History United Kingdom

Gilberts Bakery

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.

Gilberts Bakery Letter

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.

Devonshire Bakery - Teas & Light Refreshments
Devonshire Bakery – Teas & Light Refreshments

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.

Emma Girling and Reuben Benjamin Gilbert
Emma Girling and Reuben Benjamin Gilbert

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.

Gilberts Bakery
1155 London Road – April 2012 (via Google Maps)

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!

879a London Road - August 2009 (via Google Maps)
879a London Road – August 2009 (via Google Maps)

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.

Flour Door
Flour Door – April 2009 (via Google Maps)

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 and Pat Hill
Charles and Pat Hill

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.

Charles Hill
Charles Hill

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.

Inside Gilbers Bakery
Inside Gilbers Bakery

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.

Author

Originally from the UK, David is designer and wanderer currently based in Tokyo. Prior to this, he lived in China and still returns frequently to continue exploring this vast and varied land. He started Randomwire in 2003 to chronicle his travels and occasional musings. Feel free to drop him a line.

11 Comments Add New Comment

      1. Bobby Jack says:

        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.

        1. David says:

          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.

  1. Sandra says:

    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!

  2. Irene says:

    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 ,😟

    1. Hollie Hill says:

      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

  3. Hollie Hill says:

    Hello,

    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 🙂

  4. David says:

    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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *