Shrewsbury Cakes

This recipe can be found on page eight of Harriet’s recipe book, from 1902 or 1903. Before I say anything else, I am pleased to announce that they were delicious! Those of you who have followed this blog for a while will know that Harriet’s recipes have a tendency to turn out inedible – from the teeth-shattering Ginger Bread to the burnt mess of Lemon Cheesecakes. So, it was nice to finally cook something as moreish as these cakes. Although now we’re on the subject of form, aren’t they biscuits?…

‘Shrewsbury Cakes. Sift 1lb powdered sugar into 2lb flour, add a grated nutmeg or a little cinnamon & an oz of caraway seeds. Mix all thoroughly, then beat in 2 eggs, the whites & yolks separately, & as much dissolved butter about 8oz will be enough. Roll the pastry out to the thickness of the eighth of an inch. Cut it into round cakes. Prick them and bake in floured tins in a quick oven. If liked a few currants will do instead of seeds.’

Shrewsbury Cakes can probably sit alongside Jaffa Cakes in the ‘hang on, are they a cake or a biscuit?’ debate. With a texture similar to shortbread, they are buttery, crumbly and sweet. They are named after the county town of Shropshire in the Midlands, so this was not a local recipe to Harriet. Although out of fashion these days in the UK, it is thought they date back to at least the sixteenth century and could be produced either as large, round cakes or smaller biscuits.

In 1602, they appear to feature in a letter sent by Lord Herbert of Cherbury to his guardian, in which he had kindly enclosed some as a treat:

“Lest you think this country ruder than it is, I have sent you some bread, which I am sure will be dainty, howsoever it be not pleasinge; it is a kind of cake which our country people use and made in no place in England but in Shrewsbury; if you vouchsafe to taste them, you will enworthy the country and sender. Measure not my love in substance of it, which is brittle, but the form of it, which is circular”.

Almost a century later the playwright William Congreve also mentioned them in his play The Way of the World, again emphasising their short texture: “Why, brother Wilfull of Salop, you may be as short as a Shrewsbury cake, if you please. But I tell you ’tis not modish to know relations in town.”

Recipes throughout the ages feature various different flavourings, including nutmeg, rosewater, mace, sherry, cinnamon and caraway seeds. Pricking the top of the cakes appears to be an important part of the recipe, with some speculating that it helps to stop them puffing up. Although largely now forgotten in England, they are one of the most popular biscuits in India, with a famous producer being the Kayani bakery in Pune, some 100 miles from Mumbai (although there are no eggs in their recipe).

Harriet’s recipe worked well and they were tasty, even though I was unsure about the caraway seeds. A friend of mine remarked that they sounded similar to Goosnargh Cakes from across the border in Lancashire (which themselves are relations of Tosset Cakes and Wirksworth Wakes Cakes!) so it appears that shortbread with caraway was popular across the northern and midland regions.

In my previous post about Harriet, I wrote about her brother John Blakelock Ibson. To recap, Harriet had a half-brother and nine full siblings. Sadly, five died before they reached adulthood. In this post, I will attempt to trace another brother, James.

James Ibson was born in 1870 and so was a full ten years older than Harriet. In between the two siblings, another four children came along, although sadly two of them died in infancy, before Harriet was even born. In the 1871 census, James is living with his mother, Ellen, grandmother, Alice, an older half-brother William and brother Thomas. His father, Thomas, is a farm labourer (I have yet to establish where he was on the night of this census but he wasn’t at home!) Ten years later and James is still living with Alice, Ellen and Thomas, as well as younger siblings John, Richard and Harriet.

In April 1889, a local newspaper reported that a James Ibson, a farm servant at Warter, six miles away, had taken his master to the Petty Session ‘for unlawfully discharging him from his service’. It was a confident move for a nineteen-year-old but, in the previous six months, James had seen his mother, sister and brother all die from tuberculosis, and grief can make people bold. Perhaps he had taken too much time off to visit deathbeds or attend funerals. Or perhaps he had been late back from visiting his struggling father a few too many times. Either way, James successfully claimed back £4 in wages.

Two years later, he was working closer to home, on the neighbouring farm to his brother John and not far from his father Thomas and sister Harriet. He seems to have stayed close to the village for the next few years as, when his father Thomas was sadly admitted to the East Riding Lunatic Asylum in 1898, James was named as his next of kin, living in Kirby Underdale. By the 1901 census, he was labouring again in Warter, working for a different master. Had he visited his father in the asylum, just ten miles away? I’d like to think so.

