As a child I spent many happy summer holidays at my grandparents house in Southend-On-Sea, a seaside resort town on the north side of the Thames estuary. I remember being told stories of how my great grandfather had been a baker and that, although under different ownership, the family bakery still existed in the area.
At the time the notion of my family running a bakery was rather novel given my relatives predominant professions in medicine and academia and so assumed an air of historical myth in my impressionable mind.
Two decades later while casually browsing Google Maps I discovered to my dismay that the bakery had recently closed down. I was upset because I never had the chance to visit in person so, while it was still in living memory, decided that I should find out more.
My grandmother got in touch with the previous owners who kindly passed along a pamphlet with a history of the last 50 years. She also dusted off an ancient typewriter and wrote me a lengthy telegram with what she knew of the preceding period.
A Brief History
The deeds to the property at 1155 London Road show it was built around 1900 and that there had been a bakery on the premises since at least 1920 when it was run by Frederick and Maud Weston. Originally named “The Devonshire Bakery”, you can still see the hand-painted sign on the wall above the yard to one side of the building.
At this time the store room at the rear of the shop was called the parlour and there was a stabling for the delivery horse at the back. The ovens ran on coal that had to be carried upstairs from the basement.
My great grandfather, Albert Edward Gilbert, had trained to be an engineer but after the First World War there was a lot of unemployment and he was unable to find a job. His father, Reuben Benjamin Gilbert – a baker by trade, offered to train him and so the family business began.
They moved from Ardleigh near Colchester, to Leigh-on-Sea where they took over the bakery at 1155 London Road in 1927, renaming it “Gilberts Bakery”. The whole family, including my grandfather John (born 1925), lived in the flat above the bakery. Although conditions were basic and the work was hard, they were happy.
In the early days Albert took a wheelbarrow around the roads near 1155 selling loaves of bread. At Christmas time, in addition to buying their famous christmas cakes, some customers took their turkeys to the bakery for them to be cooked in the large ovens!
It developed into a successful business which, according to my grandmother, was “the best bakery from Southend to Leigh”. Eventually they opened a second shop and cafe at 879a London Road next to Chalkwell Park (although everything was still made at 1155).
When Albert retired in 1957, the business was sold to John and Gwen Hill, who kept the name “Gilberts” since it was so well respected in the region. Alberts wife, Elsie Tracey Gilbert, continued to help in the Chalkwell shop, especially at the weekend when she provided saturday tea for the cricketers who played matches in the park nearby.
In 1963, The Hills had the shop altered to its final form, and in 1969 the back extension was built and the new bread ovens installed. A conveyor belt was also installed to take flour sacks up to the loft, but if you look at the side wall on Scarborough Drive at the first floor level you will see the door where the 140lb flour sacks used to be carried up on a ladder.
Charles Hill and his wife Pat joined the family business in 1973 before his parents semi-retired in the late 1980’s. Their son, David, worked as the confectioner (cake finisher), making him a 7th generation baker!
Nearly all the bread, cakes and savouries in the shop were made completely from scratch using labour intensive processes. The dough for the bread needed to be made by 1p.m. each day before being left to ferment 15½ hours until 4.30a.m. the next morning.
The fermented dough was then added to more flour, which has yeast, salt, and a special bread improver (soya flour, sugar and vegetable fat) added to it. It was then deposited downstairs via a chute where it was moulded and placed into tins. After being left to prove for 20 minutes it was baked at 450°F for between 30 to 45 minutes depending on the size.
In a world of mass production, Gilberts was a rarity, in that they used no added enzymes, preservatives or pre-mixes. It was believed to be the last in Leigh to bake its products from scratch on the premises. They were also well known their yeast and wheat free products.
After 94 years, Gilberts closed on October 25th 2014 since the 12-hour days and hard labour required to run a traditional bakery were becoming too much for Charles and Pat. As articles in the local newspaper and on Facebook attest to, they and their delicious bread are greatly missed.
If anyone has any photos or stories about Gilberts Bakery please do share below or get in touch.