Banbury Cakes are small puff pastries with a rum-flavoured dried fruit filling inside them. The pastry is shaped into an oval patty folding the fruit filling completely inside, then three slashes are made in the top before cooking.
They can be served warm or at room temperature. They are traditional for Whitsuntide (which occurs about seven weeks after Easter.)
They are very similar to Eccles Cakes.
The cakes can be made, or bought. In England, Banbury Cakes can be ordered online or bought from various stores that stock them. The company famous for making them, “Brown’s Original Banbury Cakes”, has been making them for close to 400 years and has never released its exact recipe.1
Banbury Cakes originated in Banbury, Oxfordshire.
The first written mention of Banbury cakes was in 1586. These original Banbury cakes, however, were probably actually more cake or scone-like than the ones we know today. Essentially, you made some dough, set some of the dough aside, mixed fruit up in the main dough, then rolled out the reserved dough and used that to cover pieces of the fruit-mixed dough, then baked it.
Here is a recipe for Banbury cake from 1615. (Note how English used to use the word “paste” (like the French pâte) to mean “dough”.) Note that yeast is used as the leavener, instead of the chemical leavening agents which are used today.
“To make a very good Banbury Cake, take foure pounds of Currants, & wash and pick them very cleane, and drie them in a cloth: then take three egges and put away one yelke, and beate them, and strayne them with barme [yeast], putting thereto Cloves, Mace, Cinamon and Nutmegges, then take a pint of Creame, and as much mornings milke and set it on the fire till the cold be taken away: then take flower and put in a good store of cold butter and sugar, then put in your egges, barme, and meale and worke them all together an houre or more: then save a part of the paste, & the rest breake in peeces and worke in your Currants: which done, mold your Cake of what quantity you please: and then with what that paste which hath not any Currants cover it very thinne both underneath and a loft. And so bake it according to the bignesse.” Gervase Markham in “The English Hous-wife” (London, 1615)
Banbury contained a bakery at 12 Parsons Street famous for its Banbury Cakes from the early 1600s until it was demolished by a property developer in 1968. The first two owners of the bakery were an Edward Welchman, and then a John Gibberd:
“The house achieved distinction as ‘The Original (Banbury) Cakeshop’. Edward Welchman, who bought the building or its precursor from Richard Busby in 1638, is the first baker known to have lived there, but the development of the premises as a bakery was probably the work of Welchman’s successor, John Gibberd. He bought the tenement in 1726, and when it was next sold in 1768 the deed described it as ‘sometime heretofore called or known by the name or sign of the Unicorn and since that time hath been converted into a bakehouse’. Certainly a rear wing of red brick had been built on to the house in the early 18th century, and at the end of that was a stone stack containing an oven.”2
By 1638, the bakery was being operated by a Bette White. The Penguin Companion to Food says that local records from 1638 show Banbury Cakes being sold in Banbury by a Bette White in the shop at 12 Parsons Street.3
A record of the Whites has come down to us through Alfred Beesley in his History of Banbury (1841):
“The White family were famous in Banbury as Cake Makers, and the name is still kept up at their former establishment in Parson’s Street (now conducted by Mr. S. [Samuel] Beesley), which is considered the ‘Original Cake Shop.’ Of ‘Old Jarvis White’ it is said, that he spent most of his time hanging over the hatch of his shop door, while his wife, ‘Betty White,’ was industriously engaged in keeping up the fame of the Cakes.
Betty White was jealous of her credit in other respects, and used to say — ‘My name is quiet Betty,’ I never meddles nor makes with nobody; no meatman never calls upon me twice:’ she was querulous, and often complained of the hardness of the times and the increasing price of the articles she used in the Cakes : ‘Only think,’ she used to say, when customers remarked that the Cakes were smaller, ‘there’s currans, they be double the price th’ used to be, and then there’s butter an’ sugar, why they be double the price th’ was formerly.’
