a man disfigured and disabled by a mystery illness. Merrick is rescued from a freak show by surgeon Frederick Treves. It’s beautifully shot in black in white, but like many films dealing with disability it tends towards the sentimental and *cringe* ‘inspirational.’ We don’t know much about Merrick’s life or feelings. We’re not even sure whether he was called John or Joseph. Was Treves exploiting Merrick even more than the freakshow, just in a more respectable way? Do we keep on exploiting him by re-telling his story in our words? For all that, it’s an interesting and affecting film.

6 The Age of Innocence

Martin Scorcese, more usually associated with ganger films, makes a fine job of adapting Edith Wharton’s novel about the repressed upper classes in late nineteenth century New York. The word ‘sumptuous’ is often bandied around in relation to costume dramas, but in this case it’s deserved. The costumes and sets are incredible, and the camera lingers on every beautiful surface. And that’s what’s this story is all about: the extreme disconnect between the beautiful, respectable surfaces of society, and what truly lies beneath.

5 Sherlock Holmes

Robert Downey Junior and Jude Law obviously had the most fun ever in this crazy, silly, souped-up steam punk version of the great detective’s adventures. It’s set in a very contemporary pastiche version of the nineteenth century and played half for laughs, half for action. The fight  and chase scenes are brilliantly inventive, there’s a dark, sexy edge to it, and an amazing bit of slapstick when RDJ falls off a horse. I was quite literally ROLFing.*

*For the benefit of my Dad, that means ‘rolling around on the floor laughing’.

4 A room with a view

This is cheating, because it’s set in the Edwardian period, but what’s a few years between friends? Merchant Ivory’s lavish 1985 version of EM Forster’s novel is lush and romantic. Helena Bonham-Carter takes the lead role, torn between two men. She is engaged to boring, uptight Daniel Day-Lewis, who wears a monocle, read a lot and won’t even attempt to play tennis. She has a secret passion for a holiday fling who snogs her so passionately in a field of flowers above Florence that her hat flies off. He’s pretty good at tennis and likes to swim naked in rivers. No prizes for guessing which one she ends up marrying!

3 Dean Spanley

Peter O’Toole, Sam Neill and Jeremy Northam star in this odd little film. Northam is the put-upon son of cantankerous O’Toole, and Sam Neill is clergyman Dean Spanley, who only has to be plied with a rare Hungarian wine (Imperial Tokaiji) to get total recall of his past life as a dog. A whimsically bizarre but heart-warming movie.

2 The Piano

Jane Campion’s 1993 film stars Hollie Hunter as a mute Scottish woman sold as a mail-order bride to a repressed Sam Neill in nineteenth century New Zealand. She brings her grand piano, and her daughter, who acts as her interpreter, with her. Full of passion, mystery, evocative images, and with a memorable piano score, this film is more than the sum of its parts. It questions the nature of communication, love, violence, and what it really means to be truly alive. Hunter won the best actress Oscar for her silent role, played the piano herself during the film, and taught sign language to 11-year old Anna Paquin. Paquin was the youngest ever winner of the best supporting actress Oscar, and Campion won the Oscar for best screenplay.

1 The Prestige

This dark tale of rival magicians in Victorian London is one of my all-time favourite movies. Christopher Nolan brings gothic flair to the direction, Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johanssen bring brooding sexiness. Michael Caine just brings Michael Caine. The film features murder, madness, magic, obsession, passion, David Bowie as Tesla, a twisty-turny plot and an incredibly clever script build that builds towards of climax of pure, existential horror.

Happy Halloween: Should we bring back Victorian mourning rituals?

Funerals aren’t what they used to be. Twenty-first century funerals have sealed coffins, pop songs – Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ and Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ are two of the most popular – and a ‘celebration of life’. You might be instructed to wear colourful clothes instead of black. One of the strangest ‘celebrations of life’ I’ve ever been to was a fancy-dress wake in an incredibly classy beach house. Drunk Mexican wrestlers and Che Guevaras were clutching each other and crying on the cream leather sofas.

We certainly don’t do this anymore!

Nowadays we’re encouraged to ‘move on’ as quickly as possible. If anything, death is treated rather as an affront to the terribly important business earning more money so that we can all of instagram our expensive restaurant meals. We’re so caught up in our FOMO* that we just haven’t got time for grief – our own, or other people’s.

Most of us look at the elaborate Victorian culture of death as ghoulish, macabre and perhaps even a little bit kinky. But what if the Victorians were on to something? What if their mourning traditions were actually a better way to cope with bereavement than the modern ‘oh carry on as normal – it’s what he would have wanted’ approach?

* For the benefit of my dad, FOMO = fear of missing out.

Mourning clothes

Mourning clothes on display at the New York Met’s exhibition ‘death becomes her’

Middle class Victorians followed an impossibly elaborate sartorial system relating to death. There were strict rules on what to wear and how long for, depending on who had died. Women’s magazines covered the topic in the same way Cosmopolitan might discuss appropriate work-wear today. For widows, ‘full mourning’ involved a non-reflective black fabric called bombazine, or more expensive silk, trimmed with a scratchy, stiff lace called crepe. For the first three months women wore black bonnets, and veils of black crepe that concealed their faces – after that the veil was pushed back. After a year the crepe accessories might be removed. At the end of the second year the colours gradually lightened to grey and mauve, called ‘half-mourning’. Those mourning a child or parent only wore mourning for a year. Grandparents got six months, while cousins got a mere 6 weeks!

Gentlemen had an easier time of it, as they so often do in fashion: they simply adapted their usual dark clothes to include more black accessories.

It’s all terribly goth, isn’t it? But the Victorians themselves put forward sensible arguments in favour of mourning clothes, with one etiquette guide writing: ‘A mourning dress is a protection against thoughtless or cruel inquiries. It is also in consonance with the feelings of the one bereaved, to whom brightness and merriment seem almost a mockery of the woe into which they have been plunged.’ Mourning clothes may have been cumbersome, but having an outward marker of one’s mental state to remind others not to bother you seems incredibly practical.

Full mourning dress – not very practical, is it?

Today, we have all the same personal problems the Victorians did. This recent article gives some pertinent advice on ‘how not to say the wrong thing in a crisis’. It boils down to supporting those closest to the epicentre of the crisis, and only seeking support from those further out. In other words, John’s pals should never, ever, say ‘I can’t believe John is dead! I just can’t cope with it!’ to John’s widow. Save that for John’s work colleagues. But imagine how much easier it would be to behave appropriately if everyone’s clothing carefully marked out their place in the grief hierarchy and their stage in the mourning process! After all, six weeks after a cousin’s death, you might be feeling ok, but six weeks after your husband’s death? Not so much.

An advert for a shop dedicated to mourning clothes

Social etiquette

Mourning clothes corresponded with social etiquette. You couldn’t go to a party or big social event in full mourning dress, so mourners’ social lives were limited to gatherings at home for up to two years. It was, however, acceptable for mourners to go to concerts, and the guidelines might be relaxed for younger people. One commentator noted the ‘young suffer intensely, but it is a wise provision of nature that it is not as lasting as the grief of maturer years. They should pay a suitable respect for the relatives they have lost; but do not ask them to seclude themselves until their lives are lastingly shadowed.’ Mourning was subject to guidelines, not strict rules. One writer kindly noted ‘There are some natures to whom this isolation long continued, would prove fatal. Such may be forgiven, if they indulge in innocent recreations a little earlier than custom believes compatible with genuine sorrow.’

The Victorians knew by instinct what recent psychological researchers have found out. The intense grieving period for someone close to you really is about two years. After that the pain lessens, allowing people to move on with their life. Some people find it hard to move on, even after two years. Following the death of her beloved Prince Albert, Queen Victoria wore mourning clothes for the rest of her long life. Her subjects were quite suspicious and intolerant of this, and came to think of their Queen as rather morbid. Nowadays we would be expressing concerns about her mental health.

Queen Victoria in Mourning dress

The formal rituals of mourning, then, served a useful purpose. They allowed people to wallow in grief for a time without anyone trying to inappropriately jolly them along. Mourning even marked out the period of bereavement as, in some strange way, special. The pain and suffering experience was not to be trivialised or repressed, but rather elevated to an art form and treasured. But after two years, that period would come to an end, and it was time to slowly, gradually, transition back into normal clothes and normal life. This seems infinitely kinder and more understanding than today’s haphazard and embarrassed approach. Victorian mourning was a shared, visible, communal event. It was easier to see what others had suffered before you, and to realise that there was indeed light at the end of the tunnel.


The Victorians loved mementoes of their dead loved ones. Most of us find this horribly macabre. Sad little bronze casts of the hands of a loved perched on stately home dressing tables. Jewellery made from dead people’s hair. All of it makes me shudder. Many people had photographs taken of the dead body of their child or relative. Sometimes this was taken to extreme lengths. Daddy’s corpse might be propped up and posed to look lifelike, with the whole family ranged around and a toddler perched on his dead knee. These photos might be coloured in, giving the deceased rosy cheeks and sparkling eyes. The Victorians thought these photos were a lovely memento: nowadays we’d be calling social services. But these kinds of objects served a purpose. Few people had any photographs or portraits of their loved ones, and needed some way of remembering the physicality of the deceased. They didn’t want their children to forget what daddy had looked life.

A mother poses with her life-like dead child in a post-mortem photograph

A brooch made from the hair of the deceased

As most of us have more than enough photographs we don’t need to bring back the custom for mementoes. Thank goodness for that!


Previously, bodies had been wrapped in a simple shroud for burial, but the Victorians started dressing their dead and putting make up on them, to make them appear alive. One etiquette manual wrote ‘we see the dear ones now lying in that peaceful repose which gives hope to those who view them. No longer does the gruesome and chilling shroud enwrap the form.’ This marked a stark change from previous centuries, when people were pretty matter of fact about the physical realities of death, not having much choice in the matter.

Queen Victoria’s funeral

The wake was also phased out – it was associated with drunken tomfoolery, and was considered quite vulgar. However, a friend of the family usually stayed with them until after the funeral. They might help to organise practical details and fend off unwanted visitors. Clocks were stopped at the time of death, and the doorbell or knocker was muffled in black crepe, to warn off all but essential callers.

Funeral services were often carried out in the deceased’s home, before the body was taken to the Churchyard for burial. Anyone could attend a funeral, but maintaining the family’s dignity was important. They were ushered in at the last possible minute, and sometimes even remained in a separate room to listen to the ceremony, to spare them any embarrassment from crying in public. This was one of the strange contradictions of mourning: it was both an incredibly public display and something that demanded privacy and solitude.

The Victorian period was in many ways a curious transition between the pragmatism of previous eras, and the extreme taboos of our own. The Victorians distanced themselves from the physicality of death, but at the same time elevated the surrounding emotions. We have distanced ourselves from both the physical and emotional side of the death, to the point where it is very difficult to acknowledge death at all. Indeed, our culture has been labelled ‘death phobic’.

And yet the uncomfortable fact remains that we’re all going to die, and so are all our loved ones. Wearing veils and creating weird mementoes certainly won’t help us to cope with that. But I can’t help feeling that a return to ritual and carefully observed social etiquette might make the experience of bereavement just a little bit simpler, if not any less painful.

Sherlock Holmes at the Museum of London

Exhibitions at the Museum of London are always beautifully designed, and Sherlock Holmes: the man who never lived and will never die is no different. You sneak in through a secret door embedded into a ‘bookcase’, and immediately enter the world of Holmes’ London. There are films of London from the 1880s, all swirling crowds of franticly rushing people, traffic jams and advertising. There is a huge array of photographs, maps and paintings of nineteenth century London. One feature bound to excite Holmes nerds is the maps with Holmes’ journeys in each of Conan Doyle’s novels traced out with coloured string, matched with high-speed films retracing his steps today.

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Archives and History News: October 2014

On Thursday 30th October you can come to the Natural History Museum and hear me give a talk on Piltdown man – the greatest scientific hoax in history! In 1912 scientists at the Natural History Museum discovered Piltdown Man, the supposed missing evolutionary link between apes and humans. Forty years later the remains were found to be fake. Delve into the archives to uncover what really happened and decide who you think is the fraudster in this unsolved mystery…

This is part of the Halloween-themed trick or treat night safari of the museum. It should be a great night if you like to geek out about science and the natural world!

And there’s more science in the archives this month.

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La Rentre: Ten books about the Victorians

We’re now well and truly into September, the nights are drawing in and it’s starting to feel a little autumnal. As the French would say, it’s la rentree – that time of year forever associated with going back to school after the holidays.

So why not make the most of that back-to-school feeling by brushing up on your knowledge? Here are ten wonderful books about the Victorians, to ease you back in to historical studies! Continue reading

Archives and History News: beetles, beer and black heritage!

The dress that actress Ellen Terry wore to play Lady MacBeth at the Lyceum theatre in 1888, has been restored by the National Trust. The dress was covered in the wings of iridescent green beetles. It’s horribly fascinating and suitably gothic!  Here she is, her famous performance and dress immortalized in fine Pre-Raphaelite style by John Singer Sergant. You can see the original at Tate Britain.

Ellen Terry as Lady MacBeth

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Archives and History News: First World War commemorations and child abuse cover-ups in the archives

Of all the First World War commemorations happening at the moment, this is the loveliest: a sea of 888,246 ceramic poppies, one for every British soldier killed in the conflict, pouring of of the Tower of London.

Commemorative art installation ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’

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