Food history: archives and manuscripts

The image shows the front page of a ration book from 1953 to 1954 held in the Cooper family Papers at the British Library.
Ration book, 1953-54. Cooper family Papers, Add MS 70670 A, f.111.

Archives and manuscripts relating to food history in the British Isles from 1600 to the present day.

About the collection

The British Library holds an extensive collection of manuscripts and archives that relate to the production, distribution and consumption of food throughout the 17th to 21st centuries. These collections provide insights into changing agricultural practices, advancing food technologies, the impact of colonialism on British food, the growth of international food trade routes, national food policies, food-related activism, as well as domestic cookery practices.

For summaries of domestic culinary manuscripts in the British Library including recipe books, kitchen accounts and bills of fare, see the following collection guides:

17th Century Culinary Manuscripts 

18th Century Culinary Manuscripts

19th–20th Century Culinary Manuscripts

A summary of archive and manuscript collections relating to wider food history dating from 1600 onwards in the Western Manuscript collections are listed below. Manuscripts and archives relating to the history of food around the world are also found elsewhere in our collections: in the South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, Middle East and Africa collections.

17th century

The Sloane Manuscripts hold a large number of culinary and medical recipes, as well as manuscripts on various methods of food cultivation. The papers of food trader, John Stansfield, contain insights into the trade in food in the early 17th century. The notebook of Thomas Stringer contains memoranda on agriculture, including insights into breeding rabbits and planting liquorice and saffron. The extensive archives of the East India Company (1600–1874) record the establishment of a global trade in varied foodstuffs, as well as document the company’s colonial actions and exploitations as a principal instrument of Empire. 

18th century

The Liverpool Papers hold extensive papers on British trade in the 18th century, including insights into imports and exports, customs and tariffs, royal companies, domestic food prices and the growth of a slave plantation-based system of sugar production. Colonial accounts and attitudes relating to these plantations are found in the papers of planters and slave owners, Edward Long and Samuel Martin. In addition to these recollections, the minutes of the Commissioners for Trade and Plantations Developments 1766 are present in the Palmerston Papers. Developments in agricultural technology are found in Sir John Anstruther’s treatise on Jethro Tull’s seed drill and Edward King’s manuscript on drill-husbandry. The correspondence of Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount Townshend, the inventor of the four-field crop rotation method are present in the Townshend Papers

19th century

The British Library holds letters addressed to Arthur Young, Secretary to the Board of Agriculture and agriculturalist, dated from the late 18th to early 19th century. The Peel Papers offer insights into key food related historical events, including the Irish famine and the repeal of the Corn Laws. The Peel Papers also contain details of the international food trade and agricultural workers’ concerns on wages and conditions. Additional insights into the debates around the Corn Laws are found in the correspondence of Philip Yorke in the Hardwicke Papers. Correspondence of food writer and man of letters, Abraham Hayward, are found in several collections, including the Countess Waldegrave Papers

20th century to present

The Arnold-Forster Papers include papers concerning the freight of food in the early 20th century. The Sir William Ashely Papers provide insights into food provision, trade and agriculture during World War I, whilst the letters of historian James Williamson describe the impact of food rationing during World War II. Papers of the politician Jeremy Thorpe, include farm management surveys, correspondence with the National Farmers Union as well as items relating to agricultural issues during the 1960s and 1970s. The Constitution Unit Archive includes papers relating to the Food Standards Agency. The British Library’s most recent food history acquisitions include the papers of animal rights activists Richard Ryder and Kim Stallwood, as well as the archive of Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming, which will be available to access in due course. 

Examples

 

What is available online?

The Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue contains catalogue entries for food history archives and manuscripts.

The British Library holds an extensive archive of oral histories relating to the production, manufacture and consumption of food in 20th century Britain

 

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

The majority of food history archives and manuscripts can be consulted in the Manuscripts Reading Room. Use our online catalogue, Explore Archives and Manuscripts, to find and request this material. Further manuscripts and archives relating to food history may be found within the India Office Records and Private Papers, including the records of the East India Company. These can be consulted in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room. 

Please contact the Manuscripts Reference Team for information about accessing restricted items.

Many of the East India Company papers have been digitised for the Adam Matthew East India Company digital resource, which is available to view for free within the Reading Rooms. 

 

What is available in other organisations?

  • The Guildhall Library collections of works on wine and food, including the library of the International Wine and Food Society and the personal library of food writer and historian, André Simon. The archives of the City of London livery companies, including the Grocers, Fishmongers and Vintners, managed by London Metropolitan Archives and accessed at the Guildhall Library.
  • Leeds University Library holds many cookery manuscripts in its expansive Cookery Collection
  • The National Library of Scotland manuscript and archive collections include important sources for food history, including recipe books, household accounts and menus. 
  • The National Archives hold vast resources relating to British food history, papers of the Ministry of food, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Food Standards Agency and records relating to the establishment of rationing during world wars. 
 

Further information

The Oxford Handbook of Food History, edited by Jeffrey M. Pilcher. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Food History: Critical and Primary Sources, edited by Jeffrey M. Pilcher. (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).