As Percy Ingle Bakeries, the 66-year-old East End baking empire, closes its doors, we look back over the company’s history.
Percy Ingle, the local family-run bakery founded in the East End, has been passed down five generations. At present, grandsons Michael and Paul Ingle are the bakery’s directors.
Deeply rooted in the East End tradition, this bakery has imprinted itself on the East End community. Fondly remembered by many, its history is nevertheless entangled with a darker story of discrimination.
As the last few Percy Ingle shops shut their doors, we sift through locals’ memories of the bakery, balancing them against its legal battle with the Commission for Racial Equality during the 1980s.
Since 1954, their products have been rooted in family traditions from grandfather Percy Ingle’s recipe book, which featured a variety of treats from sausage rolls to Tottenham cakes. Locals favoured their Hot Cross Buns, traditionally made with their own blend of spices, raisins and sultanas, left overnight to infuse before being added to the dough.
At its height, there was a Percy Ingle on most corners in East London, visited by local residents and customers for their traditional treats and recipes.
For 66 years they have provided cakes for birthday parties and weddings, as well as playing a part in those smaller moments in life – a doughnut on the way home from school.
Shirini Ali recalls how Ingle’s Belgian buns were a prominent staple in her childhood: ‘they were always my treat for a job well done since my school days.’ Continuing the tradition, Ali rewards her girls with Ingle’s chocolate flake cake. Frequenting the branch in Watney Market, Ali appreciates the friendly staff who always ‘loved having a good laugh’.
Wendy Dempsey had a similar experience while growing up in the 80s. ‘I lived on Bethnal Green Road and we used to pass Ingle’s on the way to school each day. For us, treats were cream horns, bread and butter pudding and doughnuts – the best doughnuts in town! If we were really lucky, we sometimes got Kaiser Rolls for lunch during the holidays.’
Now, Dempsey has carried on this tradition with her own daughters, who are treated to Ingle’s ‘excellent bread and delicious sausage rolls that beat anything you’d find in other bakeries; the East End high street won’t be the same without them’.
Like the family-run bakery itself, visiting Percy Ingle became a family activity too, and was passed down the generations. Sammie Brooks remembers: ‘my mum used to send me to their Broadway Market branch to get a loaf of poppy seed bloomer. Then she’d moan at me because I’d start eating it on the way home – one of my fondest memories as a child!’
Christine Golding, too, recalls how working at the Broadway Market branch in 1975 was her first-ever job. ‘My mum already worked there so she got me a job and pretended I was 13-years-old when really I was only 12-and-a-half! I loved it; the staff were lovely and the customers were great too.’
One memory stands out for Golding in particular – when a bread shortage struck the bakery. ‘My dad had to stand at the door to make sure that there was only one loaf per person. He didn’t work there though, Mum just employed him as the stand-in bread minder!’
During the 90s, Emma Inwood visited her grandma’s house every Saturday. ‘The whole family got together and we’d buy Percy Ingles rolls and fish and chips from Savvas on Roman Road. This went on for a good 10 years; my Saturday was never complete without this.’
Throughout the same decade, Tina Brown recalls how important Percy Ingle’s was for her father.
‘My dad suffered from a brain injury. He used to walk the same circuit every day – a couple of miles around the East End – to try to recover. He would stop off halfway at Percy Ingle for a tea and one of their cheesecakes, the dry, ‘hairy’ type, not the ones topped with fruit. It was a place of safety for him and an incentive to fight to regain his former self after the devastation of his brain injury. Every day, I would ask the same question: “Did you go to Percy Ingle?” and he always replied, “Yes, I had tea and a cheesecake” and I would say “Was it nice?” and he would say “Cor yeah, it was lovely”. That is how I remember Percy Ingle’.
Sharon Burns was also a big fan of Ingle’s famous ‘hairy’ cheesecakes. ‘They had the best cheesecake, although my aunt called them “hairy Mary’s” because of the coconut on top. The first time I went alone as a child when I was 11, I asked for a hairy mary and the lady looked so confused. I was so embarrassed but she just started laughing. I still call them hairy Mary’s.’
Joyce Rose remembers how much her dad also adored Percy Ingle, frequently visiting the one in Barking. ‘He would spend hours in there, and even got himself a date once, in 2005, with someone who was working there. She was a lovely lady called Margaret.’
‘My poor dad, for years he called them Percy Ingrams and I always corrected him but gave up in the end’.
Linda Holmes, who is originally from Bethnal Green, remembers going to Ingle’s after school. ‘It was the perfect Friday treat, picking up a strawberry tart on the way home’. Later on in life, she chose Percy Ingle to make her wedding cake in 1975.
‘It was three horseshoe tiers, all fruit and I loved it. Everyone else loved it too. I saved the top tier for my daughter’s christening and put it with another cake.’ Now living in Holland-on-Sea in Essex, she says ‘our roots will always be Bethnal Green. We always say that’s where we’re from’.
Jacqueline Stromberg was also a regular at the Bethnal Green Road branch in the 70s – it was the first shop she ever went to. ‘I loved their Eccles cakes. When I moved to Devon in 2007, I got my sister to send them to me through the post! I sure will miss them’.
For others, the memories aren’t so positive. While Percy Ingle Ltd. is remembered fondly by many, rose-tinted spectacles can occlude important details in the historical record. Lesser known is the bakery’s troubled relationship with racial diversity, which in the late 1970s invited an investigation by the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE).
The Commission got involved following a complaint by a former Percy Ingle manager, who alleged a supervisor had told her ‘not to employ black people in her shop’. Upon further investigation, the CRE came across two Percy Ingle “manageresses” with extremely divisive views.
One manageress ‘had to admit that she was prejudiced against Pakistanis’. The other told the Commission ‘that there were certain circumstances in which she felt it would be justifiable for a manageress to discriminate on racial grounds’.
The two manageresses later denied making these statements, but the CRE still issued the bakery with a non-discrimination notice. This notice required the company to respect Section 28 of the Race Relations Act and ensure their recruitment procedures were fair. The notice also asked the bakery to ‘inform their employees about the Race Relations Act’, and to ‘change their procedures’ in order to ‘encourage black applicants’.
Instead of accepting the findings of the Commission, in August 1980, Percy Ingle Ltd. appealed against the notice at a Tribunal. Among other things, they argued that even if discriminatory practices were in place, no victim could be found. Although the CRE dismissed this argument as ‘manifest nonsense’, the judges on the Tribunal ‘considered themselves bound’ by a precedent set in an earlier case.
It is safe to say that reactions will be mixed as the final few Percy Ingle branches shut their doors. Good and bad, this business had a lasting impact on the East End community and will remain in our memories for a long time to come.
A very special thanks to Edna Bannor for her words and research.
Hungry for more? Read our interview with David Miller – the man behind Breid Bakery.
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