Traditional Trades: Bakers

Aberdeen bakers c1920 low res

© Lorna Dey 2013

Aberdeen bakers c1920 – possibly Northern Co-op Society

Artisan bakers continue to thrive on the continent while here they are virtually extinct, ousted from our streets by national chains and supermarkets to the loss of much regional speciality.

It was not always so. For centuries bakers, or baxters, formed the backbone of Scottish society. In 1824 some 60 bakers and confectioners jostled for trade in Aberdeen town centre, some small, others employing perhaps 40 men. One or two names may be familiar to readers today: Alex Gordon, John Muil, John Smith.

Traditionally, bakers were male while confectioners might be women, and the local nature of the trade was its protection against outside competition. For Aberdeen bakers the first real threat to their livelihoods came in 1861 with the formation of the Northern Co-operative Company, forerunner to the Society, which went on to become the city’s largest employer of bakers and a thorn in the flesh of the bakers’ union, resisting as it did their efforts to reduce working hours and night shifts. The bakery went on to become a major earner for the Co-op, accounting for 24% of its overall sales in 1929, worth some £17,500.

Scottish bakers and confectioners motto

The trade was vital to local communities. Few Scottish housewives baked their own bread and at the very least might use a bakehouse oven to finish their home prepared loaves. Bakehouse recipes were jealously guarded, as was the privilege in centuries past of making ‘ait kakis’ –oatcakes, that popular staple of the north-east diet. Over time oatcake production came to be a female skill and by the late 1920s oatcake ‘girls’ were employed by most town bakeries.

Women, however, were largely excluded from the trade by the male guild, later union. The city’s ancient guild of bakers specified that, ‘women were not allowed to bake any bread, pastry, or pies to be sold in the streets or in shops’, a restriction which was maintained until the abolition of trading privileges in 1846.

Naturally not every woman was prepared to be restrained by such an ordinance and during the 18th century bakers complained that women were making plum and seed cakes and sugar biscuits at home, getting friendly bakers to finish them in their ovens, then selling them around the town. Colluding bakers were ordered to end the practice or risk a penalty of 10 merks Scots.

Incidentally, this was also the period when there was a clampdown on the traditional bakers’ dozen, said to have come from fear of short selling, but regarded as an unfair practice by the guild who threatened expulsion for any baker caught at it. The guild or union rules were quite restrictive on members; apprentices were prevented from marrying, or baking pies and biscuits, or staying out after 10 at night and it was stipulated that a baker should always wear a hat to funerals.

Medieval bakers' marks - Aberdeen

From guild to union

During the medieval period, a baker wishing to set up shop in the city had to present an example of his work, his maisterstick, to deacons of the trade to judge if he was good enough to practice the craft as freeman. Guilds tightly controlled members. Contravention of their rules could mean expulsion for a year and a day, plus a penalty payable to St Nicholas for forgiveness.

The guild system had broken down by the 19th century, but in Aberdeen the bakers’ union became a powerful body, and instrumental in the formation of the Trades Council in 1868. Its influence ensured bakers enjoyed reasonably good incomes, with a journeyman earning a minimum of 19 shillings, rising to 28 shillings by 1900.

Aberdeen baker, Wood, 1908 reference

The nature of the job meant hours were long; up to 16, from early on Mondays to late on Saturdays. Night work was an enduring issue of contention between operatives and masters with the Master Bakers’ Union insisting fresh rolls should be available first thing in the morning, as did customers. The union did what it could to protect members from unreasonable masters’ demands. With swelling numbers of unemployed during the 1880s, the call went out for an eight-hour day from Aberdeen bakers, to enable more men enter the trade. This demand was taken up by the Scottish Bakers’ Federal Union; for a separate eight-hours Bill to meet its special case.

And it was also Aberdeen bakers who initiated the call for old age pensions. Indeed, the union was so strong in Aberdeen that the city became the first headquarters of the Operative Bakers’ National Federal Union of Scotland, in 1888. Its first secretary and a figure of huge influence in the development of bakers’ conditions was Alexander Catto, who was held in great esteem by his fellow craftsmen.

Aberdeen bakers rule book 1920

Aberdeen bakers operated a closed shop, restricting the operation of machinery in bakehouses to union men, depending on the nature of the work of journeymen, apprentices, jobbers, early men, very early men and the like. Inevitably some master bakers felt threatened by the union and tried to prevent employees joining it. In 1926 the union held a special meeting to discuss the case of a King Street baker, called Vobriel, who threatened to reduce the pay of his men and boys if they became unionists.

Operatives themselves mostly recognised that being in a union gave them bargaining power and for the cost of their membership they were able to borrow small amounts to tide them over until pay day and receive sickness, death and widow benefits.

Aberdeen bakers meeting poster 1935

Guild and unions were male protectorates, but by the first quarter of the 20th century it became far more common to find women involved in aspects of the industry: bread, smalls, cakes, confectionary, biscuit production in factories, as well as cleaning pans and utensils. Some women were even allowed to work pie and tart machines and, ‘handle the palette knife in the firing of goods on the hot plate and finishing baked goods’.

The roles women played in industry during the Great War and the extension of the franchise in 1918 meant it was only a matter of time before the male unions opened their doors to them. In April 1930 a meeting of women bakery employees was held in Shepherd’s Hall on Union Terrace to discuss the annual working agreement for 1930-31 and to elect ‘lady’ delegates to the annual national delegate meeting.

Although the Northern Co-op was instrumental in establishing wage rates and conditions of work in and around Aberdeen, its own bakers were somewhat reluctant to join the union until 1897, when the Co-op demanded a three a.m. shift start, and their operatives realised the advantages of collective action.

