As part of Neal’s Yard Dairy’s ‘Women in Cheese’ focus, we set ourselves the challenge of creating Wikipedia pages for some of the prominent women working in British cheese. In this blog, Ellen Hunter, our events manager, tells the story of her search for information about the life of Cheddar cheesemaker Edith Cannon...
The internet. Whether you’re after the population of New York, pictures of kittens dressed as lobsters, or the meaning of life, the internet has it all. Or so I thought.
Tasked with the challenge of creating a Wikipedia page for the legendary cheesemaker Edith Cannon, I naturally turned straight to Google and awaited the inevitable flood of search results. After a few permutations of my search terms I realised this might take longer than originally anticipated…
Edith Sage, born Edith Cannon, was a prolific cheesemaker in the late 19th to early 20th century. Her Cheddar recipe, created with her father Henry, was commonly known as ‘the Cannon method’. The Cannon method helped shape the course of farmhouse Cheddar as we know it. It was widely taught and is still in use today.
Despite Edith’s prominence in the world of cheesemaking, this limited information was all the internet had to offer. No family trees, no obituaries, no pictures. Mildly panicked I headed to my second font of knowledge, particularly (though not exclusively) when it comes to cheese, Bronwen Percival. Bronwen is the cheese buyer here at Neal's Yard Dairy and co-author of recently published Reinventing the Wheel. After securing myself a signed copy, I was relieved to find Edith's name in the index.
By the age of 19, Edith’s Cheddar had won the championship prize at the Frome Cheese Show. By 21 she was teaching the Cannon method at a school for Cheddar cheesemakers, run by the Bath and West and Southern Counties (Agricultural) Society. The Society identified the systematisation of Cheddar-making as a priority and tasked chemist Dr F.J. Lloyd with ‘fixing’ Cheddar, through a series of measurements and the creation of a set process for the ideal Cheddar make. He found that, as the school moved from farm to farm, season to season and herd to herd, Edith’s timings and reactions to acidity levels changed instinctively, creating consistently good cheeses whilst baffling the linear, analytical mind of Dr Lloyd.
Eventually, the scientific methods of Lloyd took over and Cheddar-making shifted away from the Cannon method towards the profile we recognise today. Though a daunting task, a few farmhouse Cheddar-makers are now starting to look back to this technique and the intuitive decisions that accompany it, most notably Westcombe Cheddar who are located near Edith’s father’s farm.
Feeling smug with the dramatic increase in information I now had, I headed over to Wikipedia to check how to structure my article. Yet again, I quickly realised I was still missing most of the essentials – date of birth, place of residence, family, education etc.
On the verge of giving up, I sent an email to Tom Calver of Westcombe Dairy pleading for any information he had and crossed my fingers. The next day he introduced me to Donald Sage, in his own words “the admiring grandson of Edith”. An incredible man in his own right, Donald scoured the Batcombe Heritage Centre (which he himself had founded) for information on his Grandmother and, a few days later, the archives appeared in my inbox.
Edith Jessie Cannon, born 16th September 1868 in Wincanton, was the eldest child of Henry and Emma Cannon. The family were tenant dairy farmers and often moved around Somerset and Dorset as a consequence. At the age of 12, Edith left school and began to work in the dairy with her mother, making cheese independently within a year. Winning several trophies, including the Silver Cup of the British Dairy Farmers’ Association in 1891, Edith went on to teach the Cannon method throughout the 1890s until her marriage to farmer Jesse Sage in 1900.
The pair went on to have a daughter and four sons, one of whom sadly died aged 12, and Edith continued to teach occasional students whilst her husband farmed. Jesse died in 1946 and, after a happy retirement, Edith died in 1963 at the age of 94.
Edith lived through huge changes in farming and cheesemaking procedures, including the effects of two World Wars, and contributed an enormous amount towards the improvement and development of Cheddar cheese. Hopefully this is the first step towards recognising those contributions and making them, and her legacy, more accessible and widely-known. But it is the descriptions of her in ‘Mrs Sage’, a portrait of Edith aged 87 by James Thorburn, that let her true personality shine through:
“Her husband rose soon after 4am to go out milking. At 7 the milk was brought in and the cheese-making began and it went on for the best part of the day – every day. But she said, with another twinkle in her eyes “Cheese making is a lovely game”. A lovely game indeed! It’s hard, heavy work demanding continuous care and attention; there were also four children to feed and care for and a husband. Life is a lovely game, you think, when you meet Mrs Sage.”
All photographs are from the Batcombe Heritage Centre archives. Title photo shows Edith and family on her 90th birthday at Batcombe.
Bronwen & Francis Percival, Reinventing the Wheel (London: Bloomsbury, 2017) 261-280
Mary Vidal, Edith Cannon: Cheese-Maker (Somerset: Friends of the Abbey Barn, 1993)
James Thorburn, Mrs Sage (Portrait for Window on the West, 1955)