Jurys Inn on 8 June 2017 with Dr Kate Osborne

Dr Kate Osborne from Exeter University explained that she she would be speaking about the lives of medieval bakers.  The “Company of Bakers” was started in the 16th Century and was answerable to the Lord Mayor who set the prices of bread. Bailiffs oversaw the bakers to ensure they adhered to the set prices.  Standards for different types of bread were also set and no “outside bakers” were allowed to trade in the city except on official Market Days.

In the 1560’s, bread was donated to the very poor - 600 loaves before Easter and 600 before Christmas.  Also at Christmas and Easter special recipes were used for general sale. Types included best bread, second best bread, rye bread, and coarse bread (which was very rough) common bread (with lesser content) and brown bread which was all wholemeal.  


Records show 76 bakers within Exeter City.  Home baking was very rare, except in large houses where servants and cooks were employed.  From records, properties can be identified as housing bakers, brewers and similar workers.  A certain Thomas Chapel is listed as owning a baking house for “cakes and other similar foods”.  Sometimes bread dough was prepared in the home and taken to a baker to bake it in his oven.


Between the 1570s and 1590s, the number of bakers appears to have reduced (this was the time of the plague).  It appears from records that seven bakers paid a higher tax then, suggesting that they either sold a greater amount of bread or they were producing additional products.  The sum of £3 to £4 per year was considered high!!


Some actual bakeries can be identified from the records.  Peter Vilvaine was wealthy and well located in a house between what is now White Stuff and Macdonalds.  Eight apprentices are listed    Family-run bakery businesses were the norm and several apprentice masters had sons listed as their apprentices - one father had several sons listed - all named  “John”!


In 1669, 3% of the population were mustered for defence, but bakers appear to have been excluded from service, probably because the baking of bread was so important.  


Although some bakers became quite wealthy, none of them achieved high status such as “Freeman of the City”. However, many got involved in city affairs, became bailifs or held additional posts such as Pikeman, Juror etc..   Senior bakers apprised inventories, witnessed wills and lent money.  It was good to be seen to be managing your credit and to lend money was to display kindness.They didn't always get it back !


 A book titled “Balancing the Books” and another “Good Debts and Bad Debts” suggests some problems for bakers, but most seem to have managed OK!  Costs would have been covered every day as Bread was made and sold daily.  There are records of some bakers' equipment being sold off when the baker died.  Wills show clothes left by bakers including a gown made of cat skins, a clock-oven timer, candlesticks, snuffers etc.  These all  suggest some wealth


No bakers in Exeter are listed as having come from overseas, but some names suggest that they did, such as Datchinef,  Dobinant,  Dubaret, Larrell,  Courtis, Erran, Arrant, Aran.  Possibly others from overseas anglicised their names - Charpentier appearing as Carpenter, for instance.  Also, there appears to be a big overlap of names working for, or with, each other.  “Who knew who?” with as many as 8,000-10,000 people in the city interacting all the time; there were apparently no social barriers.


Some bakers had other  employments, such as owning “5 piglets in the courtyard”,   “4 pigs”,  “2 pigs" etc.  One was a “purveyor of bacon butties” and one Richard Merrell had some “crops” suggesting a parcel of land!  


Legal records show evidence of “Bakers versus Millers”.  There is mention of a valued Grinding Stone, of Cricket Pit Mill and even a complaint of some ground flour that made “very bad bread” which caused quite a quarrel!! Also eight inventories show equipment listed and items such as corn flour and eight bushels of bean flour and of cornflour are recorded.  Dr Osborne displayed an ancient list detailing stages of bread production including “grinding”, “warming”, “casting up with cold water”, “separating into separate loads for each loaf”. This list was backed by a series of thirteen drawings of the stages of baking bread.


Bread was bought in the market and in shops - which may well have been just a shelf in front of the house.  One baker is recorded as “taking bread outside” (probably to market or  perhaps to another shop).  Some bakers had horses, often with panniers.  Clues to horse ownership are the saddles and coats mentioned in lists of “stuffe” in bakers’ wills.  A map of the catchment area of one baker’s customers stretches from Exeter to Moretonhampstead; for deliveries a horse would have been essential.   There is mention of one baker’s two-wheeled cart, for manual pushing. .


Records of the “Redwood” household mention  John, a Baker buried in 1581, and Joan Redwood who was buried in 1587.  She had ten children of whom eight survived her.  Joan’s property included a bakehouse located at Bewley Lane/Fore Street.  This can still be identified on a 19th Century Map. The assessor’s report produced after her death includes an inventory listing listing items from room to room.  This has enabled Dr Osborne to trace from these records the actual layout of the house at that time. We saw a slide of a lap desk which had no legs as it was designed to be held on the lap whilst in use, plus a lockable lid called a no-go which enclosied a compartmented interior. 


Our last slide was of a bread loaf made by our speaker herself from a genuine old recipe !


In closing, Dr Osborne told us of the kitchens and a bakehouse at St Nicholas Priory.  It is hoped that Exeter Historic Buildings Trust may soon be able to take over responsibility for the priory -  when they could use the ovens to produce medieval bread.


There is also to be an exhibition at the priory on 22 July which will feature Exeter's Historic Medical Collection with demonstrations, talks and displays.

All talks are now on the second Thursday of alternate months (February, April, June, August, October & December).                                          All meetings start at 7 pm and are held at JURYS INN, Western Way, Exeter EX1 2DB.                                                                  Free parking is available from 6pm in the Triangle Car Park at the rear of Jurys.                                                                                Walks/visits are usually on the second Wednesday of alternate months (January, March, May, July, September November). 

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