Oral History

Arthur 'Snowy' Mason

Memories of Mr. Arthur 'Snowy' Mason, Stoke Golding's village baker

Interviewers: Mr. D. J. Wood (DW)

Interviewed: Mr Arthur Mason (RD)

Date of Interview: 10th November 1994

DW. How did you get the name of Snowy?

AM. Well I must have been about three years of age, and it was when the old milkman came round with his bucket and ladle to the door step. Mr. Arthur Tower was the village milkman. I'd got white hair and he called me Snowy and it stuck ever since.

DW. Can we go back to when you first started to learn baking and where did you start baking?

AM. Down here, from school when I was thirteen. After school, Thursday nights from roughly four o'clock until midnight, and that was the evening we used to spend making 'cakes. Friday, roughly the same, but that was the night we used for decorating, fancy cakes and cream cakes and all those type of goods. They used to have to make a double lot of dough at night for Saturday mornings. My old boss's nephew who was about fifteen or sixteen, he used to get left with the dough at night, on Friday nights the boss could go to bed ready for getting up Saturday morning early. So we used to be here until probably midnight on Friday nights. I used to help with little jobs in the bake house, such as patting the loaves into the tins, rolling the loaves on a board covered in grease instead of greasing the tins. I used to get them sort of jobs, and then loading the van when the bread goes out. Then we used to be out until - oh, nine o'clock to half past nine on a Saturday. I used to get half a crown said, laughing) two and sixpence in old money, if they don't know that's twelve and a half pence.

DW. Who was the baker that taught you your trade?

AM. Mr .A. H. Hunter, he lived in the big house here with his mother and sister. lie had it in joint ownership with his brother Frank. On leaving school, Easter 1937, in those days we used to be out and do probably forty or fifty miles a day delivering. I mean, you took a basket full of bread to one house - probably five or six loaves for a day's bread, they were big families. Also you didn't have forty or fifty yards to walk down the drives to people's houses, there was a row of houses and you could go along the row just like that, you see.

DW. You mean all the front doors opened straight on to the pavement?

AM. Yes. Also you used to deliver to the farms in those days twice or three times a week. You went up those houses probably for a gentleman farmer for one loaf and the drive being a mile or half long. But nowadays a farmer takes a week's, some of them a fortnight's, supply of bread, they freeze it? You see.

DW. Can you compare the old method of baking with the new?

AM. Yes. When I came down here firstly there was a big drum, about where I'm sitting now. It was four feet in diameter and on the side there was a big wheel, like the wheel on the old mangle. This drum, it would take a sack of flour which is two hundred and eighty pounds. We used to put fourteen gallons of water per two hundred and eighty pounds of flour. Which compared to today with sliced bread, eighteen gallons, which we couldn't possibly do, we couldn't handle the dough.

I could turn that wheel, when I first came here just four times over, that's as much as I could turn it. Then it used to come out into the old wooden tro' and it used to stay over night in there to rise.

In the winter it would probably only be half way up in the tro'. Of course, there was no frontage on this at all, it was just a zinc lean-to with no coverage, there were problems keeping it warm. When the dough was tinned up in the morning you would probably have to wait two hours, for those loaves to rise before you could put them in the oven. You would probably get your bread in the oven by nine o'clock, half past nine, sometimes ten, according to what the weather was like. If it was bitterly cold your dough wouldn't rise. I've seen the time when my old boss has taken it out of the tro' because it hasn't risen anything like enough. They've put flour bags on to steel trays and put great chunks of dough on, prior to lighting the fire to warm it up, then fetch it out and start on it.

The difference was in the summer, the dough used to come up to the top and go down again, it would be sour before you'd got to it. That was a big problem if you'd got exceptionally hot nights. You used probably six to eight ounces of yeast for a batch of dough at night, in the winter you would probably put four ounces in extra or something like that. But your bread used to come out then when you'd got an over worked dough, no colour, no bloom on it at all. It was chalkified in colour. After the war it was a bit of a bind really if you'd got the Sunday off, you had to come in Sunday night to make your dough for Monday morning.

I'd only been here six months when they bought that electric mixer there, The Gilbert, which you could do the job in twenty minutes, but you'd still got to go to change and your night's ruined. When it was in the old drum it used to take two hours, apparently - well I know it did, and you couldn't do anything else, you'd got to turn it. With that mixing machine there you put your water, salt, yeast and left it, you could be doing something else. You would be ready to go home within twenty minutes.

