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The Watering Can, A Refill

A design more recognisable to modern eyes as a watering can, a term first used by Timothy Keeble in his diary in 1692, emerged around the same time. Initially it was jug-shaped with a large hole at the top for receiving water and a handle running from the top to middle of the pot’s back. Instead of holes at the bottom, it had a funnel leading to a perforated spout. This spout, known today a “rose”, a word derived from the French noun arroseur meaning sprinkler, made strong thumbs redundant and reduced the opportunity for mishaps.

By the time Louis Liger D’Auxerre was waxing lyrical about the watering-pot in his The Compleat Florist (1706), its jug-shape had become a canister with a cone on top. “Nothing”, he declared, “is more useful in a Garden than a Watering-Pot, so that a Gardner cannot be without it. It imitates the Rain falling from the Heavens; when being bended down, it spouts forth Water thro’ a thousand holes, in a sort of Head that’s made to it. By this means, it succours the Plants in the most beneficial manner”.

As technology improved, earthenware gave way to copper and from around 1850, iron, brass, and zinc were increasingly deployed. However, the intrinsic design remained the same, that is until John Haws enters our story.

A civil servant posted to Mauritius, Clapton-born Haws, by his own admission an unsuccessful gardener, started to grow vanilla plants as a hobby. He was exasperated by the current design of watering can, as the single large handle arching from front to back made it awkward to balance and manoeuvre, especially when trying to reach those plants on the upper shelves in a greenhouse. In 1884 he decided to see whether he could improve upon the design.

On his return to England, he found that the country was bitten by the gardening bug. Glass was now more widely available and cheaper, making greenhouses more affordable, sparking an interest in growing exotic and delicate plants which were then transferred to ornamental gardens and borders. These delicate plants required regular watering by hand. Seizing the moment, Haws applied for a patent for his new design for a watering can, claiming that “this new invention forms a watering pot that is much easier to carry and tip, and at the same time being much cleaner, and more adapted for use than any other put before the public”.

The Patent Office agreed, awarding Haws his patent in 1886. His design incorporated two significant features, doubling the number of handles so that there was a “carrying” handle at the top and a “tipping” handle at the back, making it easier to manoeuvre and allowing a more even flow of water on to the roots of the plants, and placing the funnel at the bottom of the can to make it easier to reach the higher shelves.

Setting up a factory in Clapton, his take on the watering can soon found favour with leading gardeners, establishing the reputation of Haws for goods of the highest quality. He was awarded the Royal Horticultural Society medal, to be presented at the first ever Chelsea Flower Show in 1913, but, sadly, he died before he could receive it.

Arthur moved the business to Bishops Stortford and maintained his uncle’s attention to detail, even employing a worker whose sole task was to punch every hole into each rose, spaced and tapered to perfection. No wonder the company is still trading and has maintained its reputation for making watering cans of the highest quality.

While Haws is recognised as the father of the modern-day watering can, his design template, which is still used today, was but one step in the development of this most useful of gardeners’ tools.

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The Watering Can

The German town of Giessen is home to one of the world’s most curious museums, the Giesskannenmuseum. Situated in Sonnenstrasse, near the town’s famed botanical gardens, it celebrates the common-or-garden watering can, be they ancient or modern, valuable or cheap, large or small, and boasts over a thousand exhibits. Founded in 2011, it is in the perfect spot. After all, giessen means “to sprinkle”.

As plants draw up moisture from the surrounding soil and compost through their roots, the watering can is an invaluable part of a gardener’s armoury, allowing them to point the flow of water precisely where it is needed. A hose pipe, a more scatter gun approach, often means that water lands on the foliage, increasing the risk of scorching as the sun’s rays increase in intensity. Our six have made a small but not insignificant contribution to a global lawn and garden watering equipment market worth $4.9 billion in 2019.

A gardener’s preoccupation with ensuring that their plants do not wilt through want of water is not a modern phenomenon. In the ruins of Herculaneum, destroyed during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD, archaeologists have found vessels which were used to transport water for watering gardens. However, if we define a watering can as a portable container with a handle, a hole for filling it up with water, and a further set of holes through which the contents can be sprinkled, then its prototype can be traced to around the 15th century.

Its primary use, though, was not to water plants but to keep floors clean. Straw and rushes, used to cover floors, were notorious for collecting dust, amongst other things. Periodic watering kept the dust levels down and stopped it from flying around when it was time to replace the covering.

Typically, a chantepleure was used, an earthenware pot shaped like a bell or a jug, with a handle which arched from the vessel’s body to the top of its narrow neck. There was a small hole at the top of the vessel and a series of holes at the bottom.

