Archive for October 15th, 2006

An afternoon visiting Mrs Beeton

Yesterday I set out to visit to the grave of Isabella Beeton, cook, mother, wife, journalist and author of the eponymous ‘Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management’. Which, after perhaps the Bible, is a top contender for ‘book that everybody’s heard of but nobody’s actually read’. Her grave lies somewhere in West Norwood Cemetery, South London. So armed with my D70, and hangover, and the low autumnal sun, I set out to find it. The place is a classic Victorian necropolis, packed with headstones, crosses, angles, urns,mausleiums, and monuments. The Victorian’s took death very seriously indeed, veneration of one’s ancestors perhaps gave people some heritage in a rapidly changing world. Trying to find one grave stone among all this lot is a needle in a haystack. So I just wonder round and take a few shots that look interesting, thinking ‘I’ll come back tomorrow or next week and do this properly’. Then up near the crematorium, I see a fox. It’s just sat there, looking at me. It doesn’t run off, but just stares at me. I take a picture of it, here it is.The fox

I slowly move towards it. It sort of ambles off, as if not in any particular hurry. I follow it…

following the fox

I’m off the main road and footpath now, and see a nice shot with plenty of dappled sunlight,

following the fox

I take another one…

Red Ivy

And then one of some red ivy growing up a headstone, before moving on. This was the only major ‘off roading’ I did.

Walking back down to the main entrance, I stop to ask the gatekeeper if he knows where Mrs Beeton’s grave is. He doesn’t, but on the notice board is a poster for a talk given by the Friends of West Norwood Cemetery. I call the number of that and speak to Jill, she says it’s to hard to describe where it is, but doesn’t mind coming down to guide me to it as she was coming into West Norwood anyway.

After five minutes a little old lady pulls up. ‘Hello I’m Jill’ she says. We do a brief introduction and then I hop in her car and we drive up to where the grave is… and guess where it is? Where the fox was, right in front of the red ivy shot I took not 15 minutes earlier.

Mrs Beeton's grave

To be honest this freaked me out a bit. The combination of a bit of a sore head, the gushing ‘dearly missed’ sentiment everywhere you looked, the odd crow call and the ethereal silence and creepiness of the place was over powering. I ask Jill how many graves there are, 45,000, containing something like 160, 000 people, the site is something like 40 arces in size. What are the chances of coming within a foxes whisker of finding one grave in 45,000? Spooky! Check the EXIF data if you don’t believe me!

Mrs Beeton's grave Anyway, here’s her headstone.

The area where the fox stood, and the short gully that it lead me down was once another road, so that when first buried, Mrs Beeton et al would have fronted to the roadside. The road was removed and the space used for yet more burials as the cemetery filled up in the 40s. She is buried with her husband Samuel Orchart Beeton and the bodies of their other two children who both died in infancy. What’s interesting is that they’re listed in reverse order. Both the infants died first, 1857 & 1863, then Isabella in 1865, at the age of 28, after catching an infection during the birth of her final son, Sir Mayson Beeton, attributed to the midwife or doctor not washing their hands. Finally, Samuel joined them in 1877. So were the infants buried her first? Jill’s none the wiser. The connection with West Norwood (some distance from Pinner where the Beeton’s lived) is that Sam’s father was buried here, his grave now covered in brambles. Also West Norwood was one of the ‘magnificent seven’. seven great cemetery’s build around the then outskirts of London, others include Highgate, Brompton, Nunhead etc. To have a plot in here was the final ultimate status symbol.

The headstone was replaced by her two surviving sons in the 1933 as the original had fallen into decay. The year before Sir Mayson Beeton had donated the only image of his mother to the National Portrait Gallery, it was the first photographic submission they ever accepted.

On Boxing Day 1932 the National Portrait Gallery opened an exhibition of its new acquisitions to the public. There were twenty-three likenesses on display, all of which were to be added to the nation’s permanent portrait collection of the great and the good… Oddly out of place among the confident new arrivals, all oily swirls, ermine, and purposeful stares, was a small hand-tinted photograph of a young woman dressed in the fashion of nearly a hundred years ago.

More about that here, including Mayson Beeton’s numerous rewrites of the title card. He seemed obsessed with promoting his father’s role in the development of the Beeton brand.

No one knows what the original headstone looked like. Jill doubted there were any photographs in the public domain depicting it. Looking closely at the grave, I saw large chunks of granite poking out from the mud and weeds. ‘I wonder if this was part of the original memorial?’ ‘Do you know I’ve never thought of that?’ said Jill. Graves are often topped with gravel, though it is normally white. These however were much to large, and were of red and black granite. We hypothosised that perhaps Mayson and Orchart, both in their late 60s then, had the original monument smashed up and laid on top of their new version. It would seem a shame to waste it, plus it would provide continuity.

There’s plenty of books about and by Mrs Beeton, and BBC Four have a costume drama, the Secret Life of Mrs Beeton rpt 21st October.

The book itself: You can see a lot about attitudes of the time sandwiched between the recipes in Mrs Beeton’s book. I own the Oxford World’s Classic edition, with the excellent introduction by Nicola Humble, who other good read is ‘culinary pleasures’ a history of cookbooks, where she devotes many pages to Mrs Beeton.

I’ve been dipping in the Oxford version a fair bit lately, not so much for the recipes as for the ‘general observations’ essays. It’s an enlightening view of the thoughts of the time. Take this piece from ‘general observations of the common hog’

IN THE MOSAICAL LAW, the pig is condemned as an unclean beast, and consequently interdicted to the Israelites, as unfit for human food. “And the swine, though he divideth the hoof and be cloven-footed, yet he cheweth not the cud. He is unclean to you.”—Lev. xi. 7. Strict, however, as the law was respecting the cud-chewing and hoof-divided animals, the Jews, with their usual perversity and violation of the divine commands, seem afterwards to have ignored the prohibition; for, unless they ate pork, it is difficult to conceive for what purpose they kept troves of swine, as from the circumstance recorded in Matthew xviii. 32, when Jesus was in Galilee, and the devils, cast out of the two men, were permitted to enter the herd of swine that were feeding on the hills in the neighbourhood of the Sea of Tiberias, it is very evident they did.

Blimey. No holding back on her thoughts of Judaism there then. She goes on..

There is only one interpretation by which we can account for a prohibition that debarred the Jews from so many foods which we regard as nutritious luxuries, that, being fat and the texture more hard of digestion than other meats, they were likely, in a hot dry climate, where vigorous exercise could seldom be taken, to produce disease, and especially cutaneous affections; indeed, in this light, as a code of sanitary ethics, the book of Leviticus is the most admirable system of moral government ever conceived for man’s benefit.

There are some other passages that raise a smile as well as an eyebrow. Her reverence for the scriptures is balanced with praise for science an progress, she also talks about animal welfare and the humane dispatching of animals: We hope and believe that those men whose disagreeable duty it is to slaughter the “beasts of the field” to provide meat for mankind, inflict as little punishment and cause as little suffering as possible..

I’d recommend spending some time reconnecting with the words of Mr & Mrs Beeton. The whole book is available online and anyone with a passing interest in history, heritage, food, recipes, produce, health and legal matters will find something of interest in her pages… me, I’m still freaked out by the fox.

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These are my personal views and not those of Channel 4 or the BBC
October 2006
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