The Staff Of Life

I’ve recently written a piece about George Orwell’s favourite pub in Soho, and hadn’t any plans to introduce him into anything else for the foreseeable future. So I settled down to write a piece on the Aerated Bread Company, or as they were known in their heyday, A.B.C., however Mr Orwell manages to make an appearance, more of which later.

I had photographed a ghost sign of one of their outlets located on the 232 The Strand. A.B.C. was a competitor to the much more widely known J. Lyons &Co., however the difference between the two companies was that as well as have a chain of restaurants to rival Lyons, A.B.C. also ran a chain of bread bakeries.

The company had been founded by Dr. John Dauglish in 1862. Dauglish had obtained a medical degree from Edinburgh and as part of his coursework had concerned himself with the dietary effects of the population with emphasis on the production of bread, which he himself saw as containing poor nutritional value and of being detrimental to health in some cases.

He developed his own formula and process for making bread without the need for the use of yeast or fermentation. There was also some large changes to the way that the bread was processed, and so Dauglish found that his company had a commercial advantage over the other large bread manufacturers of the day.

ABC’s in central London circa 1895

In addition to the wholesale and retail bread side of the business A.B.C. operated a chain of self-service A.B.C. tea shops. The first of these was opened in the courtyard of  Fenchurch Street Railway Station in 1864. The idea of a tearoom is attributed to a London-based shop manager who had been serving free tea and snacks to customers who had entered his shop to purchase their bread.

ABC menu 1900
Site of the New Somerville Club

Unwittingly the introduction of these tea rooms onto the high street played a large role in Women’s issues and the emerging suffrage movement. The A.B.C. tea rooms provided one of the first public places where women in the Victorian era could eat a meal, alone or with women friends, without a male escort. There were even women’s social clubs, one such was The New Somerville Club, close to Oxford Circus and located over an Aerated Bread Company’s shop with meals and refreshments supplied to the club’s dining room.

At its peak in 1923, A.B.C. had 150 branch shops in London and 250 tea shops and was second in terms of outlets only to J. Lyons and Co. and their Corner House’s. And this is where Mr Orwell, who was not a fan gets in on the subject. The proliferation of both companies steady progress in placing these modest eateries in many prime locations within the city led George Orwell to view A.B.C.’s tea shops, and those of its competitors, as the “sinister strand in English catering, the relentless industrialisation that was overtaking it…everything comes out of a carton or a tin, or is hauled out of a refrigerator or squirted out of a tap or squeezed out of a tube.”

However, another literary giant of the time, George Bernard Shaw was a great fan of the A.B.C. and frequented most of the London locations, Extracts from his diaries read “to the Aerated Bread Shop opposite the Mansion House station and had some eggs and chocolate there.” and ” Took tea at the Aerated Bread Shop at the corner of Parliament Square.”

So popular where the A.B.C.’s that they crop up in a lot of literature of the time, with such diverse authors using them as locations as, Agatha Christie, T. S. Eliot, Graham Green, Somerset Maugham and Virginia Woolf, they even get a mention in Bram Stoker’s, Dracula.

The decline of the tea shops started in the early 1950s and was heightened by it acquisition in 1955 by the baking giant Allied Bakeries, who steadily closed the wholesale bakery operations. The last A.B.C. bakery was situated in Camden Town in north London, which closed in 1982 and was demolished and a supermarket built on the site. Today, the only reminder of the A.B.Cs are the faded ghost signs that can occasionally be seen on the front of buildings, but it’s interesting to try and find the original buildings.

ABC 6 Southampton Row, Bloomsbury

Published by endean0

Hi, I'm Steve, a London tour guide and owner of A London Miscellany Tours, a guided walking tour company who specialise in small number tours of the greatest city in the world!

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