Life and Times
Anyone who has heard of Mrs Beeton probably thinks of her as a stately, stout, tough matron, the kind that went out into the world to beat back the bush in the name of God and Queen. In fact, she died young, at the age of 28, and was very avant-garde — she even worked as a journalist, something practically unheard of in her times. Her famous cookbook came out when she was just 25 1/2 years old.
Isabella was born at 24 Milk Street in Cripplegate Within, Cheapside, London as Isabella Mary Mayson on 14 March 1836 (some sources say born 12 March.) Her parents were Benjamin and Elizabeth (née Jarram) Mayson. Benjamin was the son of John Mayson, a curate from Thursby, just south of Carlisle in Cumberland near the Scottish border, and Isabella Trimble.
Benjamin became a brewer, then moved to London and came to own a linen and cotton warehouse (other sources mention a “livery stable”.) Sadly, Benjamin died aged 39 while Isabella was still young; he left his wife with four young children, of which Isabella was the eldest, plus a fifth one on the way. By this time, Isabella’s grandfather John, aged 79 and recently widowed, had become the vicar of Great Orton in Cumberland. Isabella was sent up to live with him and his servant. Her siblings were sent off to live with other relatives.
Early in 1843, her mother Elizabeth came up to Cumberland to collect her. But she came with a man named Henry Dorling, who had been a friend of the family previously. Elizabeth and Henry crossed over the Scottish border to Gretna Green, and married there, then picked up Isabella from her grandfather and returned to the south of England.
Henry Dorling and his father William were booksellers and printers in Epsom, Surrey. Henry had previously joined his father there in 1834 with his wife Emily and 4 children. The death of Emily left Henry free to marry Isabella’s mother, making a combined family of eight children [Ed. sic, not nine]. Henry did a lot of printing for the races at Epsom: race cards, etc. It was on the printing of the race cards that the Dorling family would come to build its prosperity, and their association with the races and their management brought them into association with minor aristocracy. In 1845, Henry leased the Epsom Downs grandstand (built 1828) for 1,000 pounds a year. He moved his printing business into it, and also brought the children to live there. From then until 1851, Isabella and her siblings lived in the offices and various rooms under the grandstand, being chased out only on race days when they were needed. But otherwise they had the run of what must have seemed like very grand premises, with very grand balconies.
In 1851, Henry rented Ormonde House on the town’s High Street (now 2 High Street, at the corner of East Street) and moved the children into its large premises. Eventually, Henry and Elizabeth had further children, and there were 17 children in the Dorling household altogether (estimates range from 17 to 21.) Henry did a great deal of entertaining, so there were long Victorian dinner parties to be sat through by the children. Isabella had dresses made for her by a woman named Miss Findlay, and was sent to London once a week for piano lessons, which she became proficient at.
Isabella could read and speak French and German passably well. Her education included a stint at a finishing school in Heidelberg, Germany, during which time she also learned how to do some basic pastrymaking. She got some additional pastrymaking lessons on her return to Epsom from a shop there named “Barnards.”
On one of her trips to London in 1855, Isabella met her future husband, Samuel Orchard (some sources spell it “Orchart”) Beeton. Sam’s father was Samuel Powell Beeton, who owned the Dolphin Tavern in Milk Street, Cheapside, London (he had inherited it from his father, also named Samuel Beeton.) Sam’s mother had known Isabella’s mother Elizabeth from when they both lived on Milk Street, and the two mothers had kept in touch.
Isabella’s future husband was the oldest of 7 children. When he was very young, he spent a lot of time in Hadleigh, Suffolk with his widowed grandmother Lucy. Sam did not want to continue in the pub business as his father and grandfather had, so he got himself a seven-year apprenticeship for publishing.
In the 1850s, there was a whole new market for booksellers as the working-class who were learning to read for the first time. Sam Beeton realized that while publishers were gearing up to meet this new market with cheap books that they could afford, they were still not printing anything specifically for children or women. He founded a printing house at 18 Bouverie Street where he started a magazine for boys called “Boy’s Own Magazine.” He also became the first English publisher of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (granted, though, he printed pirated editions, as this was the days before copyright.)
In 1852 he started the “Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine,” which would run until 1881; it sold for 2 pence. By 1856, he was selling 50,000 copies a year.
Isabella’s step-father, Henry Dorling, wasn’t keen on Sam at first — Sam was very “flash”, and had a bit of a reputation. Isabella found him somewhat unreliable, often changing the dates they had for getting together. What Henry Dorling and Isabella didn’t know was worse — he had syphilis.
Sam, however, persevered in his interest for Isabella and showed up at the Dorling household in Epsom every two weeks to court Isabella, whom he called “Bella.” At the age of 20, she married him on 10 July 1856 in a wedding party that included eight bridesmaids. After the wedding, they caught the train at nearby Reigate and went off to Europe to spend their honeymoon.
When they returned, they lived at 2 Chandos Villas, Hatch End, Middlesex (just north of Harrow.) The Pinner railway station there on the London to Birmingham line provided easy access to London, and there was a development of new “villa” houses for the middle class. From 1859 on, one of her neighbours was Horatia Nelson Ward, the daughter of Lord Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton. Isabella was like many new middle-class women of her era; living in a new suburban home, away from her family. With no mother near-by to refer to for advice on how to manage a home, they would turn to a book instead. This market would became part of the audience for Sam and Isabella’s books.