Its use persisted well into the 19th century, William Whitley recording in his Art of England 1821-37 (1930), that “the flooring of the [London Royal] Academy in 1833…was nothing but bare boards, watered every morning to keep the dust down. The watering pot was used in similar fashion in…the National Gallery”.  

Placing your thumb over the top created enough internal pressure to keep the water inside, but as soon as you lifted it, the contents would flow out through the holes in the bottom of the vessel. With the growth in interest in gardening in the 16th century, horticulturalists were quick to see that it had an application in solving the perennial problem of how to ensure plants were adequately watered.

Thomas Hill, in his The Gardener’s Labyrinth (1577), gave precise instructions on how to use what he called “the common watering potte for the Garden beddes”. The Florists Vade Mecum (1638) did likewise, leading its author to observe that “this serves to water young and tender seedlings for by the motion of your thumb you may cause the water to fall gently upon them more or less as you shall desire”. Unsurprisingly, very few earthenware thumb-pots have survived and so command quite a premium, one selling for a record price of £5,040 at Sothebys in Billinghurst on September 23, 2003.

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Another Slice Of Victoria Sponge

Elizabeth Bird’s poor digestive system also reacted adversely to yeast. Her indefatigable husband, Alfred Bird, he of egg-free custard fame, looked for a solution that would put bread and pastries back on the menu. He found that a mixture of a mild alkali in the form of bicarbonate of soda, and a mild acid, cream of tartar, combined with a filler to absorb moisture, such as cornflour, would, when moistened, produce carbon dioxide. The bubbles from the gas would cause the dough or cake mixture to expand and rise. Alfred had invented what we know as baking powder, an effective substitute for yeast.

His timing could not have been better. In upper class circles luncheon had been introduced in the 18th century to fill the lengthening gap between breakfast and dinner, which was usually served anywhere between seven o’clock and eight-thirty in the evening. Luncheon, though, was normally a light affair, leaving many to endure a long afternoon without any form of refreshment. Anna Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford and Queen Victoria’s Lady of the Bedchamber between 1837 and 1841, hit upon an innovation that revolutionised the social world from the 1840s, the taking of afternoon tea.

By four o’clock each afternoon, the Duchess started to feel peckish and would ask her servants to bring a pot of tea and some cakes to her chamber. Finding that this combination filled the gap admirably, she extended invitations to some of her social circle to her rooms at Belvoir Castle at five o’clock to take afternoon tea. On her return to London Anna continued the practice, sending printed cards to her friends inviting them to take tea and a walk with her.

So popular did this novel form of breaking the fast between luncheon and dinner become that other society hostesses soon followed suit. One of whom was Queen Victoria, who, notorious for her very sweet tooth, had, by 1855, made it into a formal occasion by insisting that her ladies wore formal attire. Her table groaned with delicacies, but pride of place was reserved for a light and airy, perfectly risen sponge that was only possible thanks to Alfred Bird’s baking powder. So enamoured was she with the cake that following Albert’s death in 1861 it was named the Victoria sponge in her honour.

Its adoption by the middle classes was assured by its inclusion in Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861), although to the consternation of many an aspiring hostess Isabella’s recipe in her first edition omitted any reference to eggs.

Alfred’s ingenuity knew no bounds. He developed a formula for jelly powder and an egg-substitute and in 1859 built a water barometer. He also produced a set of harmonised glass bowls boasting a range of over five octaves which, his funeral notice observed, “he played with much skill”. Although he did not patent his baking powder, allowing rivals to take a slice of the market and Henry Jones, a Bristol baker, to incorporate it in his self-raising flour, Alfred’s estate was worth around £9,000 when he died on December 15, 1878.

Next time you take a slice of Victoria sponge, spare a thought for Elizabeth Bird’s delicate digestive system and her husband’s ingenuity.

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A Slice Of Victoria Sponge

A nation of cake lovers, the British spend over £1.3 billion on them a year and, in 2018/19, consumed on average 151 grams of cakes, buns, and pastries per person per week. The enforced changes to our daily routines over the last two years are likely to have seen these figures rise. Such is our obsession with the soft, sweet foodstuff that it has spawned an unlikely televisual hit in The Great British Bake Off (GBBO), now in its twelfth season, after initially airing August 17, 2010.

Firmly established amongst the nation’s favourites is the Victoria sponge, or the Victoria sandwich cake, a two-layer, sponge-like, airy cake with a layer of jam and, for the indulgent, cream in the middle and a dusting of icing sugar on the top. The lodestone of the recipe is the weight of the eggs in their shells which determines the proportions of the butter, sugar, and flour to be used.

