Two special stories from Special Collections

Burn with gunpowder copy

Being involved with the University’s Special Collections is an interesting part of my wider role as an Academic Liaison Librarian.

Brookes has some unique collections under five key themes: 

I am sometimes approached by members of the public who wish to donate items to the collections or have them digitised as illustrated by the stories below.

The antique housekeeper’s book

Last summer, we were approached by Josh Saunders, whose mother, Sylvia, was in possession of a fascinating treasure – a loosely bound collection of housekeeper’s notes and recipes, written in several different hands (some more easily legible than others!), and dated AD1603. The housekeeper’s instructions included ‘An Excellent Perfume against the Plague, taught by Doctor Atkinson’ and a recipe ‘To Make Oyle of Toads’. They kindly agreed to allow us to digitise the book for RADAR.

The scanning was a delicate process. We have a book scanner that can be used for archive material, but the loose binding of the book made this more complicated. The lid of the scanner could not be closed without risking damage, so instead the book rested on archival foam sheets and the angle adjusted to allow photographing from above.

You can judge the results for yourself here!

The cookery magazine collection

In June, we received an email from John Mardon, who was left an extensive collection of cookery magazines by his late wife Gisèle. He was interested in donating the collection to somewhere they would be well-preserved and available for teaching and research. 

We were very fortunate that some of the titles filled gaps in our existing collections. We were able to complete our holdings of Cooks Illustrated, Cuisine et Vins de France, Good Food and Gourmet in the Fuller Collection, and accepted a generous financial contribution towards their cataloguing and preservation. John also supplied us with some intriguing details of Gisèle’s life.

Gisèle was born in 1930 in Paris, and raised in the strategically important railway-junction town of Gisors in Normandy. She was nine years old when the Germans invaded and joined the Great Exodus of the population to the River Loire, being strafed from the air, only to be overtaken and turned back by German soldiers when their overloaded car ran out of petrol. She returned to Normandy to find her home vandalised, looted, and to learn that her father was a prisoner of war in Germany. She lived in Gisors throughout the Occupation, enduring bombings and shootings until the Allies reconquered the town.

After the war she studied English at the Sorbonne in Paris. Her Godfather, Roger Topolinski, was the proprietor of Laperouse, a well-known Michelin Three-Star restaurant. She dined there every week during her years of study, and was introduced to other notable chefs.

After graduation, she married John and moved to London. Her career led her to become a Cookery Teacher/Demonstrator for the City Council and at an independent London Cookery School (La Cuisine). Her impact on the culinary teaching world in the south east of the UK was significant. She sat with well known chefs on panels of judges for Cookery School examinations, as well as winning several prizes of her own.

Meanwhile, she sought and collected cookery books, journals and menus. Any booksellers, auctions, book boxes on Parisian quaysides, food fairs, even junk shops were fair game. She sought books that contained a challenge or unfamiliar taste combinations. As with her cooking, the taste and contents counted more than over-elaborate presentations, luxurious bindings or first editions. 

She subscribed to 11 French, American and English cookery magazines each month in order to remain in touch with current trends and techniques, chefs and restaurants. We are delighted to welcome some of this extensive store of knowledge into our collections here at Brookes.

If you are interested in visiting Special Collections: details and opening hours are here.

If you are interested in food writing: The pleasure of the plate: how to write about food will take place on Wednesday 4 December 2019 please book your place.

– Isabel Virgo, Academic Liaison Librarian (Business)

Article originally published in The Library and Learning Resources Update, Autumn 2019

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