I am continuing the festive Easter theme today with my story of London’s oldest hot cross buns
London’s oldest buns photographed by London & Middlesex Archaeological Society in the 1940s
A net of Hot Cross Buns hangs above the bar at The Widow’s Son in Bromley by Bow and each year a sailor comes to add another bun to the collection. Yet no Hot Cross Buns are eaten in the ceremony, they are purely for symbolic purposes – left to dry out and gather dust and hang in the net for eternity, London’s oldest buns exist as metaphors to represent the passing years and talismans to bring good luck but, more than this, they tell a story.
On Good Friday, what could be more appropriate to the equivocal nature of the day than an event which involves both celebration of Hot Cross Buns and the remembrance of the departed in a single custom – such is the ceremony of the Widow’s Buns at Bow.
The Widow’s Son was built in 1848 upon the former site of an old widow’s cottage, so the tale goes. When her only son left to be a sailor, she promised to bake him a Hot Cross Bun and keep it for his return. But although he drowned at sea, the widow refused to give up hope, preserving the bun upon his return and making a fresh one each year to add to the collection. This annual tradition has been continued in the pub as a remembrance of the widow and her son, and of the bond between all those on land and sea, with sailors of the Royal Navy coming to place the bun in the net every year.
Behind this custom lies the belief that Hot Cross Buns baked on Good Friday will never decay, reflected in the tradition of nailing a Hot Cross Bun to the wall so that the cross may bring good luck to the household – though what appeals to me about the story of the widow is the notion of baking as an act of faith, incarnating a mother’s hope that her son lives. I interpret the widow’s persistence in making the bun each year as a beautiful gesture, not of self-deception but of longing for wish-fulfilment, manifesting her love for her son. So I especially like the clever image upon the inn sign outside the Widow’s Son, illustrating an apocryphal scene in the story when the son returns from the sea many years later to discover a huge net of buns hanging behind the door, demonstrating that his mother always expected him back.
When I arrived at the Widow’s Son, I had the good fortune to meet Frederick Beckett who first came here for the ceremony in 1958 when his brother Alan placed the Hot Cross Bun in the net, and he had the treasured photo in his hand to show me. Frederick moved out from Bow to Dagenham fifteen years ago, but he still comes back each year to visit the Widow’s Son, one of many in this community and further afield who delight to converge here on Good Friday for old times’ sake. Already, there was a tangible sense of anticipation, with spirits uplifted by the sunshine and the flags hung outside.
The landlady proudly showed me the handsome fresh Hot Cross Bun, baked by Mr Bunn of Mr Bunn’s Bakery in Chadwell Heath who always makes the special bun each year -” fabulous buns!”declared Kathy, almost succumbing to a swoon, as he she held up her newest sweetest darling that would shortly join its fellows in the net over the bar. There were many more ancient buns, she explained, until a fire destroyed most of them fifteen years ago, and those burnt ones in the net today are merely those few which were salvaged by the firemen from the wreckage of the pub. Remarkably, having opened their hearts to the emotional poetry of Hot Cross Buns, at the Widow’s Son they even cherish those cinders which the rest of the world would consign to a bin.
The effect of several hours drinking beer upon a pub full of sailors and thirsty locals became apparent in the pervasive atmosphere of collective euphoria, heightened by a soundtrack of pounding rock, and, in the thick of it, I was delighted to meet my old pal Lenny Hamilton, the jewel thief. “I’m not here for the buns, I’m here for the bums!” he confided to me with a sip of his Corvoisier and lemonade, making a lewd gesture and breaking in to a wide grin of salacious enjoyment as various Bow belles, in off-the-shoulder dresses with flowing locks and wearing festive corsages, came over enthusiastically to shower this legendary rascal with kisses.
I stood beside Lenny as three o’ clock approached, enjoying the high spirits as the sailors gathered in front of the bar. The landlord handed over the Hot Cross Bun to widespread applause and the sailors lifted up their smallest recruit. Then, with a mighty cheer from the crowd and multiple camera flashes, the recruit placed the bun in the net. Once this heroic task was accomplished, and the landlady had removed the tinfoil covers from the dishes of food laid out upon the billiard table, all the elements were in place for a knees-up to last the rest of the day. As they like to say in Bromley by Bow, it was “Another year, another Good Friday, another bun.”
