This recipe is from page ten of Althea’s recipe book. It is dated June 1868, nearly two years after her marriage to James and a year after the birth of her first child, my great-grandmother Maimie. It must have been a rollercoaster couple of years, as she became a wife, mother and northerner all at once! Moving from London to the banks of Windermere, far from her mother and siblings, would perhaps have been disorientating and even lonely at times.
It seems though that the locals were endeavouring to make Althea welcome. Mrs Townley was Margaret, a neighbour of Althea’s. Edmund and Margaret Townley lived at Townhead, a grand estate situated a mile and a half north of Newby Bridge House, where the Harrisons lived. Although Newby Bridge House was spacious and attractive, Townhead was something else: set in more than one hundred acres of ancient parkland, it also nestled onto half a kilometre of Lake Windermere.
Edmund was curate at the nearby St Mary’s Church in Staveley-in-Cartmel from 1828 to 1864 and had inherited the estate on the death of his childless uncle, William, in 1854. Through making contact with the great-great grand-daughter of Edmund and Margaret, I have a photograph of Edmund (below):
Mrs Townley was born Margaret Losh in Northumberland in 1813 and so would have been 55 in 1868. Her father, James Losh, was a radical lawyer, reformer and abolitionist, who counted Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey amongst his friends. She was thirty years older than Althea and so it seems unlikely that the women themselves were friends. But Althea was the same age as their middle daughter Mary. Also, the Harrisons attended St Mary’s Church and were part of the same social circles of wealthy landowners, lawyers and clergymen in the area. It is likely that James and Althea Harrison dined at Townhead. Perhaps Althea expressed admiration for the Wafer Puddings and Margaret passed on the recipe (or, more likely, her cook did!)
The Townleys and Harrisons remained friends over the next half-century. The local newspapers report them attending a variety of local events together, from house parties and bazaars to family weddings and funerals. The Townleys gave Althea’s daughter Maimie wedding presents in 1897 and, in 1906, the unmarried daughters of the respective families, Edith Harrison and Mary Townley together taught local children how to make handicrafts.
When Edmund died in 1881, his eldest son, Edmund James, inherited Townhead. However, just fourteen years later, his tragic death was reported in the local newspapers. He had apparently emigrated to Australia several years previously and succumbed to a severe bout of sunstroke, which had permanently altered the state of his mind. Despite the best attempts of his worried siblings and doctors to find a cure for him, Edmund’s condition deteriorated and, in November 1895, he deliberately drowned himself in the lake.
Edmund had never married and had no heirs. The second eldest brother, William, had died in the same year as his father and so Townhead passed to the third brother Charles. Charles was a vicar at nearby Troutbeck at this point, married but without any heirs. Although Charles and his wife lived at Townhead for a number of years, it appears that succession planning was in place from early on. In 1897, in her diary* (also referenced here), Barbara Sneyd, then a young girl whose family lived across the lake and was friends with the Harrisons and Townleys, wrote that:
‘Mrs Townley brought Mr Townley’s nephew from America. His name is Edmund James, he is eleven years old and comes from Red Willow County, Nebraska. Miss Mackenzie made us look it up in the big Atlas to see where it was. He is to live at Townhead, since Mr and Mrs Townley have no children, but I think he misses his family a lot. He looked very lonely. At first he was shy and would hardly speak, but Idonia showed him her kitten and soon put him at ease with her chatter.’
Edmund James was the son of the fourth and youngest brother, John Losh Townley. No doubt assuming he would never inherit Townhead, John had emigrated to America in 1873 and, a decade later, was doing very well for himself; it was written of him and his estate that ‘Townhead, John L. Townley’s 1,120-acre stock farm named in honor of his father’s old English homestead, is one of the Beaver Valley’s “handsomest estates.” Mr. Townley, who came to the area in 1873 from England, is an “earnest, driving, popular and hospitable young gentleman and is universally esteemed for his manly qualities.”
It seems that John had made a life for himself in Nebraska and had no ambitions to return home. And so, in a move familiar to fans of Downton Abbey, his young son Edmund was sent to learn the role of landowner. Barbara Sneyd’s description of a lonely boy, bereft of his family, is a sad one but it appears there was a happy ending. In 1911, fourteen years after she had tried to cheer him up with a kitten, Edmund married Charlotte Sneyd – who was known by her middle name Idonia. Townhead stayed in the Townley family for more than another century, passing through various descendants of Edmund and Charlotte Idonia until it was sold in 2019 for more than £4 million. Arthur Ransome and Beatrix Potter were both said to have taken inspiration from their visits to the house.
And the Wafer Puddings? Well, on my first attempt at making them, they turned from a dripping mess of batter into a burnt sugary clod within minutes. I confess that I tweaked the quantity of the ingredients, based on similar contemporary recipes, in order to achieve something edible. The result (although resembling mini Yorkshire Puddings) were like a sweet, thick pancake. I opted for the Wine Sauce, made to a recipe by Mrs Beeton. They weren’t the most delicious dessert ever – but obviously good enough to forge two families in friendship, so that must be something.
* Riding High 1896-1903 Scenes from a Lakeland Childhood by Sneyd, Barbara. Phyllida Barstow (Editor)