It's 1681: what's on the menu in Guernsey?

Three letters from Sir Thomas Browne, polymath and oyster expert. He wrote often to his children, of whom he seems very fond. His favourite daughter Elizabeth married his friend, Captain George Lyttleton, who was appointed Guernsey's Lieutenant-Governor in 1681. There is a copy in the Library of one of Browne's works, Pseudodoxia epidemica, published in 1686, which can be viewed upon request.

Sir Thomas Browne (general); his life and works

These for Dr. Edward Browne, in Salisbury Court, next the Golden Balls, London.

1: Elizabeth's trip out to Guernsey

June 20, [1681.]

Dear Son,

The letter which I received from my daughter Lyttleton,1 at Garnsey, was, I believe, enclosed in your letter and unsealed, but was sent sealed by your seal, so that you might read it, and see what was in it. She describeth the voyage well, and places near which she passed. She makes nothing of the Needles, which are rocks at the west end of the Isle of Wight, but says the Casquets are terrible rocks, not far from the Isle of Alderney, and within 7 leagues of Garnsey, and your brother Thomas, I remember, was used to speak of them. They passed by the lesser islands, Sark, Arme, and Chetto, which belong to the government of Guernsey. My son Lyttleton told us that G[uernsey] abounded with varieties of sea fish, mullets, gurnets, rochets, and many more; many shell fishes also, and my daughter says she already had eat the best lobsters and artichokes she ever ate, and had a present of 24 carps,2 the biggest that ever she saw, and the biggest eels, so that they intend my lord Noel a present of pickled eels, as he desired of them, there being the most eels of any place; being so large, they may be congers. But they have large and fresh water ponds, and other such waters in the island. My lord Hatton, the chief governor, living there divers years did much good in the island. Pheasants there are in very great numbers. I am well content that she complained not of any great drought in the last weeks, in the island. My daughter Lyttleton directs me to send my letters to Dr. Speed of Southampton, to be sent to him. Whether he be a divine or physican? If a physician, I believe I knew well his grandfather, or father, Dr. Speed. God bless you all.

Your loving father,


2: A year later, Elizabeth returns for a visit to Norwich [He described Elizabeth Lyttleton's voyage to Norwich from Guernsey in detail in another letter.]

June 16th, 1682

Dear Son,

We are glad to understand, by my daughter Browne's letter, that my daughter Fairfax is delivered of a son. The blessing of God be with them both, and send them health. The vessel of cider3 sent you from Guernsey was racked, it came not out of Normandy but from Guernsey, though it was not of my son and daughter's making. They might have made much, there being plenty of apples, but they made but 2 or 3 hogsheads4 themselves for their own use. Your sister tells me that they have plenty of large oysters,5 like Burnham oysters, about Guernsey, and all those rocky seas to St. Malo, and have a peculiar way of disposing and selling of them, that they are not decayed or flat before they be eaten. They bring them into the haven in vessels that may contain vast quantities, and when they come at a competent distance from the pierhead, they anchor and cast all the oysters overboard into the sea; and when the tide goes away, and the ground bare, the people come to buy them, and the owners stand on dry ground and sell them. When the tide comes in, the buyers retire, and come again at the next ebb, and buy them again, and so every ebb till they be all sold. So the oysters are kept lively, and well tasted, being so often under the salt sea water, and if they had a vessel of a hundred tonne full they might sell them while they were good, being thus ordered although it should take some time to sell them all. This seemes a good contrivance, and such as I have not heard of in England.

We hope Captain Cotton6 is got by this time to Guernsey, though the winds have been often cross to get from the Downs thither, it hath been in the north these 3 days, and it was yesterday so cold that we could have endured a fire. Captain Cotton intended to call at Southampton, if possible, for divers letters and dispatches, which had been retarded by the lasting south-west wind, which I doubt he could not perform. My daughter hath heard twice from Guernsey, since she came to Norwich, and once from Lychfield, from Mrs. Katherine Lyttelton, her husbands' sister, a singular good woman. I heare Mrs. Suckling is well at her brothers, in Suffolk, but she dares not yet adventure to Norwich, with her children, for fear of the small pox.

3: Elizabeth and her husband socialise with Isaac Carey;7 she hates ormers but likes oysters very much

Earlier, on March 15, Sir Thomas had written thus to his son:

Dear Son,

I am glad my cousin Townshend dined with you; I hear he comes to Norwich tomorrow night with my Lady Adams, by a letter which my wife received from Madam Burwell this morning, brought by Alderman Freeman's daughter. Beside my daughter Lyttleton's letter I received one from Mr. Isaac Carey, one of the jurites or justices of Guernsey, a civil person and great acquaintance of my son and daughter. He sent me one before, which I answered, and now another kind complimental one in French also. He hath read many English books, and I believe accommodates my son and daughter with some. They have had heart porridge, and tansies,8 some weeks already, and variety of lobsters and crabs, for the pearly amis marina which they call ermus, the pectines or skollops, turbines or whelks, and divers others, though commonly eaten, she cannot reconcile her palate to them, but likes their oysters. .... Love and blessing to my daughter Browne, and little ones.