On customers complaining of the size of the halfpenny Cakes, she would say,” G– help y’ I ‘oonder how much butter and sugar y’ could buy for a ha’penny.” Jarvis White was a profane, as well as an idle, man, but he would speak a word in favour of his wife’s Cakes ; and, to show how light they were, he tried to make people believe that a sparrow came one day into the shop and flew off with a cake in its mouth. When it was wet on a Fair day, he used to say, ‘If the D– has a black cloud, he’s sure to blow it up at Banbury Fair.’ (Information from the late Mr. James Lush, Mr. Robert Gardner, and Mr. Thomas Padbury.)4
After the Whites, the shop passed into the hands of Samuel Beesley:
“If the fame of Banbury Cheese has so nearly departed, that of Banbury Cakes, recorded from the days of Philemon Holland and Ben Jonson (in 1608 and 1614), has continued till the present time. Mr. Samuel Beesley, the proprietor of the cake shop which in the last century was conducted by the White family, sold, in 1840, no fewer than 139,500.
It is probable that the Banbury Cakes of the present day are made pretty nearly the same as those of the time of Holland and Ben Jonson. The present Mr. Dumbleton (who was born in 1765) remembers this sort of Cakes as being considered an antiquated production in the days of his youth; and he states that his father, who was born in the year 1700, spoke of them in the same way. The importation to this country of those small grapes which are the “currants” of commerce, and which are used in the manufacture of Banbury Cakes, was much earlier than this period. Ben Jonson (in his ‘Bartholomew Fair’) writes of the Banbury Puritan, a baker and cake-maker, as having “undone a grocer here, in Newgate market, that broke with him, trusted him with currants, as arrant a zeal as he.”
The Cakes are of an oval, but rather diamond-shaped, figure: the outside is formed of rich paste, and the interior consists of fruit, &c, resembling the contents of a mince pie.”5
By 1833, the shop was calling itself “The Original Banbury Cake Shop.”
The business has been run by Quakers for most of its history. The Beesleys were Quakers. From 1843 to 1868 it was run by the Lambs, Quakers from Sibford. From 1868 to 1983, it was run by Quakers named Brown.6
The shop would ship Banbury Cake orders free across the country. Woven wooden splint baskets were used until they were supplanted by cardboard boxes by the end of the 1800s. If you see references to Banbury cakes in “chip baskets”, it is those wooden baskets that is meant: “the cakes used to be carried around, all hot and crisp and fresh, in specially made chip baskets, wrapped in white cloths.”7 A separate industry existed in the town to supply the baskets.
By the start of the 1900s, it was run by two sisters, Lizzie and Lottie Brown.8
From the 1940s onwards, the business belonged to Wilfrid Brown.9 Around 1967, Wilfrid sold the building to a property developer who demolished it in 1968.
“Then a property company submitted plans for a shopping development to include the iconic building, and it was demolished in April 1968. Campaigners managed to obtain a last-minute preservation notice but it arrived just too late. Now the site is occupied by the Plaza Balti and Fashion Fabrics.”10
As of 2018, the baker of the cakes is a Philip Brown, the great-nephew of Lizzie and Lottie Brown, and youngest son of Wilfrid Brown. There no longer appears to be a store-front shop but rather a factory bakery which sells to supermarkets and fulfills online orders.11
Here Philip Brown discusses the cakes in 2014:
Literature & Lore
Mid 19th-century food writer Catherine Emily Callbeck Dalgairns gave this recipe:
“Banbury Cakes: Strew some nicely-cleaned currants over a piece of puff paste, roll it out, cut it into round cakes with the top of a dredging box; bake them upon floured tins, and the moment they are taken out of the oven, sift sugar over them, and put them upon a dish to cool. After making pies, they may be made with the remainder of the paste.”12
Banbury was partly made famous by a nursery rhyme with origins in the 1700s celebrating a cross in the town of Banbury.
Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross,
To see a fine lady upon a white horse;
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes
She shall have music wherever she goes.
There were actually several crosses in Banbury (the High Cross, the Bread Cross, and the white Cross), all pulled down by the Puritans in 1600 / 1601, so it’s not actually known exactly which cross was meant.
