How Edinburgh School of Cookery altered lives

The Edinburgh College of Domestic Science on Edinburgh's Atholl Crescent, 1890. Picture: Comp
The Edinburgh College of Domestic Science on Edinburgh's Atholl Crescent, 1890. Picture: Comp
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LORD Gifford, with his mutton chop whiskers and vast legal background, cast his eye over the sparkling new range, the American stove and the pristine pastry table and contemplated just how beneficial they might be.

This was the Edinburgh School of Cookery, two years old and in the process of unveiling its new Shandwick Place premises. It was 1878 and, having been called upon to perform the opening speech, Lord Gifford – one of Scotland’s sharpest legal minds and well-known city figure – was impressed.

Cookery was an art, he enthused, according to a newspaper report of the event. And plans to take Edinburgh School of Cookery lessons to schools around the country meant “no girl might leave school without a knowledge of the art of preparing wholesome dishes, thus securing happiness for herself and those dependent on her”.

The working classes would benefit too, he added, for an appreciation for good cookery would lead to a desire for nice tablecloths, white napkins and even inspire them to actually wash their hands and faces before sitting down to eat.

Everyone, it seemed, had reason to be grateful to Christian Guthrie Wright and Louisa Stevenson, main founders of The Edinburgh School of Cookery.

And perhaps few have more reason to acknowledge their efforts than today’s female students at Queen Margaret University (QMU) – and, indeed, others around the country – now counting the days until graduation ceremonies that will see them wave goodbye to exams in business management, biological science, performing arts, nursing, psychology and sociology, subjects that generations ago women could only dream of.

For as they pass through their final weeks, it’s with a backward glance to the exceptional efforts of the strong willed pair who brought cookery skills to the Capital and paved the way for their sisters to finally take their rightful places in higher education.

The Edinburgh Cookery School was set up in 1875, although teaching young women how to run a kitchen and improve the diets of a poverty-struck working class was only part of what Guthrie Wright and Stevenson, sister to education reformer Flora, had in mind.

At the heart of their new establishment was a determination to open a route into further education and university for girls, equipping them with new skills that could raise them from out of poverty.

Eventually the cookery school they founded would evolve into QMU, where the Queen Margaret University Graduates’ Association (QMUGA), set up to ensure staff and former students could stay in touch, has just marked 100 years since its launch.

Today’s modern campus is a world away from 1875 when concerns were running high over childhood malnourishment, poverty and the need for girls to receive a balanced ­education.

The cookery school, paid for by public subscription, sent its all-female staff to lecture, passing on their food skills around the country.

The Shandwick Place premises was eventually granted ‘college’ status: it meant its women students could, for the first time, receive university-level education.

While that paved the way for universities to finally open their doors to women, the Cookery School flourished at a new base in Atholl Crescent, becoming a world leader in setting standards for the training of domestic science teachers. Eventually it moved to a campus in Clermiston. By 1972, it was renamed Queen Margaret and had evolved to offer a range of other subjects, including nursing, hospitality and dietary courses.

Maureen Paterson, 73, president of the QMUGA, studied household institutional management with large scale catering at the Edinburgh Cookery School in Atholl Crescent in the Fifties and Sixties and recalls a much stricter environment compared to today’s university life.

She says: “Things were a lot different. We were not allowed male visitors, including our fathers. When the College Ball was being planned, we had to give the name of male partners to the principal for approval in advance.

“We had to be in our halls by 10.30pm on weekdays and 11pm at weekends. You weren’t permitted to take a bath after 10.30pm at night, but my friends and I used to cheat the rules by running the tap through a face cloth to reduce the noise and have our bath with the lights switched off to avoid being caught.

“I was very proud to be a student at the Edinburgh Cookery School,” adds Maureen, who went on to become schools meals adviser for the city council and a cookery lecturer.

The remarkable efforts of Guthrie Wright and Stevenson in bringing women and girls out of the home and into education and work was recognised in 1925 when a memorial tablet was unveiled at Atholl Crescent. Its inscription paid simple but effective tribute, to the “wisdom and zeal of its founders” adding a poignant Rudyard Kipling quote: “For their work continueth”.