Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mystic London, by Charles Maurice Davies, 1875 - Chapter VII - A Night in a Bakehouse

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ALARMED at the prospect of "a free breakfast table"  in a sense other than the ordinary one - that is, a  breakfast table which should be minus the necessary  accompaniment of bread, or the luxury of French  rolls - I resolved to make myself master, so far as  might be possible, of the pros and cons of the question  at issue between bakers and masters at the period of  the anticipated strike some years ago. I confess to  having greatly neglected the subject of strikes. I had  attended a few meetings of the building operatives ;  but the subject was one in which I myself was not  personally interested. I am not likely to want to  build a house, and might manage my own little  repairs while the strike lasted. But I confess to a  leaning for the staff of life. There are sundry small  mouths around me, too, of quite disproportionate  capacities in the way of bread and butter, to say  nothing at all of biscuits, buns, and tartlets. The  possibility of having to provide for an impending  state of siege, then, was one that touched me immediately  and vitally. Should I, before the dreaded [-59-] event, initiate the wife of my bosom in the mysteries   of bread baking? Should I commence forthwith a  series of practical experiments within the limited  confines of my kitchen oven? To prevent the otherwise  inevitable heaviness and possible ropiness in my  loaves of the future, some such previous process would  certainly have to be adopted. But, then, in order to  calculate the probabilities of the crisis, an examination  of the status in quo was necessary. Having a habit of  going to head-quarters in such questions, I resolved  to do so on the present occasion; so I took my hat,  and, as Sam Slick says, "I off an' out."
    The actual head-quarters of the men I found to be  at the Pewter Platter, White Lion Street, Bishopsgate.  Thither I adjourned, and, after drinking the  conventional glass of bitter at the bar, asked for a  baker. One came forth from an inner chamber,  looking sleepy, as bakers always look. In the penetralia  of the parlour which he left I saw a group of  floury comrades, the prominent features of the  gathering being depression and bagatelle. By my  comatose friend I was referred to the Admiral Carter,  in Bartholomew Close, where the men's committee  sat daily at four. The society in front of the bar  there was much more cheerful than that of the  Pewter Platter, and the bakers were discussing much  beer, of which they hospitably invited me to partake.  Still I learned little of their movements, save that [-60-] they were to a man resolved to abide by the now  familiar platform of work from four to four, higher  wages, and no Sunday bakings. These were the  principal features of the demands, the sack money  and perquisites being confessedly subsidiary. Nauseated as the public was and is with strikes, there are certain classes of the community with whom it is  disposed to sympathize; and certainly one of those  classes is that of journeymen bakers. Bread for  breakfast we must have, and rolls we should like ; but  we should also like to have these commodities with as  little nightwork as possible on the part of those who  produce them. The "Appeal to the Public" put  forth by the Strike Committee on the evening of the  day concerning which I write was, perhaps, a trifle  sensational; but if there was any truth in it, such  a state of things demanded careful investigation especially  if it was a fact that the baker slept upon  the board where the bread was made, and mingled  his sweat and tears with the ingredients of the staff  of life. Pardonably, I hope, I wished to eat bread  without baker for my breakfast; but how could I  probe this dreadful problem? I had it - by a visit to  the bakehouse of my own baker, if possible, during  the hours of work.
    So I set out afresh after supper, and was most  obligingly received by the proprietor of what one may  well take as a typical West-end shop-neither very [-61-] large nor very small-what is graphically termed a  " snug" concern with a good connexion, doing, as the  technical phrase goes, from sixteen to twenty sacks a  week. The resources of this establishment were at  once placed at my disposal for the night. Now, the  advantage of conferring with this particular master  was, that he was not pig-headed on the one hand, nor  unduly concessive, as he deemed some of his fellow-tradesmen  to be, on the other. He did not consider a  journeyman baker's berth a bed of roses, or his remuneration  likely to make him a millionaire ; but neither  did he lose sight of the fact that certain hours must  be devoted to work, and a limit somewhere placed to  wage, or the public must suffer through the employer  of labour by being forced to pay higher prices. The  staff of this particular establishment consisted of four  men at the following wages : A foreman at 28s. and a  second hand at 20s. a week, both of whom were outsiders;  while, sleeping on the premises, and, at the  time of my arrival, buried in the arms of Morpheus,  were a third hand, at 16s., and a fourth, at 12s.  Besides these wages they had certain perquisites, such  as bread, butter, sugar, flour, sack-money, yeast-money,  &c.; and the master, moreover, took his  adequate share of day-work. He was seated outside  his shop, enjoying the cool breezes, not of evening,  but of midnight, when I presented myself before his  astonished gaze. His wife and children had long [-62-] since retired. The foreman and second "hand" had  not arrived ; the third and fourth "hands" were, as I  said, sweetly sleeping, in a chamber on the basement,  well out of range of the bakehouse, to which, like a  couple of conspirators, we descended. It was not  exactly the spot one would have selected for a permanent  residence if left free to choose. It was,  perhaps, as Mr. Dickens's theatrical gentleman  phrased it, pernicious snug ; but the ventilation was  satisfactory. There were two ovens, which certainly  kept the place at a temperature higher than might  have been agreeable on that hot September night.  Kneading troughs were ranged round the walls, and  in the centre, like an altar-tomb, was the fatal " board"  where, however, I sought in vain for the traces of  perspiration or tears. All was scrupulously clean. In  common phrase, you might have "eaten your dinner"  off any portion of it.
