The great Essex bake off(ice)

The other day a bequest in a will (D/ABW 114/3/59, Joseph Deane of Harwich, 1800) caught our attention, it was to a ‘bake office’. Now, we all understand about offices in our own day, and what ‘office’ means and who works in an office – indeed most of us probably sit behind a desk and work in an office – a room where work is undertaken by white collar workers. We probably don’t even give it a second thought. But what, historically, was or defines a ‘bake office’?

The first point of call, as ever, was to search further on our Essex Archives Online catalogue (www.essexarchivesonline.co.uk) which returned over 100 results of documents catalogued with the phrase ‘bake office’. While there are earlier examples the majority are from the nineteenth century, with the latest from the 1930s.

This plan of 1906 shows the Bake Office for what must be a thriving bakery and tea room on Military Road in Colchester. The owner is applying to have a new bread oven built.
(D/B 6 Pb3/2363)

There is generally an affinity with an attached shop (e.g. SALE/A588) but this is not always the case. Several are attached to cottages (e.g. D/F 35/7/253), possibly as a shared communal resource although they could equally provide bread for sale from one of the properties. Our understanding of what a ‘shop’ is might not necessarily match that of our predecessors – the concept of a shop, or outlet for the sale of goods, might well have been much freer and easier than what we would expect today. Someone’s front room could possibly double as a point of sale for bread during the day while reverting to a living space by night.

Several of the documents list other dedicated rooms, or possibly separate but associated structures: ‘shop with bake office and 4 bushel oven, with living accommodation, flour room and wash house’ (D/DMa/B71/16); ‘Messuage with baking office, brewhouse, cornchambers’ (D/DC 27/10); that traditional pairing of bread and beer production – ‘bake office and brewhouse’ (SALE/B5065). Other documents list a ‘candle office’ (D/DU 751/108) and ‘malting office’ (D/DHw T52/9). So along with just ‘room’ we also have the use of ‘chamber’ and ‘house’ to include with ‘office’ to describe different uses and functions of spaces within a building or structure. However, ‘office’ appears to be overwhelmingly connected with baking.

This sale catalogue lists both a “bake office” and a “Brewhouse” attached to this windmill in Pebmarsh. Beer and bread have always been natural bedfellows. (SALE/B5065)

Seeking further guidance, our venerable 1933 edition of The Oxford English Dictionary was consulted and supplied the following definitions:

Office: ‘A position or place to which certain duties are attached’

‘Office-house’: apartments or outhouses for the work of domestics’

So these are both useful in thinking about ‘bake office’. In this instance they certainly tie in with our documents: it is so called because it is a place where baking happens which could be a separate building or structure. It is probable that our predecessors used these words interchangeably and that there was no specific connection with any of the functions that took place within them – it was the act of something taking place in a room or structure that attached ‘office’ to it, be it baking, malting or candle making, so possibly a combination of the OED definitions. Maybe this is all we can say as we don’t, after all, want to over-egg the pudding! Still it’s good to ponder on such things now and again and thinking on, with all this talk of baking perhaps we might just reach for the flour, fat and sugar …

Beyond the tip of the iceberg

We spent a fun morning today with Nick Barratt, Laura Berry and director-cameraman Tamer Asfahani of the Family History Show, a monthly online video podcast, or ‘vodcast’, which showcases interesting topics from the world of genealogy.

Nick outside the ERO

The FHS team came to the ERO to film some of the resources which we have to offer, from our online catalogue, Seax, and the images available on Essex Ancestors, to the original documents which can help with your family history, and some of the ‘treasures’ of the ERO – our most beautiful, interesting and rare documents.

Laura finds out all about Seax and Essex Ancestors from Public Service Team Manager Neil Wiffen

 The Family History Show looks beyond the narrow confines of ‘family history’ strictly defined, to social history, local history, and house history, to build up a fuller picture of what life was like in the past. 

Archivist Chris Lambert shows Laura around a set of poor law records, which can tell fascinating and haunting stories about your ancestors

It’s easy for family history to become an exercise of collecting names and dates, but the truly rewarding element is finding out more about how your ancestors lived. Once you have used birth, marriage and death certificates, parish registers and census returns to find out the names of your ancestors, when they were alive and where they lived, there are so many more questions you can ask to bring history to life.

How did your ancestors make a living? What was life like for children? What happened to you if you lost your job? What did people eat? What sort of accommodation did people live in? How were your ancestors’ lives different from your own?

Answering these questions means delving into other record sets, such as the poor law records the FHS team filmed here today, which may seem daunting at first, but ERO staff are always on hand to help guide you.

Filming some of the ‘treasures’ of the ERO

We love sharing our ‘treasures’ documents, and although we cannot usually produce them to the Searchroom in the same way as most of our documents, you can come and see them for yourself at one of our Discover: Treasures of the Essex Record Office sessions. The next one is on Tuesday 23rd October – see our events page to find out more.

 

The finished vodcast will be released on the Family History Show site in November, so keep an eye out to find out what Nick and Laura made of the ERO!