Baked at Mr Bunn’s Bakery in Chadwell Heath
Peter Gracey, Nick Edelshain and Roddy Urquhart raise a pint to the Widow’s Buns.
Tony Scott and Debbie Willis of HMS President with Frederick Beckett holding the photograph of his brother placing the bun in the net in 1958.
Alan Beckett places the bun on Good Friday, 4th April 1958.
3 pm, Good Friday, 22nd April 2011.
My pal Lenny Hamilton, the jewel thief, at home at The Widow’s Son
A Widow’s Son of Bromley by Bow
by Harold AdsheadA widow had an only son, The sea was his concern, His parting wish an Easter Bun Be kept for his return. But when it came to Eastertide No sailor came her way To claim the bun she set aside Against the happy day. They say the ship was lost at sea, The son came home no more But still with humble piety The widow kept her store. So year by year a humble bun Was charm against despair, A loving task that once began Became her livelong care. The Widow’s Son is now an inn That stands upon the site And signifies its origin Each year by Easter rite The buns hang up for all to see, A blackened mass above, A truly strange epitome Of patient mother love.
Archive photograph of buns courtesy Bishopsgate Institute
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To get everyone in the mood for the forthcoming Easter celebrations, I am publishing my account of the Ceremony of the Widow’s Sixpence held each Good Friday when Hot Cross Buns are distributed to widows in the churchyard of St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield.
Distribution of buns to widows in the churchyard of St Bartholomew the Great
St Bartholomew the Great is one of my favourite churches in the City, a rare survivor of the Great Fire, it boasts the best Norman interior in London. Composed of ancient rough-hewn stonework, riven with deep shadow where feint daylight barely illuminates the accumulated dust of ages, this is one of those rare atmospheric places where you can still get a sense of the medieval world glimmering. Founded by Rahere in 1123, the current structure is the last vestige of an Augustinian Priory upon the edge of Smithfield, where once martyrs were burnt at the stake as public entertainment and the notorious St Bartholomew Fair was celebrated each summer from 1133 until 1855.
In such a location, the Good Friday tradition of the distribution of charity in the churchyard to poor widows of the parish sits naturally. Once known as the ‘Widow’s Sixpence,’ this custom was institutionalised by Joshua Butterworth in 1887, who created a trust in his name with an investment of twenty-one pounds and ten shillings. The declaration of the trust states its purpose thus – “On Good Friday in each year to distribute in the churchyard of St. Bartholomew the Great the sum of 6d. to twenty-one poor widows, and to expend the remainder of such dividends in buns to be given to children attending such distribution, and he desired that the Charity intended to be thereby created should be called ‘the Butterworth Charity.’”
Those of use who gathered at St Bartholomew the Great on Good Friday morning were blessed with sunlight to ameliorate the chill as we shivered in the churchyard. Yet we could not resist a twinge of envy for the clerics in their heavy cassocks and warm velvet capes as they processed from the church in a formal column, with priests at the head attended by vergers bearing wicker baskets of freshly buttered Hot Cross Buns, and a full choir bringing up the rear.
In the nineteen twenties, the sum distributed to each recipient was increased to two shillings and sixpence, and later to four shillings. Resplendent in his scarlet robes, Rev Martin Dudley, Rector of St Bartholomew the Great climbed upon the table tomb at the centre of the churchyard traditionally used for that purpose and enacted the motions of this arcane ceremony – enquiring of the assembly if there were a poor widow of the parish in need of twenty shillings. To his surprise, a senior female raised her hand. “That’s never happened before!” he declared to the easy amusement of the crowd, “But then, it’s never been so cold at Easter before.” Having instructed the woman to consult with the churchwarden afterwards, he explained that it was usual to preach a sermon upon this hallowed occasion, before qualifying himself by revealing that it would be brief, owing to the adverse meteorological conditions. “God’s blessing upon the frosts and cold!” he announced with a stoic grin, raising his hands into the sunlight, “That’s it.”
I detected a certain haste to get to the heart of the proceedings – the distribution of the Hot Cross Buns. Rev Dudley directed the vergers to start with choir who exercised admirable self-control in only taking one each. Then, as soon as the choir had been fed, the vergers set out around the boundaries of the yard where senior females with healthy appetites, induced by waiting in the cold, reached forward eagerly to take their allotted Hot Cross Buns in hand. The tense anticipation induced by the freezing temperature gave way to good humour as everyone delighted in the strangeness of the ritual which rendered ordinary buns exotic. Reaching the end of the line at the furthest extent of the churchyard, the priests wasted no time in satisfying their own appetites and, for a few minutes, silence prevailed as the entire assembly munched their buns.