Aberdeen bakers agreement 1936-39

On the eve of WWII, Co-op bakers were on a 44hour week with 12 days paid holiday and 71 shillings minimum wage. Regulations were tight; no smoking permitted in the Co-op bakehouse on penalty of instant dismissal, although this was often followed by reinstatement.

One of the functions of any trades union is to minimise dangers in the workplace. Accidents were common in bakeries: burns, limbs trapped in moving machinery, strains from lifting weights, cuts and amputations, splinters, skin irritations and dermatitis from flour and other ingredients.

On 17 August 1929, Alex. Barrie, a small bread baker with the Co-op, ‘while trying to release a piece of dough in the bun moulder, allowed his right hand to come in contact with the moving plates. His thumb was lacerated and the point of the first finger amputated.’

Standardising bread weight

A bakehouse boy, William Adams, broke his right wrist while hauling a rack of biscuits from a travelling oven with his left hand. Loose threads from his gloved hand caught on the moving wheel shaft, jamming his wrist. A colleague injured his back while lifting a basin of fat. If ever there was a demonstration for the need for health and safety, the volume of accidents afflicting employees at the Co-op was its proof.

merchantcrAberdeen medieval coat of arms Floreant Pistores 1682

The baker guild controlled local access to the trade and ensured no-one was going to extreme lengths to deprive a fellow baker of his livelihood, so bread weights were standardised to ensure fairness, but these varied over time. Aberdeen town council stipulated that medieval bakers should produce ‘penny breid and tua penny breid’.

In 1555, a 22-ounce wheat loaf cost fourpence, the same as a 28-ounce rye. By 1666 a 27-ounce loaf of white bread cost ‘twa shilling’ and a 19-ounce loaf of oat bread, eightpence. In the 1920s, loaves appear to have got much larger. There were complaints the Co-op was producing bread of indeterminate weight, neither three pounds nor four pounds (these larger loaves were mainly sold to country customers) and likely to go against fair practice, so it was ordered to comply with statutory requirements and weigh their wet loaves more accurately.

Aberdeen’s own baked speciality has for long been the Aberdeen roll or rowie or buttery. Its provenance is open to conjecture. Some believe it was baked as a useful addition to the fishermen’s diet when trawling took men away from home for days or even week at a time. Others suggest the rowie’s roots stretch back to medieval times, given its association with the sponge method of making a yeast batter. Along with softies, baps, buns, drop scones, pancakes, cakes, shortbread, biscuits and Aberdeen cruella (a fried pastry similar to the Spanish breakfast cake for dipping in hot chocolate), they were part of the baker’s expertise, but the staple was always bread.

D.O.R.A. led to a dearth of rowies

Wheat replaced rye in popularity during the 19th century. Much of the wheat was imported from Canada and America. During the Great War, attacks on shipping resulted in the Defence of the Realm Act, ordering that wheat flour be supplemented with potatoes for bread baking. So in 1918, Aberdeen Co-op spent £150 on equipment to handle the softer dough, and indeed, potato flour in bread became compulsory in September 1919. Not only did the quality of loaves change, but the price of oatcakes rose by a whopping sixpence a packet to sevenpence.

The war had an impact on the availability of fat as well. There was resentment in the city that the bulk of fat from Aberdeenshire’s cattle and sheep was sent south, resulting in severe shortages for northeast bakers and an interruption to rowie and bap production.

Vast quantities of fat were used in baking. On 1 Jan 1914 the Co-op bakery’s order included: 650 cwt pure lard; 650 cwt compound lard; 200 cwt beef lard; 130 cwt cotton oil; 70 cwt margarine; 150 cwt high grade medium marg; 100 cwt low grade marg.

Then there was the sugar: 160 cwt soft white; 160 cwt finest white; 140 cwt castor; 180 cwt sifted; 40 cwt yellow; 35 cwt icing; 20 cwt Demerara; 15 cwt white fondant icing. And extras such as 40 cwt pastry medium; 20cwt soda; 25 cwt malt extract for brown bread; 25 cwt orange peel; 40 cwt yeast. Nothing went to waste. The sweepings from bakeries were sold on for animal feed.

Rules of Scottish bakers with motto

Northeasters have always emigrated in search of a different life. Baker James Thomson travelled to Montreal in the spring of 1844 from Aberdeen and there he discovered life at his trade was tough; but in letters home he wrote that the pay and food were better. He added that in all of Montreal there was none who could match the gingerbread loaf baked by his Aberdeen master, Colin Shanks of Chapel Street. Wisely, Thomson had taken a Shanks’ gingerbread with him and it being a good keeper, he was able to enjoy the last of it on his first Christmas in Canada. (James Thomson, For Friends at Home, a Scottish Emigrant’s Letters.)

Back in Aberdeen, union stalwart Alex Catto died in 1937. His son commented that he had ‘practically died in harness – a working baker and proud of it, satisfied with his life’s effort in helping to raise his fellow workmen from the miserable conditions of fifty years ago to a high position among the craftsmen of Scotland.’

The bakers’ union paid £24 for a memorial stone to him in Trinity Cemetery and requested his photo be displayed in the Art Gallery.

Today the city has few artisan bakers and with their passing have gone the distinctive pastries, cakes and buns which expressed the character of the local community. Another proud and essential trade has been all but confined to history and we are no better off for that.

(First published Leopard Magazine)

© Lorna Dey 2013  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this photograph without express and written permission of Lorna Dey or this blog owner is strictly prohibited. Links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Lorna Dey.

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