In 1911, James was lodging with a family in Petch Cottage. The cottage was one of several situated in the middle of what is now the North York Moors National Park, about 10 miles north of Pickering. Contemporary photographs show an isolated farm in a stunning landscape.

Photo © Christine Johnstone (cc-by-sa/2.0)

James was living there for a reason – and at a time when it certainly wouldn’t have been a peaceful scene. He was no longer an agricultural labourer and was instead working as an ‘ironstone miner (underground)’. The industrialisation of rural Yorkshire around this time saw a mass movement of workers from agriculture to other employment – James’s younger brother John also moved around this time, leaving labouring for the railways. Petch Cottages were workers’ cottages, built right next to the East Mines.

Mick Garratt / Calcining Kilns, Rosedale East Ironstone Mine / CC BY-SA 2.0

Throughout Victorian times and into the twentieth century, the landscape would have been anything but isolated. The discovery of high-grade magnetic iron ore saw the small rural community of just 755 people in 1851 rise to more than 3,000 mainly industrial workers by 1871. Cottages were built to house the workers, as well as schools, reading rooms, allotments, Methodist chapels and a pub. A railway line was set up to transport the iron to the main lines north.

Fighting and inebriation was often reported in the local papers (in The Leeds Mercury in 1871 the reporter laments the ‘sad and disgraceful state of drunkenness prevalent among the workmen engaged in the Rosedale iron mines’). Accidents, including fatalities, were not uncommon. In her PhD thesis, Elizabeth Marsh states that ‘Life in the mining community was hard, with large families in small, one down, two up, houses. High death-rates occurred, both from accidents and illness. Between 1871 and 1902 the average life expectancy in Rosedale was only 21.’ Yet there must have been a sense of community too, as there were agricultural shows, galas, dances and a brass band. 

Rosedale miners c.1900. Photo: Rosedale Local History Society

Ten years later, James was still living in Rosedale, this time lodging with the Clark couple in one of the Hill Cottages. He was fifty and still working as a miner although, specifically, as a ‘timberer’, so presumably responsible for erecting the props that stopped the tunnels from collapsing. The census specified though that he was ‘out of work’, as was his landlord, also a miner. Mining had been in decline in the area for decades and, following a brief revival during the war, was to die out completely by 1928. It’s likely that James had been in and out of work for a number of years. It’s hard to know how he made ends meet – and what he did when the mines finally shut for good. The 1931 census records were destroyed in a fire many years ago and so how James made a living in his fifties and sixties is a mystery.

Hill Cottages, Rosedale East by Paul Buckingham

In 1939, on the eve of the second world war, James turns up again, aged 69 and living in Pickering. He is recorded in the register as ‘Incapacitated’. No doubt a life of hard labour had caught up with him. He was living with Harriet Allanson who, although his aunt on his mother’s side, was only nine years older than him. James’s mother had died more than half a century earlier, but his ties to that side of the family were obviously still strong.

James never married. I had wondered about the relationship between James and his siblings and whether it had endured. Herbert and Alice, the youngest two, appear very close, appearing in censuses together over the years, attending each other’s family events and even living together with their spouses at one point. Harriet remained close to John and Alice, as their children (all cousins, one of them my grandmother) were still in touch in the 1990s! There had been no sign of James though. I wondered if perhaps he had had little in common with his brothers and sisters, as they married, had families and moved to live in the towns. Maybe they had drifted apart.

James died on 13 March 1941. He was 71 years old, although the death certificate said he was 69. He was still living in Pickering; his Aunt Harriet would outlive him by two years. However, he died at 18 Dean Road in Scarborough which was, at the time, the Scarborough Public Assistance Institution (previously known as the workhouse). The cause of death was coronary thrombosis and cardio-vascular degeneration, a heart no doubt made weary from a lifetime of hard labour and poverty. At least though the certificate revealed that Alice’s husband, Harry, was with him. So, it seems James was still part of the family after all.

9 thoughts on “Shrewsbury Cakes

  1. Making Shrewsbury cakes was part of my childhood. And I agree with your friend. Goosnargh Cakes are pretty much the same. And I like caraway seed as an addition now, but I didn’t as a child. Your ancestors are now creeping ever closer to my home patch!


  2. As a Shropshire lass born just outside Shrewsbury, I would definitely call them biscuits (although grated lemon would be the predominant flavouring)! I’m pleased Harriet’s recipe worked out, they look lovely. Fascinating family history as always, how tough life was in so many ways.


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