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Helmdon Historical Articles

The Old Bakehouse & Its Bakers

an article by Audrey Forgham

The Old Bakehouse in the 1950s Down the ages, most village people have baked their own bread in their own homes, but when there was a demand from those who could pay for the convenience, a man would set up as a baker. Bakers were also employed by the nobility and wealthy families who had large households to provide for.


The occupation of baker appears regularly in the Helmdon census data of the 1800s, and in 1861, for instance, there were four bakers living in different parts of the village. However, only one building which can definitely be associated with a baking business can be found in the records and that is what is now called "The Old Bakehouse" in Church Street. The steam bakery was built at the beginning of the twentieth century, of course, but the intention of this article is to focus on "The Old Bakehouse" in Church Street, as that is where I live.


When was "The Old Bakehouse" Built?


It is difficult to be precise, but the Enclosure Award of 1758 and a 1763 "Plan of Estates of Magdalen College Oxford", show a J. Boreham's plot in Church Street approximating to the area on which the present Bakehouse building and New House stand today. A sketched-in building is shown, and although it cannot be ascertained that this is the original Bakehouse building, it is interesting that together with a sketched-in building which is now occupied by No 48 Church Street, it is aligned at right angles to the road, unlike any other houses left on the west side of the road. The others on the map are facing the street, which is mostly the case even today.


Who was the First Baker?


The earliest reference found to a baker in Helmdon is in 1776, when the will of Thomas Eyre, baker, mentions a messuage or tenement, and malthouse. Robert Hindes, William Caves and Thomas War are recorded as having the occupation of "beaker" in the militia returns of 1777. The surname War may be a misspelling for Thomas Eyre's son, also called Thomas, who died in 1782. However, it is the Hinton family who probably provided the first bakers at "The Old Bakehouse".


The Hintons


The Old Bakehouse door - in 2000 The Hintons are first mentioned as resident in Helmdon with the marriage of a Thomas Hill and Elizabeth Hynton as early as 1573. In 1741, an indenture found in Worcester College archives, between the college and John Hinton, leased "the manor house" to John. The manor house no longer exists, of course, but a map of 1900 shows its site to have been near the present Manor Farm. John and his sons Matthew and George (the latter was not the most moral man; he had two affiliation orders against him citing village girls!) were yeoman farmers, and it seems possible that one of them built the Bakehouse, some 250 yards along from the long demolished manor house. The manor house farm's grain could have been used for the baking of bread needed for their family and household's use, and the surplus bread sold to those villagers who couldn't or wouldn't bake for themselves. A Thomas Hinton was victualler at the Cross Inn in the late 1700s so he could have provided the yeast, although after around the turn of the century yeast was less likely to be obtained from the brewer and had become a distinct branch of the baking trade.


The first reference to a member of the Hinton family having the occupation of baker is a victualler's licence of 1798, when Matthew Hinton, baker, and John Hinton, Yeoman, stood surely for Edward Jones of the Horseshoe, Wappenham. However, the first record that definitely ties the Hintons to the Bakehouse building is the Helmdon church rate book. In 1849, Matthew's nephew, Richard Hinton, aged 22, had to pay rates for "the bakehouse", and he is named as a baker in the 1851 census. In 1852 Joseph Hinton was also paying the church rates for the building, and he is named as the baker in an 1854 trade directory. At the time of the 1861 census, he had a wife, Mary, who was a dressmaker and the household included a journeyman baker, Thomas Penn, and a housemaid, Charlotte King. Being a baker at that time was a hard, back-breaking job. Joseph may have spent up to sixteen hours a day, depending on his output, some of that time in great physical labour, and all of it in a hot, grimy, smoke-laden atmosphere. The Hintons at that time combined the baking and selling of bread with the selling of groceries.


The Osbornes


Around 1869 Thomas Osborne took over as baker, the few remaining members of the Hinton family having left the village by 1871. Thomas is succeeded as baker first by his son George and grandson Charles, and then by Charles working alone. Charles had a wife Annie and two children. Sometime in the 1880s he took on an eleven-year old apprentice, Luke Watson. Luke, from a poor family, used to leave his home at the other end of the village at 2 am to help with the baking, later taking bread in a basket down Church Street to the camp set up near the school for the navvies who were building the railway. This trade was extremely good for the Bakehouse, the number of loaves baked increasing considerably. After Luke had finished his apprenticeship he saved every penny he could, and when Mr Osborne retired round about 1899, Luke, now in his twenties, bought the Bakehouse from him for the sum of two hundred pounds.


The Watsons


Jim Watson, Luke Watson's son, still lives in the village and was able to tell me a great deal about life in the Bakehouse. He was born there. He remembers playing in the stream which ran below the property, and has a vivid memory of being propped upon the windowsill playing with dough and fashioning it into animals with Swan Vestas matches.


