The village baker
With bread a staple of the 18th-century diet, the baker held an important place in the local community. While he could become a respected citizen, it was, however, unlikely that he would be able to make his fortune remaining in his home village, where a limited number of customers were as reliant on his produce as he was on their custom. Ironically, this meant that elder sons, although their livelihood was secured, had few of the opportunities for entrepreneurship that were presented to younger sons. All of the members of the Newbon family who came to London were younger sons and all were successful men with a strong independent streak and a good head for business.
Among the wills of the inhabitants of King’s Cliffe, that of William Newbon the Younger from 1728 gives some idea of the tools of the trade, although it is difficult to read in places:
I give devise and bequeath unto my son Walter Newbon his heirs and assigns for ever..... All those utensils of baking lying at the house where Giles Law junior now liveth.....one moulding mill, one kneading trough and boards and pewter case.
The city baker
In contrast, a business based in London had to ensure its own survival, but at the same time there was greater scope for an entrepreneur to make a success of a business. Not only did bakers make their bread, but they, of course, also had to sell or distribute it. This aspect of the trade would have had a strong impact on the living environment of bakers’ families. The 1764 will of Thomas Prior, stepfather of William Newbon of Blackfriars, emphasises this:
I give and bequeath unto ..... William Newbon all the fixtures in the shop of the house I now dwell in together with all sorts of implements and utensils in the trade of a baker that shall be in my house at the time of my decease to and for his own use and benefit.
By the 1790s William’s distant cousin Walter Newbon was head of the family business, which was then based in St Andrew’s Hill, Blackfriars. These are very tall houses; presumably the baking took place on the ground floor, with the front section open to the public to come in and buy their bread, while the upstairs constituted the family’s living quarters. By the mid-1790s the Newbon family owned two adjacent houses in St Andrew’s Hill. This may well have allowed the family greater separation from the heat and the bustle of the bakery. The extent of Walter Newbon’s will of 1798 would suggest that he was able to employ a number of apprentices. The second house may also have given the family greater privacy from them.
Whereas the village bakers of Northamptonshire would obviously have worked closely with local millers, procuring flour may not have been quite so straightforward for London bakers. Roy Porter in his London: A Social History writes:
By far the world’s biggest importer and consumer, the metropolis generated huge processing industries to feed its millions. Supplying its daily bread, corn-mills hugged the Thames, Wandle and Lea. Wandsworth’s mills were the largest, using both steam and water power, but John Rennie’s Albion Mills at Blackfriars were the world’s first flour-mills to use steam power (till [they] burnt down in 1791, probably as a result of arson) – a mark of the metropolis’s insatiable demand for bread.
Boulton & Watts’ Albion Mills, at the south side of Blackfriars Bridge, opened in 1786 with revolutionary machinery designed by John Rennie, which was made of iron rather than wood. It is almost inconceivable that Walter Newbon was not a regular customer, since his must have been one of the closest bakeries, even though it was just across the river. The presence of Blackfriars Bridge (constructed in the 1760s) must have meant that Blackfriars was an ideal site for a bakery when the Albion Mills opened.
The quality of bread was something that needed careful scrutiny, particularly in London, where it seems the so-called ‘adulteration’ of bread was rife. Liza Picard’s Dr. Johnson’s London gives a detailed account of London life between 1740 and 1770, the period when Walter Newbon and other members of the family arrived in London. She writes:
Bad bread was ‘a much more general cause of disease than the public is aware of. Bread is bad either when it is made of bad corn or when it is ill made.…. [e.g.] adulterated with alum…..[It causes] king’s evil.’ (The king’s evil was a tubercular infection of the lymph glands of the neck.) Such was one medical opinion of the time, which may well have been right. Smollett, himself a doctor, described London bread in Humphry Clinker as a ‘deleterious paste mixed up with chalk, alum and bone-ashes, insipid to the taste and destructive to the constitution.’
The adulteration of food was a known scandal, but often nothing effective was done to stop it. The Gentleman’s Magazine reported one case of a baker fined £5 for even possessing alum, but he must have been unlucky.
On this subject we are very fortunate that one extraordinary letter survives in The Times newspaper of Thursday 4th October 1792, giving details of Walter Newbon’s business and his scrupulous standards. It reads as follows:
A paragraph having appeared in several papers stating - that a baker on St. Andrew’s Hill had been convicted of selling bread short of weight, and that the penalty had amounted to 55l. 15s. - whereas the baker, who was convicted on Saturday last, before Mr. Ald. NEWMAN, resided on Addle Hill, in the ward of Castle Baynard; it is necessary to correct the above misrepresentation, it having materially injured the reputation of Mr. Walter Newbon, the only baker living on St Andrew’s Hill.
Foreman of the Inquest of Castle Baynard Ward
We, whose names are under written, do, on the behalf of the said Walter Newbon, declare that we have not had any cause to complain of his bread being deficient in the least, but, on the contrary, have always found it full weight.
Part of the Inquest of the Ward of Farringdon Within
I, Thomas Wheeler, one of the Church Wardens of St. Andrew by the Wardrobe, do also hereby certify, that the bread, which was seized on Saturday last, by the Inquest of Castle Baynard, was part of it given, by them, to the poor of the above parish; and that, to my own knowledge, a great quantity was taken from a baker in said parish, whose name is John Rowley, then residing on Addle Hill.
Liza Picard’s Dr. Johnson’s London also gives some idea of the wider services expected of the local baker, whether or not their bread was adulterated:
Dr Johnson, and no doubt many others poorer than he was, used the baker’s oven to have a pie cooked for his Sunday dinner, the baker not baking bread that day….. For those who could not always afford meat, corner shops everywhere sold bread heavily adulterated with chalk and alum to make it white. During the Gin Craze, a baker giving evidence to a parliamentary commission said that bakers had to cut their loaves into halfpennyworths, ‘a practice unknown to the trade till gin was so universally drunk by the poor’.
Further information on the baking profession can be found on the website of
The Worshipful Company of Bakers (http://www.bakers.co.uk).