1 Elizabeth had married George, the 12th and youngest son of Sir Thomas Lyttleton, Bart., who was sent to Castle Cornet as Lieutenant-Governor, in December 1680. 'Captain Williams was mistaken,' writes Sir Thomas, 'when he told Captain Lyttleton's place, with his company, was worth a thousand pounds per annum.' George later became Major in Prince George of Denmark's regiment of dragoons and died in 1717, at Windsor, aged 77. Elizabeth transcribed much of her father's work and poetry by famous authors, as well as writing her own. Her commonplace book, originally the property of her mother, Lady Dorothy Browne, with writing in both ladies' hands, is in Cambridge University Library. Interestingly, Elizabeth also liked to draw and was exhorted by her father 'besides faces, it may be pleasant to the inhabitants as well as yourself, if you draw anything else in the island.' She drew Castle Cornet and St Peter Port 'taken on the land side from a rock.' See Stevens, Philip, 'Elizabeth Lyttleton,' in Quarterly Review of the Guernsey Society, Spring, 1981, pp. 8-11.

2 Abraham Carey wrote in 1681 to Lord Hatton: 'I have handed over to Captain Cotton of the dragoons [master of the royal sloop Hound] the finest produce of the island I can find, as well as 24 of the very finest live carp, to be delivered to you Lordship or to your brother Capt. Charles Hatton, as you like.' Peter Heylyn, describing Guernsey in A Survey of the Estate of Guernzey and Jarsey, 1656: '[....] a Lake on the Northwest part of [the island], neer unto the sea, of about a mile or more in compasse, exceeding well stored with Carpes, the best that ever mortall eye beheld, for taste and bigness.' This lake, according to Tupper's History, was La Grande Mare. Large freshwater eels are still being caught in Guernsey quarries and streams today. After an explosion had destroyed a large part of Castle Cornet in 1672, Lord Hatton chose to live in Truchot House, which he rented from Pierre Gosselin. 'The garden and orchard were enlarged and carefully tended, providing Hatton with fruit, fresh vegetables .... and with cider, perry, artichokes and other delicacies for the Northamptonshire table and cellar.' Hatton's estates were in that county; he spent only 5 of his 36-year tenure of the Governorship in Guernsey. See n. 5 below. Captain Cotton was involved in a brawl in 1678, which is described in detail by Rosemary Booth in Report and Transactions of the Société Guernesiaise XII (1) 1968, pp. 64 ff.

Books in the Library on the subject of 17th-century food include Brears, J., in A Taste of History, Chapter 7, 'Seventeenth-Century Britain,' pp. 181 ff.; Isitt, Verity, Take a Buttock of Beefe, Southampton: Ashford, 1987 (food in the age of the Stuarts); Mennell, Stephen, All manners of food: eating and taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the present, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985, and Driver, C., and Berriedale-Johnson, M., Pepys at table: seventeenth-century recipes for the modern cook, London: Hyman 1984.

3 Substantial literature exists on the making and selling of Channel Island cider and perry. 'Cider and Perry in the Channel Islands,' Guernsey and Jersey Magazine, 1890, pp. 224-5, published originally in the Star, reproduces and discusses a petition at the Court of Whitehall from 10 May, 1676 by Joshua Payne of Jersey, seeking to have ratified the rights that the islanders of Jersey and Guernsey have had 'for severall hundreds of years' to be 'exempted in all ports and Places of his Majesties Kingdom ... from paying either Custom Excise, or other duties, and Impositions for and in respects, of any of the goods and Merchandizes of the Growth and manufacture of the said Islands.' Payne was complaining that fifty tons of Jersey cider he was importing to Britain had been unexpectedly impounded at the Port of London; he presumably fell foul of a law introduced in 1763, by which duty on 'cyder and perry brought from Jersey, Guernsey, Sark, or Alderney shall be paid by the importer before landing, on penalty of being seized and forfeited'. The King however declared that Channel Islanders, 'being noe forrainers ought to be as free from paying excice for sider, or perry of the growth of these islands imported in to England and Wales as the Inhabitants of others his Majesties British Islands are.' See Girard, Peter, 'Cider Making in the Channel Islands,' The Review of the Guernsey Society, 35 (2), Summer 1979, pp. 34 ff. See also Notes on Cider-making in Guernsey, 1823. Interestingly, in 1340, the King in England sent Thomas de Ferrars, the Warden of the Islands in Jersey, thirty tons of cider by boat. From the Calendar of the Close Rolls, p. 398. In 1541 the Royal Court set the price of a pot of cider at one sol a pot. (See the Ordonnances in the Library.)

