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London’s Oldest Buns

April 1, 2015
by the gentle author

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 Adshead

A 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

You may also like to read about

The Bread, Cake & Biscuit Walk

Lenny Hamilton, Jewel Thief

8 Responses leave one →
  1. April 1, 2015

    It’s a great tradition but for how much longer? I believe that the lease expires this year and the owners are a firm of developers. The tower blocks lining Violet Road encroach ever closer, so will the buns and sailors be back in 2016?

  2. April 1, 2015


    Last time I cycled past the Widow’s Son it seemed to be closed – good to know it was just a bump in the road for this pub and this cherished tradition.

  3. April 1, 2015

    “A Widow’s Son of Bromley by Bow” — a very nice poem for Easter time!

    Love & Peace

  4. Shawdiane permalink
    April 1, 2015

    What an extraordinary story! This for me, has to be the best tale I have read on the Gentle Author. Immediately you have the images building up of a loving mother heartbroken that her only son has gone away to sea & is believed drowned. With her husband also dead, she is totally alone & for her son to be lost at sea is like the end of her life. To comfort herself & give her the strength to go on, each year this mother bakes her missing son a Hot Cross Bun (a symbol of hope). So there we have a net of rotting buns depicting living, death & hope, hanging in her house. The flies & the rotting dust must have been horrendous, especially in the summer heat, but these buns mean the resurection of life to this poor lonely woman. She has gone to these lengths in the hope her son will come back to her & eventually he does. But hey! yes he come back home – but how cruel, why did this son neglect his mother by never writing to her or visiting her over those missing years? Never letting her know he was alive? There is so much to this tale, representing the complexities of life. And the food of a mothers love.

    I love these old tales & traditions. Fascinating to think the pub is supposedly built over her cottage in the shape of a ship. Even today saliors congregate each year to this same spot to add the little bun of hope, of life & of love.

    The photos are wonderful. Thank you for sharing. And may all the men & women at sea return home to their families.

  5. April 1, 2015

    My family passed a hot cross bun with a label giving a date from the Victorian era down through several generations. Unfortunately it was lost in my mother’s later years.

  6. Ken permalink
    April 2, 2015

    Cannot this pub be designated as a community asset under recent legislation? Or even listed?
    It needs to be protected as a pub not another block of flats.

  7. David j Gabriel permalink
    April 3, 2015

    I had my first pint in there at the grand age of 15 light & bitter you got well over a pint for your money no questions asked 45 years ago now I do feel old we used to play shove ha’penny never no good at it though

  8. Malcolm permalink
    January 8, 2016

    I remember the time when almost the entire ceiling was covered with nets full of buns. This was before the devastating fire that destroyed most of them. I went to school in Bow, at Cooper’s Grammar School and we all knew the story of the Widow’s Son. I went there quite often with a couple of friends who lived nearby, it was a lovely place, a real community pub. It’s such a shame that places like this are being demolished to make way for ever more ghastly blocks of flats. I hope it survives.

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