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Where Time Stands Still ?

My friend Geoff lives on the Isle of Wight, so I only see him when he passes through London on his way to France. “I saw a sign in my local metal works,” he said, the corners of his mouth twitching. He waited a few suspenseful seconds then announced solemnly, “Leysdown… Where Time Slows Down.”   We both laughed, because actually Leysdown is where time stands still.

Leysdown on Sea village sign

Leysdown on Sea. Birthplace of British Aviation.

Most people have preconceived ideas about the Isle of Sheppey, usually negative ideas!  But 100 years ago Leysdown, at the eastern end of the island, was at the cutting edge of technological innovation. Today Leysdown is a backwater stuffed with holiday camps and amusement arcades and only comes alive in the summer. If you take the road east from Leysdown towards Shellness, you pass one final holiday camp at Muswell Manor then 300 hundred yards further on the road ends and a rutted track begins. This is Shellbeach.

Leysdown is an unlikely location for ‘firsts’ but this month is the 103rd anniversary of the first flight by an Englishman in Britain, by 25 year old John Moore-Brabazon, on the 2nd May 1909.  

Short Brothers Factory at Shellbeach with Brabzon's Bird of Passage

JTC Brabazon’s ‘Bird of Passage’ outside the Short Bros works, Shellbeach.

In 1908 the Short Brothers, who had a factory in Battersea building balloons, looked around for more space so they could experiment with the new flying machines. They established a small aircraft factory at Shellbeach, the first of its kind in the world. With the world’s first purpose-built aerodrome.  Nearby was Mussel House (now Muswell Manor) the HQ of the world’s first flying club, the Aero Club of Great Britain.

CS Rolls driving one of his cars with the Wright brothers and his chauffeur as passengers. Shellbeach May 1909.

Charles Rolls drove Wilbur and Orville Wright to Shellbeach. The chauffeur was a passenger! May 1909.

A couple of days after Brabazon’s epic flight the Wright Brothers arrived at Shellbeach to meet the Shorts and discuss licencing Short Brothers to build Wright Flyers. They had their picture taken outside Mussel House with Brabazon, his friend Charles Rolls, and Frank Maclean.

The Wright brothers and the Short brothers, with Charles Rolls, John Brabazon, and Frank McClean outside Muswell Manor (Mussel House)

The Wrights with the Shorts, and Charles Rolls, JTC Brabazon, and Frank McClean, outside Muswell Manor, Shellbeach. May 1909.

The Daily Mail put up a prize of £1,000 for the first Englishman to fly a circular mile, and in October 1909, Brabazon’s Short No. 2 biplane was launched from rails and flew the circular mile at a height of about twenty feet. Six days later he took a piglet with him in a basket. The first flying pig! In March 1910 Brabazon received the world’s first pilot licence, Charles Rolls received the second. Three months later Rolls made the first two-way Channel crossing in a Wright Flyer built by Shorts.

CS Rolls flying a Short/Wright machine at Shellbeach.

Charles Rolls flying a Wright Flyer manufactured by the Short Brothers at Shellbeach

Frank McClean offered the Navy two planes for pilot training and so the Royal Naval Air Service, the forerunner of the Royal Flying Corps and the Fleet Air Arm came into being at the new Shorts factory at Eastchurch, a mile or so from Shellbeach. In 1912, in Sheerness Harbour, a Short S27 was the first plane to takeoff from a ship in Britain.  After the 1st World War Shellbeach was abandoned as a flying ground, the action moved to Eastchurch. If it wasn’t for the efforts of Sharon and Terry Munns, the owners of Muswell Manor, these incredible events at Shellbeach would have been forgotten.

Farmland at Shellbeach, Muswell Manor in the distance.©2012 David Porte.r

Site of the Shellbeach Flying Ground, Muswell Manor in the distance.

Sheppey also claims to have invented Gypsy Tart,  fondly remembered (by me anyway) from school dinners, and a real regional speciality. The story goes that a farmer’s wife watching hungry gypsy children playing outside her home decided to cook them something sweet and filling with the few ingredients she had to hand.  Gypsies haven’t always attracted hostility, for hundreds of years they were an accepted part of the countryside and an important itinerant workforce for farmers. 

