logo image Visual & Oral history of the Indian Subcontinent via family archives

150 – Wilhelmina and her cookbook from India

My ancestors Joseph and Wilhelmina. South Parade, Bangalore. Circa 1860

My great, great, great grandparents, Joseph and Wilhelmina. South Parade, Bangalore. Circa 1860


Image and Text contributed by Jenny Mallin, Berkshire, England.

“Rai, jeera, huldi..” she would whisper under her breath whilst counting the ingredients on her fingers. Cooking came naturally to my mother, but occasionally she would open the pantry door and out would come a huge ledger book (image link), whereupon she would leaf through the pages until she found the recipe she was looking for. With no title on the cover to distinguish it from the other cookbooks, the only distinctive thing I can recall is that each page was so delicate and fragile that it would snap like a popaddam (indian crisp made of gram flour) and therefore it was out of bounds for us children – this book was just too precious to lose.

When I did manage to get my hands on the book officially, this most unglamorous book with its ochre, faded pages bespattered with sauces and flavours revealed several recipes handwritten in copperplate script by my great, great, great grandmother Wilhelmina dating back to 1850. Turning the pages one could see the handwriting style change over time, and evidence of how over five generations, each one of my grandmothers passed the book on to their next generation, offering us a chance to have a glimpse into a fascinating time in history, “the days of the Raj”, when the Indian subcontinent was under British rule.

My family’s connection to India began six generations earlier in 1775, in Yorkshire, England. My great, great, great, great grandfather Benjamin Hardy, was born into a weaving family in Mirfield, a small but important industrial town with a population of 2000 people. The area was called the Heavy Woollen District of West Yorkshire.
In 1794, Britain declared war on France and a 19-year-old Benjamin Hardy enrolled as Private No. 77 with the newly formed 1st Battalion of the 84th Foot regiment of the British Army. One year later, Benjamin married Frances Sheard in Mirfield and he and his regiment dutifully sailed to the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa).

Sailing to the Indian coastline in 1798, Benjamin and his regiment would stay on in India for the next 25 years with postings in Madras, Bombay, Goa, Kathiawar, and Kutch. There were also detachments sent to the Island of Perim in the Red Sea, Aden and Mauritius where they participated in the capture of the island from the French.

Benjamin’s last posting was to be in Bangalore. His regiment had been stationed there for four years and it seems that he also decided to bring his wife Frances over from England, for in 1816 she bore him a son Joseph (my great, great, great grandfather in the image above). Three years later, Benjamin’s regiment was disbanded and asked to return home to England, but instead Benjamin chose to stay in India and was discharged from the British Army due to ill health. He was only 44 years old and suffering chronic rheumatism.

Benjamin, his wife Frances and young son Joseph, settled down to live the rest of their lives out in India. However, Benjamin passed away four years later, on December 23, 1823 and Frances and her son Joseph continued to live in Bangalore. Joseph became a schoolmaster by profession in Mysore, in 1833, when an English School was opened for the first time in Mysore. At the age of 28, Joseph married Wilhelmina Sausman, in St. Mark’s Church in Bangalore.

Wilhelmina was only sixteen when she got married. She was born in Vellore, Madras on September 12, 1829 and records suggest that she was Anglo-Portuguese because her mother’s name was Louisa Dias, a common Portuguese name used in the Portuguese colonies of Goa and the west coast of India.

This photograph of my great, great, great, grandparents, schoolmaster Joseph and his wife Wilhelmina was taken in the early 1860s (in their mid 30s/early 40s) by studio photographers Orr & Barton, who were based in South Parade, Bangalore. It is the oldest photograph in our family collection.

During their marriage, Wilhelmina gave birth to eight children, but as often was the case those days, only three survived. The others were lost as babies and infants to the widespread pandemic of cholera that had killed around 15 million people by the 1860s. Their three surviving daughters were named Ophelia, Florence and Topsy. Ophelia, their eldest child was born in 1855 and is my great, great grandmother.

Wilhelmina’s notes and my own research suggests that for any memsahib settling in India was an overwhelming, even exciting experience but also thwarted with difficulties. Aside from the unrelenting heat, the major problem was in the hiring of servants, and in finding a cook who would be willing to touch the different meats that wouldn’t conflict with their religious beliefs. A Muslim servant for instance, would not touch pork, nor serve wine, or remove dirty plates from the table or wash them. Hiring a Hindu was also not easy, as they would not handle beef, fish, poultry, eggs or alcohol and the very strict practitioners would also refrain from onions and garlic.

It’s quite possible that Wilhelmina, like hundreds of other European wives and brides followed Mrs. Isabella Beeton ‘s bestselling victorian guide, the Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, as well as another publication that gave detailed instructions to European women on effective household management in India. She must have felt it good sense to write all her recipes in one book which could then be given to the cook to follow and perhaps even improve upon. Her Christmas cake recipe shown here, is also annotated by my grandmothers and cooks after.

Generations after, this ‘more than 150 year old’ recipe book now lies with me, and I ponder over it ever so often with great personal as well as academic interest.

