The great Elizabeth Raffald used to be a household name, and her list of accomplishments would make even the highest of achievers feel suddenly impotent. After becoming housekeeper at Arley Hall in Cheshire at age twenty-five, she married and moved to Manchester, transforming the Manchester food scene and business community, writing the first A to Z directory and creating the first domestic servants registry office, the first temping agency if you will. Not only that, she set up a cookery school and ran a high class tavern attracting both gentry and nobility. She reputedly gave birth to sixteen daughters, wrote book on midwifery and was an effective exorciser of evil spirits.
These achievements gave her notoriety and standing in Manchester, but it all pales in comparison to her biggest achievement; her cookery book The Experienced English Housekeeper. Published in 1769, it ran to over twenty editions and brought her fame and fortune.
But then disaster; her fortune lost, spent by her alcoholic husband. Bankrupted twice, she spent her final years in a pokey coffeehouse in a seedy part of town.
Her book, however, lived on. Influential and often imitated (but never bettered), it became the must-have volume for any kitchen, and it helped form our notion of traditional British food as we think of it today.
To tell Elizabeth’s tumultuous rise and fall story, historian Neil Buttery doesn’t just delve into the history of food in the eighteenth century, he has to look at trade and empire, domestic service, the agricultural revolution, women’s rights, publishing and copyright law, gentlemen’s clubs and societies, the horse races, the defeminization of midwifery, and the paranormal, to name but a few.
Elizabeth Raffald should be revered, not unknown. How can this be? Perhaps we should ask Mrs Beeton…