Deceptively simple as the recipe may be, it is a real art to make the perfect Victoria sponge, so much so that it is seen as the yardstick for judging a baker’s acumen. The Women’s Institute have elevated it to an art form, where marks can be gained or lost depending upon the texture of the cake and the type of jam. Following suit, the GBBO has made one of its supreme challenges the production of the perfect Victoria sponge, where contestants seek to avoid such faux pas as a soggy bottom.

The origins of the sponge cake, so called because its texture is akin to that of the sea-dwelling sponge, can be traced back to at least the 15th century. At the court of the Duchy of Savoy, a confection like a sponge finger, a low-density, dry, egg-based, sweet sponge cake biscuit shaped like a large digit, known as a Savoiardi, was produced to mark the visit of the French king. So tasty was it that it was adopted as the court’s official biscuit.

The earliest British recipe appeared in Gervase Markham’s The English Housewife (1615), although he called it biscuit bread. The ingredients included a pound of fine flour, a pound of sugar, eight eggs, four yolks, as well as half an ounce of aniseeds and a similar quantity of coriander seeds. Making it was not for the faint-hearted as Markham warned that “will take very near an hour’s beating”, to perfect the mixture.

There is some controversy as to what the result looked like when it had been baked. Some commentators suggested that it would be very dense in texture, while others thought it would be more akin to a biscuit. One enterprising blogger went to the trouble of following the recipe and found that in texture it was slightly denser than a pound cake but with a similar sort of flavour. Perhaps that settles the argument.

Custard has a long culinary history, popular in the Middle Ages when baked in pastry, although, according to the 14th century collection of English recipes, The Forme of Cury, it was also used as a binding for meat and fish. Elizabeth Bird was very partial to it, but one of its principal ingredients, eggs, upset her delicate digestive system. Fortunately, she was married to Alfred, a chemist who in 1837 had set up a shop underneath the old Market Hall in Birmingham’s Bull Street.

A dutiful husband, Alfred challenged himself to develop an egg-free custard, so that his wife could indulge her passion. He found, after many failed attempts, that adding cornflour to the milky mixture when warmed would thicken it sufficiently to give it a custard-like texture. This new form of custard was tried out at a dinner party and pronounced a success. Delighted with the feedback, Alfred set up a company in 1843, Alfred Bird and Sons, to produce his custard powder on a commercial basis. To this day his name is synonymous the world over with custard.

Next time we will look at how another of Elizabeth’s allergies gave rise to the Victoria sponge. If you enjoyed this, check out More Curious Questions, available now.

A Second Slice Of Turkey

The rough rule of thumb is if you are feeding up to nine people, you should allow a pound of turkey per person, while for ten or more an allowance of 0.8lbs should suffice. Whether there would be enough meat to go around was not a concern for Philip Cook of Leacroft Turkeys Ltd in Peterborough who reared a turkey which, on December 12, 1989, tipped the scales at a whopping 86-pounds, claiming the crown for the world’s heaviest turkey. Named Tyson it was auctioned for charity raising £4,400. I wonder how long it took to carve it.

A man who knows a thing or two about carving is Paul Kelly. On June 3, 2009, at Little Claydon Farm in Essex he took just 3 minutes and 19.47 seconds to carve fourteen portions of breast meat, each weighing at least 150 grams, and place them on to 14 separate plates. His technique, which he claims is fool proof, is to cut along the breastbone to remove the breast meat before cutting it into slices.

Paul is also the world’s fastest turkey plucker, holding the record for plucking three sixteen-pound birds ready for the oven in eleven and a half minutes. The record for plucking a single turkey was set by Vincent Pilkington from County Cavan on November 17, 1980. It took him just one minute thirty seconds. When the two battled it out by plucking two turkeys each in April 2014, it was the Irishman who prevailed.

And why is it called a turkey? To add to the confusion why is it known in Turkish as hindi, meaning Indian, while in French it is dinde, from India, and in Dutch kalkoen, a Calicut hen?

Before turkeys arrived on the scene, guinea fowls were imported through Constantinople and known as Turkey coqs or Turkiye hennes. Traders from Constantinople were also involved in the importation of what we know as turkeys into England. One theory goes that the naming the bird after the Turks was an indication of its exoticism and non-indigenous status.

For mainland Europeans, though, perhaps Turkey was too close to home and the more distant India provided a better representation of the exotic. Or was it just a hangover from Columbus’ misconception that he was sailing to the Indies rather than America? Or did the English name derive from the Turkish military uniform of a red fez and a dark cloak? No one knows for sure.

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