Robin Longbottom examines how pages at the back of an old notebook shed light on family life in the early 19th century

AT the back of an old notebook that belonged to the Nichols family, of Hallas Farm in Cullingworth, are several pages of household expenses for the years 1804 to 1807.

They give an interesting insight into the lifestyle enjoyed by a moderately well-to-do family in the early 19th century.

William Nichols junior had taken over the farm, together with the family worsted spinning mill at Hewenden, after the death of his father in 1800. He was the eldest of eight children, had married in 1798 and was now head of the family. He had responsibility for his widowed mother, and his siblings, the youngest of whom was nine years old.

It is unclear who wrote the accounts, but it may have been William’s widowed mother, Mary, who probably took on the role of housekeeper. One of the first entries is for the purchase of a ‘bride cake’ to celebrate the marriage of Mary’s second son, Richard, in 1804. It harked back to the days when a groom and bride exchanged cakes, but by this time the groom’s cake had fallen out of fashion. The bride cake would eventually become known as a wedding cake. The cake was probably decorated with white icing and the accounts have frequent entries for sugar, which by this time had become readily available, although refined white sugar was still a luxury.

The Nichols family lived well. Meat was an essential part of the family meal and was bought in large quantities. Beef, leg of mutton, and breast and leg of veal were all on the menu but there is no mention of lamb. Chickens and fish were bought occasionally and in one instance a lobster. Cheese was a major part of the diet; however, butter appears less frequently probably because it was made on the farm. Vegetables, such as cabbage, turnips and carrots, were sometimes bought, but most would be home grown as the family employed a gardener. Flour was purchased in large quantities, four or five stones at a time. Apples, pears, lemons and currants together with spices, such as mace, nutmeg and cinnamon, and mustard, were bought periodically. Salt was frequently purchased and was essential for preserving food, such as sides of bacon and hams (the family would have kept a pig).

Both tea and coffee appear in the accounts together with bottles and corks (bottles were taken to be filled at a wine merchants) and on one occasion a gallon of brandy was purchased. ‘Spanish juice’ to ease upset stomachs and combat coughs together with mint lozenges, to sooth sore throats, were also bought.

Coal was the principal fuel and candles to light the house were purchased by the pound. Occasionally household items including a tea set, plates and jelly pots (for meat or sweet jellies) appear along with cushions, tablecloths and towels. Newspapers kept the family up to date with local and national affairs.

The purchase of needles, thread and buttons indicates that the ladies of the house were kept busy. Cloth was bought to repair britches and feathers to stuff pillows. Linen was purchased by the yard, presumably to make shirts and underclothing, and worsted yarn to knit stockings. Clothing such as gowns for the ladies and topcoats for the men were made locally.

Soap, starch and 'bluepowder' (a whitening agent) appear throughout the accounts and a washerwoman, Sally Bland, was employed periodically.

The accounts indicate a comfortable lifestyle. Occasionally luxury goods were purchased but surprisingly no entries indicate any change in routine over Christmas. Christmas would not begin to take on its current festive form until after Victoria succeeded to the throne in 1837.