The Lane, Crawford Bakery In Stubbs Road (1): Before the War

On Wednesday, September 5, 1935, the Lane, Crawford shareholders assembled at noon for an Extraordinary General Meeting to reorganise the company. The Chairman, Sir William Shenton, told them:

Our bakery and cold storage plant is out of date, and if the Company is to maintain its position of supremacy in bakery products and to cope with the requirements for further cold storage facilities, it is essential that up-to-date plant should be acquired in the near future.[1]

The old one was in Burrows Street in Wanchai.[2] The Café Wiseman (the Lane, Crawford restaurant) had its own bakery on the premises, and my guess is that this work was transferred to the new bakery when it finally arrived – The Stubbs. Rd facility didn’t open until the second half of 1938.  The company chair, J. H. Taggart, told the ordinary yearly meeting at the Exchange Building on May 28, 1938:

Commodious and eminently suitable premises have been acquired in Stubbs Road and the preparation of the building and the installation of  plant are progressing with despatch. No expense is being sapred in the interests of public health and I confidently affirm that – when completed – the new bakery will be without equal in the Far East in the manufacture of bread, cake and confectionery under the most efficient and hygienic conditions. (Hongkong Daily Press, May 30, 1938, page 2).

The meeting was assured of the ‘complete modernisation’ of this ‘important branch of your activities’ and heard about the ‘most up to date methods of production based upon the latest mechanical methods employed by leading British and American bakers and confectioners’.

Harry Randall, later to be interned with Thomas in a small room in that very building, was one of the staff shareholders present, and it’s possible that the bakery manager himself was in the audience to listen to this glowing tribute to the premises he’d journied so far to take charge of. Thomas came to Hong Kong on the HMS Carthage, which left London bound for Yokohama on April 8, 1938[3]; mail from this ship was advertised as available in Hong Kong on May 11,[4] which suggests it docked either on that day or on May 10, which is consistent with a contract running from June 1. It’s possible that he was hired specifically to move the company into the new premises; in any case, it was under false pretences, as Thomas altered his birth certificate, and probably elaborated his CV, to seem more experienced than he was. 

An ‘advertorial’ in the Hong Kong Telegraph Weekend Supplement for November 26, 1938 seems to be connected to the recent or imminent opening of the bakery. (The illustrations from this advertisement can be seen at the bottom of this post.) It presents a picture of a bakery in which the very latest machinery creates bread of the highest quality in thoroughly hygienic conditions – ‘the mechanical wrapping of bread provides complete protection from handling before it is delivered to the consumer’. All bakery and delivery personnel were, it seems, examined weekly by the Company doctors – reassuring news for a disease obsessed expatriate population.

Thomas’s article in The British Baker (September 13, 1946) lists some of the equipment at the bakery:

Lane, Crawford’s bakery contained, besides bread-making equipment, 4 oil ovens (2 peel, 2 drawplate), 4 gas ovens (2 peel, 2 drawplate).[15]

Some of the ovens and the modern ‘bread-making equipment’ is described and illustrated in the ‘advertorial’ below. The exact location of the bakery is not known, but Staff-Sergeant Sheridan’s account gives us the rather surprising information that it was ‘up a very narrow passageway’ – narrow enough for a large van driven by frightened driver in wartime conditions to get jammed.[5]

S-S Sheridan’s first contact with the bakery and its manager came some time between may and September 1939  after the death of one of his RASC bakers from cholera:

Next morning what a panic! The Army and Civilian Medical and Hygiene were at the Bakery. All Chinese bakers and all European bakers were inoculated. Bread making was stopped. The Bakery was closed and disinfected from top to bottom. Even the doughs made during the night and the bread baked, of which Chan Ar had no contact had to be destroyed. The troops had a one day biscuit issue. Arrangements were made with a local Bakery owned by a firm named Lane & Crawfords to supply bread for 14 days. The Army supplied flour, yeast, salt etc. This was the job Hammond and I had to do every day, transport the materials and collect the breads from the Bakery in Happy Valley near the Racecourse. Lane & Crawford’s Master Baker was Tommy Edgar who came from Windsor. We became quite good friends. He as a bachelor and lived in a nice flat overlooking the Racecourse. It was owned by Lane & Crawfords. (Memoir, 29)

As we shall see, this was the start of what could have become a very close relationship with the Stubbs Rd. bakery!