Gypsy caravan in the 19th Century

19th Century Gypsy Family with their Caravan

In the winter months they headed for London; by the 17th and 18th Centurys there were large groups of gypsies in Notting Dale, Walworth, and around Seven Dials in Covent Garden. The biggest gypsy encampment near London was in Norwood, the ‘Great North Wood’ recorded since 1272, which stretched from Selhurst to Deptford. The wood was also home to charcoal burners and farmers, and since Henry VIII’s time used for timber for the Navy.  The section of the wood near Ladywell known as Bridge House Farm was set aside to provide wood to maintain London Bridge. As late as 1891, twenty gypsies were recorded at Bridge House Farm in the census, in addition to farmer Daniel Phillips’ family.

Margaret Finch, Queen of the Norwood Gypsies

Margaret Finch, Queen of the Gypsies. Norwood.

The most famous Norwood gypsy was Margaret Finch, the Queen of the Gypsies. She lived in a hovel made from branches and lived to 108.  Her fortune-telling drew huge crowds including Samuel Pepys and his wife.  Coincidentally Pepys’ cousin Thomas owned a section of the Great North Wood in Hatcham,  Deptford. Fortune-telling was an accepted part of gypsy life. In 1668 Pepys wrote in his diary, ‘This afternoon my wife and Mercer and Deb went with Pelling to see the Gypsies at Lambeth and have their fortunes told; but what they did, I did not enquire.’  Perhaps he was nervous of gypsy curses? Five years earlier walking near Deptford with a friend he’d met some gypsies.  He wrote in his diary, “in our way met some gypsys, who would needs tell me my fortune, and I suffered one of them, who told me many things common as others do, but bade me beware of a John and a Thomas, for they did seek to do me hurt, and that somebody should be with me this day se’nnight to borrow money of me, but I should lend him none. She got ninepence of me. And so I left them and to Greenwich and so to Deptford.

'Chariots of the Gods' by Erich von Daniken

I’ve met quite few mediums, astrologers, and psychics over the years. I’m a confirmed sceptic,  I don’t believe in ghosts, spirits, poltergeists, or astrology.  My ‘believing’ period happened in my mid to late teens. I believed in flying saucers, that the pyramids were constructed by aliens, that houses could be haunted, that poltergeists threw things around, and that the ‘I Ching’ was a book full of wisdom. Every year I consulted ‘Old Moore’s Almanac’ and believed in Nostrodamus’ predictions. Haunting my local library I read everything I could lay my hands on about flying saucers. ‘Chariots of the Gods‘ by Erich von Daniken was the book we all read at school and quoted endlessly.

Borley Parish Church, Essex

Borley Parish Church, Essex. ©Oxyman/wikimedia commons

Then I discovered Harry Price.  Mr Price had written a book called, “The Most Haunted House in England: Ten Years’ Investigation of Borley Rectory“. He was a local man schooled in New Cross, and for a while he lived on Harefield Road in Brockley. He made his reputation exposing fraudulent mediums, but went on to be discredited as a psychical researcher.

Harry Price with a 'spirit'.

Harry Price and Ghostly Companion.

Harry Price wrote about a dozen books and I read most of them, sometimes waiting weeks while the library tracked them down. His year-long ‘psychic investigation’ of Borley Rectory made him famous, and one wintry day we made an excursion to Borley. The rectory was long gone destroyed in a fire, but the church was suitably spooky, with Tim Burton-esque yew trees cut into fantastical shapes. The church is a place of pilgrimage for the many Harry Price fanatics, and there is a thick visitors’ book. I found an entry: “Harry Price was a charlatan.” And so he was.

Shellbeach Where Time Stands Still

Shellbeach, Nella Jones Old Hut.

At Shellbeach is a sad abandoned shack. This belonged to the famous psychic Nella Jones. I met and photographed Nella once at her home in Bexleyheath for ‘Woman’ magazine.  I’ve met so many mediums that I’ve become a bit jaded about working with them, they can be hard work.  Most want to impress you with their powers, and constantly ask questions that just might lead to some revelation instead of getting-on with the reason I’m there, to take their picture.