4 Jean Poingdestre, in his Caesarea, a description of Jersey written in the same year, 1682, says 'The last year (1681) was the greatest Cydar yeare that ever was seene.' See Bulletin of the Société Jersiaise, 1889, pp. 3 ff. A hogshead of cider or beer is 54 gallons. Browne also wrote about cider in another letter of 1681:

We have had much cyder given us this winter, and now at Christmas it is apt to gripe many, and so hard that they drink it with a little sugar. That which was sent you from Guernsey may probably be good, but having been upon the sea tis likely it may be hard. My wife and others, except myself, drink a little at meals; and Tom calls for the bottoms of the glasses, where tis sweetest, and cares little for the rest. It helps to make good syllibubs in the summer.

Isaac Carey wrote to Lord Hatton on 23rd February 1674:

I am taking the liberty of sending you care of Mr [Jean] Tupper a tierçon [a third of a measure, 96 pints] of cider from an orchard I have just recently acquired; Your Lordship may find this one a little stronger than the usual, but I hope that you do not find it any the worse for this, which is characteristic of this drink.

[From the French: BM MSS Records of the Carey family, p. 13.]

In 1679 the people of Jersey petitioned the King following abuses committed by their recent Governors, notably Thomas Morgan, who had died that year. He deliberately gone against an Order of the 'Three Estates' and allowed the importation of great quantities of 'Normandy apples and Sider, a commodity too much abounding already with us,' which was highly prejudicial to their export trade of their home-produced cider to Britain. He then allowed the illegal importation of

Fifty or Threescore Hogsheads of Normandy Sider landed at a time and unladed at the Gate of Castle Montorgeuil, not for provision of the Garrison, but to be retailed there by the pot and sold out by small barrils and rondlets to the neighbouring Parishes. Many of us have seen with our eyes that Castle and the Avenues to it replenished with all sorts and sexes of people drinking even to excess and drunkenness of the said sider, three or four hundred at once, chiefly upon Sundays and during Divine Service. Apparently the soldiers had made their barracks into 'Tippling Houses.' From Bulletin of the Société Jersiaise, XIII (1888), pp. 267 ff.

5 Although the Library owns a 1686 copy of Browne's Pseudodoxia epidemica, or or enquiries into very many received tenets and commonly presumed truths, printed in London for Chiswell and Sawbridge, we do not own his treatise on Norfolk birds and fish, including shellfish. Browne's recipe for pickled oysters.

6 From Thomas Dicey's 1751 version of Dobrée's account of the explosion at Castle Cornet in 1672: 'I must not forget Sergeant Cotton who being blown in his Bed over a high Wall and within a few inches of the Mouth of a Water Well, knew not whereabouts he was, but at last coming to himself and seeing several Ammunition Beds a-burning of all Sides of him, after a few Stretches came out of his Bed; and having no Cloaths on, went in that Apparel he had, to endeavour to pass that ordinary way of a Sally Port, which finding obstructed he directed his course towards the South Point.' The sentry there had incredibly not even heard the blast, as he was standing behind the door to the Court of Guard, which had been closed because of the strength of the wind, and thought Cotton was a ghost: 'nevertheless standing upon his Punctilios made Ghost to speak whom knowing him by his Voice settled his spirits and so the Sergeant did bid him to come and help.' See Quarterly Review of the Guernsey Society, VII (2), Summer, 1951. See also note 2 above.

7 Isaac Carey (d. 1685) owned the Manor of St Hélène. See The History of the Careys of Guernsey, London, Dent, 1938, for Isaac and his son Pierre, both of whom left their collection of books to the island. Pierre owned a copy of Religio Medici, Thomas Browne's first and most famous work. The Library also has transcripts of letters from the Careys to Lord Hatton during his tenure of the Governorship. Carey had been supported by Hatton in a feud between the de Beauvoir and Carey families, and the Andros family, from which the latter eventually came out on top politically. See Turner, H. D., 'Viscount Hatton and the Government of Guernsey 1670-1706,' Transactions of the Société Guernesiaise 1969, pp. 415 ff.

8 Tansey was another word for pudding, sweet or savoury, especially a kind of sloppy egg custard or omelette. They had originally been made with eggs and the juice of the herb tansy, eaten at Easter to commemorate the bitter herbs of the Passover. See The Diary of Samuel Pepys, or the editions available in the Library.