Corn Flour Cake

This recipe is from Harriet’s book, on page six. The photograph above, terrible as it is, fully does justice to the dry and inedible quality of this cake. At least, unlike Harriet’s Sponge Cake, this does have some fat in it but it only makes for a marginal improvement in taste and texture.

Corn Flour Cake. 2oz flour. 2oz cornflour. 4oz caster sugar. 2oz butter. 1 teaspoonful of B.P. 2 eggs. Mode. Beat butter to a cream add sugar & mix well break eggs & beat all well together now stir lightly into the cornflour & baking powder & beat well for 5 mins. Grease and line a cake tin with paper and bake in a moderate oven 3/4 of an hr. & let stand on a sieve till cold.

The addition of the cornflour supposedly gives the cake a lighter texture. I dread to think what it would have been like without. So far, Harriet’s cake recipes have not turned out well. Whether it’s the fault of the recipes, the transcriber, modern tastes or my cooking skills remains to be discovered as I carry on through her book.

As I research ancestors to write this blog, I am struck by the difference between the two sides of my family – and how this affects the information I am able to find. On my father’s side, people are wealthier and, as lawyers and vicars, they often appear in public records and newspapers from the time (although not always for illustrious reasons, as was evidenced in my last, rather sad, post). In contrast, family members on my mother’s side were from poor, usually rural backgrounds. Aside from parish records, there is little to discover about their lives. If other records do appear, it is usually for bad or sad reasons such as brushes with the law or admittances to workhouses or asylums.

It was a pleasant surprise then to find Sarah Ibson in an actual book! Sarah was Harriet’s great-grandmother and my great-great-great-great grandmother. Sarah is mentioned in the Reverend Shepherd’s book The History of Kirby Underdale, in a section on longevity, having (apparently) lived to the ripe old age of 86:

She was baptised Sarah Nichols (also variously spelt Nickle or Nickols in parish records!) in 1778, in Hutton Buscel, on the edge of what is now the North York Moors National Park. In 1805, she married Thomas Ibson. She had already had a son, Thomas, in 1803, prior to their marriage, who may or may not have been Thomas Ibson’s son; sadly, he died as an infant in 1805. The couple went on to have a further nine children; eight boys and a girl. The first son born within the marriage, in 1805, was also called Thomas and he was Harriet’s grandfather. He died aged just 35 (written about in this post).

In contrast to most of my other ancestors on this side of the family, who did not stray far from Yorkshire, several of Thomas and Sarah’s children ended up a long way from home. Their only daughter Ann married in 1831 and by the end of the decade was living in Ontario, Canada. Her brother Joseph emigrated to Missouri, USA (via Canada) in the late 1850s. Two other of the brothers, Richard and John, also emigrated to Ontario. Of the remaining children, (an earlier) Joseph died in infancy. Robert, George and William all stayed in Yorkshire.

I don’t have any photographs of Sarah’s children. This is hardly surprising, given that they were all born in the first two decades of the nineteenth century and all bar one had died by 1900. It was quite a surprise therefore to find this photograph amongst my late mother’s effects – along with the detective work she had carried out in an attempt to identify the two women. The old lady on the right she believed to be Sarah.

The notes that my mother left identify this as an early type of photograph known as a daguerreotype and date it to around 1850, give or take two years. From this date, she deduced that the lady on the right is Sarah (who would have then been aged 72) and her grand-daughter, Hannah Poole. According to the 1851 census, at this time Sarah was living with Hannah and her husband Charles at Woodley in Kirby Underdale. In the next house along was Alice Ibson (her daughter-in-law). I wrote about Alice, where she lived and the poverty she endured in this post. Like Sarah, in this census Alice is described as a ‘pauper’ and ‘agricultural labourer widow’. Life was tough for working class Victorian women if their husbands died young.

Was my mother right? I’m not sure if she had the photograph professionally examined and dated; I suspect that she did, as this was some time ago and her notes about local photographers of the time are all hand-written rather than printed from the internet. But I’m not sure that the photograph is a daguerreotype. From what I understand, daguerreotypes have a polished silver surface and tend to be housed in cases because they are so delicate. This glass plate has a black backing, which means it is more likely to be an ambrotype, a photographic process not patented until 1854. Ambrotypes were also cheaper than daguerreotypes, which makes it a more likely option, given the Ibsons’ dire financial circumstances.

