Born and Bread: Welsh Hills Bakery, Hirwaun

Each month we profile a family business to see how the baking craft has passed down through the generations. This month, the story of Welsh Hills Bakery, which evolved from a traditional village bakery to an international free-from giant.

In 1956 Ernest Rule and his wife, Ruby, took over the running of the established Emlyn Bakery in Godreman, near Aberdare. A loaf of bread cost a mere 4p at the time and they used to deliver much of their products by hand.

Over the course of the next 10 years, their daughters Mary and Eunice started working at the bakery. In 1972 Peter Douglass married Eunice and they lived in the flat above the shop – having learnt the bakery ropes from Ernest, who is now the company’s managing director.

During the miners’ strikes in 1974, Welsh Hills provided cakes and pastries for the miners’ families’ Christmas parties, but two years later it was the bakers at the large plant bakeries who were on strike and, as a result, there was a nationwide shortage of bread.

During this time the business worked “around the clock”, according to Peter, as queues of people lined up in the street to buy bread. He said: “I remember during this time, in the early hours, falling asleep while standing up at the bench, hand-weighing the dough.

“I got woken up with a poke in the side from my father-in-law saying, ‘Hey, come on, we’ve got all this to finish’. The next day we were both totally exhausted so we weighed off the dough into 2lb pieces and sold it to the desperate mothers to bake at home.”

In 1976 Ernest sold the bread business and moved to an empty bakery in Aberdare, where the family embarked on a wholesale bakery venture and Welsh Hills Bakery, in its current form, was born.

Initially the company began supplying wholesale distributors around the UK, and later went on to win contracts to supply Harrods and Selfridges, as well as making wedding cake bases for one of the largest UK bakery groups.

In 1986 the company moved into its current bakery in Hirwaun, not far from Aberdare. In 1990, Ernest retired and Ian, his grandson, joined the business as a trainee baker and office assistant. Peter’s youngest son, Tony, also joined the business after leaving school in 1994, but he passed away in 1997.

In 2000 Welsh Hills made “the largest change in its history”, according to Peter, and turned its attention to gluten-, wheat- and dairy-free production for the first time. He said: “We recognised a growing need for gluten-free foods and saw a gap in the market, which we felt we could fill.”

In response, the family expanded the factory, invested in new machinery and introduced new practices and methods of manufacturing, “which enabled us to operate a totally gluten-free site”.

Welsh Hills then became the first company to supply Sainsbury’s and Tesco with its own brand of free-from products. Asda, Waitrose, Morrisons, Holland & Barrett and the NHS have since been added to its customer portfolio.

In 2008 the company developed its own brand of gluten-free products, named Lovemore Free From Foods, and Welsh Hills products are now exported to the US, Australia, the Middle East and much of Europe. It now employs over 70 members of staff, including Peter’s grandson, Harry, and Peter’s son-in-law, Grant.

...

Welsh Hills Bakery, Hirwaun

1956: Ernest and Ruby take over Emlyn Bakery in Godreman
1974: Welsh Hills works “around the clock” to feed the village during plant bakery strikes
1976: The bread business is sold and Welsh Hills moves to Aberdare to focus on wholesale
1986: Welsh Hills moves to its current site in Hirwaun after expanding again
2000: The business enters the free-from market and invests in new machinery and practices
2008: The Lovemore Free From Foods brand is born and the plant becomes totally gluten-free

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