Oysters, Jellies and Tantalising Dishes

Cannon Hall, and the Spencer-Stanhope family who lived there, were at the centre of Georgian Society in Yorkshire. This blog by historian Nicola Walker and volunteer Lynda Higgs provides fascinating insights into what was on the table, and what was happening around it, in Cannon Hall’s dining room in the 18th century. It draws extensively on the rich Spencer-Stanhope archive looked after by Barnsley Archives at Experience Barnsley.

Like many of the eighteenth-century elite the Spencer-Stanhopes knew how to throw a party. They were connoisseurs of fine dining and social gatherings, Georgian style. Domestic sociability was paramount in eighteenth century polite society and, as such, it was typical to find friends, local office holders and men of note around the dinner table at Cannon Hall. Much like today, the enjoyment and sharing of food was an integral aspect of polite society and ‘satisfying hearty appetites was the soul of hospitality’, as described by Roy Porter in English Society in the Eighteenth Century. The letters and diaries of the Spencer Stanhope family have plenty of references to the giving and receiving of gifts of venison, oysters and other luxury foods, which were offered as means of gratitude or apology.

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A typical Georgian place setting

During the London season John Spencer (1719-1775) would often send gifts of venison or game to his friends at The Mitre tavern, along with his apologies for being absent from the social scene. Another letter records John’s friend Godfrey Bosville, of the nearby Gunthwaite estate, sending a gift of oysters to apologise for his lack of contact since moving from Yorkshire to start a new life with his bride in the capital.

You set out this morning as they tell me and a Barrel of Oisters sets out at the same time, but oisters are a kind of Shellfish that are not made for travelling fast and therefore you will beat them […] to Cannon Hall; I hope they will prove good ones, if not I desire you will let me know that I may catechise the Fishmonger.

Godfery Bosville

The value and quality of meats served, and expensive foreign imports such as chocolate, tea and exotic spices, was a reflection of social standing and success in life. As historian Roy Porter states, ‘in an agrarian society, handsome eating was a token of success; generous hospitality was expected and admired. Englishmen tucked in and took pride in their boards and bellies’.

Good eating was a sign of good health, wealth, and evident through a size of a man’s stomach. As Dr Samuel Johnson declared “Sir, […] I mind my belly very well, for I look upon it that he who will not mind his belly will scarcely mind anything else.” Such overindulgence was mocked by caricaturists of the period like James Gillray, portraying men with too much money and time on their hands to do anything but serve their own gluttony.

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James Gillray ‘A voluptuary under the horrors of digestion’ (1792)

Food then was a social marker and, just as today, was also linked to celebration, hospitality and generosity. The giving and sharing of food was typical at most elite events and there was no celebration more befitting of a banquet than a birthday party. We are fortunate to have recovered menus and table plans from 1763 for the birthdays of two members of the Spencer Stanhope family, Walter at age 13 and John Stanhope, Walter’s uncle. These menus offer a tantalising glimpse of the demands of the kitchens of Cannon Hall, and the smells which would have filled the air of the fine dining room as it was laid for the enjoyment of the waiting family and guests.

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Table plan for John Stanhope’s Birthday, February 1763 (Spencer Stanhope Muniments, Barnsley Archives)

The menus are typical of the period and comprise of plainly prepared roasted or boiled meat and fish, interspersed with more exotic dishes. The traditional English roast beef sits next to turtle and dried pineapple next to stewed pallats. This was the family showing off – demonstrating the ability to produce a huge range of home-grown meats and fish, and also expensive delicacies.

The pinery at Cannon Hall was well known for their annual crop of juicy pineapples, the ‘it’ food of mid-eighteenth century England. Whilst it was typical for the second course to contain lots of creams and jellies, Watty’s menu contains more sweet stuff than his uncle’s. At age 13 it’s likely he preferred such sweet foods and was allowed to indulge in such treats at his birthday party, just as children would today.

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Table plan for Walter Stanhope’s 13th Birthday, February 1763 (Spencer Stanhope Muniments, Barnsley Archives)

Interestingly, although there were many dishes on the table, each person typically chose two or three things they preferred and ate only those dishes. After the first course new utensils, dishes and table cloth were placed on the table and the second course of much lighter accompaniments to meat, usually finger food would be served. Meals were often a lengthy affair and could go on for several hours with a third course of nuts, cheese and port concluding the meal. It was typical for wine, beer, ale, soda and water to be served during the meal and guests would usually share drinking vessels which were rinsed out before being offered to another guest, something we would never dream of today! Personal hygiene was, of course, not quite up to today’s expectations.

Historians describe the formality and ritual of the event in which strict rules governed behaviour at the dinner table. Indeed, many serious talks must surely have taken place between the family and other local landed men and certainly between Walter and William Wilberforce during after dinner conversations.

However, mealtimes were also filled with fun and laughter and the diaries of both John and Walter suggest there was often a great deal of foolery and drunken behaviour amongst guests. During a dinner party in the mid 1760’s one guest caught sight of his horse which had broken free and was galloping across the park towards Cawthorne. In his drunken state the guest ran out of the house after his horse, spending all night wandering around the village lanes before finally finding the horse and returning to Cannon Hall!

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Georgian dining room at Cannon Hall, built in the 1760s

Many of the customs and traditional practices of formal dining originate during this period, and food continues to take pride of place at the centre of our celebrations. Whilst some of the combinations and ingredients are not to our taste today – although some of the unusual concoctions of today’s acclaimed chefs would not have looked out of place on the tables of eighteenth-century Cannon Hall – lots about Georgian dining is really not so different to today.

The Spencer-Stanhope Muniments are an extensive and unique collection, which reveals much about life and industry in Yorkshire, from the 17th century through to the early 20th century. Created by the family, the collection comprises extensive legal documents, maps and plans, and an abundance of personal diaries and correspondence. Looked after by Barnsley Archives, they can be explored at the Discovery Centre at Experience Barnsley. Visit the Barnsley Archives website for more details. 

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