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Friday, 3rd April 2020


“When Life was Nasty, Brutish and Short”

By Derek Taylor

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Friday, 17th April 2020


Spring Quiz – St. Edward’s Hall

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“Who was John the Muffin Man?” and

“Researching the ‘old man’” – Dr. Steven Blake

This talk by former curator of Cheltenham Museum and Art Gallery, now The Wilson, Dr. Steven Blake, was very well attended with over 60 society members eager to hear more about the characters from Cheltenham’s 19th century past.


The first half of the lecture explored the life of John the Muffin Man.  Over the years the museum had recorded and also owns several images of the diminutive muffin seller from one of Regency England’s most fashionable towns.  Interestingly though, some of these images vary not only in the look of the muffin man but also in the ages he is given along with the date they were painted.  So who was “Little Johnnie the muffin man”?  He must have been quite a character as it is unusual that so many watercolours turn up showing a street seller or hawker, with even prints of the day including John the muffin man.  Through Dr. Blake’s research we learnt that it’s very likely he was employed by a baker’s situated close to the centre marking stone heading towards the lower High Street and that he had originally come from Colchester.   If we presume that most of these watercolours were sold to tourists visiting the town by other hawkers or image sellers, then why do the dates not concur and some of the faces look different?   In fact some of the images give dates that appear to be 20 years later than Little Johnnie was known to have died.    The only possible explanation can be that having such a character selling his muffins worked so well for the baker that he wished to carry on this tradition and found a replacement of equally diminutive stature.  Research is on-going so one day we may know the full history behind this intriguing story.


On to the second part of this fascinating insight into the lives of everyday folk, “The Old Man of Cheltenham.”  Until the 1950’s you may have been surprised to see an unusual trade sign of a chimney sweep on one of the buildings in one of the backwater roads called Sherborne Street and far from the High Street that the muffin man frequented.  You can now see this wonderful old zinc sign at The Wilson.  But why was the Old Man made and situated on a small terraced house far from the centre of town?  


The sign was removed from Sherborne Street when the last Master Sweep retired.  From Dr. Blake’s research we learned that a chimney sweeping business had worked out of Sherborne Street since the 1830’s with a brass plaque that was attached to No. 15 stating the name ‘Field Late Short’ being the proprietors.  Field had been apprenticed to Short and would eventually take over the business.  The zinc trade sign was modelled on Field who with his aquiline nose and distinctive bow-tie like his shorter fellow tradesman down the road was a well-known character in the town.  Trade signs like the 19th century Gordon Highlander taking a pinch of snuff, that stood outside Frederick Wright Ltd., Tobacco & Snuff Dealers, 112 High Street, are reasonably well-known as a way of businesses advertising their services or wares.  What makes the Old Man so unusual is that not only was it not from a High Street but that it is an unusual occupation to see as a trade sign.  It would appear the reason for this rarity’s survival would be that the business had survived in the same street for over 100 years;  perhaps it was first constructed by the wife of the first sweep as a memorial to her late husband and also as a way of letting people know that following his death the business would continue.  


Simon Clarke


MUFFIN RECIPES (kindly supplied by Society member Phyllis Andrews)


From Mrs Beeton’s Household Management. Edition 1900AD


Chester Muffins

1 teacup of Butter

1 teacup of Sugar

1 teacup Fresh Yeast

4 Quarts Flour

2 Quarts Milk

4 Eggs

A little Salt



Mix butter and sugar together. Dissolve the yeast in a little water then mix with the flour, milk, eggs and salt. Mix well.

Cover with a cloth and let it rise overnight. Make up into round shapes of even size. Bake 20 minutes. Makes 3 dozen.




English Muffins

1 lb Strong White Flour

1 tsp. Salt

8 fl oz Milk

2 fl. oz Water

1 level tsp. Caster Sugar

2 level Tsp. Dried Yeast

Lard or Oil



Warm the milk and water to blood heat, add the sugar and yeast, stir then leave to froth for about 10 minutes. Mix with the flour to form a soft dough then knead for 10 minutes by hand or in a food mixer. Cover the bowl tightly and leave in a warm place to rise until double in size. Turn out the dough, knead lightly then roll out to half an inch thick. Cut rounds with a 3” plain cutter. Knead together the trimmings and re roll to use up all the dough. Put the muffins on to a lightly floured baking sheet, sprinkle with a little flour, cover with cling film then leave in a warm place to rise for about ½ hour.


To cook

1.On a Griddle.  Heat a thick based frying pan or griddle over medium heat. Brush with a little lard or oil. Turn the heat down low then cook the muffins in batches for about 7 minutes on each side.

2.In the Oven. Bake at 180C(Fan Oven) for about 15 minutes until lightly browned. When you tap the bottom they should sound hollow.


If all this sounds very time consuming, which it is, you can buy some from your favourite supermarket.


Muffins were often served toasted with plenty of butter.