Isabella Beeton (1836-1865)

The VV always imaged the author of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management to be some middle-aged, crinolined dragon who bustled around a steaming range, her cast iron ringlets trembling as she waved a wooden spoon in the air - simultaneously jotting down recipes.

It was quite a surprise to discover that the woman who penned this great tome of domestic advice did so between the ages of 21 and 25, and with very little expertise. Her first recipe for a Victoria sponge cake made no mention of using eggs!

In fact, when Isabella  married Samuel Beeton, a publisher of books and magazines, she had no desire to stay at home, preferring to commute to Fleet Street each day where she worked as a journalist on The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, translating French novels to serialise -and doing a marvellous cut and paste job of compiling other people's recipes and hints to produce a regular supplement.

Ever the entrepeneur, Samuel published his wife's work as a book, the original version of which boasted 1,112 pages. There were 900 recipes, many with lavish colour engravings. There were reams of instructions regarding the well-run family house, with information for the Mistress, Housekeeper and Cook, the Kitchen-Maid and Butler, the Footman, the Coachman, the Valet, the Upper and Under House-Maids, the Lady's Maid etc etc. And, should you be lost for Sanitary, Medical or Legal advice, Mrs Beeton had something to say on it all, not to forget fashion and childcare, animal husbandry, the use of poisons, science and religion - everything pertaining to the ideal family home and its comforts.

She even discussed the selection of friends, warning of gossips, who should be avoided as a pestilence. But then, Isabella had good cause to be wary of wagging tongues.

Professionally, she accomplished a great deal. Privately, her marriage to Samuel appeared as an ideal of romance - albeit somewhat progressive. They had known each other since childhood, both being raised in Milk Street, in the London area if Cheapside where their mothers had been firm friends, a relationship that continued even when the families moved apart, resulting in the couple's later reintroduction.
Samuel Orchart Beeton (1831-1877)

But, like many other young men at the time, the undoubtedly attractive Samuel was a regular client of prostitutes - and like many young Victorian brides, Isabella received the honeymoon gift of being infected with syphillis. The disease led to tragic consequences - all of which could have been prevented today by the use of antibiotics.

Isabella had several miscarriages. Two of her sons died of related complications - one at 3 months and one at 3 years. Isabella died at the age of 28, following the birth of her last child, suffering from puerperal fever which was thought to have been caused by the attending doctor having failed to wash his hands.

Samuel died twelve years later at the age of 46, but not before ensuring that Mrs Beeton's myth lived on - promoting his books as the work of a middle-aged housewife, and thus creating the publishing phenomenon which is still being sold today.

For further reading, the VV recommends Kathryn Hughes' book, The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton.

The book was adapted by the BBC in the excellent dramatisation, The Secret Life of Mrs Beeton.

Anna Madeley as Isabella Beeton

The following links may also be of interest:



From time to time, the VV will explore some inventions born of the Victorian age, many of which we now take for granted, never imagining how they might have come about.

Alexander Graham Bell  (1847-1922) with his prototype telephone

Let's start with the telephone - and the common misconception that it was invented by Alexander Graham Bell. It is true that Bell, a teacher of the deaf-mute who worked alongside Helen Keller, was experimenting with forms of electro-audio stimulation. It is also true that he filed a patent for a machine that could transmit sound via undulating currents through vibrating steel rods. A lucrative deal was soon struck with the Western Union Telegraph company who linked his device to existing telegraph wires - causing a sensation when the usual Morse code system of dashes and dots was expanded into a harmonic blend of 'notes' through which Bell's voice could be heard reading and singing from miles away. 

And that, historically, was that...except that it wasn't because, once upon a time, there was an Italian by the name of Antonio Meucci who happened to live in America, and who happened to share a laboratory with Alexander Graham Bell.

Meucci studied mechanical engineering at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence. While in Cuba in the 1830's, he worked on a means of transmitting electricity through copper wires to treat sufferers of rheumatism and discovered that, even when in the next room, he could hear what the patients were saying. Later, when living in Washington, Meucci's wife  became bedridden and he employed the same technique to communicate with her from his workroom.

In 1860, Meucci demonstrated his 'Talking Telegraph' in New York. However, he was unable to secure any financial backing, and was too poor to afford the $250 needed to patent his 'teletrofono'. Ironcially, he sent details to The Western Union company who claimed the material had been lost - only then to sign a deal with Bell when he patented his own machine in 1876.

Meucci was outraged and began proceedings to sue Bell for fraud, but the legal case was abandoned when the Italian died before the case could be heard. Nevertheless, he has not been entirely forgotten and, in 2003, an Italian postage stamp was issued to officially recognise Meucci for his contribution to the science of telecommunication.



Should you ever wish to enter a virtual Victorian home, then you need go no further than Number 18, Stafford Terrace, London, W8. The original owner, Mr Edward Linley Sambourne was the eccentric and rather racy Punch cartoonist and photographer who married Marion, the daughter of a wealthy stockbroker. In 1874, with her father's help, they paid £2,000 to secure an eighty-nine year lease on a house in the classical Italianite style. And, there they remained for 36 years, living in a dark, cluttered opulance made up of Chinese ceramics, Turkey rugs, ornate brass beds, Morris wallpapers and stained glass windows - not to mention all the letters, diaries and bills that provide a fascinating insight into the day-to-day running of such a house.

Subsequent generations hardly lived in the house at all, using it for entertaining actresses, a pied a terre and party venue. And, at one such party on Guy Fawks night in 1957, Linley's granddaughter Anne was to propose founding the Victorian Society to preserve the house as a 'living museum'.

If you decide to visit in person, you can make the choice between a conventional viewing or one where costumed guides dress up as members of the family and staff. All details are to be found here.



George Leybourne was born in Newcastle in 1842. Often called Joe Saunders, he began his working life in the role of a labourer. But, with such good looks and a fine baritone voice, when he eventually travelled to London he transformed himself into the very first superstar of the London music halls.

His career really took off when he met the composer Alfred Lee, when together they wrote such successful songs as That Daring Young Man on his Flying Trapeze, based on the acrobat, Jules Leotard.

But, a song called Champagne Charlie brought the greatest wealth and fame, when George Leybourne, as he was then professionally known, was sponsored by Moet and Chandon, appearing on stage as a West End swell - very elegant in his top hat and tails, carrying a silver-topped cane, and waving a bottle of champagne. But, life imitated art a little too closely in this case. George was often warned by the law for being too lewd and suggestive and, at the age of 42, he died in penury, exhausted from his schedule of work, and also rumoured to be suffering from the excesses of alcohol.

At the height of his fame, George had an arch rival. The Great Vance was another 'Lion Comique' who also performed boisterous drinking songs and was sponsored by Cliquot Champagne. But the competition did not end there...

When Vance had a great hit with 'Walking in the Zoo,' (his shortened slang term for the Zoological Gardens, then coming into common parlance), George answered with 'Lounging at the Aq', inspired by the London Aquarium.

If you want to hear some of the songs, you can watch Alberto Cavalcanti's film called 'Champagne Charlie', which was made in 1944, and which starred Tommy Trinder as George and Stanley Holloway as The Great Vance.