John Watson, Luke's grandson, who lives at Home Farm, Helmdon, has in his possession a fascinating baker's ledger, kept by Luke from 1 January, 1902 until 31 December, 1903. Sixty-two villagers had accounts and much interesting information can be gained from it. For instance, in the month of January, 1902, a George Batchelor bought 35 loaves, 23 rolls, 4 cakes and 6 bags of flour for his family. On 4 4 April, 1902, Luke sold 70 loaves, and in the month of July, 1902, "the shop" sold 217 loaves. Products such as dough, maize, salt, potatoes, bran, eggs and wheat were also on sale.


Luke Watson employed two men to help him, and for some of that time had an apprentice. The 1911 indenture still exists. The boy was called Leonard Higgins, a "poor child" in the care of the Guardians of the Poor of Brackley Union. Leonard was bound to provide his board and lodging and it is tempting to think that the boy slept at the top of my house, although he would not had had the use of the en-suite bathroom that is there today! After he had built up the Bakehouse, Luke expanded his business, buying wheat, oats and barley and selling them to other merchants. Jim relates that when Clifton Mill went bankrupt, Luke took it over and employed the old owner, George Robinson, as his miller. He carted barley to Clifton, ground it into meal, carted it back and sold, it, at a profit of 6d a sack, to local villagers for them to make their own bread. He also went into the coal trade, fetching coal from the station and taking it around the village in a horse and cart. Luke wrote off debts of poor families, sometimes taking goods in lieu. His grandson, Richard Watson, still has some pewter plates that were acquired in this way. Luke's sister Mary used to cycle round the village to try and collect a few more of the bad debts but hundreds of pounds were written off.


Jim Watson remembers his last day at the Bakehouse. Following a family tragedy, Luke sold the property and the family moved to Grange Farm. Jim recalls riding with Bert Branson on the removal wagon which was piled high with furniture. Coincidentally, it was the day in 1914 that war broke out. Luke died in 1962. A county, district and parish councillor, JP and prominent in Baptist circles, he was highly respected in the village. Indeed, his tenant on the Jitty, Bessie Walker, always referred to him deferentially as "Master Watson".


The Steam Bakery


Jim recalls that Luke probably financed his brother Mark to buy and run what is locally referred to as "The Steam Bakery", so called because it had mechanised equipment whereas the Bakehouse still used the old-style oven. It occupied the small brick-built building next to the old Post Office, at the centre of the village, which has a plaque upon it which reads "Hygienic Bakery 1903".

No one I have talked to, including Mr and Mrs Davis, until 1996 the owners, can tell me much about it, although general opinion is that the bread was not up to the standard of the crusty loaves produced at the Bakehouse and that it did not remain in business for very long.


Thomas Rigby Adams


Herbert Carpenter was the baker at the Bakehouse from 1914-20 and then Thomas Rigby Adams took over. His son, Phil Adams, who is now semi-retired but still associated with W.O and T.R Adams Ltd, Bakers in Northampton, kindly came to Helmdon to see me. Phil was but three years old when he came to live at the Bakehouse. He recalled to me the way of working in the 1920s. The work began at 8.00 in the evening by placing the flour and the salt in a wooden trough, and putting part of the required water and the yeast in another pan. When the yeast was working it was then mixed into the flour by hand and kneaded, which entailed much hard work, and then it slowly fermented all night, rising slowly. At 5.00 in the morning, Thomas Adams got up and "knocked back" the dough and kneaded it again. It was then left to prove. After another hour Thomas weighed off the individual pieces for individual loaves, which were then moulded and put into tins. Again they were left to prove and then finally put into the Bakehouse oven, which had been raised to the right temperature. The loaves were ready for sale at 8.30 or 900 am. Phil remembers them being loaded onto a two-wheeled cart led by a mare named Kitt, and then the bread was delivered house to house. A tarpaulin was put over the cart when it was wet. He cannot recall many cakes being sold except for dough cakes and a few hot cross buns at Easter. Mabel Pasquire, née Seckington, whose grandfather lived in the village, remembers as a child taking a baking tin and Yorkshire Pudding batter in a jug to the Bakehouse on a Sunday. No bread was cooked that day and at the appropriate time the baker tipped the batter into the tins to be cooked. Phillip says his father charged 4d for this. To cook a dinner in the week cost 2d and a Christmas Day dinner 1s0d.


Philip told me about the large garden which the Bakehouse then possessed. His mother kept chickens, and his father, pigs (useful, no doubt, for the disposal of stale bread and cakes). When a pig was killed it was put upon a "salting lead" in the Bakehouse cellar. A side of the pig was rubbed with salt and saltpetre. It was turned over, rubbed with more salt, and the curing process went on for five to six weeks until the salt permeated all the way through and preserved it.


Thomas Rigby Adams came from a baking family. He went to the National Baking School in London and gained experience in Helmdon until 1926 before going into the successful family business in Northampton, which is still in existence, ably managing to compete with supermarket competition.


