Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Hot-cross Buns - 100,000 sold on one day in London

Once sold on the streets on Good Friday, the buns, marked with a cross on top, are now remembered as a nursery rhyme "One-a-penny, two-a-penny, hot-cross buns!" In 1851 "500 persons" sold the buns on the street that one day. Another author, in 1825, lamented that "some thirty or forty years ago pastrycooks and bakers vied with each other for excellence in making hot-cross-buns; the demand has decreased, and so has the quality of the buns."

Two sizes of buns were sold - penny and halfpenny buns ("two-a-penny").  Many boys would sell the hot cross buns, some only worked that day to make some money for the Greenwich Fair, the Monday after Easter.

The street sellers obtained the buns from "wholesale pastrycooks, and, in a less degree, from the small bakers and pastry-cooks."  In Chelsea, there were two "royal hot cross Chelsea buns" houses.

Following the 1851 and 1825 excerpts is a recipe from Kitchener's 1825 The Cook's Oracle for plain buns and with the addition of spices (and often sweeter) and "the form of a cross with a tin mould (made for the purpose)." 

1851  The Street-sellers of Hot-cross Buns

"Perhaps no cry - though it is only for one morning - is more familiar to the ears of a Londoner, than that of "One-a-penny, two-a penny, hot-cross buns," on Good Friday.

The sale is unknown in the Irish capital; for among Roman Catholics, Good Friday, I need hardly say, is a strict fast, and the eggs in the buns prevent their being used. One London gentleman, who spoke of fifty years ago, told me that the street bun-sellers used to have a not unpleasing distich. On reflection, however, my informant could not be certain whether he had heard this distich cried, or had remembered hearing the elders of his family speak of it as having been cried, or how it was impressed upon his memory. It seems hardly in accordance with the usual style of street poetry:—

"One-a-penny, two-a-penny. hot-cross buns!
If your daughters will not eat them, give them to your sons.
But if you hav'n't any of those pretty little sales,
You can not then do better than cat them all yourselves."

A tradesman who had resided more than fifty years in the Borough had, in his boyhood, heard, but not often, this ridiculous cry:—

"One-a-penny, poker; two-a-penny, tongs!
  One-a-penny; two-a-penny, hot-cross buns."

The sellers of the Good Friday buns are principally boys, and they are of mixed classes —costers' boys, boys habitually and boys occasionally street-sellers, and boys street-sellers for that occasion only. One great inducement to embark in the trade is the hope of raising a little money for the Greenwich Fair of the following Monday.

I am informed that 500 persons are employed on Good Friday in the streets of London in the sale of hot-cross buns, each itinerant selling upon the day's average six dozen halfpenny, and seven dozen penny buns, for which he will take 12s. 6d. (his profits being 3d. in the shilling or 3s. 1 ½ d.). One person informed me that last Good Friday he had sold during the day forty dozen penny buns, for which he received 50s.

The bun-selling itinerants derive their supplies principally from the wholesale pastrycooks, and, in a less degree, from the small bakers and pastry-cooks, who work more for "the trade," than themselves. The street hot-cross bun trade is less than it was seven or eight years ago [c1843], as the bakers have entered into it more freely, and send round for orders: so that the itinerants complain that they have lost many a good customer. One informant (a master pastrycook, who had been in the business nearly fifty years) said to me: "Times are sadly altered to what they were when I was a boy. Why I have known my master to bake five sacks of flour in nothing but hot-cross buns, and that is sufficient for 20,000 buns" (one sack of flour being used for 4,000 buns, or 500 lbs. of raw material to the same quantity of buns). The itinerants carry their baskets slung on their arm, or borne upon the head. A flannel or green baize is placed at the bottom of the basket and brought over the buns, after which a white cloth is spread over the top of the baize, to give it a clean appearance.

A vender of "hot-cross buns" has to provide himself with a basket, a flannel (to keep the buns warm), and a cloth, to give a clean appearance to his commodities. These articles, if bought for the purpose, cost—basket, 2s. 6d.; flannel and cloth, 2s.; stock-money, average 5s. (largest amount 15s., smallest 2s. 6d.); or about 10s. in all.

There is expended in one day, in hot-cross buns purchased in the London streets, 300L., and nearly 100,000 buns thus bought." [Mayhew]

"[Good Friday] and Christmas-day are the only two close holidays now observed throughout London, by the general shutting up of shops, and the opening of all the churches. The dawn is awakened by a cry in the streets of " Hot-cross-buns ; one-a-penny buns, two-a-penny buns; one-a-penny, two-a-penny, hot-cross-buns!"  

Old men and young men, young women and old women, big children and little children, are engaged in this occupation, and "some cry now who never cried before."

The bun-venders who eclipse the rest in voice and activity, are young women who drive fruit-barrows—barrows, by the bye, are no more, but of them by and bye. A couple of these ex-barrow-women trip along, carrying a wicker clothes-basket between them, in which the " hot-crossbuns" are covered, first by a clean flannel or green baize, and outwardly by a clean white cloth, which coverings are slowly and partially removed, for fear of letting the buns cool, when a customer stops to buy, or calls them to the door.

These scenes and sounds continue till church-time, and resume in the afternoon. It partially commences on the evening before Good Friday, but with little success.

Some thirty or forty years ago pastrycooks and bakers vied with each other for excellence in making hot-cross-buns; the demand has decreased, and so has the quality of the buns.

But the great place of attraction for bun-eaters at that time was Chelsea; for there were the two "royal bun-houses." Before and along the whole length of the long front of each, stood a flat-roofed, neat, wooden portico or piazza of the width of the foot-path, beneath which shelter "from summer's heat and winter's cold," crowds of persons assembled to scramble for a chance of purchasing "royal hot cross Chelsea buns," within a reasonable time;

and several hundreds of square black tins, with dozens of hot buns on each tin, were disposed of in every hour from a little after six in the morning, till after the same period in the evening of Good Friday.

Formerly "hot-cross-buns " were commonly eaten in London by families at breakfast, and some families still retain the usage. They are of the usual form of buns; though they are distinguished from them inwardly by a sweeter taste, and the flavor of all-spice, and outwardly by the mark or sign of the cross." [Hone excerpts]

RECIPE - 1825

Cross Buns.
To the [following] above mixture put one ounce and a half of ground Allspice, Cinnamon, and Mace, mixed,—and when half proved press the form of a cross with a tin mould (made for the purpose) in the centre, and proceed as above.

Plain Buns
To four pounds of sifted Flour, put one pound of good Moist Sugar, --make a cavity in the centre, and stir in a gill of good Yeast, a pint of lukewarm Milk, with enough of the Flour to make it the thickness of cream,_-cover it over, and let it lie two hours.--then melt to an oil (but not hot) one pound of Butter, -stir it into the other Ingredients, with enough warm Milk to make it a soft paste ;--throw a little Flour over, and let them lie an hour, -have ready a baking platter rubbed over with butter, mould with the hand the dough into buns about the size of a large egg, lay them in rows full three inches apart, set them in a warm place for half an hour, or till they have risen to double their size,_-bake them in a hot oven of a good colour, and wash them over with a brush dipped into Milk when drawn from the oven.  [Kitchiner]

Hone, William.  The Every-day Book...  London: 1825
Kitchiner, William.  The Cook's Oracle.  NY: 1825  from 5th London ed.
Mayhew, Henry.  London Labor and the London Poor.  1851
Rowlandson 1820 image,  British Library online

Post on Hot Cross Buns kept for a year HERE

©2019 Patricia Bixler Reber
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