In early 1940 the bakery staff had a stroke of luck. They clubbed together to buy 75 tickets in a sweep at the Happy Valley races. One of them carried the number 132569, which assigned the punters Satinlight, one of the favourites, who duly came in first ‘in smashing style’ after a thrilling race.[6] Thomas’s share worked out at about £28,000 in today’s money, and he quickly sent home some of it to help pay for his brother’s wedding. The Kowloon Amahs’ syndicate(s) which had won for the last four years[7] must have been disappointed but it’s nice to report that most of the money continued to go to ordinary Chinese workers. The bakery staff got very drunk on rice and then abandoned bread making to buy small plots of land where they could grow rice and live off the proceeds. Although Thomas was thrilled at his big win, he did note that he’d now have to train  new staff![8]

S-S. Sheridan’s memoir notes that he almost took over as Bakery manager in 1940 as Thomas wanted to go home when his contract ended in June.[9] There is a problem here: S-S. Sheridan says that Thomas’s three year contract was at end, but in fact he’d only been in Hong Kong two years in 1940; the obvious answer is that Sheridan made a mistake and that it was a two year agreement, and this is probably the case. But, given the cost of getting someone out to Hong Kong, I can’t help but feel that a three year contract was more likely.

In any case, why did Thomas want to leave Hong Kong? After the war, I never heard him say anything negative about ‘my thirteen years in Hong Kong’ and in fact I always got the sense he longed to be there still. And the letter that reported his big win to his family contains an insight into his feelings a little earlier in 1940, as well as a glimpse of a fascinating story which I’ll tell in a future post:

I went out to dinner last night with Chuckie + Jean they are both glad to be back in H. K as I think the cold & Blackouts had them beat.[10]

Chuckie (Charles) and Jean Sloan were two of Thomas’s best friends pre-war – Jean seems to have also worked for Lane, Crawford, and, surprisingly enough, they’d just returned from a visit to the embattled British Isles. Thomas’s comment hardly suggests a strong desire to rush back to his cold, blacked-out homeland! I think the most likely explanation for his plan to give up an excellent job in an interesting location is simple: he wanted to be back with his family and doping his duty in time of war. He was therefore all in favour of Lane, Crawford’s offer of his job as bakery manager to Sheridan. He’d been showing the Staff-Sergeant the impressive new American machinery at Stubbs Rd.[11] (some of which can be seen in the images at the foot of this post),  the two had become friends[12] and Thomas obviously respected his baking skills. S-S. Sheridan was impressed by the big increase in salary and the chance to move into that pleasant Thomas’s company flat at 82, Morrison Rd. – furnished, rent free and enjoying a view of the race course.

But there was an obvious problem: S-S. Sheridan was a soldier in the British army. Mr. A. W. Brown,[13] the Lane Crawford manager thought he had a solution; the RASC commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Andrews-Levinge was a friend of his and he approached him on S-S. Sheridan’s behalf. It seems that the Lieutenant-Colonel was willing to go along with the plan, but the war Office would not release any army bakery in a time of war, so Mr. Brown had to try and persuade Thomas to stay.[14]

The bakery’s fortunes and that of the company generally in the new decade became linked to the progress of the war. On June 7, 1940 the ordinary yeraly meeting wa stold that although profits were down that year they should be considered satisfactory given the world situation and the problems obtaining supplies. The directors still felt able to recommend a staff bonus, and this seems to have been a regular part of company policy. (Hongkong Daily Press, June 10, 1940, pages 9 and 11). In early 1941 Lane, Crawfordwas running a ‘food parcels for relatives and friends in the UK’ scheme, although this seems to have been organised by the Grocery Department.[16] On June 21, 1941 the Company AGM was told that the sum approved last year had been written off against alterations at the bakery – this suggests that in spite of the long gestation period, the original building had been problematic in design or construction. The ‘conditions’ – that is the evacuation of many women and children – had led to a tough year’s trading in almost all departments, and profits were down –  this no doubt included the bakery. The meeting was also informed that the air conditioning at the Café Wiseman (in the Exchange Building) that had been installed in the previous September had proved worthwhile.[17]

On December 8, 1941, the day of the Japanese attack, Thomas was appointed Deputy Supply Officer Bakeries. A new period in the bakery’s history was about to begin.

[1] China Mail, September 25, 1935, page 9.

[3] Manifest accessed through Find My Past.

[4] China Mail, May 11, 1938, page 14.

[5] Memoir, 75.

[6] Honkong Daily Press, February 20, 1940, page 2.

[7] Hongkong Daily Press, February 21.

[9] Memoir, 30-31.

[11] Memoir, 31.

[12] Memoir, 29.

[14] Memoir, 32.

[16] Hongkong Daily Press, February 11, 1941, page 5.

[17] Hongkong Daily Press, June 23, 1941, page 5.



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2 responses to “The Lane, Crawford Bakery In Stubbs Road (1): Before the War

  1. Pingback: The Lane Crawford Bakery, Stubbs Road, 1938-1948 » The Industrial History of Hong Kong

  2. Pingback: Hong Kong bakeries around the time of WW2 » The Industrial History of Hong Kong

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