Then Rev Martin returned to his central position upon the table tomb. “And now, because there is no such thing as free buns,” he announced, “we’re going to sing a hymn.” Yet we were more than happy to oblige, standing replete with buns on Good Friday morning, and enjoying the first sunlight we had seen in a week.
The Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great, a century ago.
John Betjeman once lived in this house overlooking the churchyard.
The ceremony of the Widow’s Sixpence in the nineteen twenties.
“God’s blessing upon the frosts and cold!”
A crowd gathers for the ceremony a hundred years ago.
Hungry widows line up for buns.
The churchyard in the nineteenth century.
Rev Martin Dudley BD MSc MTh PhD FSA FRHistS AKC is the 25th Rector since the Reformation.
Testing the buns.
The clerics ensure no buns go to waste.
Hymns in the cold – “There is a green hill far away without a city wall…”
The Norman interior of St Bartholomew the Great at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The Gatehouse prior to bombing in World War I and reconstruction.
Archive images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute
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“My grandfather George Dobson was a Master Carpenter & Cabinet Maker, he taught me how to turn bannisters and make joints when I was a child,” Mia Sabel, the Saddler admitted to me, “and my mother taught me how to sew with a sewing machine too – so I was always quite proficient at making things.”
Just a short ride from Liverpool St Station delivered me to Walthamstow and a short walk from the station took me to the modest terrace where Mia works. Through a side gate, I entered the large garden where a log cabin with a wood-burning stove, surrounded by raised vegetable beds, provided the ideal location for an urban saddlery. Here in this enclave of peace Mia sat in the winter sunlight, illuminated like a woman painted by Vermeer, yet cutting and stitching leather with the skill of a Master Saddler.
It was an extraordinary discovery in the modern world, although equally a phenomenon of our times – since Mia used to work in the corporate financial sector and take the trip down to Liverpool St Station, until she set out to redirect her life towards independence by acquiring manual skills. Mia’s example fascinates me as the inverse of the familiar pattern in the East End where, through successive generations, traditional skills have been lost as the notion of a white collar desk job won precedence over working with your hands.
The irony is that Mia is able to complement her ability as a saddler with years of experience in the business world, granting her the acumen to make a living at this ancient trade.
Yet when you see Mia at work, the wonder is her scrupulous attention to technique. Even a humble line of stitching requires the precise choice of punch to make the correct-sized holes for the thread, the selection of the thread itself, the waxing of the thread and then the patience to work simultaneously with two needles and get the stitches perfectly even, and to ease the leather apart so it does not tear – all while holding the leatherwork in an ancient wooden clamp, known as a ‘clam.’ It is a beautiful thing to see such a fundamental task perfectly achieved.
Seven years ago, Mia took a year out at forty years old and worked in a stable while considering her options. “I looked at millinery, tailoring and saddlery,” she confessed to me,” but I don’t like hats and, as a tailor, I realised I’d end up sewing in a basement, but there was a full-time course in saddlery ten miles from here in Enfield.”
“It was very physical and hard, it was for sixteen year olds. Quite a lot of the girls came from a horsey background whereas I am in a suburb with not a lot of horses around me,” Mia explained, looking up from her work with a grin of recognition, “I understood I couldn’t make a living making saddles, even though I know how to do that, so I’ve learnt to make bespoke luxury leather goods.” The custom watch strap has emerged as Mia’s unique speciality, permitting her the opportunity to make a strap that fits the wearer so precisely it only requires one hole for fastening.
Living in Walthamstow, not so far from William Morris’ house, Mia Sabel has grappled with many of the same issues about the role of the craftsman in the modern world, and developed a personal synthesis of romantic and realistic thinking – pursuing her unlikely course with hard work and flair. “I’m a jack-of-all-trades, I’ve even done shoe repairs,” she revealed to me with characteristic modesty,“Repairs teach you how things are made and I discovered how badly-made expensive bags can be, so I’ve learnt how to iron out those flaws in my own work.”
Mia uses two needles simultaneously on one thread to achieve her scrupulously regular stitches
Mia works with the saddlers’ clams on the right, dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
Punching holes for the stitches
Mia’s proud workmanship
Using a wooden clam to grip the leather in place, Mia stitches the strap
Mia Sabel is available for all kinds of leatherwork commissions and restoration work.
