Each month we bring you the art of baking, passed down through generations in another historic British company
Swifts have been baking since 1863 from their base in Wheaton Aston, Staffordshire. Unusually for the time it was a female, Hannah Swift, who first brought the company to fruition – the business was a huge success and she made more money from the bakery than her labourer husband was earning from the land.
Hannah ran the bakery business with the help of her daughter Harriet until Hannah’s nephew Tom took over at the age of 19, after serving his bakery apprenticeship at West Bromwich and Stafford.
Tom married and had seven children, one of which was Charles Swift. After working with his father and serving in field bakeries during World War Two, based in Mombasa, East Africa, Charles returned to carry on the baking tradition.
Charles wrote about his experiences in a small booklet, My Wartime Experiences: “There were no freezers in those days, so regular deliveries were essential. At Christmas time the village people would bring their turkeys and geese to me on Christmas Day so that they could be cooked in the bakehouse ovens – they were always cooked to perfection.”
Charles then bought his own bakery in the small village of Gnosall, five miles from Wheaton Aston, and this is where Richard Swift was born.
Richard served his apprenticeship at Gnosall, before attending Birmingham College of Food & Technology and then becoming the bakery manager at Gnosall.
In 1978 he then left his father’s business to move to Clee Hill in Shropshire, where the Swift baking tradition continues under Richard’s watchful eye to this day.
Richard says of the move: “That’s always been the story in our family – my father left his dad to set up by himself. I left my father and set up by myself, and my two sons have also come up with new ideas so that they can make their own mark.”
There are now three generations of Swifts working at the business, following in Hannah’s floury footsteps – Elliot, the sixth generation, has just completed his apprenticeship through the Craft Bakers Association.
Of the family nature of the business John Swift says: “There must be lots of family bakers that have the same thing, but the next generation always think we know best. And sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t – new methods and practices have to be taken on board, but sometimes your father and your grandfather are right, sometimes the old ways are the best ways!”
Last year John starred in the BBC Two programme Victorian Bakers – each episode covered a different moment in history, starting in the 1830s when bread was vital to the survival of the nation and everything was done by hand, through the tough times of the industrial revolution in the 1870s, to the dawn of modern baking at the turn of the century.
Today Swifts runs two bakeries and five shops in the Shropshire area, as well as supplying local hotels, restaurants and pubs. Richard Swift is due to retire this year, at which point John will take over.
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1863 – Hannah Swift founds the bakery
1890 – Tom Swift takes over at the age of 19
1928 – Tom’s son Charles and his brother Walter join the family business
1941-1945 – Charles Swift serves in field bakeries in Mombasa, East Africa, in WW2
1978 – Richard Swift moves the business from Staffordshire to Shropshire
2017 – John Swift takes over the family business