New 'Horsham Gingerbread' exhibit

20 Apr 2020

Cornwall known for its pasty, Cheddar for its cheese, Mowbray for its pork pie, Bakewell is famous for its tarts, and though Horsham was well known locally for the other sort of tarts in the 18th century, as told in a popular rhyme, today Horsham is now known for its celebrated gingerbread. What follows is how this reimagined 18th century delicacy has become a much loved treat from Bath to Battle.

In July 1803 the young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley asked his aunt to buy a type of gingerbread from a Horsham market to have on a picnic. That is the earliest known reference to what in the 19th century became a staple of Horsham bakers, like the Bath bun, was to Bath. But just as that letter to his aunt, the first known letter written by the poet, is lost, only found in printed books, so Horsham gingerbread was lost to the culinary world, with the last maker dying with the secret recipe during the First World War. There are objects from the glory days of the trade, fantastic wooden moulds, photograph of bakers shops, even a record of the trade written by a donor of the moulds to Brighton Museum.

However with the connection to Shelley, Horsham gingerbread, wasn’t lost to history and in 2009 the Curator of Horsham Museum with the support of the friends of the Museum bought from a book dealer a Shelley family recipe book . The slim manuscript volume contained recipes used by Shelley’s grandfather’s family, but importantly written by the family at the time Shelley was alive. And there it was the lost recipe for gingerbread, the ingredients along with instructions on how to mix it, but with no thermometers on ovens, very little cooking instructions.  That was in 2009.

In 2011 Lesley Ward, the much loved and highly respected owner of the old Horsham Cheese Shop,  contacted the curator to find out if he knew anything about Horsham gingerbread as she was also an amateur cooking sleuth. That started a conversation, the Curator had always wanted to recreate Shelley’s gingerbread as a souvenir of the town, but running a museum offered little opportunity. Lesley having given up the Cheese Shop was looking for new opportunities.  On 1st December 2011 the product was launched, made in Lesley’s kitchen – it had a wonderful taste, helped by molasses and a special type of ginger, known from the period,  but was very hard to eat, more suitable for dunking.  The name of the product Horsham’s Regency Gingerbread, though the image on the packet was an 18th century woodcut of a cake seller.

There then followed a year of development, a product that was too hard to eat with comfort would not sell. So after many tastings Lesley added that magical ingredient, one that Johnson disparaged the Scots for eating, saying it was only suitable for horses, but today seen as a great foodstuff, oats. Relaunched it sold well, and then Lesley moved production away from her home to a baker near Chichester, but ensuring the product uses Sussex butter and wholemeal flour at Weald and Downland Museum.

Since then word of mouth has meant it has increased in popularity. Since then the history of Regency gingerbread has taken on an unusual artistic twist. For it turns out Gingerbread sellers were one of the celebrated cries of London, those bellowing of traders who wandered the streets of the capitol. First illustrated in the 17th century by the Regency period they became a popular figure in prints, including Francis Wheatley’s famous set.  So it was, in 1804 in a book published for children an artist, William Marshall Craig portrayed a gingerbread seller- in full colour, perfect for the image of Horsham’s Regency Gingerbread.

Having appeared on BBCTV Escape to the Country which is shown around the world, (we know through emails) and sold in shops across the Southern England, Horsham Gingerbread is a popular delicacy. Normally you can visit the Museum to see its permanent display on moulds, its story, but today we suggest that you try Horsham Gingerbread's web site, or Crates in Horsham, and buy a piece to have as a picnic in your back garden, or as afternoon tea, laid out on a blanket in the flat.