Chapter 12

End of an Era

The end of the Second World War did not mean the end of inconvenience and struggle for the civilian population - in some ways things became even worse (see "When Daddy came Home" by Barry Turner / Tony Rennell).

Continuing shortages and consequent rationing were frustrating everyone, not least the housewives who had extra mouths to feed when their menfolk returned. Many hours were spent just queuing for items on the ration list, which stayed more or less the same from July 1945 until the end of 1949. The monotony of food available was contributing to the general mood of depression and disillusionment which followed the euphoria at the ending of hostilities. Bread rationing was introduced in July 1946, and "Ted" was appointed Bread Officer for Redditch - a position of some responsibility. (Ref 1) gives details of post-war rationing. As soon
as restrictions were lifted, Gordon decided to bake doughnuts, a rare treat, and queues formed all the way down Peakman Street!

As petrol rationing became less harsh, Webbs increased its fleet of vans and the firm was proud to boast that it delivered in all weathers This was put to the test in the severe winter of 1947, which brought chaos to the whole country. (Ref 2) In Redditch some Webbs vans had to be abandoned in the snow and were later towed out by jeeps. The bread was carried in sacks across the fields to isolated villages, as it was still very much a staple food, and there were no deep freezers for households to keep stocks.

There had originally been many bakers in Redditch (recalling the fourteen represented at the funeral of William Webb in 1887) but as production methods became more mechanised, and outlying villages demanded deliveries, many of the smaller bakeries ceased trading. In 1947 Webbs bought the the goodwill and stock of the bread and confectionery business of Mr Merris of Oldbury.
(Ref 3) gives details of the stock.
Some of the owners of businesses which sold up were re-employed by Webbs, who valued their expertise. Among these was E L Watkins, who brought with him his own van. (Ref 4) information on the Watkins' family business.

In order to remain commercially competitive, Webbs had to keep up with the times and invest in new machinery. The original Peel oven was replaced by a "Travelling Oven" and the centenary edition of The Redditch Indicator (1959) gives a description of this oven, which reputedly cost £10,000 in the 1950s: (Ref 5) The article in The Redditch Commercial Directory (1935) is presumably describing the production methods before this innovation: (Ref 6)

When sliced bread became fashionable (remember the saying "the best thing since sliced bread" ?) the shed at the end of the bakehouse was expanded to house the new slicer and wrapper. The bread was wrapped in a thick wax paper, with an impressive picture of Church Green - how we wished we'd kept a sample of something which was so commonplace at the time! Both new machines were prone to breaking down in the early hours of the morning, and John would be summoned from his bed to fix them. For this reason he had a phone at his home at a time when telephones were mostly only found in wealthy homes or in businesses. At that time phone numbers were usually only two digits (Webbs was 86) and over the years more numbers prefaced this to accommodate new subscribers. (for details of the history of the telephone service in Redditch, see Ref 9 )

At the time of writing, there will still be those in Redditch who have fond memories of the bakehouse in Peakman Street behind 20 Church Green East, extended partly over Catharine's beloved garden. People would wait expectantly for the Hot Cross buns on Good Friday, which were traditionally only produced on that day. A member of the Coventry family remembers buying a "milk loaf" from Webbs, which he and his friends scooped out and filled with chips to sustain them as they watched a film at the Select Cinema.
Wilfred presided over the bakehouse until his death, supervising every aspect of the production of bread and cakes. He is fondly remembered by his niece for taking her and her brother to Redditch carnival for candy floss, and for giving them raw dough to eat as a treat! Wilfred died suddenly, just 10 days after his brother Bertie, in 1956, and from then on there were no Webbs actually living at number 20 Church Green East (Catharine had died in 1948, and Ted and his family lived at Easemore farmhouse).
(Ref 7) has details of Wilfred's will.

Interior of the bakehouse 1963
(click for view of bakehouse in the 1930s)

After the deaths of Bertie and Wilf the rooms at Church Green were put to a variety of uses. (Ref 8) describes how the building was used in the 1960s and 70s. The business continued to thrive. Note from the advertising material how important the delivery service was to the firm - leaflets were given to new home owners to ensure their custom. By 1959 Webbs had a fleet of 13 vans covering over 3,000 miles per week.

Delivery van parked at
Easemore Farm

advert 1959 (Centenary Edition of The Redditch Indicator)

After the death of his brothers, Ernest Edward ("Ted") continued to run the business. The 1959 Centenary Edition of The Redditch Indicator reported that he still controlled affairs, attending the office every day at the age of 83. His sons recalled that he required a Hovis loaf to be placed on his desk every morning for his approval. He died the following year, confident that the family firm would continue.

The era of the local baker came to an end when mass-produced sliced bread was sold in bulk by the supermarkets (although there has recently been a revival in interest in "home baked" style bread from smaller outlets). The demand for a wide variety of flour also declined, as did the need for home delivery when more families owned cars. It became a rarity to see the baker with his large wicker basket on the doorstep offering the choice of "tin" or "cob", or trying to tempt the housewife with a cake as a family treat. Fewer women were at home waiting for deliveries by the grocer, butcher, "pop man" (beer and mineral water supplier) or coal merchant. The "weekly order" had become the weekly trip to the supermarket.

The sale of agricultural seed and animal feeds had declined at the time when the bakery business had been expanding and needed more space for machinery and equipment, but as the bakery business itself declined, the sale of garden seed, which had always been profitable, was able to develop further. Some time in the 1950s, Webbs was able to lease premises on the other side of Peakman Street (21 Church Green East) to use as a Seed Shop. This building had probably housed the first telephone exchange in Redditch. Surprisingly, records from the early days of the telephone exchange give the address as 20, not 21 Church Green East. See (Ref 9) for details of the early history of the telephone exchange in Redditch.
The photograph show that the premises are still recognisable today, despite various changes of use. (Ref 10) gives details of Webbs seed trade.

the seedshop at 21 Church Green East (1960s)

Fortunately for Webbs, there was a renewed interest in gardening, with TV programmes featuring Percy Thrower and others.
The bread and flour trade was eventually given up in favour of the expanded seed and garden business. Although the shop at 21 Church Green East continued to be leased for some time, latterly everything was concentrated at 20 Church Green, and an even larger shed was built further down Peakman Street to house the supplies.

"The Advertiser" ran special supplements in 1976 and 1977 to celebrate the firm's 140 years in Redditch (although the date of the founding of the firm remains contentious). The photos show the building little changed from 1933 (as per the article in "Town and County News") in fact little changed from the 19th century photo, and still very recognisable today. The advertising features show how the trade was now devoted to garden and pet supplies of all kinds, with a strong emphasis on the advice which the staff could offer. The photos show the metal advertising plaques which remained on the wall of 20 Church Green East for many years:

Social trends put an end to even this successful enterprise. With the advent of garden centres, and garden products being sold by non-specialists, the time came to think of retirement. Various rooms were rented out as Webbs started to wind up the business, and "The Standard" took over the front offices for a time. John and Gordon retired in 1988, a full hundred years since William Webb had first leased the premises from the heirs of Ben Sarsons.

Bullivant Enterprises took over the building and were able restore the interior of 20 Church Green East to its former elegance. The role the Webb family had played in the life of the town was acknowledged by naming it "Webb House" - a building that has witnessed the life of the town of Redditch since 1774, the decade in which William Webb had first arrived in Beoley.