Elizabeth Craig 1883-1980: George Watson’s Ladies’ College Celebrity Chef and Influencer.
Whether it be Jamie Oliver, Nigel Slater and Yotam Ottolenghi or Delia Smith, Nigella Lawson and Mary Berry, many of us have relied on ‘celebrity cooks and chefs’ to help inspire our cooking.
One of the very first celebrities in the cookery world was Elizabeth Craig. A Scot, a Former Pupil and a ‘George Square Girl’.
Elizabeth was one of the eight children of Catherine Nicoll and Rev. John Craig, a Free Church of Scotland minister. They lived in Kirriemuir and Elizabeth attended Forfar Academy before starting at George Watson's Ladies’ College in 1896 when she was 13. Queen Victoria had been on the throne for 60 years and Elizabeth and her friends would have received ‘an excellent education and humane culture quite suited to the very worthy ideal of making a happy home’ as Charlotte Ainslie, a former pupil and later Head described. A happy home where a wife was expected to obey her husband and do everything to make his life as easy as possible. The George Watson’s Ladies’ College of Elizabeth’s day was however changing. Faced by competition from the new free grant-aided secondary schools throughout Scotland, the Merchant Company looked to appointed fully qualified women teachers. Women who would teach beyond the ‘Three Rs’, to subjects such as Domestic Science as well as academic subjects.
After leaving school in 1899, Elizabeth moved to Dundee where she trained and worked as a newspaper journalist and columnist. Early assignments included interviewing the poet William McGonagall and reporting on a garden party at Glamis Castle where she came across the young Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (later Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother) riding her pony.
It was whilst she was in Dundee that she took a three-month course in Cookery, which she claimed was the only training she had in a subject that she would come to make her own.
At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, many men volunteered and were then conscripted into the Armed Services. This left significant gaps in businesses and workplaces across the country which were filled by women. Elizabeth was no exception and in 1915 she became one of the first female editors in Fleet Street on Women’s Life magazine. Her journalist colleagues stated that she was the “only woman on Fleet Street who could cook.”
Elizabeth met the American war correspondent and broadcaster, Arthur Mann, and in 1919 they were married in London. Elizabeth’s career on Fleet Street was now at an end. After the war had ended in November 1918, men returned to their jobs and women were stood down from the roles they had stepped up to fill. She was also now a married woman and expected to resign from her job. Her role was now firmly in the home.
Undaunted Elizabeth then worked from home as a freelance journalist. Given her lifelong interest in cookery; she had cooked since the age of six and collected recipes since she was 12, it is no surprise that she wrote the first cookery feature in The Daily Express in 1920. She would go on to establish herself as an authority on food, wine, housekeeping, gardening and needlework. Her canny appreciation of trends and business opportunities would mean that she wrote over 70 books in the next 60 years that would chart and reflect the changes in women’s lives and society in general
During the 1920s Elizabeth’s cookery books were often written in association with women’s magazines such as The Woman’s Journal Cookery Book and The People’s Friend Springtime Cookery Book and were a natural progression from her newspaper columns and magazine articles. In these books, Elizabeth guided a post-war generation of young middle-class women on how to keep house without servants. She taught them to budget, and cook with confidence.
On the arm of her American war correspondent husband, Elizabeth cut a glamorous society figure on both sides of the Atlantic and wrote several books featuring recipes from the stars of stage and screen, just as the West End and Hollywood grew in status and popularity. The Stage Favourite’s Cookery Book published in 1923 had a recipe for Adelphi Soufflé as recommended by Sybil Thorndike.
Elizabeth was at her most prolific during the 1930s. During this period her cookery books, often contained over 600 recipes, but not a single photograph. Her 1933 book, Entertaining with Elizabeth Craig is delightfully illustrated with hand-coloured drawings, which provide insights into the fashion and trends of the day. She was also writing books on Simple Housekeeping, Keeping House with Elizabeth Craig and in 1937 Modern Housekeeping. Elizabeth always kept an eye on changing trends, and as new labour-saving devices such as electric cookers became more popular, she was there, giving confidence to women whose mothers had not been brought up with these modern appliances in the home. The Way to a Good Table: Electric Cookery was published in association with the British Electrical Development Association in 1937.
During the Second World War, Elizabeth worked for the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, travelling around Britain giving talks to groups of women about how to make the most of rations. Her lectures were popular, not just for her practical help and ideas but for her hilarious anecdotes delivered in a Scottish accent which she retained to the end of her life. Elizabeth’s books at this time reflected the availability or otherwise of ingredients. Her gardening books, Simple Gardening, Gardening with Elizabeth Craig and Gardening in Wartime told her readers how to grow their own just as wartime food rationing was really taking effect. Elizabeth stated, “if we had better food, we would have better health” and “a well-stocked garden/allotment is just as important as a well-stocked store cupboard”.
Her first and only needlework book was published in 1941, much of it focussing on making your own clothes, mending and darning. It also includes a section on cleaning and caring for garments, all-important at a time when the government was urging everyone to ‘Make do and Mend’ and clothing coupons needed to be eked out.
This book has hand-drawn illustrations and Figure 1. shows her instructions on how to do a flannel seam.
Figure 2 shows Elizabeth McCulloch’s (GWLC Class of 1951) exquisitely stitched flannel seam samples in her Specimen Needlework Book.
There are further parallels, with lingerie seams and attaching lace, buttonholes and attaching linen buttons, darning woollens, patching a damask tablecloth and many more. We wonder if Elizabeth Craig herself completed a Specimen Needlework Book in her time at George Watson’s Ladies’ College.
We know that Elizabeth worked from home in London, when she was first freelancing and this was a converted John Wesley chapel. She had a secretary who worked away in the converted organ loft and they were kept company by Elizabeth’s three dogs, including a Doberman Pinscher. This dog was the only German dog in the Kennel Club show for Sporting and other dogs that Elizabeth attended at Crystal Palace in 1933.
In 1953 the Coronation Year, Elizabeth published the very popular Court Favourites, the same year as she was awarded the Gold medal at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
After the war and the lifting of rationing, which took some time, Elizabeth also played her part in introducing the British to foreign cuisine with a book on Mediterranean Cookery in 1956 and Scandinavian Cooking in 1958. Elizabeth published Collins Family Cookery in 1957, a hugely popular book that revelled at the end of rationing with recipes that required six eggs and big slabs of butter.
Elizabeth also clearly loved her Scottish roots and maintained her contact and associations with Scotland. This was reflected in her books What’s Cooking in Scotland in 1965 having already published the classic The Scottish Cookery Book in 1956.
Most of Elizabeth’s books had been aimed at the housewife, some of the earlier books had even assumed a household would have domestic servants, but in 1970, always aware of changing times she published The Business Woman’s Cookbook. In 1978 Elizabeth was a guest on Michael Parkinson’s chat show, stunning her host by declaring that her favourite place to make love would be in the Highland heather. She was a month shy of her 95th birthday. She was awarded the MBE in 1979.
Her final book, a revised edition of The Scottish Cookery Book was completed whilst Elizabeth was in hospital with a broken hip. She heard that her publishers were thinking of getting someone else in to finish it and so she asked for her notes and files to be brought to her hospital bed. She finished the book and died shortly afterwards, aged 97.
Elizabeth Craig was described as free-spirited with a generous heart. She was certainly fun, canny and lived her life to the full. She also inspired women to make the most of their lives.
We are proud to have had a small part in her interesting life.
Ex Corde Caritas