June 21, 2024

The Invention of the Lamington

Australia’s most famous cake has a complex backstory, featuring a Scottish town, a French chef and a conservative Lord. This is: the invention of the Lamington.

Lamington main street, present day
Lamington main street, present day

The village of Lamington is located in the Scottish district of South Lanarkshire, southeast of Glasgow. It is small and has a picturesque appearance, with narrow lanes and rustic cottages that date from the Victorian era.

Its history runs back hundreds of years.

The town was founded in the 12th century and was originally known as ‘Lambidstoun’, after the Norman Knight, Jacques de Lambinus. Lambinus had served in the army of King David and had been rewarded with the land the town was founded upon.
Lambidstoun was later anglicised to ‘Lamington’.

William Wallace
William Wallace

The town has one significant historical footnote.

Marion Braidfute, wife of William Wallace, of ‘Braveheart’ fame, is said to have been born in Lamington in 1278. According to tradition, Braidfute’s murder by the English would radicalise Wallace and cause him to take up arms against them.

Most modern historians think she is actually a fiction, created to make the story more dramatic.

In 1367, Lamington was transferred to the holdings of Sir William Baillie, a member of the local aristocracy. The Baillies were one of the most notable families in the area and would administer the town for centuries to come.

Baillie family crest
Baillie family crest

In 1841, William Baillie’s distant descendant, Alexander Baillie-Cochrane, entered British Parliament. Baillie-Cochrane was conservative and closely aligned with Benjamin Disraeli, two-time Prime Minister and founder of the modern conservative party.

Baillie-Cochrane had inherited the family estate, and served several terms as the member for Lanark. In 1880, Disraeli made him a peer and transferred him to the House of Lords; his new title was Baron Lamington, named to reflect the family’s connection to the town.

Baillie-Cochrane and his wife had four children. His only son, Charles, followed his father into public service.

The 2nd Lord Lamington
The 2nd Lord Lamington

Charles was appointed personal secretary to Lord Salisbury in 1885, and the following year was elected a member of Parliament, representing North Pancras. With the passing of his father in 1890 he became the 2nd Lord Lamington, and assumed his place in the House of Lords.

Conservative in his political ideology, and by nature, Lord Lamington also had an interest in foreign affairs.

This was common in this era, particularly among the upper classes. In the 1890s the British Empire still spanned the globe; news and trade items from around the world poured into the home islands, generating ongoing interest.

The empire was maintained by a large administration and this required a steady stream of public servants. Keen to see it for himself, in 1896 Lamington used his political connections to secure appointment as Governor of Queensland, in north-eastern Australia.

Lord Lamington and his wife, Mary
Lamington and his wife, Mary

Lamington arrived in Brisbane in April 1896. He was accompanied by his wife, Mary, pregnant with their first child, and several members of his household staff, brought over from England.

His arrival came at an interesting moment in Australian political history.

The country was moving steadily towards Federation, which Lamington viewed with concern. Federation would mean greater autonomy from Britain; Lamington believed in a strong empire, overseen by English political institutions.

As a staunch conservative, he was even more alarmed by what he saw as the threat of socialism.

The world’s first Labor Party had been founded in Queensland in 1891, and was beginning to flex its political muscle. Through the 1890s they had helped organise several major strikes, and had successfully fielded candidates in state elections.

Other Labor organisations had subsequently started up in South Australia and New South Wales.

The invention of the Lamington: a rare photo of Amond Gallard
A rare photo of Amond Gallard

Lamington would use his time as governor to try and curtail the influence of unions, and lobby for a preservation of state government power post Federation.

He would also make an enduring contribution to Australian cuisine.

Among the staff he had brought with him was his head chef, Amond Gallard. Little is known about Gallard, other than he was French born, had trained in Paris, and had come into Lamington’s service in London.

He also had a French-Tahitian wife.

The invention of the Lamington: The Lamington cake
The Lamington cake

Sometime in 1900, exactly when is not recorded, Lamington’s official residence, Government House, received an unexpected group of visitors. Called upon to provide refreshment at short notice, Armand had to improvise.

Using what he had in the kitchen, he made a basic sponge cake which he covered in chocolate. He then decorated this by sprinkling desiccated coconut over the top, and dividing the result into small, square portions.

The coconut was unusual, as it was not a common ingredient in western cooking at the time. People would later point to the possible influence of Armand’s wife, as coconut would be familiar to her from food in the South Pacific.

Regardless of the rationale, the cakes were a success. Lamington’s visitors enjoyed them, and they shortly became a regular fixture on the household menu.

News of the dessert eventually spread outside Government House, and the cakes found a wider audience. The first publication of the recipe came in ‘Country Life’ magazine later in 1900; the cake was called a ‘Lamington’, in a slightly cheeky nod to the governor.

They have remained one of Australia’s most popular desserts ever since.

The invention of the lamington: toowoomba
Toowoomba: the real home of the Lamington?

This then is the ‘official’ story of the creation of the Lamington. But like a lot of popular food items, there are other contenders.

One slight variation has Armand intending to make a plain sponge, and dropping this into melted chocolate by mistake. But food historians generally think this is too coincidental to be plausible.

Another variant keeps the events the same, but moves the location to Toowoomba, in regional Queensland. Toowoomba is the location of the Governor’s country retreat, Harlaxton House, the town would later claim this was where the improvised dessert was first concocted.

There have been discussions of erecting a big Lamington there, to mark this historic occurrence.

Another contender from rural Queensland is Ipswich, which does away with Armand altogether. Some have claimed that Lamingtons were actually created by a local chef to mark the opening of the town’s first technical college, and simply named after the Governor as he was in attendance.

But this event occurred in 1901, after the first publication of the recipe in Brisbane.

Lord Lamington's other legacy
Lord Lamington’s other legacy

Lord Lamington and his wife had two further children; the Lamington cake was said to be a great favourite of theirs. In 1990, their own children attempted to settle the origin story debate:

‘The granddaughters of Lord and Lady Lamington, Bridget Leigh and Felicity Scrimgeour, visited Queensland. In a short speech they referred to the cake and stated that it was ‘created by the chef at Government House and [was a] favourite of our grandfather, hence named after him.’

 

– Dr Katie McConnell, QUT Historian

McConnell, curator of the museum at Old Government House, subscribes to this theory.

Lamington himself seems to have had mixed feelings about lending his name to a cake. Shortly before his term as Governor ended, he was quoted in the press calling them ‘those bloody, puffy, woolly biscuits’.

Lamington National Park, west of Brisbane, is also named after him.

Lamington’s term as Governor ended in December 1901, and he returned to England the following year. He would continue in foreign service, serving one term as Governor of Bombay, and one as Commissioner to Syria.

In 1940, aged 80, he was shot in London by a pro-independence Indian nationalist. He died later that year, at the family home in Lanarkshire.

Who invented the Lamington: New Zealand

In 2014, the ‘Guardian’ newspaper published an article claiming that new research showed that the Lamington had actually been created in New Zealand.

A watercolour painting from Wellington, dated 1888, appeared to show a Lamington sitting in a family kitchen. The article claimed the cakes had originally been called ‘Wellingtons’, and had been transplanted to Australia during Lord Lamington’s tenure.

Outrage was immediate. New Zealand had already tried to claim, and still persist in claiming, the invention of Australia’s other national dessert, the Pavlova; now they were after our Lamingtons.

As debate raged, someone finally clocked the date on the article: April 1.

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