The St. John Project

Wellcome Western MS 4338, Inside Front Cover. Image from Wellcome Library, London.
Wellcome Western MS 4338, Inside Front Cover. Image from Wellcome Library, London.


In the fall of 2012, Lisa Smith’s students at the University of Saskatchewan spent their semester transcribing Lady Johanna St. John’s book. (You can read about that classroom adventure here!)  Until the beginning of the twentieth century, Lydiard House and Park was the country estate of the St. John family. Over the last year or so, Lydiard House and Park’s archivist, Sophie Cummings, and her team of volunteers have also been hard at work transcribing Johanna’s book and in bringing Johanna’s medical activities to a modern audience through a play staged by a youth theatre group, family education events and evening talks. In the summer of 2013, students at the University of Akron and research assistants at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin completed the transcription of Johanna’s book. Our collective transcription of Johanna’s book renders the work electronically searchable and (very soon) widely available.  We hope that it goes one step towards analyzing and acknowledging the complex set of activities taken on by early modern housewives and, in Johanna’s case, her large crew of ‘helpers’.

Contextual and Biographical Information

Anon., Portrait of Lady Johanna St. John circa 1690, Image from Lydiard House and Park.

Johanna St. John was the eldest daughter Oliver St. John, a prominent Parliamentarian and supporter of Oliver Cromwell. Johanna (1631-1705) married her distant cousin Sir Walter St. John, MP for Wootton Bassett and Wiltshire.  Their grandson, Henry the first Viscount Bolingbroke was a well-known politician, diplomatist and author.  During their marriage, Sir Walter and Lady Johanna divided their time between their mansion in Battersea and their country estate, Lydiard House near Swindon.  Like many other women of her time, Johanna was an avid collector of recipes medicinal and culinary and compiled at least two recipe books. The value which she placed upon these notebooks is revealed by the fact that she makes specific bequests of these books in her will. Her ‘booke of receipts of cookery and preserves’ was left to her ‘granddaughter Soame’ and her ‘great receipt book’ was gifted to her daughter Cholmondley.  Remarkably, an extensive set of correspondence between Johanna and her Lydiard steward Thomas Hardyman has also survived. These letters indicate that Lydiard Park, far from being simply a summer home for the St. Johns, supplied them with all sorts of foodstuffs from fruits, herbs and flowers grown in the gardens to cheeses, butter and poultry from the nearby farms.

Johanna’s letters are a fascinating read and provide a rare glimpse into the housewifely concerns of a late seventeenth-century gentlewoman. They paint a picture of an active household manager who expressed great interest and concern in various foodstuffs and homemade products (from butter to cheese to beer to distilled medicines) produced at Lydiard.  Not one to shy away from micromanagement, Johanna instructed Hardyman when to start fattening the turkeys and geese for Christmas feasts, berated him when he dared to send up unripe cheeses and gave him precise barley malt to hogshead ratios for the brewing of beer.  Most interestingly, the correspondence also reveals that Johanna was in the habit of sending recipes gathered from her London acquaintances to be made up at Lydiard Park where she relied on a team of expert distillers and herb gatherers. Johanna’s detailed instructions, including specific directions to contact local experts for particular ingredients, give a clear picture of how one gentlewoman can ‘make’ medicines via ‘remote control’.

An image of a woman distilling taking from the frontispiece of J.S., ‘The accomplished ladies rich closet of rarities’ (London, 1691).

When taken together, Johanna’s recipe book and letters reveal both complex networks of contemporary lay medical knowledge amongst family members and paints a vivid picture of medical activities in an early modern English country house.

Elaine Leong, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.


The book of Johanna St. John is in the Wellcome Library. It is Wellcome MS 4338, where you can see digital images.

In the press:

Sophie Cummings and Elaine Leong on the play ‘Johanna’s Miracle Garden’ at Lydiard House in WellcomeHistory.

Hillary Nunn talking about the project in Aspire: The Newsletter for the Buchtel College of Arts and Sciences, University of Akron.

Lisa Smith discussing her teaching on the Just Another Day of Digital Humanities 2014 site.

Various posts on Johanna St. John’s recipe book on The Recipes Project research blog.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.