by House Guide, Karen Tiley.
A humble and functional item that I am drawn to in David Parr’s house is the bread crock below the sink unit in the scullery. Like so many of the contents, it could have come into the house at almost any point in time. This was a piece of equipment that would definitely have graced a Victorian home, however. Indeed, bread crocks or “pans” feature in Mrs Panton’s From Kitchen to Garret, which was published in 1898. Jane Ellen Panton was the daughter of the artist, William Powell Frith, and her popular book on home-making has this to say in its chapter called Kitchen Arrangements:
“There are certain things the young housekeeper should never be without, and one is a bread-pan with a cover. This can always be procured at Whiteley’s or Oetzmann’s” [a London department store and home outfitter’s respectively].
“…The bread taken in to-day should not be used until to-morrow; and, when received from the baker, should be immediately put into the pan in the larder and covered over. This keeps it moist and fresh; and, without having the evil properties of new bread, is as pleasant to eat, which it could never be if left to dry in the hot kitchen, or to become musty and dry, or maybe even damp, on the larder shelf. The pan should be wiped out every morning with a clean cloth; and on no account should pieces be allowed to accumulate.”
Mrs Panton’s words on bread pans struck a chord in my own memories. This theory of the “evil properties of new bread” reminded me of my mother mentioning to me, when I was young, that they always used to say that fresh bread was bad for you. We ignored this warning in our house, very much enjoying fresh slices of bread (sometimes still warm) from loaves my father would buy regularly from a bakery in Norfolk Street, Cambridge. Dad’s grandparents and great grandparents ran small shops and baked professionally, so an appreciation of good bread is probably in our genes. Although my great, great grandfather only achieved second prize in the “baker’s 4lb loaf” competition in Manea in July 1901!
The Norfolk Street bakery was far enough away from where we lived that Dad took the trouble to drive there. Loaves from Norfolk Street came wrapped in creamy white tissue paper and had a crackled, golden crust. The aroma, of course, was heavenly. There is still a bakery in Norfolk Street; now in a more up-market, continental incarnation. And it so happens that Norfolk Street is only a short walk from David Parr’s house. According to the current bakery shop sign, the business was established as long ago as 1868, so David Parr may have enjoyed bread from here too. When I investigated the census returns, however, they did not seem to suggest uninterrupted baking on the same premises since the 1860s. There was also a bakery closer to the Parrs’ house, in Gwydir Street itself. The 1891 Census has Master Baker, Frederick Bridges, at number 74. You can see signs that this was a commercial premises in that house today, with the large front window and wide entrance to the left.
I should perhaps mention that Victorian bakers weren’t always producing bread of the highest quality. I hope Mr Bridges baked excellent loaves, but sometimes flour was deliberately contaminated with chalk, pipe clay or alum (a chemical powder containing aluminium often used in the leather tanning and dying industries). By 1860, laws were brought in to clamp down on food adulteration, so hopefully the Parrs were getting good bread.
Wherever Mary and David Parr bought their bread, or even perhaps had it delivered by the baker’s boy, perhaps they stored it in the very bread container that we find in the scullery at 186 Gwydir Street to this day. But what a treat they were missing if they didn’t eat it fresh from the baker’s oven!
Sources and further reading:
Census returns, via TheGenealogist website
Cambridge Independent Press, 9th July 1901
From Kitchen to Garret: Hints for Young Householders, by J.E. Panton, Ward & Downey, 1898 (Old House Books facsimile edition, 2011)
How to be a Victorian, by Ruth Goodman, Penguin Books 2013
The Shopkeeper’s World 1830-1914, by Michael J. Winstanley, Manchester University Press, 1983