Ginger Bread

This recipe is from pages six to seven of Harriet’s book. This is the third gingerbread recipe I have posted so far (if you include Parkin, which I do). It seems that, if they were united by little else, both Lancastrians and Yorkshire folk did love their gingerbread. I’ll be honest from the start though: it wasn’t nice. It has become a running theme of this blog that Harriet’s recipes do not always please modern tastes. Previously, I’ve speculated that perhaps she was learning to cook from relatives that were used to ‘making do’, as many of them had experienced acute poverty in their lives. Harriet did not have an easy start in life, as this post will sadly expand upon.

“Ginger Bread. 1ib flour mix in 4oz butter or dripping until fine as breadcrumbs then add 1/4oz ground ginger & 1/4 teaspoonful grated nutmeg & the same of Jamaican pepper also in powder, caraway seeds can be used instead of the latter. Now add enough treacle to make the whole into a stiff paste that can be rolled out onto a sheet an inch (?) …”
…or rather less. Cut into fingers & bake on a greased tin in a gentle oven. When cold store in a tin canister. Another way by adding a little more treacle nuts may be dropped on a tin.”

‘Jamaican pepper’ is what we know today in the UK as Allspice. I plumped for using caraway seeds. Without specific measurements, it was hard to know how much treacle to add but I managed to roll it out as described. The result was hard and surprisingly tasteless. In spite of the treacle mountain I had added, there was little sweetness in there. The children were willing to eat them but they will eat pretty much anything that isn’t nailed down, to be honest.

When you’re researching your family history, every now and then you come across a ‘Who Do You Think You Are?‘ ancestor. For anyone not familiar with WDYTYA, it’s a television series that takes a famous person and traces their ancestry. Understandably, given that it’s an entertainment format, they tend to choose the most interesting forebears they can find. These long-dead relatives are often famous, infamous, have been present at a defining moment of history, or have experienced great tragedy or poverty. In future posts, I’ll explore ancestors of mine that fit the first three categories (yes, I have found both fame and infamy!) For today’s post though, it’s an ancestor that WDYTYA would have chosen in the hope it would make me cry on television.

I have previously written about Harriet’s mother Ellen and her grandmothers Ann and Alice. I have been wanting to write about her father, Thomas, for a while but it’s taken me some time and research to find out what happened to him after his wife’s death. Here is the only known surviving picture of him, my great-great grandfather:

Thomas Welburn Ibson

Thomas Welburn Ibson was born in January 1841, at a farm called Salamanca in Hanging Grimston, Kirby Underdale (details of Salamanca can be found in this post). His father, also Thomas, was a farm labourer. His mother was Alice Welburn, who was born on the southern edge of what became the North York Moors National Park. Thomas junior did not have an auspicious start in life. His father died from ‘inflammation of the bowels’ when Alice was just a few weeks pregnant and she was left with five older girls to support. Ten years later she was recorded as a ‘pauper’ in the census and it seems likely that she relied on poor relief, the kindness of the community and taking in laundry to support her family and keep them out of the workhouse. It can’t have been an easy childhood for Thomas.

Thomas would have attended the village school, most likely until he was twelve or thirteen, and then gone out to work as an agricultural labourer. There is no definitive sign of him in the 1861 census but by 1868 he is back in his family’s district as, unfortunately, he makes an appearance in the local newspaper: ‘Thomas Ibson, labourer, of Hanging Grimston, for being drunk and disorderly in Meltonby, on the 17th February, was fined 5s, and 18s costs.‘ I don’t know the full circumstances but Thomas was 23 and about to embark upon married life, so I’ll put this one down to youthful excess.

Thomas did indeed get married in May 1868, to Eleanor Blakelock. I’ve written about their early married life in previous posts so, to summarise, Thomas took in Eleanor’s illegitimate son William and the couple went on to have another ten children. But life didn’t let up for Thomas. In the 1870s, he and Eleanor lost a son and a daughter. Then, in the space of just two years in the late 1880s, Thomas lost three more of his children and his wife Eleanor. On Eleanor’s death certificate and two of the children’s the cause of death is ‘Phthisis‘ – or tuberculosis as we know it today.

Thomas was left a widower with three young children still to provide for: seven-year-old Harriet and her younger siblings, Herbert and Alice. By 1891, he seemed to be struggling, as only Harriet was still living with him; Herbert and Alice had gone to live with their maternal grandmother in nearby Pickering. According to school records, they returned briefly to the village in 1894 but then appear to have quickly returned to grandma, where both were still living in 1901. But what happened to Harriet and her father in the decade after Eleanor died?

