I mentioned earlier that the display of Christmas cakes in Parnell’s shop window at 263 was a particular feature of the festive season in Charnwood Street – but this and other bakers’ shops were well-patronised all year round. As well as Parnell’s, they included Getliffe’s at 153 and Brant’s at 197, all of them baking bread and other goods on the premises.
Parnell’s oven was in the back of the shop, built on four girders with a concrete base. Derek Parnell, whose grandfather William ran the shop before his father Joe, recalled that it was a ‘portable oven’, though as it was made of brick ‘it would have been difficult to take it anywhere!’. Derek also joined his father in the business, working alongside him on a table about six feet long, making the cobs and rolls and puff pastry while his father made the shortcrust pastry and buns. ‘He said you can work for 12 months and it’ll either kill you or cure you, so I did that, and then he said, right, I want you to go to the bakery school at the Technical College’. Derek attended it part-time for four years, but when he watched his father making the buns:
everything I learned at the Tech went out the door. He put the fat in a bread tin in the oven, he put the yeast and sugar in the bowl, which you’re not supposed to do because the sugar kills the yeast. He put water on that you could just about get your hand in, which was too hot for the yeast, and he’d put flour on it and mix it all up again, and then he’d put this boiling hot fat on, and lemon essence and a little tiny bit of colour, and mix it up again. It must have burnt his hands. And then he’d finally make it to the consistency he wanted with the flour’.
They turned out perfectly every time; but when his father was ill Derek had to make the buns instead. He asked him about the quantities to use, but ‘I couldn’t make a bun like it, ever! I couldn’t get the lift, I couldn’t get the texture, I couldn’t get anything!’.
During the week a lot of the baking done in the shop was for lunchtime consumption, and at the weekend, when the shop usually closed at 2 pm, the ‘Yorkshire batches’ were also popular – a kind of milk bread about eight inches in diameter with quite a lot of fat in it that kept well for a couple of days. Like the other bakers in the street, Parnell’s had its regular customers: ‘You’d be doing birthday cakes for the kids, and then as they got older you’d be doing wedding cakes for the family and all that sort of thing, it just went on and on, which was lovely’. There was more than enough custom for them all, though, and:
‘no animosity amongst the shopkeepers. If we ran out of something, Dad would say “Go up to Gordon Brant’s and get a box of margarine”. We never wrote anything down, but as soon as our margarine came in, before it got into the property, Dad would say “there’s a box of marg, take it back to Gordon’s”, or white shortening, or whatever we’d borrowed, and they were exactly the same’.
Parnell’s shop was taken over around 1960 by Dennis Cox, who had started work with Gordon Brant after leaving school, and is particulary remembered by people who shopped there for ‘lovely Cornish pasties’, ‘massive’ wagon wheel biscuits and – in the words of his daughter Carolyn – ‘the best doughnuts ever’. Perrie Barratt, whose father Maurice Richardson kept the butcher’s shop next door at 265, recalls that ‘we used to get freshly made rolls from there and fill them with cooked meats, or my dad would fry up sausages and bacon and we used the rolls to mop up the tasty fat – delicious!’.
The big bread oven in the back yard, and then the girders sticking out from the concrete, became familiar landmarks when Charnwood Street was demolished in 1970 – ‘the last things standing’ at that end of the street, as Perrie’s brother Kim Richardson recalled – but the smell of bread and cakes baking was never to be forgotten. It was simply ‘wonderful’, in the words of Ruth Pincher (nee Weston), who used to visit her grandfather Harry Getliffe’s bakery at weekends, and he ‘always made a loaf shaped like a sheaf of wheat for me to take to Harvest Festival at school each year, which made me feel very proud’ (Leicester Mercury, 23 April 2011).
Thank you to everyone who sent me their memories of Charnwood Street bakers, and particular thanks to Derek Parnell for taking the time to talk to me about the family business.