Category Archives: History

The Turkish pot is back in use

I wrote at the start of the month about an old cooking pot I found in a second hand shop. It’s a lovely shop, though a far cry from the second hand shops I knew growing up in the 60s and 70s. They were proper junk shops then, where you’d find a clutter of dusty rubbish and treasure. This shop is run by nice ladies who collect ‘vintage’ objects on their travels and clean them up a bit – you’ll find everything a house would hold, from large items of French furniture to cutlery, clothes and jewellery.

My prized Peugeot Frères hachoir

My favourite acquisition was an old French hachoir made by Peugeot Frères, who also made cars, which has a fine steel blade and beautifully turned handles. It has a good weight and makes short work of any fine chopping. Now it has competition in the form of ‘the pot’. I should say that I generally visit this shop after getting my hair cut, partly because it’s right next door and I can’t resist going in there to see what new treasures they’ve got. Every six months or so I might buy something.

When I first saw the pot it was sitting on the ground in the courtyard at the back of the shop. I glanced at it, thought it interesting, but passed by. Six weeks later it was still there, so I stopped for a closer look. Funny looking thing, hand-hammered copper with a tin lining. A bit scratched and worn, and the lid only fitted in one position, but intriguing, I’d never seen anything like it before. 12 quid, not bad. Tempting. I picked it up and felt the weight, the copper had a decent thickness and could no doubt be cleaned up a bit. ‘Buy me, lady‘ said the pot, so I did and took it home where it sat on a windowsill for a couple of weeks while I thought about what to do with it.

The pot in its original state

During that couple of weeks, I spent hours scouring the internet trying to find similar items, but failed to come up with anything quite the same. There were similar pots, however, and all were Turkish from the time of the Ottoman Empire. The best I could come up with was to place it in the early 1900s. Who had used it, when and where, and how did it end up in that Oxfordshire second hand shop? So many questions. Anyway, having tentatively decided on a rough age and origin, I thought about using it, but was wary of the worn tin lining, so started looking at getting the inside re-tinned. There are a few re-tinning companies in the UK and some of them proudly announce that they re-tin copper cookware for royalty, but that wasn’t really what I was looking for. As luck would have it, I came across a small business in Cornwall, Newlyn Tinning, run by Steve Pearse. On the website, this paragraph caught my eye:

I take great pride in following my predecessors of this trade and closer to home, the great tradition of coppersmithing in Newlyn where many fishermen in hard winter times turned their hands to producing some of the finest industrial art copper work from the late 19th century arts & crafts era onwards. A trade still going strong today.’

Cornwall has been a centre of tin mining and metal work since the Bronze Age and I wanted to support the continuation of that. Newlyn Tinning looked right, so I got in touch, discussed the details and cost, which was very reasonable, and sent the pot off to Steve. Three weeks later the pot was returned gleaming and transformed, both inside and out. The previously dark and scruffy exterior remained un-tinned, as requested, but had been cleaned and polished to a rich glow, while the inside was freshly tinned. It looked beautiful and still old, as if there was real history in there. I was delighted.

The transformed Ottoman pot

The Ottoman Empire. Image source

What to cook in it? It would feel right to cook something fitting and traditional. I looked at a map of the Ottoman Empire in 1900 and saw that it covered a wide area, from southern Europe to north Africa and parts of the Middle East. Quite a lot of choice there in terms of cuisine. The pot holds 2.5l at the line just above the indentation, so big enough for a family meal. I decided on a casserole of chicken, apricots and lentils, flavoured with ras el hanout, saffron and bay, served with couscous and green beans. It was delicious and we raised a glass to Steve the tinner.

A casserole of chicken, apricots and lentils – delicious!

It pleases me very much to think of this pot being put to use once again and I feel, however tenuously, connected to all those who have, over who knows how many years, stirred a meal in it. Long may that continue.


Musing on mudlarking and putting some finds into context

Since the mudlark we enjoyed at the beginning of October, I’ve spent some time finding out more about the pieces we found. What they were part of and how they were used. I know that most of the pieces are parts of cooking pots, pans and storage vessels. They would have broken at some point and then been thrown into the river Thames, which was a massive rubbish dump for at least two thousand years.

foreshoreAncient rubbish on the Thames foreshore

The pieces that may have formed a 16th or 17th century ale cistern have intrigued me for several reasons, partly because there are the marks of the potter’s hands on them – you can see where the potter created indentations, probably with a thumb, to give a better grip to the handle.

strap-handle-baseThe bottom of a strap handle, probably from a large jug or ale cistern – it shows the finger marks of the potter.

pot-rimsPieces of pot rim with part of the handle attached. I used a compass and estimate that these pots would have had a diameter of approximately 8.5cm

On, the underside of the piece shown top right you find the indentation of the potter’s fingers; this must have been made as the pot was lifted when the clay was still malleable and when I put my own hand to it, it fits the shape of my own fingers. Maybe this potter had similar sized hands to mine.


So how were these things used at the time? In what settings? How did the kitchens look and what was being cooked? Who used these kitchens?