The contributor of this image and narrative is researching Anglo-Indian recipe names & cooking terms, and would appreciate any leads on the subject. She is also due to publish a book on Wilhelmina “A Grandmother’s Legacy – a memoir of five generations who lived through the days of the Raj”.

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Responses (15)

  1. Jacob Anand says:

    Hi Jenny!

    Amazing read, this. And kudos to your efforts to preserve your family’s legacy. As I type this from my home on Hutchins Road, Cooke Town, Bangalore, with the rain and lighting for company in the background, I’m conjuring images of Wilhelmina gathering her brood around candlelight to tell them a story about her childhood in Vellore :) Would you happen to know in which part of town the family lived?

    However, I thought I should point out just one thing: In the write-up preceding the scan of ‘Wilhelmina’s Christmas Cake Recipe’, you mention that one of the two symbols represents the Hindu Swastika. I think, however, that it is the ‘very important’ symbol that we were taught to use in schools here in Bangalore. You usually scribbled that out on the margins in textbooks and notebooks, if the teacher mentioned that that segment would appear in exams or was an important piece of information! You’ll still find that today in a lot of books and notes down here in the South of India.

    Wishing you all my luck! And of course, will be getting my hands on the book as well :)

  2. barbara mannas says:

    Lovely to know there’s going to be such a book. Looking forward to it’s release. Going to have my eyes peeled for it.

    Cheers and warm regards!

    barbara mannas

  3. Meeta says:

    Hello!

    I absolutely loved reading about “Wilhelmina and her cookbook”! The book sounds very exciting too. I noticed you mentioned Mrs. Beeton’s cookbook but not Flora Annie Steel’s The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook (http://www.cambridge.org/us/academic/subjects/history/social-and-population-history/complete-indian-housekeeper-and-cook-giving-duties-mistress-and-servants-general-management-house-and-practical-recipes-cooking-all-its-branches )

    If you haven’t already seen it, you should definitely get hold of it:)
    Cheers
    Meeta

  4. Ragini says:

    even in this short post people of that age especially Wilhemina and Joseph just come and stand before our eyes in a life likefashion.This gives us an idea of what kind of food they enjoyed and the kind of life they led.Wonderful research.

  5. Preeti says:

    Such a lovely post! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I look forward to your book with the compilation of your grandmothers. It will be very interesting to know about their cooking experience in India and their adaptations if any. I live in the same County as you Jenny. Please do let me know if I can be of any support. I blog at Isingcakes & more and am also cooking through a traditional Indian cookbook Ruchira in my blog Julia & Julie esque but with my adaptations in my wuaint English kitchen. Reading post post I can very well connect to your grandmother’s experience

  6. DORIS DSOUZA says:

    It’s amazing that you will be sharing a legacy.Do keep me posted and I will be delighted to get a copy.All the best.

  7. Jane McNally says:

    Hi Jenny,
    Mum and Dad have just told me the fantastic news. Congratulations! I cannot wait to read it and hope that you will sign it for me?! Reading about Topsy, Ophelia and Florence (or the old dragons) as Nanny Dolly used to refer to them as, brings back so many happy memories of my nan, your nan and Mum chatting about the old days when ever they came to visit.
    I look forward to its publication.
    Love,
    Jane

  8. Jude Francis says:

    Hi Jenny ,Great clip of the past , well done , do let me know when the book is out .Thanks

  9. Mahek says:

    Hi
    I loved this post
    I love reading about the daily living of people in the days gone by I love to know about India during the period of the raj
    It would be great if I could read the book that you are about to publish.
    Please let us know when this is done.
    curries and bugles is one such book

    • Jenny Mallin says:

      Hello Mahek,

      I will gladly let you know when the book is out – it’s due to be released in November this year. Drop me an email with your email address and I’ll be happy to advise you. Kind regards, Jenny

      • mahek says:

        Hi
        Can I get your email so that I can write to you and also read the book which will be published

      • mahek says:

        where can I write to you and give you my email so that you can get in touch with me when your book is released.

  10. Swati P.S. says:

    Hello,

    That was a very interesting write up. Is “grandmother’s legacy” a compilation of that amazing sounding recipe book? Are you going to do one. Would it be available to strangers like me?

    The idea of a recipe book handled with such love over so many generations is so intriguing. And it’s romance in the true sense of the world. I do hope you share with us.

    Regards,
    Swati.

    • Jenny Mallin says:

      Dear Swati,

      I’m very pleased to tell you that there is to be a forthcoming book due to be published towards the end of this year. It’s been a total joy to write and a labour of love for me to see their recipes and stories come to life in this way… The book will be based on all five of my grandmothers who lived through the days of the Raj. Each grandmother will have a chapter devoted to them where you will see some of their recipes, their original handwriting and background to their families and lifestyle as well as lots of family sepia photos in each of their chapters.

      The book entitled, “A grandmother’s Legacy – a memoir of five generations who lived through the days of the Raj” will be available to everyone via for example Amazon and large bookstores. If you would like to leave me your email address I will gladly let you know once it’s published.

      With kindest wishes,

      Jenny

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