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Before Mrs Beeton (Hardback)

Elizabeth Raffald, England's Most Influential Housekeeper

P&S History > British History P&S History > By Century > 18th Century P&S History > Food & Drink Women of History World History > UK & Ireland > England

By Neil Buttery
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
Pages: 208
Illustrations: 25 mono
ISBN: 9781399084475
Published: 6th March 2023

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The great Elizabeth Raffald used to be a household name, and her list of accomplishments would make even the highest of achievers feel suddenly impotent. After becoming housekeeper at Arley Hall in Cheshire at age twenty-five, she married and moved to Manchester, transforming the Manchester food scene and business community, writing the first A to Z directory and creating the first domestic servants registry office, the first temping agency if you will. Not only that, she set up a cookery school and ran a high class tavern attracting both gentry and nobility. She reputedly gave birth to sixteen daughters, wrote book on midwifery and was an effective exorciser of evil spirits.

These achievements gave her notoriety and standing in Manchester, but it all pales in comparison to her biggest achievement; her cookery book The Experienced English Housekeeper. Published in 1769, it ran to over twenty editions and brought her fame and fortune.

But then disaster; her fortune lost, spent by her alcoholic husband. Bankrupted twice, she spent her final years in a pokey coffeehouse in a seedy part of town.

Her book, however, lived on. Influential and often imitated (but never bettered), it became the must-have volume for any kitchen, and it helped form our notion of traditional British food as we think of it today.

To tell Elizabeth’s tumultuous rise and fall story, historian Neil Buttery doesn’t just delve into the history of food in the eighteenth century, he has to look at trade and empire, domestic service, the agricultural revolution, women’s rights, publishing and copyright law, gentlemen’s clubs and societies, the horse races, the defeminization of midwifery, and the paranormal, to name but a few.

Elizabeth Raffald should be revered, not unknown. How can this be? Perhaps we should ask Mrs Beeton…

Winner of Best Book at the Guild of Food Writers Awards 2024!

The Guild of Food Writers

Mrs Beeton is a famous and well-known name for her successful, Victorian book on household management and cookery. But before Mrs Beeton there was an 18th century woman named Elizabeth Raffald, whose influential work and book on English cookery was heavily plagiarized after her death (including in the works of Mrs Beeton a century later). This is a nice biography of Elizabeth Raffald, an incredibly fascinating and influential woman (the next time you see a wedding cake, you should think of her!). I think Neil Buttery does a good job of keeping the historical information well written while still easily digestible for the average audience.

NetGalley, Lellie B

As featured in

Lancashire Life Magazine

As featured in

Cheshire Life, June 23

As featured in

Derbyshire Life

Article: Move over Mrs Beeton

Country Life

As featured on Everything Zoomer

Everything Zoomer

I was attracted to this as I really don't have a lot of knowledge here and found it fascinating.
Thoroughly enjoyed this.
So interesting and well researched.

NetGalley, Maria Martignetti

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Most people know the name of Mrs Isabella Beeton, the celebrated nineteenth century cookbook writer, but not many know of her eighteenth century predecessor, Elizabeth Raffold. She was new to me but this interesting book taught me a lot. I cannot imagine how she got through so much in her short life, I just marveled as I read through the book. Highly recommended.

NetGalley, Barbara Bernstein

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Even if you don't cook, your microwave is your best friend and you have a up to date collection of food delivery menus in the kitchen drawer, odds are you have at least heard of Mrs. Beeton. My Mom had a copy of her book on her cookbook shelf and I found it fascinating. I thought she was unique but now I know differently. She came after Elizabeth Raffald (1733-1781) and Elizabeth needs to be brought back to get the attention she should always have had through the ages.
In any time period she would have been seen as a great business woman in her own right. At fifteen (1748) she was working in the kitchen of a stately home. She married at thirty and died eighteen years later at forty-eight. In between she started and ran a catering business, a cooking school for young ladies, several eating establishments, compiled (twice) a directory of people and businesses in Manchester and ran an employment agency for domestic workers. It is said she had either sixteen or eighteen daughters which means she did most of it while either pregnant. Her downfall came at the hands of her husband who was a drinker and loved to spend money.
There isn't a lot of personal information on Elizabeth (journals, etc) but she left her mark and there are some surviving interviews with her descendants. If you are even a little bit interested by food history, women's history, the Georgian Period, British history, women in business, women's rights and so much more then this book is a must read. From the introduction alone I was hooked. Neil Buttery has a very smooth flowing writing style that made this book a pleasure to read.

NetGalley, Susan Eggers

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is a wonderful book if you love learning about the history of English cooking, which did not, by the way, start with Mrs. Beeton.

NetGalley, Gail Gerard

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


I was familiar with Mrs. Beeton, but completely unfamiliar with her predecessor and inspiration Elizabeth Raffald. The author does a wonderful job of providing a meticulously researched and annotated academically rigorous biography in layman accessible language and at the same time succeeds in making it really interesting. The book is quite simple graphically, there aren't a lot of illustrations, but there are a number of facsimiles, photos, and line drawings contained in an appendix in the back of the book. The author has also included notes and annotations, as well as a comprehensive index.

