An Old Sauce with a Mysterious past

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Lea & Perrin’s Worcester Sauce is perhaps one of the world’s best known sauces.  First marketed in 1837, it became popular in the 1840/50s and is now widely used in cooking, as a condiment and, of course, an essential part of a Bloody Mary.  Today, instead of asking for Worcester sauce you could have been asking for Lindfield Sauce had its makers had the business acumen of Mr Le and Mr Perrin.

According to a Lindfield Sauce bottle label, dated about 1880, it was:

  • Prepared by the late Charles Mills
  • Used at the Coronation Banquet of George IV held on 19th July, 1821
  • Currently being made by Mrs Mills of Lindfield
  • A flavouring for chops, steak, poultry, fish, cold meat, etc.
  • ‘Pronounced by Savans and Epicures to be the Best English Sauce extant’

These claims warrant further investigation.

The recipe for Lindfield Sauce still exists and is held by a descendant of the Mills family.  The main ingredients included are vinegar, onions, sugar, soy sauce, cayenne pepper and spices.  It has to be matured in casks for at least two years before being usable and is said to be similar in character to Worcestershire sauce.

Who were the Mills family, and what was their connection with Lindfield?  In the latter part of the 1700s, George Mills, a blacksmith and cooper in Lindfield, had a son named Simon.  It appears Simon Mills joined the army as a young man, serving in the Peninsular War, being present at the battle of Oporto in May 1809, as a sergeant in the 24th Regiment of Foot Guards.  He is next found in 1815 in Pembroke with his wife Ann, where she gave birth to a son, Charles, and later a second son, Simon.

The first identified record of Simon Mills Senior returning to Lindfield is an entry in the 30th April 1831 Poor Tax return.  The entry identifies Simon Mills as the owner of the Red Lion, which at the time was located in the house today called ‘Porters’.  However, in 1833, Simon Mills moved the Red Lion next door to the newly built and current Red Lion building.  Following his death in 1839, the property passed to his widow, Ann Mills, and on her death their sons, Charles and Simon, inherited the Inn.  during the early years of the 1840s, Charles Mills took over as the innkeeper, a role he held until selling the Red Lion in 1869.  He then moved with his second wife, Mary, and their children down the High Street to the middle cottage of what today are known as Bank Cottages [near the junction with Lewes Road].

The 1880 label refers to it being prepared by ‘the late Charles Mills’, so presumably during the 1850s and 1860s he was making Lindfield Sauce at the Red Lion and storing it in the cellar until matured.  However, other than the label, no written evidence has been found specifically linking Charles Mills or the Red Lion with the manufacture of the sauce.  It is reasonable to believe Charles Mills was making the sauce at the cottage prior to his death in 1873, when ownership of the ‘brand’ and preparation passed to his widow.  Mrs Mary Mills is listed in the 1881 Census as a widow aged 49 years, with the occupation ‘Sauce Proprietor’.  She continued living at the cottage until her death.

Looking at the claim regarding its use, as a matured sauce it would have been suitable to add to meats and fish for extra flavour. The statement being ‘Pronounced by Savans and Epicures to be the Best English Sauce extant’, sounds flowery and extravagant but it is reflective of the advertising language used in Victorian times. Adverts for a similar rich matured sauce, Thorn’s Tally Ho Sauce, likewise proclaimed ‘So long patronised by Epicures …. pronouncement is not without foundation, as the sauce was not merely sold in the village but supplied to fashionable addresses in London and presumably elsewhere in the country.

One eminent regular purchaser, between 1882 and 1888, was Wilkie Collins, the famous Victorian author.  He was well-known for his fondness of food and good living. A letter written under his own hand from Portman Square, London in November 1882, acknowledging safe delivery of a supply, says ‘we will do all we can to recommend it’.  In another letter that year, Wilkie Collins asks Mrs Mills to send a very old friend ‘at your convenience – with account, half a dozen bottles of your sauce, which he likes very much’.  In placing an order for six bottles in June 1888, Wilkie Collins refers to it as ‘her excellent sauce’.

Similarly, there are orders for six and 18 bottles at a time from a purchaser, with an unreadable signature, living at Cavendish Square, London.  Certainly during the 1880s, Mrs Mills had a thriving mail order business for Lindfield Sauce, and her claim for it being regarded by ‘Epicures’ doe snot seem far-fetched.

The reference to Lindfield Sauce being used at the Coronation Banquet of George IV is more problematic.  An enquiry to the Royal Archive elicited the response that hundreds of dishes were served at the vast banquet, and it is possible Lindfield Sauce was used as an ingredient in one of the hot or cold dishes, but they do not have the recipes.  They further said, ‘sauce boats were used at the banquet but unfortunately it doe snot say what the sauces were – perhaps one of them was Lindfield Sauce’.

So was the claim that the sauce was used at the royal banquet true or just a clever piece of Victorian marketing for a sauce invested by Charles Mills after selling the Red Lion?  If it is indeed true, then Lindfield Sauce predates the similar Worcestershire sauce by many years.  It also raises the questions:  What are its origins, who was making it in 1821 and where?  Could it have been Simon Mills Senior, but he was not known to have been in Lindfield in the 1820s.  Perhaps we will never know the truth.

What we do know is that the production of Lindfield Sauce in the Village had ceased by the early 189s and Mary mills dies in March 1895.

If readers have any information that will solve this mystery please get in touch.

 

Published in Lindfield Life May 2017

 

 

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