A search for Mrs Gaffney, c 1890s, Tamworth.

Mrs Gaffney's date and nut cake from Eat your history, stories and recipes from Australian kitchens. (SLM and NewSouth Publishing, 2015). Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums

Regular readers may remember we’ve been on a quest to identify some of the contributors the Meroogal manuscript recipe collection. The recipes appear to date from the 1890s. We do feel we might be on the right track for the source of the ginger cake recipe -Mrs Nisbett, whom we’ve traced to Molong, NSW. Two other recipes in the book are attributed to non-family members –  ‘Mrs Wiseheart’s salad dressing (used by Miss Evans)’ and a date and nut cake – deemed ‘quite good’ by Margaret Macgregor, who compiled the book – from Mrs Gaffney, Tamworth.

Mrs Gaffney’s Date and Nut cake recipe, from the Meroogal Ledger book of manuscript recipes. Meroogal Collection. © Sydney Living Museums

Will Mrs Gaffney please stand up?

A little bird who grew up in Tamworth tells me that the Gaffney name is well known in the New South Wales New England region.

We have little to go on except the recipe itself – which is really delicious, in that lovely old fashioned ‘comfort food’ way (metricised recipe below)! There is no mention of Mrs Gaffney in Tottie’s diaries, kept between 1888–1893 and 1895–1896. We do not know if this Mrs Gaffney visited Nowra, or if one of the Thorburn’s knew her in Tamworth. But who knows? – perhaps there’s a reciprocal recipe ‘Meroogal Sponge’ or ‘Thorburn’s biscuits’ lurking about in one of the Gaffney family’s cookbooks?

Date and Nut cake recipe in the Meroogal ledger book of manuscript recipes. Meroogal collection © Sydney Living Museums

And Mrs Wiseheart?

Miss Evans is noted on a slip of paper inserted into Tottie’s diary from 1891 but there is no mention of a Mrs Wiseheart, and Wiseherts do not appear to be living in the Nowra area at the time. It is possible, however, that the recipe came from Mrs Julia Wiseheart (nee Fuller) a school teacher from Goulburn who moved to Young when she married in 1894. Like the Thorburn sisters, Julia Wiseheart was an active community member. The Thorburn’s of Meroogal were connected to Young through their relatives, the Macgregors, who lived next door to Meroogal in the early 1900s.

Mrs Wiseheart’s salad dressing recipe in the Meroogal ledger book. Meroogal Collection. © Sydney Living Museums

Mrs Gaffney’s date and nut cake


  • 3/4 cups milk (185 ml)
  • 200g pitted dates, roughly chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • 2 cups plain flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 225g butter
  • 1 cup white granulated sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 100g walnuts, roughly chopped


Sharing recipes is one way to feel connected with friends and family in distant places. Mrs Gaffney was from Tamworth, in the northern tablelands of NSW, and her cake was recorded in a Meroogal handwritten recipe ledger. The recipe may not sound terribly exciting, but it makes a particularly good cake.

Serves 10


Heat the milk in a large saucepan over low heat until it is just bubbling, not boiling. Remove the pan from the heat and add the dates and the bicarbonate of soda. Set aside for 1 hour to allow the dates to soak up the milk and soften.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 180ºC (160ºC fan-forced). Position the oven rack in the centre of the oven or one rung lower. Grease a large loaf tin or 20-cm square cake tin and line with baking paper.

Sift the flour and baking powder into a bowl, add a pinch of salt and set aside.

Cream the butter and the sugar in a large bowl until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating each one in well before adding the next. Add the dates and any remaining milk, and stir in the sifted flour mixture and the walnuts.

Spoon the cake batter into the prepared tin and bake for 1–1 1/4 hours or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean. Make sure the top of the cake doesn't burn. If it is browning too quickly, cover it with two sheets of baking paper.