The British Way of Spice

Kate O’Keefe, Community Heritage Officer at Gloucestershire Archives, explores the UK’s changing eating habits and growth of new cuisines.

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I can still remember my mum’s first attempt at a chilli con carne – I must have been about 11 or 12 years old, so this would be in the early 1970s. Chilli powder was definitely new in our household and mum measured it in tablespoons instead of teaspoons – so we couldn’t actually eat the results. It put us all off for years.

British people have long had a reputation for extreme conservatism and caution when it comes to food, and certainly when I was growing up in the 1970s, our diet could best be described as ‘bland’. Shepherd’s pie, fish fingers – that type of thing. What people today might shudderingly call ‘beige food’. My dad worked for Bird’s, so we had a lot of Angel Delight as well.

An image of a packet of Angel Delight

We did have home-made mince pies and Christmas cake and I’m pretty sure mum had a little cannister of mixed spice for this purpose, which lasted for many, many years. I recently started looking for references to spices here in Gloucestershire Archives – and I must admit I was amazed to see several references to cinnamon, cumin and ginger being used to pay rent in Mediaeval times. The earliest record I found was this one from 1225:

William de Pudiford to Phillip Bonseriaunt.
Bargain and sale of ground on which his granary stood in the village of Fromtun. Rent- 1 root of ginger at Christmas, consideration 7 shillings.
Witnesses: Henry de Clifford, Walter de Salle, Hel de Cantle, Reginald de Wudhend, Ruard de Hereford.

Image of a Latin deed from before 1250
D2957/224/70

But there may well be even earlier examples.

I suppose I knew a (very) little bit about the Spice Routes, but I’d never really thought about spices being traded and valued in this way quite so far back in time. And not just in London, but here in Gloucestershire too.

People back then (those who could afford them, of course), must have loved the warmth and complexity which spices bring as much as we do today. I’ve read that some uses were medicinal and some for the preservation of food – or at least to hide the taste if it wasn’t too fresh – but even so there’s plenty of evidence for culinary use.

Spicy food is now of course available to everyone, and there can’t be too many modern households which have never had an Indian or a Chinese takeaway. Spices were effectively democratised around the 1960s – and our appetite for them grew so fast that Chicken Tikka Masala (spiced, if not actually spicy) was named as one of our favourite national dishes in 2001.

A screenshot of survey results for takeaways
YouGov survey results showing the UK’s favourite takeaways

Most towns now boast a wide array of food outlets, and my hometown of Newent is certainly no exception: with a population of around 10,000 people we have 2 Chinese takeaways, 2 Indian takeaways and a kebab shop, in addition to our original ‘Tudor’ (ahem) Fish and Chip shop. Not to mention the pizzas, Japanese and Mexican foods which can be delivered to anyone within minutes.

It’s odd to think that even though spices were bought and traded here for hundreds of years, new arrivals to the UK from Asian and African countries and from the Caribbean in the 50s 60s and 70s often struggled to source the familiar flavours they loved. They began to open shops, originally to serve their own communities. Then restaurants and takeaways, which we cautious, conservative types gradually started to frequent and then quickly to love. Perhaps this is fanciful, but I like to think that love of spice was always lying dormant, just waiting to be reawakened.

The first Indian Supermarket in Gloucestershire is probably Motala and Sons in Victoria Street – founded in 1966 and still going strong over 50 years later. You can find it here https://www.gloucesterhistoryfestival.co.uk/barton-and-tredworth-map/ on a specially commissioned interactive map from the 2020 Gloucester History Festival.

Some takeaway menus
Takeaway menus

People are sometimes surprised to find that we keep fliers and menus from restaurants and takeaways in our Local Studies collections, but they are a wonderful indicator of new communities arriving and, by offering exciting and unfamiliar food, broadening people’s food horizons.

I haven’t been able to find the date or name of the first Indian and Chinese restaurants in Gloucestershire – but I’d love to know…Anybody?

River Severn Flying Boats and Rockets!

In May 1942, six months before Churchill made his famous “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” speech at the Lord Mayor’s luncheon at Mansion House, officials in Gloucestershire County Council’s planning department were already thinking about post-WW2 reconstruction. 

