The Cornish Range or “Slab” was once an essential item in every home, it was where so many Cornish maids baked their first pasty. From early times, however, the commercial baker has been a part of every community and in this article, Tony Mansell looks back on his family’s history to a time when his great grandfather was a well-known Truro baker.
Baking was big business and every town had a number of bakers with folk leaning towards their favourites just as we do today when deciding where to buy our pasty.
Alfred James Mansell was born on the 20th of December 1865 at Mill Pool, Truro. In 1871 he was living in Rosewin Row, Truro, with his father, James Scott Mansell, his mother Mary and his infant sister, Annie. James Scott was an ostler at an inn and tragedy struck the following year when he received a kick from a horse and died. Life had been tough for the family and for Mary and her two children it was about to become even tougher.
Alfred James left school sometime around 1879 and it seems likely that he began an apprenticeship with a Truro baker.
On the 22nd of July 1888 he married Emma Louise Solomon at Truro Bible Christian Chapel and the following year their first child was born. In 1891 he was working as a baker and confectioner but we do not know the name of his employer nor where the bakery was located.
At some stage the couple decided to open their own bakery business but the circumstances surrounding this decision is just one of the mysteries in his early life. I would love to know when and how he made this move. Did he take over his employer’s business or set up in opposition? Where did he find the necessary capital or was it provided by his wife’s family who were a part of the engineering company, Solomon and Argall.
Alfred James Mansell
We do know that their first bakery was at 9 Old Bridge Street and that the likely start date was during the 1890s. He was still based there in 1906 when his business was listed in “Kelly’s Directory” as “A J Mansell Machine & Steam Bakery”. Within a year or so, and certainly by 1910, his business address was 15 Old Bridge Street – on the opposite side of the road and adjacent to the engineering company of Solomon and Argall.
Moving to the larger premises must have enabled the business to grow and at about the same time, circa 1910, James opened a restaurant at 3 River Street. No doubt this provided an outlet for much of his fancy goods. We imagine that this was a profitable addition to his business and it ran for a dozen or more years. It may well have continued longer but for an unfortunate event but more of that later.
Alfred James Mansell’s Restaurant at 3 River Street
Circa 1913: The new premises at 15 Old Bridge Street with Alfred James leaning on the horse (Photo: courtesy Clive Mansell)
James and Louise’s first son, Alfred Scott Mansell, had been born in 1889. On leaving school he worked in the family bakery as a baker/journeyman and became an essential part of the business. He was working there when the First World War began and when, in 1916, conscription was introduced it brought uncertainty about his future there and even of the continuation of the business. The arrival of his “Calling-up papers” increased the concerns and in April 1916 the “West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser” reported that Mr Alfred James Mansell, baker, had applied for war service exemption of his son Alfred Scott Mansell, 26, of Carclew View, Devoran. James explained that his son was engaged in the bakery business and was the only practical help he had. If he could not retain him he would have to reduce the business.
It was reported that the Advisory Committee had recommended that the claim should not be allowed, and that Alfred Scott Mansell should join up on the 15th of May 1916. Bread baking was a certified occupation, however, and the question raised was whether such a man should be relieved of his civil employment.
James Mansell said that a man he employed had left for the war and for the past eight or ten months his wife had been in the bakehouse every day; she was there when he left that evening. In addition, three of his five daughters were working there but he could not continue without Alfred’s help.
It was decided to grant temporary exemption but only until the 1st of July 1916 when a further claim could be made. This provided just a few months respite, but a subsequent hearing decided to grant continued exemption.
The Mansell family circa 1917: Back row: Gwen, Ted, May, Alfred, Maud, Dolly / Front row: Milly, Alfred James, Les, Emma Louise
The Bakery frontage drawn in 1925 by Lesley Mansell (Photo: courtesy Clive Mansell) Emma’s family had the adjacent business (Solomon and Argall)
Slightly differing floor plans which may suggest that they were drawn at different times (Photo: courtesy Clive Mansell)
(Photos: courtesy Clive Mansell)
Alfred Mansell continued to work for his father and it is probable that it was James’ intention that he would eventually take over the business. In 1924, however, disaster struck the family and a motorcycle accident at Arch Hill, near Truro, left Alfred crippled. As a result, he could no longer undertake the physical work involved in the bakery.
The decision to close the restaurant in River Street may well have been the result of this accident. It was clearly a severe blow and with none of their other children showing an interest in the business, James and Louisa had to resign themself to the fact that there would be no family successor.
In 1932 Emma Louise died and the fact that I can find no “Kelly’s Directory” entries beyond this date suggests that James had decided to sell the bakery. By then he was 67 and it must have seemed that there was no point in continuing. We believe that it was sold to the bakery business, Blewetts of Truro).
Alfred James Mansell
With the loss of his wife, and no business to occupy his time, James looked for other involvement. He became a City Councillor, and we feel sure that he devoted more of his time to his beloved chapel – the Bible Christian Chapel in St Clement’s Street. James was a staunch Methodist; he had strong religious views which other family members have said he often tried to inflict on them.
Truro Council 1933 with Alfred James Mansell third left in back row
James died on the 19th of February 1949 at 6 Rosewin Row, Truro, and is buried beside Emma Louise in Truro Cemetery.
Alfred James’ bakery was just one of a number in Truro and about the same time that he began baking his bread and cooking his pasties a member of another well-known Truro family started his bakery business.
Thomas Charles (Tom) Vage was the eldest son of Mary and John Henry Vage, a wood turner in Back Lane (now City Road). Tom was born in New York in 1871. The family returned to Cornwall but as soon as Tom was old enough, he left for America again where he trained as a master baker and confectioner. In the 1890s, he returned to Truro and set up his own bakery and confectionery business and by 1895 he is listed in Kelly`s Directory as being a Baker at The Bakehouse, 48, Carclew Street. He is also recorded as being a baker at 34, Carclew Street.
He left Cornwall again between circa 1910, this time for Ontario, Canada, where he remained for the rest of his life.
I only discovered this inter-family rivalry when listening to Simon Vage give a talk about his family’s jewellery business.
Cover photo: Frank Benbow delivering the bread for A J Mansell Machine and Steam Bakery wagon in River Street in front of the Bethesda Independent Chapel (Photo: courtesy Clive Mansell)
Tony Mansell is the author of several books on aspects of Cornish history. In 2011 he was made a Bardh Kernow (Cornish Bard) for his writing and research, taking the name of Skrifer Istori. He has a wide interest in Cornish history and is a researcher with the Cornish National Music Archive and a sub-editor with Cornish Story: an Institute of Cornish Studies initiative.