George Moore


George Moore was the next occupant of the Bakehouse, selling bread and cakes. Olive Holton remembers being told that one day, as George was making deliveries, his horse decided to graze on the steep bank by the side of "The Knoll" in Church Street, and as it cropped higher, the spring cart tipped and much to the delight of the children, the cakes and bread fell out.


Frederick Charles Oakey


After George Moore left the Bakehouse, Frederick Charles Oakey became the baker. Two of Frederick's sons, Colin and Desmond, still live in the village and Colin and his wife Sheila came up to the Bakehouse to see how it had been altered after it had been converted into three dwellings in 1989. In the first conversion is the original sitting room and kitchen. The second and third conversions are where the baker carried on his business. The baker's oven was originally on the west of the second conversion with a pump, which is still in existence, just outside the front door. Colin remembers there was a lawn with rockeries, a stable, coal store, washhouse, pigsty, a stream and a fishpond. He recalls bread dough being made in the evening and put into bins to prove all night. The baker then started making his bread at 7.00 in the morning. Jim Watson remembers Frederick Oakey's "magnificent" dough cake, and Colin Oakey says that they were a definite speciality and that "you could go to work on one slice". Frederick Oakey sold many varieties of cake beside the famous dough cake, and catered for weddings. Colin remembers that half quartern loaves cost 4d, small loaves cost 2 ½d and that flour was obtained from Whitworths in 2.25 cwt bags. Fred delivered bread in his van to Syresham, Crowfield, Pimlico, Sulgrave, Thorpe Mandeville and Greatworth. It was even taken to customers by sledge in deep snow, and when the Gullivers couldn't get their milk away because of the icy conditions, Frederick Oakey used it for delicious milk bread. Yorkshire Puddings were still baked in the bread oven on a Sunday and collected at 12 noon. Colin recollects that there was a fire insurance plate on the centre front of the building, but it has now gone. Frederick Charles Oakey retired in 1946 and his successor was Conrad King.


Conrad King


Olive Holton worked for Conrad King and remembers life in the Bakehouse vividly. She was with him for three years, her original intention being to take up the baking trade. Her hours were long. In the week she worked until 7 pm or until everything was finished, and on Saturdays until 3 pm. On Christmas Eve it was midnight before she could go home. Olive remembers that a quartern loaf cost 4½ and the Bakehouse "special", a jam sponge, 2s 6d. Small iced Victoria sponges costing 1s 6d were eagerly bought. Olive went with the delivery van round Helmdon and the neighbouring villages as far afield as Culworth and Biddlesden. Most people bought at least three loaves when they were called upon, some much more.


Besides loaves, the Bakehouse shop still sold four and yeast, and also dough for bread. No sides of bacon in the cellar now though, just fruit cakes ready for Christmas. Flour was stored on the top floor which was open to the roof, in what is now the second house, and it came down the chute into the dough mixer. The dough bins were called kivers and Olive remembers the chat of the Bakehouse. It was "Look in the kiver, wench, see how much dough there is in it. Do I need flour? It's at the other end".


About 1950 Conrad King left the Bakehouse and Olive recalls that the baker who came in his stead was less skilled and let the cake trade decline. Mr King returned around 1953. Eventually the house was sold in 1958 - 9 to a purchaser who was not interested in it being used for business purposes.


The demise of the Bakehouse as a going concern was inevitable. Small bakers were facing the competition of the bread factories which were making an impact in the market. Indeed by 1960 three quarters of all baked bread in Britain was made in factories. Today the current trend towards healthy eating has seen a resurgence of interest in the skills and products of the small baker, although never again will "The Old Bakehouse" be used for its original purpose.


Bakers at the Bakehouse


The dates by each baker are those of the first and last references found. From 1899 some of the dates are from oral evidence.


NB A press cutting found after this article was published shows that the

bakehouse was in existence before 1798


The Bakers


Matthew Hinton ("a baker in Helmdon")

1849 – 1852

Richard Hinton (he paid rates for "the bakehouse")

1852 – 1866

Joseph Hinton


Thomas Osborne


George & Charles Osborne

1877 – 1899

Charles Osborne

1899 – 1914

Luke Watson

1914 – 1920

Herbert Carpenter

1920 – 1926

Thomas Rigby Adams

1926 – 1928

George Moore

1931 – 1946

Frederick Charles Oakey

1946 – 1958

Conrad King

1958 – 1959

Sold to a purchaser no longer interested in using it as a bakery



Audrey Forgham   (first published in Aspects of Helmdon no2)



Parish records including churchwardens' accounts, maps, wills, victuallers' licences, land tax returns, militia returns, in the Northamptonshire Record Office. Other documents detailed in the text at Worcester College and Magdalen College, Oxford. My thanks to the archivists.


My thanks to: Jim Watson, Philip Adams, Colin Oakey and Olive Holton who willingly gave up time to talk to me. I also appreciated seeing the baker's ledger held by John Watson, Home Farm.




H.G Muller, Baking and Bakeries, Shire Publications No 156, 1986


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