In 1901, Harriet was also living in Pickering. She was 20 years old and working as a housemaid for James Dove Whitehead and his family. James was a recently widowed solicitor, raising four children of his own. But, in contrast to Thomas, he had a nurse and two maids to help him. I’ve no way of knowing how long Harriet had been with the family. Records show that she left school in 1894 and so would almost certainly have gone into service at this point, aged 13.

Tracking down Thomas proved more difficult. There was no sign of him in the 1901 census; my mother did not appear to have found him and neither could I at first, although I knew him to be still alive at this point. He would have been sixty years old and unlikely to have left the county of his birth. But he wasn’t living with Harriet, his older surviving sons, James or John, or the youngest children. And he wasn’t anywhere to be found in Hanging Grimston or the surrounding villages. So, where was he?

I eventually found Thomas by searching under variations of his surname. And the story that then unfolded was quite a shock.

I don’t know what happened to Thomas between 1894, when Harriet went into service and 1898. But, in June 1898, Thomas arrived at the Pocklington Workhouse. The Workhouse was some eight miles from where Thomas lived and was responsible for the poor of many local parishes, including Kirby Underdale and its hamlets such as Hanging Grimston. It appears that Thomas may have turned up there himself, looking for family members that he mistakenly thought were there. He didn’t stay long.

Four days later Thomas was transferred to the East Riding Lunatic Asylum in Beverley and this is where I did eventually find him, three years later, on the 1901 census. I have Thomas’s medical records but I’m not going to go into the details. I wouldn’t particularly want the finer details of my mental health crisis posted on the internet, even a century after my death, so I’m going to assume he wouldn’t either. (I have no doubt that Who Do You Think You Are? would absolutely go into the details, panning the camera right in on my shocked and sad face!)

East Riding Asylum, Beverley (later known as Broadgate Hospital). Photograph reproduced with kind permission of

Thomas was in fairly good physical health for a man of his age but ten days previously had suffered a major decline in his mental health. Victorian terms such as ‘lunatic’, ‘melancholia’ and ‘dull and stupid’ were used in his records, as well as terms we would be more used to today, such as ‘depression’ and ‘delusions’. No definitive diagnosis was made but it is perhaps pertinent that these days we recognise that poverty, social isolation and stressful life events can all trigger episodes of poor mental health. Thomas had these in abundance.

Thomas spent the next three years in the asylum. When he was well enough, he worked in the 120 acres of farms and gardens which surrounded the hospital. The majority of residents were put to work in this way, which was therapeutic, as well as provided produce to feed the staff and patients. The East Ridings Museums website also reports that there were ‘regular entertainments for the patients, including concerts, theatrical performances, cricket, football and croquet as well as the usual dances and coffee parties. “Walking parties beyond the grounds” were also routine, as were picnics to, for example, Welton Dale and Hornsea.’ Daily provisions appeared to be generous and included bread, butter, tea, coffee, soup, suet pudding, meat pie, Irish stew and half a pint of beer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.

East Riding Asylum, viewed from above, showing the many fields and gardens in and around the buildings. Photograph reproduced with kind permission of

Thomas was discharged on 7 October 1901. It doesn’t state where he went next, just that he was ‘recovered’ (which was written in large, slightly jolly-looking capital letters across the centre of the page). He would not have gone to live with Harriet, who was still in service. His son, James, was named as his family in the hospital records but he too was still single and living on a farm at this time. John, the next eldest son, was married with two children so perhaps Thomas went to live with them. Or maybe his mother-in-law, the ever-hospitable Ann, had taken him in, so that he could be reunited with his children, Herbert and Alice, and step-son, William.

At some time after her wedding in 1909, Thomas did go to live with Harriet in a nearby town, Norton, as that was where he was on the 1911 census. He would have known my grandmother, who was born in 1910. In spite of his medical records indicating that he had a heart condition in 1898, Thomas went on to live until 1913. He was 72 years old and his cause of death was ‘Chronic Bright’s Disease’ (an archaic name for a variety of kidney problems) and ‘Cardiac Dilatation’. The parish newspaper from Kirby Underdale reported his death with this commentary:

“Mr Ibson, an old inhabitant, had lived at Norton for the last few years with a married daughter. He was Clerk and Sexton of the Church at one time. He had a large share of sorrow and suffering, losing his wife and several children and being himself an invalid for a long period.”

Sorrow and suffering had certainly been Thomas’s lot but I wonder too what effect all this had on Harriet: losing a mother and five siblings before she was eight and then living in poverty with a father who struggled with mental ill health. Perhaps going into service somewhere else was even a relief for her in some ways. I hope as I follow her story that she finds some happiness.


4 thoughts on “Ginger Bread

  1. Pingback: Shrewsbury Cakes | Eating With The Ancestors

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s