Out of Time: Nottingham's Food History - Cheese Riots, Celery and HP Sauce

Words: Ashley Carter
Illustrations: Natalie Owen
Sunday 22 August 2021
reading time: min, words

With this being the food and drink issue, our regular history feature explores Nottingham’s history of eccentricity, rebellion and invention through three food-related stories: Marshal Tallard’s introduction of celery to the country in the early eighteenth century, the 1766 Cheese Riots and Frederick Gibson Garton’s invention of HP Sauce in 1884…


There are many different ways to explore the history of a city. Looking at people as a collective is perhaps the most obvious, with an exploration of the gentilic traits of each group to have settled in Nottingham presenting a rich tapestry of the city, like the Old Norse street names that serve as a legacy to the Viking settlers in the area. Another is through individuals, where anyone can comfortably run off a list of politicians, writers, sporting figures, actors, leaders and inventors that helped make Nottingham what it is today. Then there’s the events – the acts of rebellion and independence that help give Nottingham its unique sense of identity. But another avenue of exploration comes from food which, while seemingly trivial in comparison, is no less interesting and indicative in helping to shape Nottingham’s collective identity. 

With that in mind, we’ve focussed on three food-related stories that help showcase Nottingham’s eclectic and eccentric history, starting with the story of how a French prisoner of war introduced celery to the British diet in the early eighteenth century. 

It was August 1704 when two enormous armies, massing over 100,000 men between them, squared off on the banks of the Danube River in Germany. On one side were the combined forces of the Duke of Marlborough of England and Eugene of Savoy of the Holy Roman Empire, and on the other was a mixed French and Bavarian force led by Camille d’Hostun, Duke of Tallard, a French noble, diplomat and military leader. What ensued would later be called the Battle of Blenheim, one of the defining clashes in the War of the Spanish Succession, and a crushing defeat for Tallard. Six thousand of his men were killed, a further seven thousand were injured and around fourteen thousand taken prisoner – Tallard included – by the victorious Marlborough.

The 53-year-old Marshal was brought to England with around thirty other officers, many of them fellow aristocrats, as well as an entourage of servants, including Tallard’s personal chef. The phrase ‘prisoner of war’ might conjure up images of World War II-style concentration camps, harsh punishment and strict rations (and for the regular soldiers of the early eighteenth century, that was certainly true), but Tallard was treated more like a visiting dignitary that just wasn’t allowed to leave. But as a noble adversary and, more importantly, an aristocrat, he was extended every courtesy during his imprisonment.

As much as it sounds like the plot to a Wallace and Gromit prequel, for the next few days, Nottingham was plunged into a cheese-fuelled state of chaos

An initial stay in London was followed by an extensive six-year spell in Nottingham, where vast crowds lined Trent Bridge to catch a glimpse of the distinguished French officer as he arrived. He was allowed to rent a room in the resplendent Newdigate House on Castlegate, and was regularly invited to visit the homes of fellow aristocrats, including the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth, where he spent a few days as an honoured guest. Thomas Coke, a Member of Parliament, sent a gift of fifty bottles of Champagne, and the Duke of Newcastle (who resided in Nottingham Castle) encouraged Tallard to hunt on his grounds. 

He redesigned the gardens of Newdigate House in the French style, creating a tiered, intricate aesthetic, and even wrote a cookbook to educate locals in the art of baking French bread and pastries. One day, while riding in Lenton, Tallard spotted wild celery growing in the marshes. While the British would have been familiar with its perceived medicinal uses (which ranged from easing hangovers to curing erectile dysfunction), celery was not at the time considered suitable for daily consumption. But Tallard quickly demonstrated its multi-faceted uses in everyday cuisine, cultivated his own plants and soon had local artisans following suit. Now, over two centuries later, it is still a staple in British cooking. 

The Marshal was allowed to return to France in 1711, leaving a legacy of celery (and, if writer Daniel Defoe is to be believed, more than his fair share of illegitimate children) behind him. 

Half a century later, Nottingham was preparing for its annual Goose Fair. 1766 was a terrible year for farmers and, as crops failed all across Europe, prices of wheat, corn, flour and other foodstuffs rose at extortionate rates. As a result, English merchants chose instead to trade their goods abroad for huge profits, leading to food shortages in Britain. As the Fair began in earnest, people in Nottingham were hungry, angry and ready for action. While previous centuries had seen the Fair serve as a livestock market where geese, cattle and horses were traded, the eighteenth century saw a move toward the buying and selling of foodstuffs. With the poor harvest, the fair of 1766 saw a larger than usual quantity of cheese – at the time sold in great wheels – available, though at much higher prices than usual, and twice that recorded at a similar market in Coventry just a week before. 

As a result of the shortages, a general sense of anxiety gripped the people of Nottingham, who strived to make sure the food that was produced in the area stayed here. That anxiety spilled into a full-blown riot when some Lincolnshire merchants were seen purchasing a large quantity of cheese with the intention of selling it at their own market. They were quickly surrounded by a group of angry residents who demanded that the cheese be shared out in Nottingham, and it wasn’t long before the desperation turned to violence.

Widespread looting – mostly of cheese – occurred as show windows were smashed, and hundreds of cheese wheels were sent sprawling down Wheeler Gate and Peck Lane. Attempting to suppress the growing violence, the Mayor of Nottingham stepped up to address his constituents, only to be sent sprawling by a wheel of cheese that knocked him over like a bowling pin. 

Some locals armed themselves against the rioters, setting up roadblocks and forming unions with other merchants. A warehouse was attacked and, although its owners defended their wares with firearms and clubs, large amounts of cheese were still taken (though the owner later recovered much of his stolen cheese with a posse, who tracked it down to Castle Donington). The owner of a cargo boat on Trent Bridge was less fortunate, as his entire cargo of cheese was taken, despite his offers to sell it at the pre-inflated prices. As much as it sounds like the plot to a Wallace and Gromit prequel, for the next few days, Nottingham was plunged into a cheese-fuelled state of chaos.

The realisation that he had given up the keys to his fortune caused Garton to forbid any mention of HP Sauce in his presence

It was only when the 15th Dragoons, who were garrisoned in the town, were called to action that the riots began to be quashed. Shots were fired into crowds, causing countless injuries and the death of one man, William Eggleston, who was standing next to a large pile of cheese. Rather than a looter, Eggleston was actually a farmer who appeared to be protecting his own wares, and had been killed in error. Several people were arrested and detained, only to be freed after the rioters stormed the magistrate’s residence. While order was slowly restored, it was a long time before wagons carrying cheese could travel without an armed guard. 

Fast-forward over a century and Nottingham is a different place entirely. The British Empire is nearing its peak, and the newly available ingredients inspire Frederick Gibson Garton, a grocer from New Basford, to create a fresh condiment. Using molasses from the West Indies, soy and dates from North Africa, tamarind from India and tomatoes from the Canary Islands, he created what was described as a blend of the “most delicious oriental fruits and spices with a suitable proportion of pure malt vinegar.” 

Working from his New Basford pickling factory (which would later be home of Cussons Imperial Leather Soap), Garton trademarked his tasty invention as ‘The Banquet Sauce’. So fine were his ingredients, and so luxurious the resultant concoction, thought Garton, that his premier sauce should find itself on the tables of every grand mansion and palace in the country. As haughty as his ambitions may have been, it wasn’t too long before The Banquet Sauce was being served in the Houses of Parliament. Part seizing the opportunity and part honouring the tribute, he quickly renamed his invention as ‘Garton’s H.P. Sauce’.

Unfortunately for the Notts inventor, this is where his role in the success story comes to an end. In striving to create and distribute the sauce, he’d become gravely indebted to a vinegar malting factory and, despite his attempts to keep the bailiffs at arm’s length, was forced to sell his trademarks and recipes to a Birmingham-based manufacturer for £150 (around £16,500 in today’s money). Realistically, Garton didn’t invent the sauce any more than Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb but, as is the case with most inventions throughout history, he was the first to trademark and brand it in a time when dodgy food labels and a general lack of trust in the industry were rife. 

But the HP Sauce brand continued to go from strength to strength, becoming a favourite of world leaders and a mainstay of British cuisine. The brand changed hands several times before being acquired by Heinz in 2005 for a reported £440 million. 

Sadly for the Nottingham man, it would be the Birmingham company to whom he sold the recipe that would make enormous sums of money and, according to his son, the realisation that he had given up the keys to his fortune caused Garton to forbid any mention of HP Sauce in his presence. Although he made a name for himself as a bacon and Stilton merchant, Garton died in 1942 aged 80, never making close to what he could have done had he kept the recipe.

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