Florence Petty (1 December 1870 – 18 November 1948) was a Scottish cookery writer and popular BBC radio broadcaster. During the early years of the 20th century she ran cookery demonstrations in the socially deprived area of Somers Town, north-west London, teaching working-class women how to prepare inexpensive and nutritious meals. Much of the instruction was done in the women’s homes, allowing her to use their own limited equipment and utensils.
Florence also wrote on cookery, producing works aimed at fellow social workers, a cookery book – The Pudding Lady’s Recipe Book, with Practical Hints (1917) – and pamphlets aimed at the public. From 1914 until the mid-1940s she toured Britain giving lecture-demonstrations on economical ingredients and cooking methods, and featured in radio broadcasts on food and household management in the late 1920s and early ’30s, as part of the BBC’s “Household Talk” series of programmes.
Florence Petty was born in Montrose, Forfarshire, on 1 December 1870, the fourth of seven children born to David James Petty, a clerk at a timber merchant, and Jane Norris (née Levie). Florence lived in Montrose until her early 30s, when she moved to Swanley, Kent and then moved in with her sister, a former nurse, who was living in Tottenham, North London.
Florence began working at the St. Pancras School for Mothers (commonly known as the Mothers’ and Babies’ Welcome), formed in 1907, and which was active in the deprived area of Somers Town, north-west London. The Mothers’ and Babies’ Welcome was run by the St Pancras Mothers’ and Infants’ Society, an organisation formed to combat high rates of infant mortality by educating mothers on nutrition and household management. Among its other activities, the Mothers’ and Babies’ Welcome provided cookery lessons for mothers, but realised that this was of limited success as many of the women lacked the basic equipment or utensils needed.
Florence was employed to provide the cookery lessons in the women’s own homes, using only their own equipment and utensils. She was employed as a Lecturer and Demonstrator in Health Foods, although her students nicknamed her “The Pudding Lady”, because in an attempt to get the women in the habit of cooking regularly using familiar and inexpensive ingredients, for the first three months of her demonstrations her students made suet puddings – plain sweet and meat – until the women began to show pride in their ability to cook. Blake Perkins, Florence’s biographer at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, observes that her case notes for the women she was instructing are “matter-of-fact but also sympathetic rather than clinical”.
In 1910 the St Pancras School for Mothers published an account of their work in The Pudding Lady: A New Departure in Social Work, examining Petty’s work and the impact she had. In the second edition, published in 1916, Charles Hecht, the secretary of the National Food Reform Association (NFRA) wrote that:
The heroine of the book, Florence Petty, has … become a public possession, bringing to bear on the solution of national problems those rare gifts of heart and head and that unique experience which achieved such wonders … in the homes of Somers Town.
Shortly after 1910 Petty was employed in the Village Medical Centre established by Lady MeyerAdele Meyer, Lady Meyer, (1862/3–1930) was an English socialite, social reformer, philanthopist and suffragist. in Newport, Essex, where she remained until October 1914 when she left to became a travelling lecturer with the NFRA. The following year she undertook a lecture tour of Britain to demonstrate economical ingredients and cooking methods to working-class audiences. In March 1915 she spoke at the Royal Society of Medicine on behalf of the National Association for the Prevention of Infant Mortality and for the Welfare of Infancy, and in February and March 1916 she gave a series of “demonstration-lectures” on wartime cookery – aimed at social workers – at the Westminster Health Society.
Petty wrote at least one pamphlet for the NFRA, on “Fireless Cookery”; a review in The Lancet describes a haybox as the method of cooking outlined in the pamphlet. Published in January 1916, 30,000 copies of the leaflet were sold. In 1917 her The Pudding Lady’s Recipe Book, with Practical Hints was published, containing “economical, tasty, and nourishing dishes”. With an acknowledgement that some foodstuffs were rationed in First World War Britain, Petty described her approach thus:
Every good cook or housekeeper is, in these days, a good patriot. By the wise choice of food and care in its preparation she may do her part in utilising to the uttermost the national resources. To this end, a number of general hints are included in the book and the recipes are, for the most part, very economical.
Ever practical with advice for those who did not have the equipment at home to prepare even basic foods, Florence included instructions to make an oven from a biscuit tin, and details of how to make a haybox – which could also be used for doing the laundry, cleaning tins and saucepans and keeping butter cool in hot weather. The Pudding Lady’s Recipe Book went through thirteen editions, and remained in print until 1928. By 1917 Florence had become a qualified sanitary inspector.
At the end of the war Florence continued lecturing on and writing about cookery. In 1921 she wrote chapters on nutrition and the care of children’s teeth for Hecht’s The Gateway to Health, and in 1923 she wrote the paper “The Cook as Empire Builder” for the Journal of the Royal Sanitary Institute. In 1922 alone she presented at least a hundred public lectures.
In 1928 Florence began presenting talks on radio for the BBC, becoming one of its most popular broadcasters. She participated frequently in the “Household Talk” series of programmes on topics such as “Making the most of a Minimum Wage”, and “Dinners for a Week on a Minimum Wage”. According to the cultural historian Maggie Andrews, Florence’s broadcasts showed a “homely, economical and pragmatic approach to cooking and budgeting”.
Florence died of acute bronchitis on 18 November 1948 at her home in Hampstead, London.