    Soon after midnight the outsiders turned in, first  the second hand and then the foreman, and, plunging  into the "Black Hole," made their toilettes du soir.  Then active operations commenced forthwith. In  one compartment of the kneading-trough was the  "sponge," which had been prepared by the foreman  early in the evening,- and which now, having properly  settled, was mixed with the flour for the first batch,  and left to "prove." The process of making the  dough occupied until about one o'clock, and then [-63-] followed two hours of comparative tranquillity, during  which the men adjourned to the retirement of certain  millers' sacks hard by, which they rolled up  cleverly into extempore beds, and seemed to prefer  to the board. The proving takes about two hours,  but varies with the temperature. If the dough is left  too long, a sour batch, or a "pitch in," is the result.  It is then cut out, weighed, and "handed up;" after  which it stands while the dough for the second batch  is being made, and those fatal rolls, around which so  much of this contest is likely to turn, are being got  forward. It must be understood that I am here  describing what took place in my typical bakehouse.  Proceedings will of course vary in details according  to the neighbourhood, the season, and other  circumstances. This makes, as my informant  suggested, the race of bakers necessarily in some  degree a varium atque mutabile genus, whom it  is difficult to bind by rigid "hard and fast"  lines. The first batch is in the oven at four, and is  drawn about 5.30. During the intervals there has  been the preparation of fancy bread and the "getting  off" of the rolls. Then the "cottage" batch is  moulded and got off, and comes out of the oven at  eight. From three o'clock up to this hour there has  been active work enough for everybody, and I felt  myself considerably in the way, adjourning ever and  anon to the master's snuggery above stairs to note [-64-] down my experiences. As for the men, they must  have fancied that I was an escaped lunatic, with  harmless eccentricities ; and the fourth hand, who  was young, gazed at me all night with a fixed and  sleepy glare, as though on his guard lest I should be  seized with a refractory fit. At eight the close atmosphere  of the bakehouse was exchanged for the fresh  morning breeze by three out of the four hands, who  went to deliver the bread. The foreman remained  with the master to work at "small goods" until  about one, when he prepares the ferment for the  next night's baking. All concerned can get their  operations over about one or half-past one; so that,  reckoning them to begin at half-past twelve, and  deducting two hours of "sweat and tears" from one  to three, when they can sleep if they will, there are  some eleven hours of active labour. After the delivery  of the bread is over, it should be mentioned,  each man has about half an hour's bakehouse work in  the way of getting coals, cleaning biscuit tins, brushing  up, &c. When this is done, all, with the exception  of the foreman, who will have to look in and make  the sponge at eight P.M., are free until the commencement  of their most untimely work at midnight.
    On Sunday, .the work in this particular bakehouse  is comparatively nil. The ovens have to be started  on Sunday morning; but this the master does himself,  and puts in the ferment, so that there is only [-65-] the sponge to be made in the evening-a brief hour's  job, taken on alternate Sundays by the foreman and  the second hand. The "undersellers," my informant  told me, made large sums by Sunday bakings, often  covering their rent by them, so that their abandonment  would be a serious question; but there was  little in the way of Sabbath-breaking in my typical  bakehouse. As there were no Sunday bakings,  Saturday was a rather harder day than others, there  being a general scrub-up of the premises. The  work, my informant thought, could be condensed by  judicious co-operation, and the "four to four" rule  might be adopted in some establishments, but by no  means in all - as, for instance, where there was a  speciality for rolls and fancy bread. It seems, as  usual, that the difficulties thicken, not about the  necessaries, but about the luxuries and kickshaws of  life. The master relieved my immediate fears by  baying that he scarcely imagined matters would come  to a crisis. There was this difference between the  building and the baking trades, that all the master  bakers had been journeymen themselves, and were  thus able to sympathize with the men's difficulties.  They were not, he seemed to think, disposed to  haggle over a few shillings; but he added, "This is  not a question of labour against capital only, but of  labour against capital plus labour. I could," he said,  "if my men left me on the 21st, make bread 'enough [-66-] myself to supply all my customers, only they would  have to fetch it for themselves."
    Thus my worst fears were relieved. If it only  came to going out for my loaf, and even foregoing  French rolls, I could face that like a man ; so I paced  the streets gaily in the morning air and arrived home  safely some time after the milk, and about the same  hour as those rolls themselves whose hitherto unguessed  history I had so far fathomed by my brief  experiences in the bakehouse.