About 150 yards along Aqueduct Rd from its junction with Gelsmoor Rd, marked B & C respectively on the appended extract from the 1923 published O/S map, there once stood a “Communal Village Bread Oven” marked A. This was on the perimeter of the field opposite the group of old cottages which still exist. It unfortunately fell into disrepair and was subsequently demolished for some inexplicable reason. The photographs, taken in 1980, are the only evidence of its existence. Coleorton Heritage Group has restored a similar oven on The Upper Moor.
The exact date when this oven was built is not known, but it would probably have been sometime in the early 1800’s. It would most likely have been financed by Sir George Beaumont of Coleorton Hall as a communal bakery for his tenants living in the many surrounding small cottages and crofts. Hearsay has it that the communal oven / bake house in the Woolrooms was in use in the 1920’s / 1930’s.
© Samuel T Stewart
Since Medieval times, communal bread ovens were common throughout Britain and Europe. Typically they were built of bricks and fuelled with wood. The bricks gave them a large thermal mass which meant that they retained their heat after their fire had gone out. Thus, after raking out the ashes food could be cooked on the floor of the oven.
The oven on Aqueduct Road would have had a coal fire (fire box) separate to the oven, which could operate for long periods with skilled stoking. The appended photographs suggest that it may well have been constructed with a double oven.
Medieval England and other parts of Europe also had "bannal mills" and "bannal ovens". The banal or bannal laws were the regulations that kept flour and grain under the control of the feudal superior. Peasants then had no choice but to bake in the feudal lord's designated oven after having their grain ground into flour in his mill, and to pay the relevant charges.
A baker presided over the oven; the dough would be marked with distinctive cuts or with metal "tallies" to make sure they got their own bread after baking.
Communal brick bread ovens (bake houses) were built for use by groups of villagers. These were periodically fired up and, for a small charge, villagers brought along their loaves, pies and, in some cases, their Sunday dinners, to be cooked in the communal oven.
Carrying the dough from the home to the bake house was a delicate task. Having risen in the warmth of the hearth, it would have to be covered with a flannel or thick cloth and carried quickly as the cold air would check its rising.
Cast iron stoves in the home became more prevalent in the nineteenth century. However they didn’t totally replace communal bread ovens since they were fired continuously and were too large for most domestic kitchens.
It’s only during the last hundred years or so that people have cooked with smaller ovens. Together with the wide availability of ready-baked loaves, the traditional communal bread oven has been rendered obsolete and either converted into houses or demolished. Some are still operating in Europe.
© John Bramley
Taken In France This Photograph Depicts A Typical Scene At A Communal Bread Oven