Mystic Meg

Mystic Meg and her Psychic Telephone

For a while I freelanced for ‘Sunday’, the News of the World’s colour supplement, where Mystic Meg worked as the magazine’s deputy editor.  She’d changed her name from Margaret Lake to Meg Markova. I had the impression the staff were frightened of Meg, she hardly ever spoke, and when she did it was in a strange whispered monotone.  She had the whitest skin I’d ever seen, and seemed to glide silently around the office without touching the floor. One day I was at the lightbox joking with the picture editor when Meg appeared silently by my elbow. “I like this man,” she whispered and glided away.  Soon after I was asked to shoot new pictures for her column, this was considered a great honour because Meg had always insisted on starry photographers. The great day arrived,  I photographed Meg with her crystal ball, with a black cat, and with her Mystic Telephone; an ordinary dial telephone covered with stickers of stars and moons and astrological signs.  I thought it was a bit naff, but the picture editor told me the telephone was very important. This was the early days of premium telephone lines, and there were fortunes to be made.

Mystic Meg's Horoscope page from 'Sunday' magazine

Mystic Meg’s Horoscope Page in ‘Sunday’.

Another friend was made redundant, and starting a new career as a literary agent she began representing an astrologer. Under her guidance he went from a weekly column to a national daily. Then came the notion that people would pay to hear recorded horoscopes; it would take a large investment, all her redundancy pay, to set up the operation and record the horoscopes but the returns might be worth it. My friend asked her accountant for his opinion. “Don’t take the risk,” he implored her, “you’ll lose everything.” She ignored his advice and now she’s a millionaire.  There was a boom in psychic magazines: ‘Spirit and Destiny’, ‘Fate and Fortune’ and so on, and the womens’ weeklies ran a spooky feature at least twice a month. For a while there were endless weird stories to be photographed: the ex-policeman with the poltergeist in Surbiton who told us about the ghostly motor-cyclist in the Tolworth underpass; the woman near Heathrow with the spirit that carried cans of  beans across her kitchen (cue Clarissa and beans suspended from a fishing rod); the couple in Derby who insisted a Roman Centurion vacuumed and did the washing-up, (cue Clarissa again, with vacuum hose suspended from the fishing rod); the family who heard ghostly Spitfires taking off; and the woman in Dagenham who sees Jack the Ripper in her mirror.  I became blasé about council houses built on monasteries, and the endless stories of tunnels linking modern maisonettes to the nearest graveyard.

Wild Cattle at Chillingham Castle

The Wild Cattle at Chillingham Castle, ‘The Most Haunted castle in England’

Otherwise hard-headed editors were willing to believe anything it seemed. Off I’d go trying to inject a bit of spine-chilling drama with coloured gels and Hammer house of Horror lighting. Some of these stories never appeared, there simply wasn’t anything to them. I spent all night with two ‘ghost hunters’ at Chillingham Castle in Northumberland, which the owners claim is the ‘most haunted in England’. Well it is built on an old monastery, and is a favourite with TV ghost shows. My ghost hunters became hysterically excited at a dot of light on the screens of their digital cameras, “It’s an orb!” They screamed, while nothing showed up on my Polaroids. The most exciting moment of a very long night came when we opened the door of one room and a bat flew round and round over our heads. Far more interesting to me were the famous wild white cattle in the grounds, unique to Chillingham.  

Have you ever seen a convincing photograph of a ghost? No, neither have I and I’ve been in some supposedly rampantly haunted houses.

Rita Rogers in Bella magazine

Rita Rogers in ‘Bella’

The editor of another magazine had received a reading from Rita Rogers, who claimed to have Romany gypsy in her blood. Rita had been Princess Di’s favourite psychic, and Diana and Dodi would fly to Rita, landing their helicopter on her lawn.  When Rita became ‘Bella’ magazine’s resident psychic I went to photograph her, with Clarissa and a makeup artist. Rita lived in a big house in Derbyshire. She followed me around asking questions as I moved the lights from room to room and reloaded the cameras. “Have you been in an accident recently?” No. “Do you know anyone who’s had an accident?” No. “Someone called John?” No.  I was trying to concentrate, but she wouldn’t give up. She disappeared to have her makeup touched-up. Clarissa put her head round the door of the room where I was setting-up. “She’s made the makeup girl cry,”  she hissed, eyes rolling. We never found out why.  I impressed Rita by making friends with her parrot. “I’m going to leave him to you when I die,” she promised, “he doesn’t usually like men.” Apparently Loyd Grossman had been filming ‘Through The Keyhole’ a few weeks before, but when he asked the parrot who was a pretty boy the bird had turned to Loyd in a world-weary fashion, looked him in the eye and said, “Fuck Off.”  I liked Rita, despite all the questions she was friendly and down to earth. After we’d packed the lights away and just before we left, we sat having a cup of tea with her, Clarissa was sitting by herself on a sofa. Rita suddenly turned to her and said, “Your father is sitting next to you. His name is George.” And Clarissa burst into tears.

Bonjour Monsieur Picasso Can I make You a Salade Vert? ©2012Clarissa Porter

Bonjour Monsieur Picasso by Clarissa Porter

Sometimes mediums are so desperate to impress it can be funny. Olive in Clacton asked so many questions it was obvious what she was up to, giving up on me she tried Clarissa, who had already told her our life-story and that we’d met at art school.  “Do you mind if I tell you there’s a dark man wants to talk to you?” She asked. “He’s wearing a coat of many colours and says you need to take care of your brushes, he wants to kiss your hand. His name is Picasso.”  She wrote to us after our visit saying she’d seen Judy Garland with Clarissa as well!   Clarissa painted a picture of herself with the ‘dark man’, Picasso.

Barbara Cartland at home, Camfield Place in Hertfordshire

Dame Barbara Cartland at home

I’m always surprised by the almost universal acceptance of clairvoyance and the paranormal. Years ago I was asked to photograph Barbara Cartland at home. She was in her 90s but still a formidable personality. “Take a large bunch of flowers and Clarissa, and don’t be late,” commanded the picture editor.  On the day we stopped at the Wild Bunch in Seven Dials to collect a huge bouquet of roses, artfully arranged and be-ribboned.  At the appointed hour we rang the bell of Camfield Place. The door was opened by one of her secretaries who took the flowers from us with what I thought was a sigh, not a sigh of appreciation more a sigh of resignation. She beckoned us into a cavernous lobby filled with urns and vases full of dusty plastic flowers. We were instructed to wait. The journalist arrived late, and the secretary told her Dame Barbara was waiting for her in another room. As she shook off her coat, the journalist turned to me and said, “I’m going to give Dame Barbara a reading first,” and she disappeared through a door pulling a large crystal ball from her handbag.  An hour passed, then the secretary reappeared and told me to set up my lights in the entrance hall. “You will stand there,” she said pointing at a corner, ” and Dame Barbara will stand there,” she said pointing at the opposite corner.”  I found out that Dame Barbara was an early flying enthusiast, promoting gliding and in particular towed gliders. In 1984 she received an award in America for her services to the development of aviation!  Not only that but she was a life-long campaigner for gypsy’ rights. In the 1960s she lobbied for gypsies to be allowed permanent sites, and opened one of the first sites in Hertfordshire, named ‘Barbaraville’.      A few months later I was sent to photograph Jilly Cooper at home in the Cotswolds. The same journalist came along, and the crystal ball was produced again.


Shellbeach Kent

“I dreamed I saw you dead in a place by the water. A ravaged place. All flat and empty and wide open.”

Nella Jones also claimed to be a Romany gypsy, she was known as the psychic detective,  becoming famous helping the police with their enquiries and leading them to recover a stolen painting by Vermeer; she also claimed credit for guiding them to the Yorkshire Ripper. Nella was said to have helped ‘put away’ some hard men, and was rewarded with a dinner in her honour given by Scotland Yard.  Unfortunately for her, one of these hard men held a grudge. The story I was told was that he wrote to her just before he was due to be released. “I know about your place at Shellness. One night when you’re asleep I’m going to burn it to the ground with you in it.” A terrified Nella never went there again, and the property was sold at auction. A friend of mine bought it which is how I heard the story. It’s changed hands a couple of times since, but still seems to have a cloud hanging over it.

My recipe is Gypsy Tart of course. I’ve based my recipe on the Kent County Council recipe with some minor changes, you can see a nice dinner lady making it here. You’ll have enough filling to make two 20 cm diameter tarts. This is a really simple farmhouse recipe, which is probably why Gordon Ramsay ‘discovered’ it and put his version into his Pub Food book.  Don’t worry if the finished tart looks a bit untidy, that’s how it should be, it’s gooey, and sticky and finger-licking good!  If you go to Sheppey you can always buy a homemade Gypsy Tart from the Brambledown Farm Shop. Gypsy tart is so sweet that you need something like creme fraiche to go with it, something to cut through the sweetness. English strawberries are just in and I bought some from Mersham Game at Brockley Market. They were the perfect accompaniment for the tart, which is so soft and runny that you can dip the strawberries into the tart instead of sugar.

Gypsy Tart Recipe with fresh strawberries

Gypsy Tart

Gypsy Tart

Preparation time: 30 mins.

Cooking time: 40 mins.

Ingredients ( makes 2 20cm  tarts):

110g plain flour

Pinch of salt

1 tsp icing sugar

50g margarine (or butter) cubed

Ice cold water

1 410g can of evaporated milk

340g dark Muscavado sugar

First make the pastry: Sift the flour into a mixing bowl with the salt and icing sugar.

Add the chopped margarine, and rub it all together with your fingertips till it resembles small breadcrumbs. Make sure all the fat is rubbed in to the flour, don’t hurry.

Make a ‘well’ in the middle and add a little cold water, working the dough with your fingers and adding water as necessary to make a ball of dough, stiff not too wet. Then wrap it in cling film and put into your fridge to chill for at least 15 minutes.

Take the dough, remove the clingfilm and on a sparsely floured surface, roll it out. It doesn’t have to be too perfect. Grease 2 tart tins. Wrap half the dough around your rolling pin and lay it across the first tin, Gently push the dough down into the tin. Then repeat with the other tin. With a palette knife trim the excess pastry dough from around the tins, a little proud of the rim. Then if you wish crimp the edges with your fingers. With a fork prick the the pastry across the base of the tins. Loosely cover the base of the tin with baking paper and weight down with scattered ceramic baking beans.

Bake in your oven preheated to 200C for 10 minute till the edges of the pastry just start to brown. Then remove the beans and baking paper and return to the oven for another 10 minutes. Then remove and allow to cool on a rack in the tins.

While that is happening, make the filling: Put the evaporated milk and the sugar into a deep mixing bowl and whisk rapidly. You can do this by hand, but an electric mixer is better. You mustn’t skimp on the whisking! At least 15 minutes! The mixture will become a light golden brown, and increase in volume.

Put the tart tins onto a baking sheet (you can do this one at a time) and carefully pour the sugary milk into the tart, so it just comes to the top of the pastry case. Reduce the oven to 180C and carefully slide the tart on the sheet into the oven and bake for 15 minutes, watch it doesn’t burn. I see the nice lady from KCC says 3 minutes, I couldn’t bring myself to do that.

Remove from the oven. The surface will have slightly set, but the interior will still be slightly wobbly, a bit like the marshes at Shellness. Allow the tart to cool on a wire rack, it will carry on setting but it will always be a bit runny .

I served mine with fresh English strawberries, guess where? Yes, Shellbeach!

©2012David Porter

The Beggarstaff Man

“Why,” I wondered yesterday as I sat in the hairdressers chair, “do men, once they reach a certain age, suddenly like dark chocolate?”  “My dad loves dark chocolate,” said hairdresser Hattie.

Beggarstaff Brothers Rowntree's Cocoa poster 1895

The Beggarstaffs Poster for Rowntree's Cocoa 1895

The Beggarstaffs were artists William Nicholson and James Pryde. As students they travelled to Paris and were influenced by the posters of Toulouse-Lautrec and Jules Chéret.  In 1894 the pair began calling themselves The Beggarstaff Brothers. They revolutionised poster design in Britain using flat colours, clear outlines, and making collages from coloured paper to produce striking graphic images of everything from Queen Victoria to Rowntrees Cocoa.

In London’s East End the portly well-dressed gentleman with his delicate cup of cocoa must have looked out of place among the slums and the grinding poverty.  Bethnal Green was home to the most notorious London rookery, the Old Nichol.

Map of the Old Nichol district of Bethnal Green

The Old Nichol district of Bethnal Green 1892

The Old Nichol had grown from a few houses in 1680 on a field dug for brick-making, to a shanty-town of hovels built to accommodate the arrival of 25,000 Hugenot refugees,  Jews from Eastern Europe, immigrant weavers from Ireland and the rapidly increasing indigenous population.  By 1880 the Old Nichol covered 15 acres, or just a square quarter mile, but it contained some of the worst constructed house anywhere in Britain,  crammed together in alleys and courts joined together by arteries of narrow lanes.

A Court off Boundary Street 1890

A Court off Boundary Street in the Old Nichol, 1890

Families sometimes of ten people occupied single rooms in dwellings built with half-baked bricks and a mortar made from a waste product of soap manufacture called ‘billysweet’. The mortar never dried-out, and floorboards were laid onto earth. With little or no foundations the walls and floors sagged, and the interiors were permanently damp. In these teeming conditions people scraped a living making matchboxes, smoking fish, catching birds to sell, or just thieving. Anything to keep the rent man at bay on ‘Black Monday’. No running water, no lavatories, and into that stew were added horses, donkeys, pigs, chickens, ducks, dogs and of course rats. Infant mortality was twice the number in the rest of Bethnal Green, and five out of six child deaths were caused by suffocation, their parents or bigger siblings rolling on top of them at night and smothering them. The squalor and depravity was almost indescribable, but Dickens tried. He visited Jacobs Island in Bermondsey, the setting for Fagin’s rookery in ‘Oliver Twist’, the Old Nichol would have been too dangerous.  He was accompanied by two senior policemen and three constables, with a further platoon of officers within a whistles-blow. “Wretched houses with broken windows patched with rags and paper: every room let out to a different family, and in many instances to two or even three … filth everywhere — a gutter before the houses and a drain behind — clothes drying and slops emptying, from the windows; girls of fourteen or fifteen, with matted hair, walking about barefoot, and in white great-coats, almost their only covering; boys of all ages, in coats of all sizes and no coats at all; men and women, in every variety of scanty and dirty apparel, lounging, scolding, drinking, smoking, squabbling, fighting, and swearing.”

Charles Booth's poverty map of Bethnal Green 1889

Charles Booth's Poverty Map from 1889. The black and dark blue denotes the poorest most criminal areas

The Old Nichol was even worse than that, “one painful and monotonous round of vice, filth, and poverty, huddled in dark cellars, ruined garrets, bare and blackened rooms, teeming with disease and death.” As the 19th Century drew to a close two books were influential in awakening the public conscience,  Arthur Morrison’s  “A Child of The Jago” about the Old Nichol, and Jack London’s “The People of The Abyss“.

Arnold Circus bandstand

The bandstand at Arnold Circus, built on a mound of rubble from the Old Nichol rookery. ©Philip Walker www.jewisheastend.com

The newly formed LCC began pulling-down the slums in 1891, and in its place created the Boundary Estate, the first council housing in the world, with gardens built triumphantly on a mound of rubble from the Old Nichol. The Rowntree Cocoa poster appeared at this time, one of the biggest posters the Beggarstaffs ever produced. I imagine it was left hanging on a partly demolished wall, a target for resentful mud-slinging locals. A passing versifier wrote :

                                          “A splotch of mud on the Beggarstaff Man,

                                                        A splotch, that is all.

                                          But it blinds the eye of the Cocoa Man,

                                                  On a Bethnal Green dead wall.”

Aztec woman pouring cocoa from cup to cup to make froth

Aztec woman pouring cocoa from cup to cup to make the sacred froth ca.1553

Cocoa, or cacao beans came from Central and Southern America. Cultivation was first recorded 3,500 years ago, and the beans were sacred to the Mayan and Aztec civilisations. When the Spanish arrived they found the Emperor Moctezuma II would drink it flavoured with spices and whipped into a froth from a gold goblet for dinner.  It was brought to Spain by the conquistador Henri Cortez, but the Spanish found the drink bitter and almost unpalatable. By adding flavours such as cinnamon and pepper, and later of course sugar, chocolate drinking became popular but largely confined to Spain.  When Cromwell’s Navy captured Jamaica from the Spanish, the English found cacao plantations planted by the Spanish.

Bishopsgate, London, 1650

Bishopsgate in London, 1650.

The first advertisement for chocolate in London appeared in 1657,  “In Bishopsgate Street in Queen’s Head Alley, at a Frenchman’s house, is an excellent West Indian drink called chocolate, to be sold, where you may have it ready at any time, and also unmade, at reasonable rates.”

Making chocolate was very labour intensive and along-winded. The cocoa nuts were split and the beans dried in the sun before shipping to England. Then the dried beans were roasted and winnowed to remove the shells leaving ‘nibs’, which were ground on a special stone turning them into a paste which was dried in moulds. Only then could they be transformed into chocolate. You need between 300 and 600 beans to make 1 kg of chocolate.

Cocoa Nut

Cocoa Fruit or Nut, 20cm long!

17th and 18th Century chocolate would be unrecognisable to us today, the drink was thick, cool, and gritty. Bitter and grown-up, especially if it was mixed with wine or port.  I’ve never been a fan of chocolate, too sweet and sticky. Watching the crowds of (mostly) women excitedly gather around the stalls selling chocolate at Borough Market I wonder what it is that makes it so appealing.  Apparently twice as many women as men crave chocolate, and men mostly prefer bitter chocolate.

Keith Floyd and Clarissa Porter cooking in Devon.

Keith Floyd and Clarissa in his kitchen in Devon. The fridge is on the left.

Some years ago I was waiting with Clarissa for Keith Floyd in his Devon kitchen. We waited with M, a free-lance journalist. Keith was in Tuckenhay preparing for the lunchtime service at The Maltsters Arms. M was hungry, and she rifled through his fridge. “Mmm…” she said, “…chocolate.” She turned to us brandishing a large bar of Bourneville. “You’d better not touch that,” warned Clarissa. “Why not? Keith won’t mind, will he?” replied M.  “Yes he’ll mind very much, he’s numbered each piece.” Maria shrugged disbelievingly and scoffed some Bourneville. Keith appeared and he and Clarissa started cooking. I sat watching, and M started banging away at her laptop. M’s obsession was to be given a column on a certain tabloid. “Kelvin is interested in my ideas,” she’d gasp. Nothing else mattered, she’d sit all day bashing-out ideas for her non-existent column, instead of doing what she was supposed to be doing, and recording Keith’s every word. Stopping for coffee Keith went to the fridge, “Who’s touched my chocolate?” He said a mite grumpily. “I didn’t think you’d mind,” said M brightly.  “Well, I do.” And Keith refused to acknowledge her presence for the rest of the day, but at every opportunity dropped into the conversation his observations on trust and honesty, and how some people would stop at nothing in their pursuit of self-gratification. And so on.


Dr Matthew Green

If you’d like to find out more about London’s chocolate history, I recommend Dr Matthew Green‘s Chocolate and Coffee Tour. Matthew guides the tour around the sights, sounds, and smells of 18th Century London, complete with actors in period costume, and the chance to taste an authentic 18th Century cocoa. It’ll be a bit different to the usual walking tour, he had the idea when he was writing “The Lost World Of the London Coffeehouse’ which will be published through the Idler Academy in May. Invited to give talks at The Academy, Selfridges and at the upcoming Port Eliot Festival he thought there might be an audience for a real-life experience and assembled a team of actors and musicians to bring to life the streets and coffee houses of 17th Century London.

17th Century Chocolate House

London Chocolate House in the 17th Century

I met Matthew in The Black Lab, he ordered hot chocolate of course and began regaling me with chocolatey anecdotes. “If you could try 17th Century chocolate you’d probably choke!” He said sipping his cocoa. ” It was bitter and gritty and quite sludgy. But it became very popular in the coffee houses, in 1663 there were 82 coffee houses in the City of London, 100 years later there were 3,000 in London, and remember there were no news services. You went to a coffee house, and sat at a big communal table and immediately started a conversation with the person sitting next to you; that was the convention and how you learned the latest gossip and news. ‘What news have you?’ would be the shout as a newcomer entered.”  I glanced across the road at a chain coffee shop and today’s coffee ‘experience’. Lone customers sitting in hushed reverence with their latte, staring at their laptops. Imagine rushing into a smoke-filled Costa sweaty, unwashed, a clay pipe clamped between your blistered lips, clothes layered upon layer and dirty from the street, flopping down next to a perfect stranger and shouting “What news?!”

Map of Deptford and Docks

The Victualling Yard at Deptford, 1813.

Chocolate was more difficult and time-consuming to prepare than coffee or tea.  In Deptford’s Royal Victoria Victualling Yard, cocoa for the Navy was produced. Sailors had chocolate for breakfast, it replaced the unpleasant burgoo, coarse oatmeal and water.

The Cocoa Bean Roasters in Deptford's Victualling Yard

Cocoa Bean Roasters in Deptford's Royal Victoria Victualling Yard 1896

Sailors enjoyed generous daily rations. In 1622 the allowance was 1lb biscuit and 1 gallon beer every day, 2 lb salt beef four days a week, together with 1 lb of bacon or pork, 1 pint of pease. And for the other 3 days a quarter pound of salt fish and quarter pound of butter and a quarter pound of cheese. Additionally the sailors could buy other food from his wages. In the 18thn Century he gallon of beer, long a source of trouble, gave way to chocolate and tea.  Good living was one of the inducements to joining-up. Chocolate, or cocoa, or as sailors called it pussers ki was produced in Deptford from raw beans, more than 800 tonnes a year was made in the Victualling Yard. The ‘ordinary’ at 84% cocoa nibs the most pure chocolate, and the ‘soluble’. The ‘ordinary’ took several hour to prepare starting the night before when the chocolate was grated from 7 lb slabs, stamped with the Admiralty arrow, then locked away under sentry guard till the early hours when it was transferred to the ship’s coppers (boilers) and boiled for 3 or 4 hours, before being served for breakfast, with biscuit when the bugle sounded ‘Cooks of Messes’. The soluble chocolate which was less pure at 64% contained sago flour and could be prepared quickly, therefore more suited to drinking on watch in bad weather. It wasn’t till the advent of the modern drinking cocoa from Rowntree and Cadbury that it was taken up by the mass of the population at the end of the 19th Century.

Rabot Estate Cocoa Growers

Rabot Estates in Borough Market

I went to Borough Market, to Rabot Estate, buying 100% pure cocoa bean shavings, £7.50 for 120g; but you can buy 100% cocoa by Willie’s Cacao in Waitrose, I’d recommend the Venezuelan at about £6 for 180g.

My recipe is for an authentic cocoa drink from the 17th Century. I pushed the boat out and bought a chocolate cup on ebay, a Royal Worcester design by Sir Joshua Reynolds dated 1765, when the artist was founding the Royal Academy.

You can adapt this recipe to your liking by adding or subtracting ingredients. Be prepared for a surprise, there’s nothing whispery about this drink!

Cocoa, recipe for real cocoa hot chocolate 17th Century

17th Century Restoration Cocoa

Restoration Cocoa, or, a Real Hot Chocolate

Serves 4

Preparation time 10 minutes



Whole milk

1 star anise

1 pimento, or a sweet chili pepper

Half stick of cinnamon

Few scrapes of nutmeg

Pinch of black pepper

Few drops of pure vanilla essence

Few drops of orange flower water

6 heaped tsp of ground almonds

1 tbs honey, or more, to taste. Or sugar the same.

2 tbs pure 100% cocoa


The amount of water and milk depends on the cup size. I used an authentic chocolate cup which is about the size of a demi-tasse: 100ml. So for 4 cup servings I needed 100ml water, and 300 ml milk. In a small pan bring the water to the boil, and in a separate pan heat the milk gently.

With a pestle and mortar pound the star anise, the pimento or chili pepper, the nutmeg, the cinnamon, and the pepper. Pound till it resembles ground coffee. Add a few drops of pure vanilla essence and orange flower water, and the ground almonds. Combine all these ingredients then drizzle-in the honey so the mixture resembles a grainy paste.

Stir the paste into the boiling water till smooth, then spoon the cocoa into the milk.

Finally add the water to the milk and whisk gently on a low heat till the mixture thickens slightly. Pour warm into your cups to serve.

©2012 David Porter

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