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.


9 Responses to “An afternoon visiting Mrs Beeton”

  1. 1 Elizabeth Saxton October 18, 2006 at 12:29 am

    Oh isn’t the internet a wondrous thing? Here I am, it’s 11.23pm and my husband really is working late at the office and there’s no point my going to bed only to be woken up again when he returns…well I’ll give it another hour…so I thought I’d google Mrs Beeson in the light of last night’s drama/documentary. I really wanted to know if her 2 surviving sons saw adulthood, given that they were orphaned at 12 and 14 and that the suggestion of the drama seemed to be that they themselves were probably infected with syphilis. I came across West Norwood cemetery’s site which provides a detailed account of her life, included dates of Orchant’s and Mayson Moss Beeton’s birth and death. I then started thinking that it might be interesting to visit the Beeton grave site and the next thing I know I’m stumbling across your account of your very recent visit. Like you say, a strange coincidence: maybe you were meant to find the grave site and maybe I wasn’t! Perhaps the Beetons are starting to tire of all those visitors stomping all over the place and thought they’d cut to the chase. “We’re over here! Yes okay take a few photos if you must and then please just go away and leave us alone…” Still, I feel a strange urge to visit the National Portrait Gallery, ha.

    It’s a pity not more is known about her sons, I can’t seem to find anything much on the internet. It’s a comfort to know they outlived their parents by many years, strange that they both died in the same year, 1947. I’m not really sure why I care but I have two sons of my own, both small and 2 years separating them. I found myself wondering what kind of life Orchart and Mayson had had after their mother died. I had been thinking of buying the Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton in case it threw any further light on the matter but have been deterred by readers’ reviews on Amazon.

    I’m suddenly feeling a bit weary. I think that’s quite enough waffle for one night. Time to retire. Thank you and goodnight.

  2. 2 Jude Churchman March 14, 2007 at 9:14 pm

    Why is Mrs Beeton interesting to us, mere middle of the road mums and home makers (which we are, regardless of whether we are professional ‘housewives’ or not’). Personally, I’m fascinated by any documentary evidence I can get of women who were pioneering in the sense that they didn’t lay themsleves flat to the Victorian ‘Icon’ of submissive ‘woman’. Women and their courage will always shine, whatever the era, but I do think history has inked us with it’s ‘dark’ periods….and I find it an inspiration to read about those who revfused to hide their lights under bushels!!!!!

  3. 3 Gina May 19, 2007 at 7:32 pm

    Thank you for sharing this tale of finding Mrs. Beeton’s resting place – all by itself it’s quite an interesting story. The photos are lovely too. It was like taking a little day trip — all the way from Canada to England. Thank you kindly.

  4. 4 Wendy May 22, 2007 at 4:47 am

    We just saw Isabella Beeton today having recodred it last night. Although I live in Canada I was brought up quite near West Norwood –never even realised there was a cemetary there.
    Thanks for yr little jaunt–loved reading abt it –Fascinating abt the 2 boys–that’s who I wanted to know more abt–I’m glad they survisved and hope they had issue too.
    Lovely pictures

  5. 5 Robert February 24, 2008 at 3:50 am

    I have just been introduced to Household Management and love it! I have posted several times about it and find it fascinating. Your story about the fox is a bit creepy. Maybe it was trying to show you a turtle hiding somewhere. You know, for soup. Like in the book.

  6. 6 Alan J Sharkey July 8, 2008 at 10:14 am

    My late wife was the grand-daughter of Annie Beeton, and therefore a cousin of Isabella’s husband Sam and of their children. The details are shown in my family tree on Genes Reunited. I’d like to know if there are any surviving family from the marraige – I believe that Mayson had a daughter called Belle.

  7. 7 D'Arcy White June 11, 2009 at 2:20 am

    Mayson had a daughter named Edith Audrey Levick (nee Beeton).

  8. 8 eileen mcdonald January 3, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    hi there my great grandmother was elizabeth anne beeton i have always been led to beleive me and my sister were descendants of mrs isobella beeton i would love to find the connection our great grandmother elizabeth anne beeton who died i think in pelton county durham when our grandfather william burnip and his sister sarah were very young beeton was her maiden name i think we also have maysons in our family and our mother is the absolute image of isabella beeton the likeness is so amazing she was her double anyone with any info please contact me on my email which is

  9. 9 Sian Lynch November 15, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    I’m currently doing my dissertation on Mrs Beeton and how advice literature was effective in creating a gender and class change within the middle class, after stumbling across your site, it brings me a lot closer to the woman i’m writing about, rather than just a cookery book!

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