Memories of Leigh Bakery and Chapel, 1927-1939


In 2005 David Phipps came to Leigh which was the home of his parents from 1927–1939. His father, Robert Phipps was baker from 1927 to 1939, when he sold the bakery to Mr Lakeman and the family moved to their other bakery at Downe. The family were also keen members of Leigh Chapel. David related his memories to Chris Rowley. The following is taken from his reminiscences and describe the life of a village bakery, the non-conformist chapel and his childhood in Leigh.

(A fuller account of David Phipps’ memories can be found in the Leigh Archive)

David Phipps’s father, Robert Phipps, bought Leigh Bakery in 1927. Formerly he had been the General Manager of a big bakery in Lewisham, Wallaces, but he wanted to have his own business. He had been the eldest child, whose family had lived at Wembley and had left school at 14. He had later volunteered in the First World War and joined the RHA as an observer, looking to see where our shells were landing.

After the War Robert went to visit his uncle (his mother’s brother) who was a baker in Dartford . He first became a bookkeeper for his uncle, but was so keen on the bakery side of the business, that he eventually followed that trade. He married Julia, who was the daughter of a Baptist minister and decided that it would be better for their children to be brought up in the country. They moved to Leigh and took over the bakery there.

Their son, David Phipps, was born in 1929: he was the second son and one of eight children – four boys and four girls. They lived in the house in front of the actual Bakery with the shop on the right – where the shop window still is. Some of the Phipps children went to the Village School but David and his older brother, Robert, were sent to a private school in Tonbridge, Malvern School for Boys on Quarry Hill. His father had ambitions for them. They got to school via Leigh Halt and used to shake hands with the engine driver every morning. On Tonbridge station there was a man selling snacks – sherbet dabs and penny Milky Ways . Although Robert and David were a part of the village scene, their father wanted what he thought of as something better than the Village School .

Robert Phipps (their father) had come from independent, radical, non-conformist stock: everyone called him ‘ Mr Phipps’. He had three principles, which he always used to recite to David and his siblings:

“If you’re going to run a business, do it amongst chimneys”. He thought there were enough people in the Leigh area.

“Never antagonize the barons”. Possibly applying to the upper class people in the village as well as being a general principle.

“Many can help one but one cannot help many”. Robert Phipps and his wife, Julia, wanted to help people – but in their own way.

Thus at Leigh, they were very much a pillar of the Leigh Plymouth Brethren Chapel. Robert was one of the Elders. David’s grandmother, Hilda Rose Phipps, is buried in the Chapel graveyard – the first on the right by the gate, along with Pat, his sister, who died of meningitis aged two, next to her.

The majority of Chapel families were quite well off and they were quite sure not only of their place in Heaven but their place in the terrestrial world. David’s parents, Robert and Julia, were strict Chapel people: whatever they wanted the children to do would coincide with what God had decreed. There was a service before breakfast every morning, which was attended also by the family’s maid and the children’s nurse. It comprised long hymns; prayers to say thank you to God and to ask Him to bless and help the drunkards in the village. (Pubs were places of the Devil); and there was a Bible reading from a little book that had a special text for each day. By the time breakfast started, the porridge was completely cold!

On Sundays, there was Sunday School in the tin chapel at 9.30 am after breakfast. Later in the morning there was an hour and half service – where you would be told how you were going to be damned. As well as families from Leigh who attended, like the Wells’s, the Lucas’s, and the Lamberts, there were also people from Penshurst and Hildenborough. Usually no one led the actual service. Sometimes the words of the hymns would run out before the music or vice versa: David recalls there were about fifteen hymns and only five tunes. There was no musical accompaniment – that would have been sinful. But inevitably it was the older men who would spout fire and brimstone. After Sunday lunch, there was another Sunday School at 3.30 pm and then the Evening Service at 6’ish. That was Sunday!

In addition, there would be a Cottage Meeting at various Brethren’s houses on Wednesday evenings. And there was also the Plymouth Brethren Mission that would arrive once a year in the summer. It was held in a tent, which was erected in the meadow on the left before the railway – what is now the start of Well Close. It was called “The Young Life Campaign” and of course all the Phipps children had to go. You could watch cricket on a Saturday but certainly not on a Sunday – it would be a sin.

The only kind of Minister was a Mr Mitchell who came from Hildenborough – particularly to administer Communion. He used to try to discipline the Phipps children – and one day when he came to Sunday lunch, David and his brother filled up a flour sack with water and dropped it on his head as he left. Robert got the biggest hiding of his life – but “it was worth it”. David described the family’s faith as an “Electric Light Faith” – everything was completely clear and straightforward: there were to be no variations: no thought. He remembered being puzzled when they were told everyone who went to the public houses was damned and yet they were people they knew and who seemed very kind and sensible. However, for the Plymouth Brethren everyone else was wrong.

David and his siblings used to get into trouble with the policeman, Mr Ginn and received several clips round the ears from him – although they were friends with Mr Ginn’s son, Neville, who had epileptic fits. When they played together, they would always have a pencil in order to put it between Neville’s teeth to stop him biting his tongue when he had a fit. They also caused problems for Mr North, the head gamekeeper. Once they had been stealing pheasants’ eggs and were caught with lots of them in their pockets. So he and the other keeper chased them through the nettles and bashed them a bit so all the eggs broke and their clothes were completely ruined. Returning home stinking and filthy, they received a beating from father – which they often were for not being God-fearing enough.

Thus David and his siblings grew up rather unruly as a reaction to all this: but it must have been difficult for their father who was not only an Elder but a School Governor, on the Fire Brigade Committee, etc.

Edited copy taken from Parish Magazine Articles of 2009