Baking Black Loaves for Dundee
Callum Stark | University of Dundee
In 1914 thousands of men and women walked to mills all over Dundee each day and on their morning journey most would visit their local baker for a morning roll, a pie or a ‘bridie’. Such ‘factory food’ could be taken to and from work and quickly consumed. It was cheap and affordable. The consumption of rolls and pies had been a simple staple for thousands of Dundonians for decades.
Dundee in 1914 was a predominantly working-class city with over a third of its workforce employed in the exhausting weaving industry in jute mills, turning raw jute into usable materials. The bakers of Dundee had a most important responsibility; to produce enough food to keep the city fed and working throughout the First World War despite periods of severe wartime restriction and tight regulation.
Often reserved from conscription, Dundee's bakers were needed at home. Bakeries retained their experienced staff to ensure bread production kept the Homefront fed during times of rationing. For decades the country had relied on imported wheat to sustain the domestic production of bread and by 1914, seventy-seven percent of British wheat was imported. Serious interruption to this supply chain would drastically affect the production of bread which was a vital part of the working-class diet. This was especially so in Dundee, where the humble roll and pie were vital to feeding the city's working-class populace.
The reliance on bakery products was not specific just to Dundee. Many Scottish cities, including Glasgow and Edinburgh, would have also relied greatly on their local bakeries, but not to the same extent as Dundee. It was the regional specialties of Dundee bakers that make the city stand out. The pie, morning roll, and ‘bridie’ developed to become a real part of the Dundee culture. Other regions across Scotland did have their own local flavours, but none became as established in the cultural mindset as in Dundee where paintings, murals, and even poems dedicated to the humble pie have been established all over the city.
Producing enough bakery goods to sell, such as pies and rolls, became an increasingly difficult task as the war dragged on. By December 1917 the Food Controller’s Office in London had implemented fixed prices for loaves and rolls, to keep bread affordable and to ensure bakeries could remain in business. The Bread Order did not directly enforce production limits on bakers, rather it required them to wait up to 12 hours after baking before they could sell their bread. It also regulated the ingredients bakers could include in their products. For example, the Bread Order reduced the quality of flour used in bread and banned the use of sugar in baking. Reduced flour quality had a drastic impact on Dundee’s bakery products and the ‘wait time’ requirements of the Bread Order forced the bread and rolls to become semi-stale before sale, making them less appealing to customers. The Food Controller’s Office believed this would reduce the demand for bread and ease Britain's reliance on its fragile imports. The bread produced in the wake of the Bread Order was very different from the bread baked before 1917. The flour restrictions and increased flour extraction from wheat altered not only the appearance of bread but its texture, taste, and smell. Rather than the soft brown colour typical of most loaves or rolls in Dundee, this new bread was black, tough, very dense, and quite tasteless.
In addition to the restrictions on bread production introduced by the Bread Order, the 1917 Cake and Pastry Order banned cake, as items such as milk, sugar, and butter were becoming scarce as the war continued. ‘Luxury’ items were further rationed to allow for the continued baking of bread, as the Food Controller and other Government ministers knew thousands of working-class families across the country relied on bread to survive.
Attempts were made by the Government to incentivise the population to voluntarily eat less bread through a coordinated media scheme. Posters with slogans such as ‘Save the Fleet, Eat Less Wheat’ and ‘Don’t Waste Bread!’ became a common sight in the nation's community halls and newspapers. Yet in Dundee one contemporary newspaper article bemoaned the offering of a now stale and poorer quality roll, "the public clung with a yearning heart to the time-honoured favourite".
Cultivation of vegetables in domestic gardens was also promoted by the Government to provide alternatives to restricted foodstuffs. Cultivation of potatoes, leeks and cabbage was encouraged to wean Britain off its over-reliance on imports of wheat and flour. However, the working classes of Dundee did not have the space, time, or money to plant vegetables in their own gardens. While some may have attempted to grow their own food at home, the vast majority still had to rely on the local bakeries for their food.
The Bread Order was designed to ensure that bread was never rationed, for the Food Controller’s Office knew that if bread was rationed or restricted, thousands of working-class families could be brought to the brink of starvation. However, not all bakers in Dundee agreed with the orders coming from the Food Controller’s Office. Some bakers continued to sell restricted products to their customers despite there being significant legal penalties for breaking the laws, including fines of £100 and six-months hard labour, or potentially both. One such example of a breach was by a Leith firm of bakers who were prosecuted on a charge of selling cakes and other restricted items banned by the Cake and Pastry Order. The outcome of this case saw the bakers fined twelve shillings each, however, their legal representatives (the Scottish Association of Master Bakers) argued strongly that had the unlawful cakes not been made, the ingredients would have simply expired and gone to waste. Between July and August 1917 at least five other Dundee based bakers were found guilty of breaching the Cake and Pastry Order. Undoubtedly there were many other bakers in Dundee who illegally sold cakes but managed to avoid legal consequences. The bakers who continued to hoard ingredients and sell outlawed goods, illustrated the high demand for, and cultural importance of, cakes and baked goods for Dundonians. Several other bakers were fined in proportion to the profit they made from selling outlawed goods. Yet the authorities did not want to imprison skilled bakers, for that could affect the overall production of bread in an area, especially in the poorer areas of Dundee with heavy industry where people could only afford basic foodstuffs bakeries produced.
Wartime policies such as the Bread Order and the Cake and Pastry Order together with the Government's desire not to ration bread, greatly impacted both Dundonians and their bakers. The restrictions altered the food consumed by the people of Dundee, but many had no alternative to continuing to consume ‘War Bread’, despite it not being as nourishing or tasty as its pre-war counterpart. Although the bakery products changed and products were restricted, Dundee’s bakers continued to play a key role, despite the regulations, in keeping the working population fed. The history of Dundonians is inextricably linked to their bakers and this relationship lasted throughout the First World War, (and indeed the Second) continuing today.
Goodfellow. David, Bread in the Bones: History of "Goodfellow and Steven", Bakers 1897-1997 (Dundee, Goodfellow and Seven Group, 1997)
Tomlinson. Jim, Dundee and the Empire: ‘Juteopolis'’ 1850-1939 (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2014)
Tomlinson. Jim, 'The First World War in a ‘Women’s Town’: Dundee 1914-1922', Women's History Review, Vol. 31(2) (2021)
Gordon. Eleanor, 'Women And The Labour Movement in Scotland' (Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Glasgow, 1991)
Callum Stark is a Graduate of the University of Dundee in History and International Relations and is currently studying for a History Masters, also at Dundee. Aside from his Academic work, Callum is a passionate baker.
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