New Year and Twelfth Night with the Soanes

As we mark Twelfth Night and the end of the festive period for another year, Archivist Sue Palmer looks at how Soane and his family marked the occassion.

The twelve days of Christmas (25 December to 6 January) were traditionally a time for entertaining and both John and Eliza’s diaries record a number of evenings spent with friends. The days do not seem to have been so much fun for Mrs Soane, with her husband firmly back at work; she records on Boxing Day 1805 ‘…at home alone all day – went into the Warm Bath’.

Portrait of John Soane by William Owen, 1804
Portrait of John Soane by William Owen, 1804


On several occasions she took her two sons, John and George, to Ealing after Christmas to their country house, Pitzhanger Manor, or to her friends at Chertsey, where Soane’s aged mother also lived. They always came back to London for New Year, however. On New Year’s Eve 1805 she writes in her diary: ‘Went in the Evening to Mrs Kinderley, a very pleasant evening, stay’d until 1 o’clock.’ Whether or not Soane went with her is not clear, for in several years he records on New Year’s Eve that he dined at the Royal Academy (where he was Professor of Architecture) ‘according to ancient usage at 6.00 pm’. On 1st January 1796 Soane records ‘At the Play with Mrs S. and the boys, [expenses] £0.14.0’.  For his architectural pupils, however, New Year’s Day was an ordinary working day, unless, of course, it happened to fall on a Sunday.


A drawing of a view of a play in progress at the Italian Theatre, Haymarket, 1793
View of a play in progress at the Italian Theatre, Haymarket, 1793

The festive period ended with Twelfth Night, a day which has rather lost its significance for us in Britain, except as a time for the taking down of decorations, but in Soane’s lifetime it was still an important day with its own ritual, which included a cake and elaborate games rather like our charades. The cakes had become increasingly elaborate with sugar frosting and gilded paper trimmings, and confectioners’ shops vied with each other in their displays. Traditionally they were baked to include a bean and a pea, so that those who received the slices containing them would be designated king and queen of the night’s festivities. This tradition continues in France today, and just after Christmas the supermarkets are full of ‘Galettes des Rois’. It was an occasion for Soane to treat his household servants – he always reimbursed his butler for buying a ‘12th cake’, and on 6 January 1821 records in his diary: ‘treated the servants with cake etc 12/-.’ 

And here (lest your are feeling creative) is a recipe for a Twelfth Cake, taken from the 1827 edition of  The Cook’s Oracle by William Kitchiner (an acquaintance of Soane’s):

'Two pounds of sifted Flour, two pounds of sifted Loaf Sugar, two pounds of Butter, eighteen Eggs, four pound of Currants, one half pound of Almonds, blanched and chopped, one half pound Citron, one pound of Candied Orange and Lemon Peel, cut into thin slices, a large Nutmeg grated, half an ounce ground Allspice: ground Cinnamon, Mace, Ginger and Corianders, a quarter of an ounce of each, and a gill of Brandy.

Put the Butter into a stewpan, in a warm place, and work into a smooth cream with the hand, and mix it with the Sugar and Spice in a pan (or on your paste board) for some time; then break in the Eggs by degrees, and beat it at least twenty minutes; - stir in the Brandy, and then the Flour, and work it a little – add the Fruit, Sweetmeats, and Almonds, and mix all together lightly, - have ready a hoop cased with paper, on a baking plate, - put in the mixture, smooth it on the top with your hand – dipped milk – put the plate on another, with sawdust between, to prevent the bottom from colouring too much, - bake it in a slow oven four hours or more, and when nearly cold ice it.’


Title page of William Kitchiner’s The Cook’s Oracle
Title page of William Kitchiner’s The Cook’s Oracle


Icing, for Twelfth Cake

Take one pound of double refined Sugar, pounded and sifted through a lawn sieve; - put into a pan quite free from grease, - break in the whites of six eggs, and as much powder Blue as will lie on a sixpence; - beat it well with a spittle for ten minutes, then squeeze in the juice of a Lemon, and beat until it becomes thick and transparent. Set the cake you intend to Ice, in an oven or warm place, five minutes, - then spread over the top and sides with the mixture as smooth as possible and ornament it with Gum Paste, or fancy articles of any description.
Obs. – A good Twelfth Cake, not baked too much, and kept in a cool dry place, will retain its moisture and eat well, if Twelve months old.’

Posted on 06 January 2014
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