Three centuries of recipes from Newton Surmaville

ONE of the unexpected treasures discovered by Robin and Jane Cannon during their six-year restoration of Newton House, the neglected time-capsule country house near Yeovil, were three collections of recipes spanning about 250 years from previous owners and their friends.

The Cannons, who opened the beautiful house and gardens to the public for the first time this year, raising funds for two cancer charities, have edited the recipes as an important part of a book* they have written which describes the painstaking restoration of the house, with details of its history and its former owners, all descended from Robert Harbin.

Harbin, who was born in 1526, acquired Newton House in 1608, demolished the medieval house and started building his grand new mansion. He was evidently an optimist as he was already 82 but the house was completed in 1612 and he enjoyed it for another nine years, dying at the age of 95 in 1621, when he was succeeded by his son, John.

The house and estate remained in the Harbin family for 399 years, and was inherited by the last owner of the Harbin family – Sophie Rawlins (nee Bates Wyndham Harbin) from her mother Hilda, in 1962.

Photographs from a Country Life magazine in 1952 show the house, which is officially called Newton Surmaville, as it was in those early post-war years – and it looked very much the same when the Cannons bought it in 2007. They had a massive task to restore the Grade I listed building, and make it comfortable and habitable for a family in the 21st century.

During the long and costly restoration of the house, Jane Cannon went through the 55 boxes of papers which Sophie Rawlins had left to the Somerset Archives in Taunton. They contained the accumulated documents, drawings, deeds, letter and illustrations of centuries – many interesting and important, but Jane was particularly interested in a hand-written book, A Recipe Book 1787, written by Rhoda Phelips, formerly of Montacute House, who married William Harbin. The 95 pages include recipes for soups, starters, main dishes, cheeses, puddings and cakes as well as medicines and cures.

Two other hand-written books have been found, “Reliable Recipes” by Hilda Bates Harbin and Sophie Bates Harbin’s collection. The Cannons believe that Hilda’s book dates from the end of the 19th or beginning of the 20th centuries and that Sophie’s recipes were probably written during the 1920s and 30s.

In his foreword to the book, Julian Fellowes, who with his wife Lady Emma Kitchener Fellowes has restored a beautiful historic house near Dorchester, describes such a project as “a labour of love.”

As the author of the Oscar-winning Gosford Park and now of the hugely successful Downton Abbey, Lord Fellowes drew on the “receipt book” of his own great-great grandmother for the Downton Abbey dinners, so he is particularly interested in the Newton House collections: “I certainly feel that Mrs Patmore would be curious to try the recipes that are reproduced here,” he says.

They represent a fascinating picture of food in a great country house over nearly three centuries. The Cannons have kept the original spellings, and comment that many of the recipes assume some knowledge of cooking!

Some would make Paul and Mary’s notorious “Technical Challenge” in The Gret British Bake-Off look like a detailed step by step recipe, so minimal are the instructions for quantities or timing, but others are clear and straightforward, with locally available ingredients, reflecting a time when very few dishes in rural Somerset and Dorset would have included exotic or imported specialities, although the large kitchen garden and glass-houses would have provided a constant supply of fruit, vegetables, salads and herbs.

Recipes from Rhoda Phelips include black pudding (newly fashionable again), curing and baking ham, pickled lemons (also now fashionable as “preserved” lemons), Olivers biscuits, a Common Cake, Gingerbread Newton and many more.

The recipe pages are illustrated with items from the Cannons’ amazing collections of glass, copper, silver and other antique household items.

*Proceeds of the sale of Newton House: Restored for Life are divided between Breakthrough, the breast cancer charity, and Coppafeel, a charity which works to increase awareness of the risks of breast cancer among young women. You can buy the book at the pink firework extravaganza at Newton House on Saturday 9th November, and at the Christmas Fair at the house on Saturday 30th November – for more information on the book and the events, contact Jane Cannon on