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15 months at Gloucestershire Archives: Bridging the Digital Gap

My name is Natasha Young and I have recently completed the National Archives digital skills training program: Bridging the Digital Gap. This program was a 15 month hands-on placement at the Gloucestershire Archives, where I have had access to amazing people, and learned not only the skills of traditional archiving, but the challenges and needs of digital archiving.

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Vicarious Trauma – What Is It?, by Sally Middleton

You may have come across this term (we certainly have), and it’s worth exploring what it’s all about. Vicarious trauma is defined as the “emotional residue” from exposure to extremely upsetting records. You may not have been witness to those highly distressing events, but in reading about them you have an acute emotional response. So it’s all about the impact those records may have.

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What working for Gloucestershire Archives Has Taught Me, by Sally Middleton

On the eve of my retirement, it’s a chance to look back at the last (almost) 6 years, and see what I’ve learned.

I was new to heritage, when I arrived, and new to archives. I’d always worked with communities, or individuals, but around social justice or in a therapeutic context. I hadn’t seen, or understood, quite what an impact heritage can have on people and communities.

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#ShrubHub update

What a difference a few weeks makes! We can say that for two things at the Heritage Hub at the moment – the building and also the community garden!

Work began (in thought, anyway) on the garden last summer when we decided to see if we could make our current outdoor space into a wildlife-friendly, educational, safe haven for visitors, residents and of course the local wildlife – including provision for two beehives taking residence at one end of the garden. We approached the Cotswold Gardening School to see if their students would be able to create designs for the garden as part of their projects, and came up with some ideas on how to raise money for the garden and attract as many visitors as possible. By the end of last year we had eight designs to choose from: the one we chose was one that suited our brief best and since then we have been working closely with the designer to make the plan fit completely with what we had in mind.

Image of Cotswold Gardening School students measuring the garden Cotswold Gardening School students measuring the gardenImage of Cotswold Gardening School students presenting their designs to Heritage Hub staff Cotswold Gardening School students presenting their designs to Heritage Hub staff

We then started fundraising, using online crowdfunding and other sources to raise money for the garden. Young Gloucestershire’s Princes Trust team spent a couple of weeks with us in May.  They planted wildflower seeds and also renovated our picnic tables and some “heritage pillars” from a demolished outbuilding (we hope to use these as part of a volunteers’ shelter). And then about two months ago, everything started to take shape. The flower and herb borders for the formal area of the garden (nearest the new Dunrossil Centre) were marked out and then dug over the space of a few weeks by some tireless volunteers, both from within our own staff and local people who wanted to help – this all took place during our heatwave so was hot and tiring work. On 29th July, the plants were due to be delivered, ready for planting out in the newly dug borders the following day.

Image of One of four borders marked out to be dug out for plantsImage of Mark and Richard, two of our volunteers braving the heat to pull up the turf!

One of four borders marked out to be dug out for plants, and Mark and Richard, two of our volunteers braving the heat to pull up the turf! 

To cut a long story short, the plants actually arrived in the morning of the 30th July (apologies to anyone who was in the office with me on the 29th!) just as it started pouring with rain. However, our team of volunteers from the Cotswold Gardening School and the local area – and one member of staff – donned their raincoats and set to work planting out all the flowers, herbs and shrubs. Within a day, our formal area had been transformed from a large expanse of grass to a beautifully presented garden with a variety of wildlife-friendly, colourful and wonderfully scented plants.

Image of The volunteers at the end of planting day! The volunteers at the end of planting day!

The next step was to make sure all the plants could establish themselves and grow by watering them daily. Rotas were drawn up to make sure they were done every day (even if it rained!) and this will continue until the end of September. Again, this is being done with a mixture of staff (in their own time) and community volunteers. Luckily, the weather has been dreadful since they were planted so we haven’t needed to spend as much time watering as we would have done a month earlier.

Image of One of the borders, the day after planting. One of the borders, the day after planting.

 We then had a bit of a surprise on the weekend of the 10th/11th August, when our first colony of bees arrived in the garden rather sooner than intended. Unfortunately they were having some problems at the apiary they were being kept in (they were being bullied by another colony!), so rather than bring them home in October or March as intended, suddenly the Bee Team had to transport them quickly on the evening of 10th August. They are now in situ and at the time of writing seem to be doing well after a few days of getting used to their new home and their new foraging opportunities. 

