This week we are indebted to Jackie Kay of the High Wycombe Society for this fascinating account of the long forgotten trade of the muffin man. Jackie writes:

“This advertisement appeared in the Buck Free Press on October 20 1911.

Bucks Free Press:

“Nine decades later it would be fondly recalled (albeit not quite accurately) by Albert C Lowe, one of the boys who responded to it. His reminiscences, including the following article describing his work as a “muffin boy” in High Wycombe, were left to the Society by his family.”

The muffin man and boys in Wycombe

By Albert C Lowe

Three smart boys wanted – Saturday work. Only for the winter months. Good wages. Apply Saturday between nine and ten o’clock to F. Burt Dashwood Avenue

Such was the advertisement in the local paper that drew my mother’s attention. Mr Burt who lived just round the corner from our house, was well-known as the town’s only “Muffin man” who, carrying his loaded tray upon his head, toured the main streets of the town every Saturday during the winter months ringing his handbell in a particular rhythm that prospective customers knew quite well.

To see this man serving a customer was almost like watching a circus act.

On a leather belt around his waist were two large hooks, one on which to hang the leather looped handle of his bell, the other for the money bag.

He would lift the loaded tray from his head, remove the waterproof and covering sheets, place the purchase in a paper bag, take the money, sometimes giving change, cover the muffins and crumpets again, and be on his way to ring for his next customer.

My mother asked me if I would like to apply to see what duties I would have to perform. The idea of earning some money was pleasant enough but I told my mother that I did not think that I could carry a tray full of muffins on my head. The call to earn some money was, however, very strong. So, sprucing myself up, round the corner I went to meet Mr Burt. I knew this big tall man with a very gruff voice. No need to ask what duties I would have – he told me!

Bucks Free Press:

“If you work for me you must be here punctually at ten o’clock with clean shoes and a white apron. I supply the white cuffs and armlets. Look smart with hands and fingernails well-scrubbed!”

“Do you think you can carry a large basket of crumpets and muffins?” he asked.

I thought of the wages. “Yes Sir”, I answered.

Then there followed a few little problems that I had to answer correctly.

“Crumpets sell at a halfpenny each or four for three-halfpence. How many would you sell for a shilling?”

“Thirty-two, Sir” I responded. I was right.

“A customer buys eight crumpets. How much change from a shilling?”

“Nine pence, Sir” I replied. Again, I was right.

Having passed the test satisfactorily I was told that my wages would be three pence for every shilling I took in payment for the muffins and crumpets, and work would be from ten to twelve in the morning and from two to four in the afternoon. “Now, go home and tell your mother what wages you will have and what you have to do. Call back later and tell me if you want to work for me or not.” Mr Burt seemed pleased to see me again.

I gained confidence when I found that I knew the other two boys who also got jobs. Bill and Tom were fellow choir boys at our local church. We each had instructions to be at the premises at ten o’clock, smartly dressed, with white aprons. Saturday ten o’clock came and Mr Burt eyed me up and down and said: “Now show me your hands and put your apron on, Sonny.” Mr Burt proceeded to pin my white cuffs on, which came almost to my elbows.

“Here is your basket filled with 160 crumpets and 15 muffins.”

The food was covered with a white cloth and a waterproof cover on top. He told me exactly the extent of my district and said that on no account was I to go anywhere else as he did not want two boys calling in the same road.

I was to start at the corner house. My first call was at a large house where the housekeeper bought 32 crumpets and asked me to call back every Saturday with 32 more. It seemed unbelievable. I had earned threepence on that very first call.

I learned very quickly that most customers bought four or eight crumpets, and I soon realised that three customers buying one each meant I could take one for nothing.

After a few weeks I knew most of my customers and my earnings each week came to about one [shilling] and six pence.

I sold about 160 crumpets a week and 15 muffins that were priced at a penny each or seven for sixpence. My earnings finished at the end of March. That was the only time I worked as a muffin boy. By the time the season started again I was working full-time in a factory and earning four shillings a week for fifty two hours.

It is interesting to reflect how the three choir boys developed in later life. Tom became a priest in the Church of England and went to live in Africa. Bill became a skilled draughtsman and emigrated to the USA. He later married a Canadian girl and moved to Australia.

Not much to write about myself, most of my living was earned in factories making chairs, and I did not leave Britain until long after I retired when I enjoyed a wonderful Canadian holiday.

A photograph of “The Muffin Man, J Herbert” appears in Ivan Sparkes’ book “The Book of Wycombe”. This was used as inspiration by Stuart King to create the illustration shown here.

The 1911 census confirms James David Herbert lived with his wife and two daughters at 55 Dashwood Avenue. (There was no-one of the name Mr F. Burt there at that time). Herbert was forty three years old and a grocer.

In the 1911 census Albert Lowe can be found “round the corner” at 59 Abercrombie Avenue. Aged nine, he is living with his parents: father Archibald, 31, a chair polisher, and mother Nellie, 29. He had 2 younger siblings: a brother Willie, 5, and a sister, Nellie, 2.

Bucks Free Press:

They also had a boarder, Harry Howard, aged 52, a chairmaker. The house still exists today. The 1939 register records that in his later career he became a foreman wood machinist. By then he was living with his wife Daisy on the Bradenham Road. His parents Archibald and Nellie were still at Abercrombie Ave.

It is believed that a muffin man was at work in Wycombe as late as the 1930s. This is unlikely to have been James David Herbert, who would then have been about 70 years old. He died in 1936, when he was still living in Wycombe. Can any reader remember a muffin man in Wycombe, if so please contact Mike Dewey, email or by phone 01628 525207.