The cross currently at Banbury is a replacement one, erected in 1859. It served a dual purpose of landmark and water fountain:
“The town mayor didn’t even turn up. His place was taken by the town crier, who then led the small group of observers off to a pub…. Banbury’s Victorians couldn’t decide whether to have a cross, or a drinking fountain… so they fitted the cross with a water tap (now removed).”13
The lady on the horse statue came 150 years later, unveiled on 24 April 2005 by Princess Anne:
“The original planning permission was for the statue to face the cross. But the promoters applied to reposition it when they realised people coming down South Bar would have a splendid view of the horse’s bottom.”14
John Timbs, a Victorian writer, noted that Banbury was most famous for its cakes. He also noted that for a period in time, Banbury was also famous for its religious zeal. To be called a “Banbury man” meant you were a religious zealot. He notes that one religious baker of the cakes was so dismayed at thinking of the cakes being used at festivities, that he left the baking trade altogether. The fervent religious zeal of the Banburians led to them pulling down the Banbury Cross, as well as leading to much derision by others outside the town. A mischievous printer’s apprentice changed the words ”Banbury veal, cheese, and cakes’ to ‘Banbury zeal, cheese, and cakes’, provoking much indignation amongst the Puritans in the town.
BANBURY CAKES AND BANBURY CROSS. That the ancient town of Banbury, lying on the northern verge of the county of Oxford, has been, from time immemorial, famed for its rich cakes, should not excite our special wonder; seeing that the district has some of the richest pastureland in the kingdom; a single cow being here known to produce upwards of 200 pounds of butter in a year! Butter, we need scarcely add, is the prime ingredient of the Banbury cake giving it the richness and lightness of the finest puff paste and to the paper in which the cakes are wrapped the appearance of their having been packed up by bakers with well buttered fingers.
The cause of this cake fame must however be sought in a higher walk of history than in the annals of pastry making. The Banbury folks went on rejoicing in the fatness of their cakes until the reign of Elizabeth from which time to that of Charles II, the people of the town were so reputed for their peculiar religious fervour, as to draw upon themselves most unsparingly the satire of contemporary playwrights wits and humourists.
By some unlucky turn of time, cakes, which were much valued by the classical ancients and were given away as presents in the Middle Ages instead of bread, were looked upon as a superstitious relic by the Puritans who thereupon abolished the practice. They formed so predominant a party at Banbury in the reign of Elizabeth that they pulled down Banbury Cross celebrated in our nursery rhymes.
In the face of this historical fact however the reputed ‘zeal’ of the Banburians has been attributed to an accidental circumstance in modern phrase, “an error of the press.” In Gough’s edition of Camden’s Britannia in the MS supplement is this note: ‘Put out the word zeale in Banbury, where some think it a disgrace, when a zeale with knowledge is the greater grace among good Christians; for it was first foysted in by some compositor or press man, neither is it in my Latin copie, which I desire the reader to hold as authentic.
It was, indeed, printed as a proverb ‘Banbury zeal, cheese, and cakes’ instead of ‘Banbury veal, cheese, and cakes’.
Gibson in his edition of Camden, however, gives another version relating there is a credible story that while Philemon Holland was carrying on his English edition of the Britannia, Mr Camden came accidentally to the press when this sheet was working off; and looking on, he found that to his own observation of Banbury being famous for cheese, the translator had added cakes and ale. But Mr Camden thinking it too light an expression changed the word ale into zeal and so it passed to the great indignation of the Puritans who abounded in this town.
Barnaby Googe [Ed: a character created by Richard Brathwaite (1588 – 4 May 1673)] in his ‘Strappado for the Divell’ refers to Banbury as:
Famous for twanging ale, zeal, cakes, and cheese’
Better remembered are the lines in his Journey through England:
To Banbury came I, O profane one!
Where I saw a puritane one
Hanging of his cat on Monday
For killing of a mouse on Sunday.
Early in the seventeenth century the Puritans were very strong in Banbury. In Ben Jonson’s ‘Bartholomew Fair’ Zeal-of-the-Land-Busy, the Puritanical Rabbi, is called a Banbury man and described as one who was a baker ‘but he does dream now and sees visions; he has given over his trade out of a scruple that he took, that it spiced conscience, those cakes he made were served to bridales, Maypoles, morrises and such profane feasts and meetings’; in other words he had been a baker but left that trade to set up for a prophet and one of the characters in Bartholomew Fair says I have known divers of these Banburians when I was at Oxford…..
