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A NIGHT IN A BAKEHOUSE.
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
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.