Image of The temporary beehive, safely transported from a few miles away!Image of The first Gloucestershire Heritage Hub beehive with John and Ally, the Bee Team, who are very excited to have them on site!

The temporary beehive, safely transported from a few miles away, and the first Gloucestershire Heritage Hub beehive with John and Ally, the Bee Team, who are very excited to have them on site! 

So – what’s next for the garden?

There are still some plants to go in the current borders, some trees, and a “winter interest” border which will be the other end of the garden. We also hope to have a hoggin path that will lead from the formal garden towards the wild area.

Our Heritage Hub garden party will be held on the 8th September, 1.30-5.00.  Everyone is welcome so why not come along and see our progress and plans for the next stage! Many thanks to all those who given up their time to help with the digging, planting and watering: Diana and the Cotswold Gardening School, Mark, Richard, Jonathan, Angela, John, Jenny, Andrew, Kate O, Kate M, Ally and Heather.

Further delving into Dowty

Hello from a combination of my desk facing the wall (and just able to see the wooden sculpture being worked on, and the mosaics being installed) and Strongroom 11, which houses the bulk of the Dowty archive and where I seem to spend most of the time I’m not at my desk.

It is now 6 months since the project to work on the Dowty project formally started, which means I am a quarter of the way through – which is actually quite scary. But I’ve been working on it a bit before that too, and can finally say that I’m fairly up to speed with various engineering terms I had never heard about before, as well as the Dowty company structure, locations of its various offices and factories all over the world, and some key people within the Dowty group whose papers I am working on.

Dowty Rotol rugby sevens team from the 1950s

Dowty Rotol rugby sevens team from the 1950s

For those of you who don’t know, the Dowty archive takes up about 1500 boxes’ worth of space on our shelves. That’s a huge number of records, and my approach has been to work on the archive semi-systematically. When I first started, I spent quite a lot of time in the strongroom labelling boxes and noting what was in them, which had been roughly done on the outside anyway, and also opening up each transfer packet (the transfer packets tend to be stored out of boxes on the shelves, and probably take up about 1/3 of the space) and noting down in further detail what was in each packet. Once I’d finished that, I then went back to the beginning to work on the transfer packets as a proper listing project (rather than noting files down) and also to open up the boxes and list and package the material in those. The semi-systematic approach was a deliberate ploy to keep myself on my toes, as I had quickly realised that listing a lot of the same types of record would get quite dull! So I decided to work on a bay – 20 boxes – at a time and then moved on to some transfer packets for another 20 boxes’ worth, then back to the original boxes. Given that the first 78 boxes in the collection were very small files of correspondence relating to patents from the 1960s-1980s, this allowed me to step away from the world of patents and into the world of audits, or accounts, or legal files, before becoming tired of them and being able to surround myself in patents again.

At the time of writing, I have now listed, numbered and repackaged 173 boxes and 200 transfer packets, and the pace is quickening – depending on the material inside the box, I’m able to do between 3 and 8 boxes a day, but the first 80 boxes were very slow as there was so much in them, and this is now out of the way. I decided to repackage the items as I went along, and give them temporary numbers (the box number and a sub-number) so that when I come to The Big Sort towards the end of the project, all I will have to do is write the permanent catalogue numbers on the documents rather than fiddle around with folders and archive tape as well, which will also save time.

My aim is to have 500 of the 750 standard archive boxes of material listed and repackaged by the beginning of April next year, and 700 of the 1100 transfer packets. This means that the second half of the project will involve less listing and more sorting, and will also give me more time to tackle the photographic material and electronic material which is housed in our special photographic strongroom, which volunteers are starting to list now but which will need more careful packaging and storage, taking up more of my attention.

I have 5 on-site volunteers currently, and a further four who are involved in oral history interviews and work on our website, which has been taking shape and is really being populated after its launch at the end of August. I am about to welcome another volunteer and as I work on the material I keep finding tasks for volunteers to do. Two are working on patents, two (and the new volunteer) on photographs and one on site plans. I am really looking forward to volunteers getting bogged down in listing apprentice records and doing some social history research using the brochures and newsletters.

If you’d like to look at the website, the web address is www.dowtyheritage.org.uk. If you have any photographs or stories to share about the Dowty company, then the website is an opportunity to do that. It would be great to hear more stories and see more pictures from peoples’ time working for this massive company.