In the Tatler No 220 in describing his Ecclesiastical Thermometer to indicate the changes and revolutions in the Church, the Essayist writes ‘that facetious divine Dr Fuller speaking of the town of Banbury, near a hundred years ago, tells us it was a place famous for cakes and zeal which I find by my glass is true to this day, as to the latter part of this description, though I must confess it is not in the same reputation for cakes that it was in the time of that learned author’….
Thus far the association of cakes with zeal in the case of Banbury.”15
Walter de le Mare writes about Banbury Cakes in his 1913 poem, “The Cupboard”:
I know a little cupboard,
With a teeny tiny key,
And there’s a jar of Lollypops
For me, me, me.
It has a little shelf, my dear,
As dark as dark can be,
And there’s a dish of Banbury Cakes
For me, me, me.
I have a small fat grandmamma,
With a very slippery knee,
And she’s the Keeper of the Cupboard
With the key, key, key.
And I’m very good, my dear,
As good as good can be,
There’s Banbury Cakes, and Lollypops
For me, me, me.”16
Banbury Cross and the Nursery Rhyme. Cotswalds Info. Accessed August 2018 at https://www.cotswolds.info/strange-things/banbury-cross.shtml
Memories of Cake Shop. 19 May 2014. Banbury: Banbury Guardian. Accessed August 2018 at https://www.banburyguardian.co.uk/news/memories-of-cake-shop-1-6062738
“My great aunts, the Misses C B and E B Brown, who carried on the business, kept things very closely guarded and would not have divulged any recipe to anyone but family.” Brown, Philip. Cake Battle. London: The Independent. Letter to the Editor. 4 November 1998. ↩
Colvin, Christina, Janet Cooper, N H Cooper, P D A Harvey, Marjory Hollings, Judith Hook, Mary Jessup, Mary D Lobel, J F A Mason, B S Trinder, and Hilary Turner. “Banbury: Buildings.” A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 10, Banbury Hundred. Ed. Alan Crossley. London: Victoria County History, 1972. 29-42. British History Online. Web. 2 August 2018. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/oxon/vol10/pp29-42. ↩
Davidson, Alan. The Penguin Companion to Food. London: The Penguin Group, 2002. Page 65. ↩
Beesley, Alfred. The History of Banbury. William Totts: Banbury. 1841. ↩
Beesley, Alfred. The History of Banbury. ↩
Brown, Philip. Cake Battle. ↩
Davidson, Alan. The Penguin Companion to Food. ↩
Lester, Marjory. Browns Original Banbury Cakes. Accessed August 2018 at http://www.stepping-back.co.uk/banbury-cake-shop.html ↩
Townsend, Simon. The Original Banbury Cakeshop Mural. In: Cake and Cockhorse. Banbury, Oxfordshire: Banbury Historical Society. Volume 18, Spring 2010, Number Two. Pages 42 to 47. ↩
Koenig, Chris. Home of Banbury’s scrummy cakes. Oxford Times. 24 November 2011. ↩
Brown, Philip. Cake Battle. ↩
Catherine Emily Callbeck Dalgairns. The Practice of Cookery: Adapted to the Business of Every Day Life (8th edition). Edinburgh: Robert Cadell. 1840. ↩
BBC Oxford. Fine Lady: the facts. 26 September 2007. Accessed August 2018 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/oxford/content/articles/2007/09/26/fine_lady_factfile.shtml ↩
BBC Oxford. Fine Lady: the facts. ↩
John Timbs. Banbury Cakes and Banbury Cross. In: S. Lucas, Ed. Once a Week: An Illustrated Miscellany of Literature, Art, Science. London: Bradbury and Evans. Volume 8. December 1862 to June 1863. Pages 583 to 585. ↩
Walter De la Mare (1873 – 1956). In: Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes, 1913. ↩