Tinned Tomato Soup

This recipe is from Maimie’s book and is dated from March 1896, a year before her marriage. If there is a theme to this post as a whole it is that I consistently underestimate the Victorians and how they lived, ate, travelled and innovated. As with a recent post about pineapples, it came as a surprise to me that tinned food was so readily available at this time. It also came as a surprise to find out that Maimie’s travels were not restricted to jaunts around the Lake District…

“Tinned Tomato Soup. Cut into small pieces 2oz lean bacon or ham – put these into a saucepan with one oz butter or dripping and fry for 3 or 4 minutes. Then add one carrot, one onion, one stick celery, all cut into small bits. Stir about in pan with bacon for 5 minutes now put in a 2lb tin tomatoes. At the same time put in bunch herbs tied up in some sprigs parsley with 1 pint stock, 1 pint tinned tomato juice. Boil all till quite soft. Then rub the soup thro’ a hair sieve. Rinse out the saucepan, put back the soup let it boil then shake gradually into the soup 1oz small sago and boil till it is clear. Rural World March 1896.”

I don’t know why it came as a surprise to me to find a recipe using tinned food from the end of the nineteenth century. For some reason, I had assumed canning to be a twentieth century innovation. In fact, the first English patent for the idea of preserving food using tin cans was granted to a merchant, Peter Durand, in 1810. Two years later, Durand sold his patent to two other Englishmen, Bryan Donkin and John Hall, who opened a canning factory in Bermondsey, south London. Their firm was subsequently purchased by Crosse and Blackwell – a food brand still associated with soup today.

Early cans had a tendency to explode, poison people or contain revolting meat products. However, as Clarissa Dickson Wright tells us in A History of English Food, ‘It was the Americans who ultimately perfected canning on an industrial scale, and by the 1880s, as initial scepticism was overcome, England became awash with tinned Pacific salmon, corned beef, sardines, condensed milk, green beans, peas, and heaven knows what else besides.’

Maimie feels like a bit of a mystery to me sometimes. Unlike her sister, Edith, she did not keep a little diary, there are few photographs of her and Harrison is such a common name that it is hard to be sure which ‘Miss Harrison’ is referenced in the local newspapers of the time. However, one of the first documents I found relating to Maimie when I was clearing my late parents’ house was, sadly, her own obituary. In it, I was intrigued to read that ‘In her younger days, [she] travelled extensively on the Continent.’ This was a surprise! But where had she travelled to? The time period in question (the 1880s and 90s) was too early to produce holiday snaps. Fortunately, I have inherited a wooden box which I hoped might hold some clues.

It’s a box that had always been on a shelf or sideboard somewhere when I was growing up but which I had never thought to look into. Inside, it reminds me of ‘boxes of treasure’ that I myself would keep as a child, filled as it is with all sorts of objects and documents that obviously meant something to Maimie when she was growing up and becoming a young woman. Trinkets, shells and locks of hair nestle with mysterious rocks and exotic-looking ornaments.

The first layer of Maimie’s box. The newspaper clipping relates to Maimie’s own birth in 1867.

In this post I want to focus on one document in particular and several little items from the bottom layer of the box which have helped me to understand a little better how Maimie spent her time as a young woman:

This is Maimie’s passport, granted when she was 25 years old. Dated January 1893, the document instructs all those whom it may concern to allow ‘Mary Althea Maberly Harrison (British subject) travelling in the Continent to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford her every assistance and protection of which she may stand in need.’ Interestingly, the document is issued and signed by the then Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, The Right Honourable Archibald Philip 5th Earl of Rosebery. Just over a year later, Rosebery became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He served for just one year and 109 days, is little remembered by anyone and his government was not a success.

Unlike other surviving passports of this period, there are no visa stamps on Maimie’s to help us establish where she travelled to. To determine that, I needed to dig a little deeper in the treasure box.

The label for this is written in Maimie’s distinctive large and looping hand-writing that she used in letters. Her recipe book, on the other hand, is often more hurried and scribbly…

It appears then that Maimie travelled around Italy. The country had been an essential destination on the Grand Tour, an educational trip predominantly taken by upper class, wealthy European men from the seventeenth century onwards. Certainly, we know there are diaries that show that Maimie’s grandfather, Charles, had travelled extensively in the early nineteenth century as had his son Alexander (Maimie’s uncle and Althea’s brother).

As well as gathering sea horses, Maimie had perhaps coincided her visit to Venice with the carnival, which was popular at the time. She would no doubt have passed through Naples to sail to Capri; the festival she references with the dried bread pieces was probably that of Sant-Antonio. Celebrated on June 13, it is customary for bread to be blessed and distributed at the festival.

The chains and shoes both made me smile, as they seem like the same sort of tourist tat that I would have bought when younger and which my own children still seize on today. As well as seeing the original chains of St Peter in San Pietro in Vincoli, Maimie would also have seen Michelangelo’s statue of Moses and the other famous sites of Rome. The little shoe appears to have come from Bellagio, an upmarket tourist resort on the shores of Lake Como. I haven’t found much else to tell me more about Maimie’s travels. To reach Italy, she would probably have passed through France; she may have taken in Paris before dropping down to the Riviera. Or perhaps she crossed via Switzerland instead.

I don’t know who she travelled with either. Thomas Cook had by this time popularised organised tours for the middle classes, so that even young women could travel without a chaperone. However, I think it’s more likely that she travelled with a family member. And my money would be on her go-getting spinster aunt, Mary Caroline, known as Carrie. Aunt Carrie was a successful and independent woman, who had founded a boarding school for girls in Blackheath, London, co-authored books and liked to paint in her spare time. In 1861, a Mary C. Maberly registered for a passport so, by the 1890s, she was likely a well-travelled woman. Could she have taken Maimie on her travels? And perhaps Maimie’s sister Edith too, who had attended her school? Maimie was soon to become a vicar’s wife and mother in the shires and Edith was to remain at home and care for her father for the next two decades, so I hope that both women were able to experience the world a little first.

The Travelling Companions, Augustus Egg, 1862. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

9 thoughts on “Tinned Tomato Soup

    • Yes – I found it fascinating that someone was collecting the same sort of stuff 130 years ago. It must be a human instinct to collect souvenirs along the way.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Pingback: Bonito Pudding | Eating With The Ancestors

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