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Mid-ninenteenth century Gothic Cottages in Wellington Way
Taking advantage of the spring sunshine, Antiquarian Philip Mernick led me on a stroll around the parishes of Bromley and Bow last week so that I might photograph just a few of the hidden wonders alongside the more obvious sights.
Edward II granted land to build the chapel in the middle of the road at Bow in 1320 but the nearby Priory of St Leonard’s in Bromley was founded three centuries earlier. These ecclesiastical institutions were the defining landmarks of the villages of Bromley and Bow until both were absorbed into the expanding East End, and the precise locations of these lost territories became a subject of unending debate for residents. More recently, this was the location of the Bryant & May factory where the Match Girls won landmark victories for workers’ rights in manufacturing industry and where many important Suffragette battles were literally fought on the streets, outside Bow Rd Police Station and in Tomlin’s Grove.
Yet none of this history is immediately apparent when you arrive at the handsome tiled Bow Rd Station and walk out to confront the traffic flying by. In the nineteenth century, Bow was laced with an elaborate web of railway lines which thread the streets to this day and wove the ancient villages of Bromley and Bow inextricably into the modern metropolis.
Bow Rd Station opened in 1902
Bow Rd Station with Wellington Buildings towering over
Wellington Buildings 1900, Wellington Way
Suffragette Minnie Lansbury was imprisoned in Holloway and died at the age of thirty-two
Eighteen-twenties terrace in Bow Rd
Bow Rd Police Station 1902
Under the railway arches in Arnold Rd
The former Great Eastern Railway Station and Little Driver pub, both 1879
This house in Campbell Rd was built one room thick to fit between the railway and the road
Arnold Rd once extended beyond the railway line
Former Poplar Electricity Generating Station
Railway Bridge leading to the ‘Bow Triangle’
In the ‘Bow Triangle,’ an area surrounded on three sides by railway lines
Handsome nineteenth century villas for City workers in Mornington Grove
Former coach house in Mornington Grove
Bollard of Limehouse Poor Commission 1836 in Kitcat Terrace
Last fragment of Bow North London Railway Station in the Enterprise Rental car park
Edward II gave the land for this chapel of ease in 1320
In the former Bromley Town Hall, 1880
Former Bow Co-operative Society in Bow Rd, 1919
The site of St Leonard’s Priory founded in the eleventh century and believed to have been the origin of Chaucer’s Prioress in the ‘Canterbury Tales’ – now ‘St Leonard’s Adventurous Playground’
Kingsley Hall where Mahatma Ghandi stayed when he visited the East End in 1931
Arch by William Kent (c. 1750) removed from Northumberland House on the Embankment in 1900
Draper’s Almshouses built in 1706 to deliver twelve residences for the poor
The refurbished Crossways Estate, scene of recent alleged election skullduggery
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Here are my profiles, illustrated with portraits by Jeremy Freedman, of some of the traders in the Sclater St Yard Market (on the car park between Sclater St & Bacon St) who will be displaced when it closes for redevelopment of the site after tomorrow’s Sunday market.
This is Jacqueline & Michael Barnes, who sell stationery together under an awning on the yard in Sclater St. “We’ve been here on this pitch about twenty-five years,” ventured Jacqueline proudly, welcoming me her to her personal kingdom of immaculately organised envelopes and felt pens. “I’m originally from Paddington, and Mike, he’s the same as me, from Paddington.” she explained, shaking her head when I enquired if she was a local, before revealing that the couple have been seduced by the East End, “We moved over to Stratford because we wanted a quiet life, and now we’re living out in the sticks.” Michael ran around serving customers with an eager grin, stretching for items with his long limbs while Jacqueline held court, chatting to me and the near-constant stream of regulars who dropped in to convey their week’s news and pick up some cheap biros and post-it notes. “It’s not been good for months and we just do it to keep ourselves amused.” she whispered discreetly, when there was a lull, “We are pensioners now, and I look forward to coming down here – all the stallholders, we have a laugh and a joke together.”
