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History of Eccles cakes
In 1793 James Birch's shop on the corner of Vicarage Road in Eccles began selling small, flat, raisin-filled cakes. They sold, quite literally, like hot cakes!
Earlier, in 1769, Mrs Elizabeth Raffald, the housekeeper and owner of a confectioner's shop in Arley Hall, Cheshire, wrote an influential cookery book, 'The Experienced English Housekeeper' which became a best seller. The book contained a recipe for "sweet patties" with ingredients identifiably similar to the Eccles cakes of today. Could this have been the recipe seized upon by a cookery-mad servant girl who took a copy of the book with her when she went to live in ... Eccles?
Whatever the murky origins of the cakes, James Birch was certainly the first person credited with selling them on a commercial basis. They were sold from a shop at the corner of Vicarage Road and St Mary's Road (now known as Church Street) in Eccles.
However, the story becomes lost in the mists of time. Although the shop's letterhead in the 1870s showed that the firm was established in 1796, the land tax returns show that a James Birch first appeared as a "shopkeeper" in Eccles in 1785.
Whether James Birch made a name for his cakes in the 1780s, in 1796, or indeed some time later, is now impossible to say. It is equally impossible to construct a link between James Birch and Elizabeth Raffald (who died four years before the opening of Birch's shop).
More recently the question of origin of Eccles Cakes has been raised in Parliament. A question was tabled regarding the future of cakes made outside Eccles to the same ingredients. Could non Eccles-made cakes still be referred to (and sold) as Eccles cakes?
Retail and manufacturing split
In the early 1960's when plans were underway to redevelop Eccles, the Lyle family sold up. The shop was sold to local confectioner Alan Parker, who sold it on to Warburtons Bakeries Ltd. It continued to trade as Parker-Bradburn's, moving to 20 The Mall in 1966 as the original shop was demolished. The front window of the original Bradburn's shop is now in Salford Museums' collection.
The manufacturing side of the business was sold to William Mason, famous for making Soreen Malt cake who then sold it to Warburtons. The business moved to Stretford, where 100,000 cakes a day were made and staff were said to be unable to keep up with demand. The recipe was still kept secret, known to only four people but by 1964 the business was in trouble with losses of £100,000.
Investors stepped in to save it, on condition Mason and his family were no longer involved and kept on the 40 staff. But by 1968 the firm was in trouble again with just eight staff unable to meet demand for home orders, let alone the 12,000 cakes sold abroad and the potential new market in Africa. Although staff worked without pay to keep the business going it finally closed in 1969.
Eccles cakes in Hulme
Harry Harrup began work at Bradburn's in 1903 but joined up in 1915 to serve in France during the First World War. He made Eccles cakes in the trenches using a packing case, a bottle for a rolling pin and an oven made from an oil drum with a chimney made of jam tins.
In 1919 James Lyle agreed Harrup could make Eccles cakes provided he set up business outside the borough of Eccles. With the help of the British Legion he set up his business specialising in Eccles cakes in Hulme and traded there until the redevelopment of Hulme in the 1960s. He then worked part-time for Parker Bradburn's until his retirement in 1970.
Eccles cakes are still made in Lancashire today and exported all over the world
Although traditionally made in the town from where they get their name, Eccles cakes are now famous throughout the world.
As early as 1818 they were said to be sold "at all the markets and fairs around and are even exported to America and the West Indies".
Eccles Cakes are sometimes, though always with affection, referred to as 'dead fly pies'!
The definitive recipe for Eccles cakes?
Throughout history, families making Eccles and (the similar) Banbury cakes have all kept their recipes as closely guarded secrets. One of the most famous expressions in Eccles is "The secret dies with me!".
The authors of cookery books would therefore have had to invent their own recipes based on the taste of the cakes they purchased at different shops. Although no 18th Century and only a few 19th Century cookery books give recipes specifically for Eccles cakes, it may well be that early ones differ from those known today.
The fact that Eccles cakes were being exported by 1818 also suggests very good keeping qualities, so they may well have included spirits such as brandy and rum. No wonder the Puritans wanted to ban them.