Reginald Tree was the village baker from the 1940s through the 1980s. This intriguing account of his life that must have been written in the early 1980s and the times is reproduced by the kind permission of the Cuckfield Museum:
Folks would travel miles for his mouth-watering cakes and delicious bread. But a quiet hard-working man, he rarely spoke of his own life and interests. Now the story can be told.
‘Dedicated’ is not the sort of word usually bandied about, but most people who know Reginald Tree would probably agree that this description fits him. In fact, he admits it himself, for as he says, ‘If you’re not dedicated to your work, you’re not going to do it well’.
Mr Tree has been a baker for 50 years. His day starts at 3 o’clock in the morning until 7pm most evenings, from 2am on Saturday, and up till 10pm on Friday. It is difficult to pass ‘The Cake Shop' in Cuckfield High Street without stopping to look at his window, with the plates of fresh scones, macaroons, shortbread, sponge drops, almond slices, bakewell tarts and madeleines.
He started work when he was 15. His father was an architect, but with no desire to follow in his footsteps, he became a motor-coach trimmer’s apprentice. When the firm went broke, he got a job on Saturdays with the local baker. ‘I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic to start with, but then I got dead keen.’
He used to pick up the bread, feed the pony and get the cart ready for the round.
That was 50 years ago, and in those days people used to eat much more bread. Mr Tree remembers delivering 300 loaves in Ansty. ‘Every family would take as many as 12 or 14 loaves at a time, and flour as well. They used to eat it in two days.'
‘Of course, families were larger then, there was less money about for other foods, and a lot of bread and cheese was eaten. But it was such good bread that it did more good than today’s would.’
Mr and Mrs Tree have no-one to help them in their bakery except for two girls on Saturday morning. ‘Our premises are too small for us to employ people,’ said Mrs Tree, ‘… it’s hard work, and the hours are long.’ Sunday is meant to be a free day for Mr Tree, but he always goes in to do the scrubbing.
Still only a small, scattered hamlet, in those days most of the men would have been in agricultural work.
Made 3,000 hot cross buns
‘I wouldn’t have wanted my children to come into the trade,’ admits Mrs Tree. Their three sons and one daughter have all gone into different professions. But on Good Friday, two sons, Dick and John come down to help their father with the hot cross buns. Last year they made three thousand.
‘There used to be three bakers in Cuckfield, and six in Haywards Heath. I am the only one now to make my own bread. I make about 150 loaves a day, 100 on Saturdays,’ says Mr Tree. ‘I do about 1500 to 2000 rolls a week, as well as the bread, cakes and biscuits.'
‘I have made over 1500 wedding cakes and thousands of Christmas cakes. I used to make chocolate eclairs, gateaux and meringues, but the demand was too great and I had to stop.’
In the pre-war days bakers had their own specialities, so the more you worked with, the more you learnt. Mr Tree remembers being with Mr Cain at Whiteman’s Green, Mr Chalmers at Lindfield, Mr Porter at Balcombe and at Dean’s Mill, Lindfield.
‘When I worked at Chalmers I used to go over to the baker’s opposite to get some ideas from him’. He talks of the loaves he used to make, with their evocative names from a bygone age: Coburg loaves, with their four comers (Ed: radial slashes in the dough), Cottage loaves, (“everybody’s favourite”); Brunswicks, which opened up like a cauliflower and Bloomers.
His gingerbread is famous. ‘There is one old lady who says she has followed me around every place I have worked, to get my gingerbread,’ he says. Many of his recipes are the same as he used 50 years ago. ‘If you use good stuff you will get a good article. But some bakers now buy what they use in a ready-mixed form. They make anything with it, from a cherry cake to a wedding cake. How can it be good? Each recipe is individual, so it needs to be made differently. Of course there are so many chemicals that get into confectionery these days, and hardly anything they use is fresh.’
Mr Tree’s customers come from many parts; two old ladies travel from East Croydon each weekend to take ‘a little bit of everything.’ People come from London once a week and buy enough to keep them going, and from Gloucestershire. Returning holidaymakers to the West Country call in once a year. ‘There’s no bread like this where we are.’
An American lady insisted on taking some bread back with her to America ‘so that they can see what you make in England.’
‘You have really got to like your business, because if you don’t like it, you don’t stick at it,’ he says. ‘If you do stick at it, it becomes part of you. I think I like it so much because it speaks to me of an old and delightful trade. When you see the old brick ovens with faggots, it is so primitive, it gets you. It must be one of the oldest trades there is.'
‘One of the nicest things about it is that I have a longer life than most people. I don’t spend as much time in bed. When you are asleep, you might as well be dead.'
‘You just make your day longer by getting up earlier. You can’t imagine what it’s like in the early morning when nobody’s up.'
‘I see the changing skies, the scenery at different times of the year. I see so many different birds, badgers and an occasional fox. When there’s no-one about, no cars or anything, it could be another century.'
’It’s a wonderful trade, if you don’t want anything else. There’s no time for other interests.’
But his son disagreed with this last statement and said that he spoke too modesty. He grew the most perfect and delicious vegetables and fruit in the allotment just over the hedge from Cuckfield Churchyard. His new potatoes, peas, broad and runner beans, marrows, lettuces and other salad vegetables, raspberries and gooseberries in season, and little ridge cucumbers grown at home were like no others I have ever tasted, they were so fresh and full of flavour.
The allotment kept the family well supplied with vegetables and fruit during the war years and for many years afterwards.
Later, but still working full-time, he had a small greenhouse in the garden at home where he grew huge, beautiful chrysanthemums of show quality. I don’t remember whether he ever entered them into a show.
He also loved fuchsias, and grew many different sorts, the tender ones were overwintered in the greenhouse and brought out to the garden for the summer months.
For those that grew up on Tree bread - they will still remember the aroma of freshly baked bread, and recall the cosy and busy shop on the corner of Broad Street and the start of the High Street hill. And apart from the friendly welcome most of all they will recall the crusty scrumptious loaves unmatched by supermarkets today.
Our thanks to the Cuckfield Museum, for allowing us to reproduce this interview.
Notes: Reginald Tree died in 1984, aged 79. George Carey seen in the photo above was tragically killed in 1934 in a motor cycle accident, aged 20.
Contributed by Malcolm Davison.