These three keen lads from Essex are Sam, Jack & Perry, two brothers and a pal, who between them run a long stall, selling a spectacular selection of cheap tools and bicycle locks, which stretches the entire length of the yard in Sclater St. “It’s my dad’s business,” explained Sam, the eldest brother who is in charge, taking a respite from the intensity of the milling crowd and his ear-splitting banter -“I took over this bit about three years ago.” It makes for a compelling drama, as with eagle eyes, the three of them watch over the thousands of tools piled up, exchanging wary glances and sharp patter, while a ceaseless parade of customers passes along the stall. Sam’s skinny little brother Jack has been here each Sunday for several years, though he is still at school for another two years. “I was brought up around it and I’ll do this when I leave,” he informed me with a blush, his grey eyes glowing in anticipation, “and hopefully we’ll still be here in thirty years time.”
This is Kevin and his dad Tom who sell men’s casual wear at bargain prices in the Sclater St yard.“I started setting up and taking down the stalls for the traders when I was still at school, and then at fifteen I started trading on my own.” Kevin admitted with to me relish, “I left school early because I was earning more than the teachers.” Kevin, a magnanimous gentle giant who overshadows his father, has been trading for twenty years now and since Tom took early retirement, he comes to help Kevin out. “I work six days a week, sixteen hours a day nowadays,” Kevin told me as we sat in the afternoon shade at the back of his van while his father stood out on the empty yard awaiting customers -”It’s a measure of how hard we have to try these days to keep the money up.” Yet Kevin is undaunted by the challenge of market life in the recession.“I don’t like being beaten, so I’ll hang in,” he told me, catching his father’s attention with a grin and a nod. “Who could ask for anything more?” he asserted, turning to me and spreading his arms demonstratively,“ I enjoy it, you’re busy out in the open air. And, when you’re making money, it’s happy days.”
Sneizana & Justin both came from Lithuania to Brick Lane. Sneizana has worked as a trader her whole life, but when the markets began to die in her country, she realised she could do better in London and took the brave decision to move here. “This is my holiday!” Sneizana declared to me with a weary smile, since she works the other six days of the week as a cleaner. And “This is my day off,” Justin announced too – not to be outdone – because he works all week on a building site. Yet in spite of this relentless routine of work, both were keen to emphasise how much they enjoy selling old clothes in the market. “It’s relaxing. People like us, and we’ve made lots of friends,” Justin informed me enthusiastically,“There are Italians, French, Portuguese, Polish, Serbians and Croatians – every country is here and this is good!”
This is Sean who sells vacuum cleaners and spare parts on Sclater St Market. “I’ve been involved in markets since I was twelve and then, in my mid-twenties, I decided to do it full time – and twenty-five years later I am still here,” he informed me with a bemused grin. Sean bought the business from the man he worked for who had been here since the early sixties, which makes half a century of trading in vacuum cleaners every Sunday on the same spot.
“I enjoy the lifestyle because I’ve done it all my life,” he declared – a man of extraordinary resilience, as swarthy as a seaman after working six days a week in markets over all these years. “I’ve been selling people vacuum cleaner bags so long, I’ve now got the children of my original customers coming back and reminding me of when they came here with their mum and dad,” he admitted shyly, “It’s a community, completely different from the High St. If people don’t have enough money, I say, ‘Pay me next week.’”
Like many of the stallholders, Sean is ambivalent about the tall buildings under construction that will soon tower over the market. “I think the new flats will regenerate the area, “ he said optimistically, gazing up to the sky, “unless they decide they don’t want the market anymore because it lowers the tone…”
“I am from a land where everyone’s very relaxed,” declared Albert enigmatically from beneath his green felt hat, when I went along to have chat at seven o’clock, after all the other traders had gone and his stall remained alone upon the empty yard, while Ernest Ranglin’s mellow jazz drifted off down Sclater St. Albert was speaking of his distant homeland of Vojvodina, but nowadays he drives to Spitalfields every week from Sheffield in his van full of curiosities. “There is a guy who comes each week to chat, he says, ‘I can’t afford to buy anything but I like your music’” Albert revealed to me, cherishing the delicate compliment.
“I used to do lots of things, I’m a furniture maker and I used to be teacher of geography – I like challenges,” he confided with gentle melancholic irony, whilst presiding upon the square of tables that defines his personal oasis of thoughtfulness. Albert is the philosopher of Sclater St market, who can always be relied upon to turn up intriguing finds, whether old cameras, photographs, tools, records, musical instruments, carpets, hats – or almost anything else you care to imagine – and accompanies them with superlative absurdist patter.
Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman