Memories of a long-vanished trade
A trawl through Leamington Street Directories of the past shows an interesting pattern in the growth and later demise of the family bakery. In 1832, there were only seven shops in the whole of the town, – two butchers, two fish shops and three mercers. Leamington families – or if wealthy, their servants, – baked all their own bread. Fifty years later, with the coming of railway travel, fewer visitors stayed for the season, many made briefer visits with fewer servants to attend them, and shops sprang up. A handful of bakers appeared: Bennetts in Regent Street, Campins, also in Regent Street, Jones’ in Queen Street, Waltons in Clarendon Avenue, and Watsons in Gloucester Street, – all on the fringes of the spa town centre.
By 1939, family-run bakeries had mushroomed. There were at least two dozen different firms, some with two or even three branches, in the centre of the town, and many others in outlying districts. By this time, many had expanded to include cake-making, but others, like Timms, Sabins, and Sensicles, remained primarily bread bakers. Thirty years on, and after the opening of Leamington’s first supermarkets, it was almost as though the bakery clock had been turned back: only 10 bakeries were listed in the trade directories of the 1960s, and by 2011, there were none. Only the Sabin Sandwich Shop on Tachbrook Road maintains the link with the ghosts of the past, – and they no longer bake their own bread.
John Haycock, owned a pre-war bakery in Shrubland Street. Unlike some established local firms, baking was far from being a Haycock family tradition. John’s father was a canal carpenter, and his father had been a horse dealer. Beth Powers, one of John’s granddaughters remembers visiting her grandfather’s bakers shop, “ I remember the bakery with its wonderful smells and delicious cakes, made more tempting by the austerity of wartime England, and rationing.”
To give him a start in business, John Haycock made over a portion of the Shrubland Street bakery, to a Mr Romback, a refugee from Europe who later went on to own a much larger business than Beth’s grandfather’s. She remembers calling with her mother at Mr Romback’s, near ‘The Bridges’ , – and never leaving without a box of scrumptious cakes.
Beth’s cousin Betty also remembers Mr Romback running a business rather like a present-day patisserie, selling fancy cakes. When Betty was about 4, she caused trouble in the bakehouse by spoiling a tray of fancy cakes, and blames this for her having a sweet tooth! Another of Betty’s memories is of sitting next to her grandfather in a cart, possibly the one used for deliveries, in the days before they had a van.
Emil Romback was the proprietor of the Spa Fancy Bakery. Mr Romback came to Britain from Alsace-Lorraine, the region which changed hands and languages, from France to Germany and back again, after every European conflict, well into the twentieth century. He anglicized his name, from Rombach to Romback, married and settled in Leamington, living for a time on Radford Road. He went on to create the Spa Fancy Bakery, with its Head Office in Wise Street and shop in Euston Place. Many people remembered Mr Romback for providing them with cakes even during rationing, but one family whose garden adjoined that of the Romback’s, remembers them for something very different: the Romback children, Peter, Gladys and Lenny, had a gramophone when no-one else had one, and a favourite record, played over and over, was an old music hall song, “Aint it grand to be blooming well dead!”
Maggie McGreevy went to work for Mr Romback when she left school, aged fourteen. Early starts, long, stiflingly hot hours on her feet, and close supervision were the order of the day. No-one was allowed to bake or decorate any product one-handed. Mr Romback would suddenly appear, exclaim, “Use both hands! I pay you for both hands, use them”, and quickly and deftly demonstrate the technique he required. He was a tough taskmaster, but a fair one. He demanded, – and got, a very high standard of presentation, working to his favourite maxim, a French expression – “You eat with your eyes.”
Mr Romback was ahead of his time both in product presentation and in the field of education and training. When he discovered that Maggie had enrolled on a course at Mid-Warwickshire College, he quickly intervened, telling her that no member of his staff was going to work for him and do “Domestic Science.” As far as he was concerned, if she wanted to be trained, she had to do it properly, and he arranged for her to go first to college in Coventry for two years’ training, and then to Birmingham Catering College, for a further three. Working in the bakery in Wise Street, mincing chunks of suet for mince pies, scraping tins after sticky malt loaf or jam tarts, or (for Maggie, the worst job of all) whipping gallons of cream, wasn’t all hard graft. The girls were treated like family, and they had lots of fun, playing practical jokes on each other, and going on day trips together. Maggie is still in touch with many of them, although they are all now retired.
Notes courtesy of Maggie McGreevy. Photograph, J Baldwin
This Farley Street building with its decorative carved columns is one well known to generations of Leamingtonians, – it’s Sabin’s, – THE Leamington bread shop and bakery in years gone by. Number 14 Farley Street is now just a house, and the bakehouse became apartments, but the shop sign can still be seen painted high up on the brick wall fronting Gordon Street. Each generation of the family lived at the shop, with the bakehouse at the back. Victor Sabin who died aged 83 in 1984, kept a notebook, with his jottings on the lifestyle of a pre-supermarket Leamington baker:
“There have been four generations of our family in the baking trade, – Joseph Sabin, Charles Sabin, Vic Sabin (me), and John & Charles Sabin. We have been established 100 years and are still going stronger than ever. When I started in the bakehouse with my Father I can recall a small ‘batch’ was sold for 2½d and a large loaf 4¼d. Buns in those days were 4 for 1d. The old cry, “Hot X Buns, 1 a 1d, 2 a 1d, Hot Cross Buns”, meant quite a lot, because it related to size. If you were in the money, and ordered 2d ones, they were as big as a side plate. Everything was hand made, there was no machinery then, but it kept you fit. Working hours used to be a 4 am start – and you worked until you finished. There was no set time for knocking off, – which was usually about 6 p.m.”
Victor’s family of four children, Mona, John, Charles and Angela all grew up at the Farley Street shop. The bakery flourished in the inter-war years, and when Mona was 15, she had to leave grammar school to help, – not uncommon for the oldest girl in a family, even in the 1930s. Victor had to pay the school a fee for Mona to be allowed to leave before she sat her school certificate and she worked in the family business until she married at the end of WW2. Her brother John and his wife Eva carried on the business after Vic retired, but with increasing pressure from the supermarket giants, business contracted. It was eventually trimmed down to a sandwich shop on Tachbrook Road, run by Eva and John’s son, Andrew. It’s good to know that the name Sabin lives on!
Photographs and notes courtesy of Eva Sabin
Fred Timms ran a bakery and shop at 14 Windsor Street, surrounded by terraced houses, with Courts backing on to them which were so cramped that they had shared toilets and laundry facilities. The only running water was a shared cold water tap in the corner of the Court. Fred’s family considered themselves very lucky because they had their own tap in the back yard, and from this, an extension into the bakery.
The shop was always open, – holidays were unheard of. Fred baked bread every day, which meant that wherever he went, whatever he did, when he came in at night he had to roll up his sleeves and start to prepare for the following day. The oven was coal-fired, and had to be kept heated all night, so that it could be quickly raised to maximum temperature for bread at the start of the working day. When Fred had dealt with the fire, he had to mix a batch of dough, so that it would rise enough to be kneaded at the start of the next day’s baking. Once the bread was out, for other batches of baking, the oven had to be damped down, – with a ‘damper’, – a sort of long-handled mop, used to sprinkle water inside the oven to lower the temperature. At weekends, people brought their Sunday joint to be put in the baker’s oven to roast while they were at Church or Chapel, and in December, their Christmas dinner.
Amongst Fred Timms’ specialities were delicious doughnuts, the favourites of the Czech soldiers stationed in Leamington during the war, who queued to get them hot out of the oven, rolled in sugar. Fred also made wedding cakes, and once during WW2, when all ingredients were in short supply, he managed to get hold of some flour imported from Canada. When many young couples had to make do with a cardboard replica wedding cake, Fred produced a perfect three-tiered cake, – but when the bride and groom cut into it, it was completely mouldy inside.
A rival baker, – who incidentally only made cakes, not bread, – got a very bad name at this period. When everyone else struggled to find ingredients, he managed to get fat “from somewhere”, and carried on making cakes and antagonising all the opposition.
Local Bakers and their families used to get together once a year for an outing. In the summer of 1945 they took a boat trip from Reading to Oxford, and among the Leamington families enjoying the day out were the Timms’, the Houghtons, the Sensicles, the Savages and the Ash family.
Notes courtesy of Fred’s son John
My grandfather Albert Edward Hobbs was a baker, – at Garrons Bakery, Southend on Sea. When war was declared he moved to Leamington Spa with his wife and children including Ivy, my Mum. He had been offered a job at Rombacks, and worked there throughout the war. My dad, George William John Franklin also moved to Leamington with his parents from Charlton Kings near Cheltenham Spa. They lived at 18 Windsor Place with his Auntie Lilian. Dad started work at Fords but it affected his chest so he left and got a job in the bakery in Bedford Street which supplied Burgis and Colbourne’s grocery department. The bakery made bread, baps and cobs, and produced celebration iced cakes for weddings and birthdays. There was always the aroma of fresh hot bread when you entered the bakery. Easter was good with the aroma of hot cross buns( which weren’t sold all year round then), and simnel cakes. Christmas was also a treat, with mince pies. On Saturdays and during school holidays, as a teenager, I worked at the bakery, and in the Food Hall, – Leamington’s very first! When the bakery closed in about 1969, Dad went to work for the Chesterfields at Elizabeth the Chef, at their premises in St Mary’s Road, Sydenham.