‘At home’

Thorburn family tea service and manuscript recipe book

Thorburn family tea service and manuscript recipe book in the Eat your history: a shared table exhibition, 2014. Photo © Jamie North for Sydney Living Museums

On the first Monday of each month the Thorburn sisters, Belle (Annabella), Kate (Jessie Catherine), Georgina and Tot (Kennina) entertained ‘At home’ at Meroogal. ‘At homes’ were something of an institution from the 1880s and survived well into the 1920s. Even ladies clubs, such as The Queen’s Club in Sydney which offered accommodation and a place to meet friends for country members, hosted ‘At homes’ for their residents. According to Mrs Beetons’ all about cookery (c1902)

At an “At Home” tea almost any number of people may be invited, the hostess knowing they will not all assemble at the same time; and whereas at a luncheon or dinner a good deal of expense must be incurred, and comparatively few guests invited, a great many may be welcomed…

Teaware at Meroogal

Teaware at Meroogal. Photo © Nicholas Watt for Sydney Living Museums

Beeton offers menus for both summer and winter “At Home teas” :



Salmon Sandwiches.
Cucumber Sandwiches.
Salad Sandwiches.
Bread and Butter.
Madeira Cake.
Sponge Cake.
Small Almond cakes.
Petits Fours.
Small Fancy Cakes.
Strawberries and Cream.
Tea, Coffee, lemonade.
Claret Cup.


Sardine Sandwiches.
Chicken and Ham Sandwiches.
Foie Gras Sandwiches.
Bread and Butter.
Pound Cake.
Sponge Cake.
Macaroons. Ratafias.
Petits Fours.
Fancy Biscuits.
Tea, Coffee, Wine.

Open invitation

Although they did invite guests to dinner from time to time, this style of entertaining suited the Thorburn sisters at Meroogal. There was no formal invitation – the first Monday of the month was set aside to receive friends and relatives who knew it was an appropriate time to ‘call’ (a hark back to the morning call ritual of the Regency period). Where the side door was the everyday entrance used at Meroogal, for these occasions guests were greeted at the front door. On any given month guests might include the local Presbyterian minister’s daughter, the doctor’s wife, the solicitor’s wife and other community members of similar social standing. The sisters would rise early, as was their usual custom, and prepare the house for visitors and bake their specialties, scones, biscuits and cakes including their signature sponge (you can see June Wallace making the cake in the kitchen at Meroogal this video). A particular favourite of mine is Mrs Gaffney’s date and nut cake, which is delicious with a light spreading of fresh butter at this time of year.

Thorburn family tea service at Meroogal

Thorburn family tea service at Meroogal. Photo © John Storey for 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.

sources: Mrs Beeton’s all about cookery. Ward, Lock and Co. Limited. Londaon. c1902.

Meroogal, Nowra: a history and a guide. Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales. 1988