So what does this mean for the dating and identification of the image above? Ambrotypes were apparently most popular in the late 1850s. The hair and clothes would also fit this period. Sarah lived until 1866 and so it does still seem possible that she could be the lady in the photograph. Given that the photograph was passed down via Harriet, the old lady is likely to have been one of her female ancestors. Her mother, Eleanor, died young and so it won’t be her. Her maternal grandmother, Ann, features in another photograph (in this post) so we can rule her out. Her paternal grandmother, Alice, would only have been in her late forties at the time. Her other great-grandmothers were either dead by this time or too young. Which leaves Sarah!

I’ll never know for sure if the lady in the photograph is Sarah Ibson, my great-great-great-great grandmother, but it does seem likely. By 1861, Sarah is 83 and living with her son Robert and his daughters, Elizabeth and Hannah (Clarkson), in Wintringham, a village some fifteen miles northwest of Kirby Underdale. So, the scowling younger lady could be Hannah Poole or Hannah Clarkson.

Sarah lived for another five years, dying on 6 March 1866 in Norton, Malton, where she was apparently then living with Hannah Clarkson and her family, including husband Robert. On Sarah’s death certificate it says she is 90 years old, although records indicate she was 88 (and not 86, as Rev Shepherd’s book suggests). The cause of death is simply ‘Old Age’.

10 thoughts on “Corn Flour Cake

  1. What a nice expression the older lady has! I think you’re right that this is an ambrotype (glass positive), although it would originally have been housed in a protective case, just like a daguerreotype. If this were a glass negative, light areas such as faces would appear dark, and dark areas such as hair would appear light.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you – I hoped you might come along, with your excellent knowledge of photography. She does have a cheery expression, doesn’t she? (unlike whichever surly grand-daughter is it!)

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Oh, I have so many Victorian photos of family members I’ll never identify. Sad, isn’t it? I’m interested when you say your father’s family was wealthier, and included vicars. My mother’s father was a vicar from the late 19th to early twentieth century, and rich they weren’t. They lived in a succession of vicarages (he was sent to failing parishes to haul them into some kind of liveliness) where mice were rampant, and buckets set around the house during rainstorms came as standard. They did have at times a maid-of-all-work. She would work alongside my grandmother whose daily life was quite evidently that of a drudge, and one who was expected too to involve herself fully in parish duties. His parishes tended to be large urban ones in the industrial north. I should write about them sometime, as his is an amazing story of a man with 9 siblings, born poor, but who must have attracted a benefactor who put him through grammar school and Cambridge.


    • That does sound like quite a story! Perhaps it’s about class more than wealth in some ways. Certainly, the vicar in my previous post ended up dying with debts up to his ears! But even so, his widow, with countless children, must have had the contacts, experience and extended family to set her back on her feet. She lived out a comfortable life and her children all did well for themselves. In contrast, the widows of the agricultural labourers on my mother’s Yorkshire side all ended up as paupers, relying on the charity of other poor family members and trying not to die from TB. So you’re right, the vicars weren’t wealthy but definitely better off than the ag labs. Although I suspect the vicar mentioned above got into debt by living above his means (and providing for twelve children!)


  3. What a great read, I love the juxtaposition of baking and genealogy!
    It’s good to be reminded that whilst the history books are full of wars and other actions of the rich and powerful, most of our ancestors lives were visited by poverty and hardship.
    Thanks for bringing some of that to life.


    • Thank you. Yes, I’ve been surprised and somewhat shocked to realise the extent of the poverty – and loss – that my ancestors endured just a few generations ago. The women in particular often ended up in dire circumstances if their husbands died before them. I hope that by telling their stories they won’t be forgotten entirely. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Katherine. Thanks for stopping by! Interestingly, so many of the sweet recipes are not turning out well – they always seem to lack what we would consider a key ingredient (raising agent, egg, sugar…) And then there are the ones that are way too sweet even for our modern tastes…!


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