I turned to looking at old paintings and came across the Flemish artist David Teniers the Younger (15 December 1610 – 25 April 1690), and his depictions of peasant life. They took me on a journey through time to the types of places my ancestors inhabited and gave me a glimpse of how their lives could have been.

kitchen Teniers - largeKitchen 1644 – note the open fire with meat roasting

Teniers used the same props time and again and some show up in many paintings – the jugs and dishes that sit on tables or on the floor; the benches the peasants sit on; a rough wooden block used for a foot rest; the same view of a particular tavern, where there is always a rag hanging from a hook on the wall next to the fireplace.

Teniers - tavern sceneSpot the rag, top right

In the background, there is often a seated woman holding a long-handled pan over the embers of a fire. She appears to be cooking pancakes. Did people eat a lot of pancakes in the 1600s? Other interiors show meat roasting on spits over open fires, while fish, game and fruits are prepared elsewhere.

Figures Gambling in a Tavern, 1670Figures Gambling in a Tavern, 1670. While the peasants drink and play cards, in the background a woman cooks pancakes over a fire. Is that man on the left peeing against the wall?

Teniers_David_1645-SmokerSmoker, 1645. The man in this picture is certainly peeing against the wall – note how the person in the drawing seems to be smirking at him. That tavern must have reeked!

In the paintings of merry-making, whether inside or out, somewhere in the image there is often a man urinating, being sick or sleeping off his excesses.

David_Teniers_the_Younger_-_Kermis_on_St_George's_Day_-_Google_Art_ProjectAt the edge of the merry-making, one man sleeps while another appears to vomit

People talk and laugh, sing and dance, caress one another, play cards, drink and smoke. All seems cheerful and no fights are shown.

Carnival 'The King Drinks', 1690-teniersCarnival ‘The King Drinks’, 1690 – again, pancakes are being cooked in the background

One can image the noise, musical instruments, singing and shouting, and probably the smell – wood and tobacco smoke, ale, food, grease, candle wax, urine, vomit, dog shit and body odour.

Peasants_in_an_Interior_(1661)_Adriaen_van_OstadePeasants in an Interior, 1661,  Adriaen van Ostade

There is a certain grossness to these images that both repulses and intrigues and I wonder if I would enjoy visiting the 1600s for a short time. One might be best advised to visit in the guise of a man in order to avoid the fondling that takes place; better yet to be invisible and a skilled linguist to understand what was being said.

I ask myself again, given the chance, would I visit? Thinking of my family’s history, they were country people from the north of England and were mainly farmers and millers. Although the records we have go back only to 1785 and the birth of my Great Great Great Great Grandfather, Joseph Hodgson, they were likely not dissimilar to the people in these paintings; peasants leading rural lives, closely entwined in their communities. They’d have attended local merry making and would probably have sung and danced with the best of them. So the answer is, I might not want to live there but, yes I’d visit, like a shot.

My life as a Victorian dairy maid – bringing the geese in

The milking, cleaning of the milking parlour and farmyard done, it was time to feed the animals and then bring the geese in from the pond outside the farmyard. Once the doors were shut, the farmyard was enclosed so no foxes or rustlers could get in and the geese would mill about quite happily with the chickens and turkeys that usually wandered about the place.


The ‘how’ of persuading a group of large birds to leave the middle of a big pond and go where you want them to is one of those slivers of knowledge which delights me. It’s something you’d want to remember for the rest of your life, because it’s sounds so useful and, you never know, you might need to do it one day. Need help getting your geese off the pond? No problem!

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My life as a Victorian dairy maid – bringing the cows in

The morning cleaning of the farmyard done and several demonstrations of butter making carried out,  it was time to bring in the cows for milking. There weren’t many dairy cows, only four, and their purpose was to show what olden days cows look like. These were dairy shorthorns and they were sturdy red or rowan animals that had been bred in the north-east of England in the 18th century. They spent most of their time in one of the fields outside the farmyard so, come milking time, someone had to go and get them.

Bringing in the cows - Daisy thinks about going elsewhere
Bringing in the cows – Daisy thinks about going elsewhere

It was with some trepidation that I first took part in bringing in the cows. I mean, how do you do it? It’s not like you can just pick them up and carry them in; they’re huge and won’t necessarily do what you want. Fortunately, they had lived on the farm for several years and knew the routine so, on the whole, it wasn’t especially difficult.

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My life as a Victorian dairy maid – making butter

In 1990, for a short time, I worked as a dairy maid on a Victorian museum farm in the Black Country region of the West Midlands. Being in the (then) industrial West Midlands, it was a rare opportunity to be outside a lot, as well as doing something totally different to anything I’d ever considered doing before. Having spent so much time over the years thinking, ‘I wonder how you do xyz’ and ‘I wonder what it was like to…’ it was also a chance to sate my curiosity about at least one thing and find out what sort of things might have happened on a Victorian farm. What did they do?

Threshing machine at Victorian museum farm
Threshing machine in the farm yard at the Victorian museum farm

I was only there for about ten months, before bowing out with dairy maid’s elbow, but it was a fascinating experience and one that I look back on with memories of carefree sunny days, out of another time altogether. It was my first real taste of proper physical work and the first time I realised that the old ‘upstairs-downstairs’ attitudes are still very much alive today, but more of that later.

Continue reading My life as a Victorian dairy maid – making butter