Tonbridge History

Eliza Acton – poet and cookery writer


Not for the squeamish: Part of Eliza Acton's recipe for Tonbridge brawn. The full recipe is here.

Eliza Acton has been described as the first modern cookery writer, preceding Mrs Beeton by several years. Delia Smith has called her ‘the best writer of recipes in the English language’.

Eliza was born in Battle in 1799, daughter of a brewer. Her family soon moved to Ipswich where she grew up and where with a friend she opened a school for girls. This enterprise was short-lived and due to her delicate health Eliza spent some time in France where, it is thought, she had an unhappy love affair and began writing poetry.

A volume of her poems was published by subscription in 1826. It contains 52 poems, all romantic in tone. They deal with aspects of love, particularly unrequited love and disillusionment. Several mention flowers and moonlight; there is one about Venice and another on Paris. The book’s subscribers are mostly from Suffolk, but some are from Maidstone, Barming, Yalding and Nettlestead, although none from Tonbridge. The whole book is available on the web here.

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Bordyke, pre-1914: the Actons' house is on the left with the gas lamp outside. (THS15.Bord2)

By 1827 Eliza was living in Tonbridge at No. 1 Bordyke (now The Priory) with her mother, brother and sisters. Her mother took in boarders for Tonbridge School where Eliza's brother Edgar was a pupil. When a royal visitor, the Dowager Queen Adelaide, passed through Tonbridge in 1837, Eliza is said to have recited an ode of welcome and condolence on the recent death of her husband, King William IV. By 1841 the Tonbridge Census shows that Eliza was the only member of the family still living in the Bordyke house.

On the advice of her publisher, Longmans, Eliza turned her hand to writing on a more practical and popular subject, cookery. When her Modern Cookery for Private Families appeared in 1845, it was an immediate success, eventually selling 60,000 copies and earning Eliza £900, roughly equivalent to £70,000 today. The book remained popular for many years, and reached its fortieth edition in 1908.

Acton's Cookery Book

1897 edition of Acton's 'Modern Cookery for Private Families'

Eliza's book was significant in being the first cookery book in which detailed instructions are given, ingredients listed and possible problems discussed. The personal experience of the author in using the recipes is immediately clear. Eliza was also one of the first cookery writers to aim her recipes specifically at small households. The range of her recipes is wide, and in the later editions she included a chapter on Jewish cookery and foreign recipes, especially Indian ones.

Some recipes were modest ones like 'the poor author's pudding' which is recognisable as a bread-and-butter pudding, while a richer 'publisher's pudding' includes cognac, cream, almonds and dried fruit. Particular individuals mentioned in the titles of her recipes include Baron von Liebig, a German chemist who was known for his book 'Researches on the chemistry of food' in which he said that bad cookery leads to the waste of food. His Bavarian Brown Bread and Beef Gravy are two of Eliza's recipes. 'Christopher North's own sauce for many meats' which was recommended for game, pork or venison was a reference to the colourful Scottish lawyer and author, John Wilson, who wrote under the pseudonym of 'North' and was known for his critical reviews in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. Why she should have chosen him is a mystery.

Not surprisingly there are many references to Kent and some to Tonbridge in Eliza's recipes. There is 'Kentish' sausage meat, suet pudding and cherry jam, 'Tonbridge' brawn, and ‘Bordyke’ Veal cake, preserved ham and bread. There is even a Monitor's tart or 'tourte a la Judd' – a fruit tart named after Andrew Judde, the founder of Tonbridge School.

Eliza's twin talents, writing poetry and recording recipes, come together in the following lines which she sent to her sister:

   If you want a good pudding, to teach you I'm willing;
   Take two pennyworth of eggs, when twelve for a shilling,
   And of the same fruit, that Eve once had chosen,
   Well pared and well chopped, at least half a dozen;
   Six ounces of bread – let your maid eat the crust,
   The crumbs must be grated as small as the dust;
   Six ounces of currants from the stones you must sort,
   Lest they break out your teeth, and spoil all your sport;
   Six ounces of sugar won't make it too sweet,
   Some salt and some nutmeg will make it complete;
   Three hours let it boil, without hurry or flutter,
   And then serve it up, without sugar or butter.

Eliza also wrote for the magazines The Ladies' Companion and Charles Dickens' Household Words.

The popularity of Eliza's cookery book was somewhat eclipsed when in 1861 Mrs Isabella Beeton produced her famous Book of Household Management, which sold millions of copies. In fact Mrs Beeton borrowed 150 recipes from Eliza. Among modern cooks, Delia Smith openly acknowledges her debt to Eliza in her rediscovery of traditional recipes; 'Eliza's English Salad Sauce' appears in Delia's Complete Cookery Course.

Eliza Acton died in 1859 and is buried not in Tonbridge, but in Hampstead churchyard.

The entire text of the second edition of Eliza's book, entitled Modern Cookery in all its branches, is available on the web here.

An American edition of Modern Cookery in all its branches also came out in 1845 and is available on the web in its entirety here. Apart from the addition of terrapins and 'Indian corn' as ingredients, it is very little different from the original.