But - the war . ... I had four and a half years in the war in the Air Force. I came back and after a short period (my old boss's first wife was an invalid and he left me pretty well to it) got a little bit browned-off coming in Sunday nights. experimented one Monday morning, I didn't ask if I could or anything, I didn't make the dough on Sunday night. I used three pounds of yeast on Monday morning and I had a smashing batch of bread. The boss looked at it when I took one to his shop. 'Oh, the bread's different', I told him what I'd done, 'Oh, quite good' but you see you didn't have to wait for your dough to rise in the tins. By the time you'd finished scaling off the last loaf it was ready for the oven. Plus the sandwich loaf would be ready for the oven, which were the last loaves which were the steam loaves which you turned the tins upside down. They don't have to stand, they rise sufficient by putting them straight in the oven after you've finished them off. I used to save two hours in the morning doing that. To me, time was money, and instead of getting on the rounds about eleven or twelve o'clock, I was on the round at half past eight to nine o'clock which was a big difference. I used to do that every Monday morning until I took over the business in Novernber,1951. Thereafter I made the dough every morning instead of nights.

DW. What's a tro'?

AM. That's one over there, that wooden trough, they've got table tops on. Prior to having the mixer that I mentioned earlier I just had to do it by hand, I'd mix it in those wooden troughs.

DW. A tro' is a trough then?

AM. More or less, that's what they used to put the dough in overnight after they'd done it in the old mixing machine. Prior to that they had to mix it in there and they had to have knives and cut it from one end to the other to mix it. You never saw a baker with hair on his arms in those days.

DW. Why do you think there is such a difference between the old method of making bread? You made the bread by hand, then you used a machine to do it for you, and people noticed the difference?

AM. They do. I can't really account for the difference, it's in the moulding. When l first used the moulding machine everybody wanted to know what the difference was - it wasn't the same. I'd always moulded by hand. I suppose it made it that much tighter the texture was different. Well, people didn't like it as much as if l'd moulded it by hand.

DW. Any other difference?

AM. If you moulded it by hand it was ready for the oven early and that bit lighter.

DW. The same goes for cakes?

AM. Yes. I can tell the difference, I can. I make my Christmas cakes and I mix by hand. I've probably got - Oh, ninety odd pounds of mix in one mixture to turn over and that's some going. I always prefer the cakes, they come out better than if I'd put them through the machine.

DW. Can we move on to your oven. I understand it's over one hundred years old?

AM. It's coal fired, side flue oven, where the fire goes in one side of the oven. Lit at one side, it's what is more or less boxed in. Fire bars are what? - two feet long, two blocks either side of the flue which are eighteen inches long each. You've got two blocks on this side the same, eighteen by nine by four and a half. Then you put four over the top of it when you build your box up, which I do myself these days. When I first came here you used to have somebody, a builder or somebody, to do it for you. You used to flood the oven probably two or three times on a Saturday, two or three times on a Sunday, then again on Monday. You got the blocks yourself aid you got the fire clay yourself. Two crates of beer you had to have - that's for the workers. They used to bring four workers, the old chap didn't go into the oven, he just stood there supervising the others.

You've got to go into the oven on your stomach, you see. They used to say you can't stay in there more than five minutes at the most, it got at the fat your back and it was too hot. You'd drag one out and another would go in. In those days apart from getting the blocks etc. you would probably pay them about fifteen to twenty pounds which was quite a lot for doing it. It was a thankless task, mind you. I learned a lesson, I did it myself and I could cool the oven down as before, open the dampers and leave the doors open and I could go in on Monday morning, they used to come Monday night because they said it was too hot. I used to go in on Monday morning and stay in until I'd finished it, I would probably be in there for an hour without getting out.

DW. The builders were swinging the lead a bit?

AM. Yes, that's what I thought. I would probably wait until Christmas when you'd got two or three days, and of course it's colder. I can finish it off in an hour and a half. But I've got problems now getting the blocks for it, I've still got a few in stock.

DW. What is the cooking area?

AM. It is roughly thirteen feet, yes - it could be a little more because that peel, a peel is what we put the bread in with, the shaft itself is twelve foot. Then we've got the blade on the end, so it's a little over thirteen foot deep and it's pretty well the same across because it's the size of the bake house itself.

DW. Do you think it makes any difference between coal fired and say, electric or gas.

AM. Oh yes.

DW. But surely, heat is heat?

AM. No. My cooker at home went for a burton last week on Saturday, I think it was. The wife said, 'What are we going to do for Sunday, I've got a joint of pork?' Well, we always come down on a Sunday morning to bake about forty dozen scones, slab cake, Madeira cake, seed cake and sponge cake, so the oven is hot on a Sunday morning - I stoke it up. I said, ''Alight, get it in a dish ready and I'll put it in the bake house oven'. lt. tasted as nice again. My misses said, 'There's more flavour to this, isn't there?', and there is, it's the same as putting it in your coal fired oven at home in the olden days. There's a different flavour, I don't know why,' but it's there.

Transcript by: Jean & David Wood.