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 storeroom 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
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 1 pm each day before being left to ferment 15½ hours until 4.30 am 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.
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You may be interested to hear that Gilberts is due to reopen within a month or so:
Thanks Bobby – I was really happy to hear the news from the new owner a few weeks ago!
Great! I forgot to mention, I actually live a minute’s walk away from the bakery. I moved to Leigh-on-Sea 18 months ago and was delighted that Gilberts was at the end of my road, only to be saddened when it closed very soon afterwards. So I’m really happy it’s reopening, and I’ll make sure to visit it frequently. I’ll keep you up-to-date with any news, if you’d like.
That would be great – if you’re able to take any photos I’d hugely appreciate it! I hope to visit myself the next time I’m back in the UK.
I used to live on Scarborough Drive in the 50s and 60s and well remember Gilberts. The “split tin” bread was absolutely delicious (although I remember my mum always had difficulty cutting it straight!) and the iced buns …. Oh! They were soooooo good! I still remember carrying them home so carefully trying, but not succeeding, to prevent some of the copious icing from sticking to the paper bag! I think my life-long battle with weight might have its roots at Gilberts! 😉 Perhaps … if I had walked down Madeira Drive and along Manchester Drive, after school, to avoid the bakery …?? 60 years on, I am residing in the USA where, sadly, they have absolutely no idea what really delicious baked goodies taste like. Thanks for those yummy memories, all of you who worked so hard at Gilberts!
Thanks for sharing your memories Sandra, really wonderful to hear about what Gilberts was like back then!
Please can you make the old Gilbert’s recipe for yeast free bread especially wholemeal. We liked the way it was made like a proper loaf and could slice it for a decent sandwiche ,hope you can help ,?
The current bakers don’t trade under Gilbert’s name as they are independent and won’t be privy to any of those recipe’s. They all went with Pat and Charles x
Hi, just wondering if there is any chance of making contact with Charles or Pat ? Thank you very much.
Nice article! I’m married to David Hill, so Charles and Pat are my in-laws 🙂
Both are happily enjoying retirement now but can’t seem to keep them still! Gwen is also still making little cakes now and then at 89, honestly no stopping these guys 🙂
A lovely story from Jessica:
I lived in Oakleigh Park Drive from 1980 to 1987 which meant that every morning I would join London Road on my way to school right opposite Gilbert’s Bakery and the delicious fresh bread/cake smells would I intice me across the road into the shop. I soon learned that I would have to get up much earlier each day as going into the shop meant me spending my bus fare on cakes to eat on the way to school! I literally could not resist the smell of those cakes and my favourite was the pink iced bun which to this day I can still smell and taste if I concentrate hard enough. Even after I moved to Southend I still came to buy from Gilbert’s as regularly as I could. When I learned that Gilbert’s was closing its doors for the last time I made a special trip down and bought as many of those pink cakes as I could so my children could taste them for the very last time. I know I’ll never taste anything so fresh and perfect as Gilbert’s again. Four years on my family still talk about those little pink cakes and mourne their departure.
I have lived opposite the former Gilbert’s shop at Chalk well for 30-odd years, it was like the French being able to nip over the road first thing in the morning for a warm loaf. Whenever I visited friends who had moved away I had to bring a Lardy Cake (traditional Essex) or a square chocolate bourbon. My kids grew up on the iced finger buns. They also did a cream ‘crown’, light as a feather. But all is not lost. If you ever return to southend the new owners have kept the bakery exactly as the Hills left it, same display cases, counters, bread slicer, everything. Now they have got the hang of the massive old ovens their bread is again best in the area, and the
Hills must have handed over the Christmas pudding and Lardy Cake recipes at least.
Thanks for sharing your memories Carol, I’m so happy to hear that it’s been kept as it was and really hope to be able to visit in the future!
Thank you for your continuing support. The pudding recipe is actually mine or to be honest my great great grandmothers, not Mr or Mrs Hills as it is over 100 years old and the Lardy cake recipe was my fathers from around the ’60s.
Hi I think I have a record from the family business it sings about Gilbert’s pies at the start of the record says it originally from 1928 and one if the first records made to sing about a food business
Gilbert’s bakeries present
The Hot or cold cha cha cha
Cat no sws 457117 Ken tapper with Joan Baxter recorded and produced by Tony pike music ltd
Hi Dean – that’s amazing!! I would love to hear a copy of this if you were able to share it?