It's not a cookbook in much of a sense of the word, or at least not chiefly a cookbook, there are only a few recipes here, in an appendix. There is however, broad ranging historical background, social commentary, history, quite a lot of drama, and some pathos, retelling the rise and fall of Mrs. Raffald. The author has gone to great pains to delineate the subtleties and explain the background minutiae showing the differences between ingredients, preparation methods, and cooking fuels from the 1700s compared to the modern day.

Five stars. This would be a superlative choice for foodies fascinated by history as well as for historical re-creators/SCA folks.

NetGalley, Annie Buchanan

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Before Mrs. Beeton, there was Elizabeth Raffald, a one woman powerhouse who worked hard to become an incredible success, and deserves to be far more well known than she is today. Elizabeth began as a servant, worked her way up to (a surprisingly young) housekeeper, and after marrying John Raffald moved to Manchester where she had a confectioner's shop, catered fine meals, built a servant's hiring agency, wrote a best-selling cookery book based on the idea that the developing middle-class and servants (housekeepers etc.) wanted to know the best ways to economically cook excellent meals, plain meals, fancy desserts, and everything in between. This book does a really great job of giving the reader a good feel for where Elizabeth is historically and socially- she works to build up her social status and wealth without ever shocking the society around her. She plays by the rules, but she has a brilliant sense for business opportunities and timing that allow her to become an incredibly influential woman in Manchester, and author Neil Buttery argues, brings Manchester up with her.

As people once again become interested in food history and the people connected to making important contributions to national food as we might still know it today, Elizabeth Raffald will surely become a more known and celebrated name. This well-written and well-researched book will hopefully help to play a part in getting the word out. I'm certainly glad I found it!

NetGalley, Anne Morgan

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

A very interesting biography of a fascinating character. Social and woman history well done, informative and entertaining.
Highly recommended.

NetGalley, Anna Maria Giacomasso

As featured in

The Bookseller

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

What a great book! I am always fascinated to read accounts of women who have led such interesting lives and yet have not featured in our history books. This account is far more than a biography. It is a true social history which gives thorough context of the subject’s living experience. Strongly encourage people who want to know more about the era to read this, but also consider it is a must read for anyone who wants the lives and contributions of largely forgotten women to be celebrated and acknowledged.

NetGalley, Louise Gray

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Very interesting biography and social history. Well written and researched. Highly enjoyed this! Would recommend to readers of non-fiction, classics, and woman’s studies.

NetGalley, Jenna Gareis

I love food, I love cooking, I love reading. So put them all together and you get a great book! The story of Elizabeth Raffald and her life, her rise and fall, her fame. This is such an interesting read and really brings to life a person you only ever hear about in cooking/food books.

This is a well researched and well written book. It is a book you can get your teeth into and is something you need to love and enjoy (cook and food) I think in order to take the whole story in.

A magical, interesting, intriguing and heart-felt telling of the life of a strong, smart and creative women in the 18th century when I believe it would have been very hard to be a woman!

Great book. Great story.

NetGalley, Donna Robinson

A must-read for anyone interested in eighteenth century cookery.

NetGalley, Heather Moll

Buttery’s respect and enthusiasm for his subject keeps the book interesting. He doesn’t just write about Elizabeth in the eighteenth century, he also mentions Elizabeth David’s and Jane Grigson’s respect for Raffald; and that Anton Mosimann owned a copy of The Experienced English Housekeeper. I enjoyed this book and happily recommend it to anyone interested in social history or cooking.

NetGalley, Colin Edwards

An interesting read that gives credit to the lady left in obscurity for too long. Mrs Elizabeth Raffald's life was extraordinary and so were her achievements regarding career and business untertakings. For a person with humble beginnings, Mrs Raffald managed to secure financial security and fame, and more than once, it must be noticed. Such accomplishments for a woman who lived in the 18th century were rather rare.

NetGalley, Beata B. Reviewer

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I find anything Victorian fascinating, especially Mrs Beeton, who, as a Victorian crime writer, I often refer to for research. This book was excellent, and I will refer to it often in my research.

NetGalley, Wendy M Rhodes

I love Mrs Beeton's book, finding such joy in reading through it for the past many years and I'm glad that I was able to learn about her and her life in this one. I found it well researched, written without dryness, and very interesting. An absolutely worthy read for those more interested in learning about the woman behind Mrs. Beeton.

NetGalley, Michelle Smith

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I had never heard of Elizabeth Raffald before and this was a great way of introducing her to the audience. I enjoyed how well Neil Buttery wrote this and how well this was researched. I enjoyed going on this history and am glad I got to read this.

"No, Elizabeth was of different stock – she was a housekeeper and an excellent one at that. She wrote entirely by experience, everything gleaned from her diverse knowledge and the copious written notes and recipes she must have kept with her, both in the shop and in domestic service. ‘Her earnest enthusiasm is all-compelling;'"

NetGalley, Kathryn McLeer

About Neil Buttery

Dr Neil Buttery is a chef and restaurateur who has been studying and writing about the history of British food for over a decade. His research and writing on the subject can be read on his long-running blog British Food: A History and heard on The British Food History Podcast.
His combination of academic study and practical cookery has led to appearances on Channel Four’s Britain’s Most Historic Towns, Radio Four’s The Food Programme and Channel 5’s Secrets of the Royal Palaces. He is the resident food historian on Channel 5’s The Wonderful World of Cakes.

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