After a few months back, by the fall of 1856 Isabella was writing articles on cooking and fashion for Sam’s “Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine.” In 1857, she started thinking of writing a cookbook, and worked towards it by assembling knowledge, and collecting and testing recipes. She was 21 at the time when she started this work, and finished it when she was 25.
In the winter of 1858, Isabella opened a soup kitchen for poor children in Hatch End and Pinner, London. Her first child died at the age of 3 months in September 1859. That same month, continuing through to August 1861 (24 months in all) she wrote monthly supplements to the “Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine” on various household topics, which were later recycled into her cookbook.
In 1860, Sam and Isabella went off to Paris to do research and develop contacts, meeting people such as a Monsieur and Madame Goubaud, proprietors of Le Moniteur de la Mode. The magazine was subsequently revamped, and Sam decided to start including coloured fashion plates in the magazine. If you liked a design that you saw in the magazine, you could order the pattern from them for 3 shillings 6 pence. The price of the magazine was also raised to sixpence. Isabella and one of her sisters sorted through all the patterns.
In October 1861, the Book of Household Management was published, after 4 years of work on it. Within a year, it had sold 60,000 copies.
Despite several miscarriages, Isabella had four children by the time she died. It’s now presumed that Isabella’s difficulty with pregnancies came from syphilis, presumably picked up from Sam right at the start of their honeymoon. The first child (mentioned above) died when three months old; the second when three years old. Two sons lived however, one to a ripe old age. Her last direct descendant died in 1998.
The fourth child, and last child was a boy whom they named “Mayson” was born at the very end of January 1865. He died one week later on 6 February 1865 of “childbed fever” . He was buried at West Norwood Cemetery, south of London, on the south bank of the Thames, halfway between Wandsworth and Bromley (this is also the burial place of other well-known people such as Sir Henry Doulton, Baron Julius de Reuter, and Sir Henry Tate.)
Sam carried on business without her, even making her name into a brand. Still, by 1866, Sam was in debt to a business called Overend and Guerney, which collapsed, taking him down with it. To stave off his own bankruptcy, Sam sold the rights to his business including Isabella’s book to Ward, Lock & Co., who engaged him to continue running his business. What was Sam’s business is still owned by Ward & Lock. Sam died c. 1877 of tuberculosis and was also buried at Norwood.
The “Book of Household Management” wasn’t meant to be a book you would read cover to cover, but rather a reference book. To aid this in a book of 1, 112 pages, Isabella numbered not only the recipes, but also every paragraph in the book. The book contains both coloured and black and white illustrations.
Isabella says in her introduction to the book that she will avoid vagaries such as a “handful” or “small piece.” Some of the measurements she gave instead, though, such as “the weight of two eggs in butter and sugar” wouldn’t really pass as precise by today’s standards. In her measurements, the tablespoon is the same as the modern tablespoon (1/2 oz volume.) A dessertspoon is 1/2 tablespoon (1/4 oz volume.)
The book contained almost 2000 recipes in total. All recipes included a list of ingredients, directions, cooking time, cost and number of servings. She listed the ingredients needed at the start of each recipe, rather than burying them in the directions. Isabella’s sense of organization came from watching her father manage a racetrack, and her mother manage up to 20 children. And as one of the oldest children, she would have been handed a great deal of responsibility.
There were 100 recipes for soup, 200 recipes for sauces, and 128 recipes for fish. Probably none of the recipes were invented by her — many recipes originated in fact with people such as Eliza Acton (“Modern Cookery for Private Families”), Alexis Soyer (“Modern Housewife“), Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, and Antonin Carême. Though she rejected elaborate recipes, she still intended the book for households in which there was help in the kitchen and dining room, not to mention the rest of the house. Of the recipes she thought suitable, she tested each one with the help of her own cook and kitchen maid at home, making at least one recipe a day, and rewrote them all to her new standardized layout.
Though Isabella was actually a very modern woman for her time, and worked side by side with her husband in the publishing business, her book had the effect of cementing the Victorian ideal that a middle-class wife’s place was in the home — even if hired help did most of the work. She included advice on looking after a household in general, including advice even on how to pay servants. The legal and medical chapters are assumed to have been written by someone else. Isabella thought that well-meaning advice given to working-class people from their middle-class betters could improve their lot in life (a mission which now seems to have been passed from ladies who lunch to entire government departments.)
Books by Isabella Mary Beeton
- Book of Household Management (1861)
- Beeton’s Dictionary of Cookery. (1865.) Abridged version of “Book of Household Management.” Published posthumously. Completed just a few weeks before her death.
- Beeton’s Book of Needlework. (1870.) Published by her husband and credited to her to leverage the “branding” of her name.
 Caused by genital infection after giving birth, often brought on by something as simple as lack of handwashing by those assisting at the birth.
Literature & Lore
“I must frankly own that if I had known beforehand that this book would have cost me the labour which it has, I should never have been courageous enough to commence it.” — Isabella Mary Beeton
“Don’t choose your footman by the shape of his calf.” — Isabella Mary Beeton
BBC Radio 4. The original domestic goddess (Mrs Beeton). Woman’s Hour, Friday 14 October 2005, 10:00 am to 11:00 am. Martha Kearney & Kathryn Hughes.