One of the unexpected but exciting sights at this year’s Oxford Second-hand and Antiquarian Book Fair was a cardboard cake box folded and shaped to depict Brown’s renowned shop in Parson’s Street.
It has prompted me to focus on why its loss to the town is as significant now as in the 1960s when controversial remarks and then actions culminated in its demolition.
Whilst not disputing the David Richard’s (Prodrive chairman) view that town centres will become hubs of social activity, I want to stress that equally important is the relationship of historically significant important buildings within specific locations.
The Cake Shop was a key part of just such a coming together of properties at the mid-point of a curve in the overall S-shape of Parsons Street. Opposite were the much-loved shoe repair business of the Batts brothers and the equally treasured Reindeer Inn. Connectivity was achieved by the extent of the bracket that embraced the pub sign.
Unsurprisingly the late 1960s was a time of frantic letter writing to the editor of the Banbury Guardian.
Someone who took up his pen in a meaningful way was Jeremy Gibson of the Banbury Historical Society. His comments are well worth reiterating. He reminded readers that Banbury had no more than about a dozen really important pre-19th century houses. In his estimation the Cake Shop was an attractive though not outstanding example of 17th century building.
It had been the original home for Banbury Cakes since at least 1700. However, probably the most important aspect of the baking activities was that Banbury was famous throughout the world for its cakes.
Contemporary with Jeremy’s observations was a fascinating letter from A.R. Wilson of Southbourne, Bournemouth. Born in Banbury in 1907 he had come to know Elizabeth and Charlotte (Lottie) Brown very well indeed. Their shop was an ever present image amongst his recollections of the town.
In part this was due to the fact that theirs was a Quaker business ‘where everything was done carefully and honestly’. Wilson’s concluding remark was the need to keep a proper perspective of real value concerning historical gems. He likened the situation to that of his own making at Letcombe Regis near Wantage where a restored 1680s house ‘would outlast many contemporary properties’.
My discovery of a remarkably well preserved cardboard cake box also acted as a reminder that there were other earlier and also contemporary means of dispatch.
A subsidiary industry of cake baking had been the making of chip-baskets, light baskets of plaited strips of wood. These were much in demand at the time of the Banbury Twelfth (January horse fair) and Michaelmas Fairs when large numbers of people took home their cake purchases as the traditional fairings.
In Ted Clark’s version of Potts History of Banbury we are reminded that the Loveridge family was perhaps the most notable maker of the baskets.
By the closing years of the 19th century cardboard had superseded the chip-baskets. In the run up to Christmas 1897 Banbury Cakes of 5/- (25p) value and upwards were packed carefully in the boxes and delivered free to any postal address in the United Kingdom. This did not prevent people from visiting the Parsons Street Shop.
One such person was Jeremy Gibson’s mother Violet. She had good reason to be grateful to the Browns. At Christmas she bought chocolates for presents and on another occasion Mrs Brown made her wedding cake.
Amongst other devotees of the shop were Americans.
Long after the demolition of the Parsons Street shop they would enquire about the health of the business.
In From Banbury Cakes to a Bushel of Sweetmeats Barry Davis and I summed up the shop’s enterprise by remarking on its huge aesthetic appeal, often depicted with people in period costume outside it. It became ‘mecca’ for visitors to the town.
Banbury Cakes were synonymous with the family name of Browns and the café benefitted from a regular advertisement that read ‘Take her to Brown’s for a dainty tea’.