I spent much of 2018 writing a history of South Australia’s much-loved bakery company, Balfours. Originally intended as a coffee-table book for valued suppliers and clients, it morphed into a magazine format for general readership and was rewritten (by someone else) in a more casual style. The format meant that much of the detail in the original was omitted.
Below is the original introduction and the first chapter of the book. If you would like to read the whole story, there’s a PDF here.
Home of the Frog Cake
Here in Australia, we have a propensity for building Big Things, often in celebration of foodstuffs. Scattered around the country are the Big Banana, the Big Mandarin, the Big Potato, the Big Lobster and many more. However, if Adelaide were to erect a giant monument to a favourite food, surely it would be the Big Balfours Frog Cake.
In fact, just such a monument was suggested in jest by ABC radio personality Peter Goers when the city was considering ways to enhance its central park, Victoria Square. In 2009, Adelaideans were invited to believe that a new football stadium was planned in a design that paid homage to the South Australian culinary favourite. However, the date of the article in The Advertiser was April the first. Although the careful reader soon realised that the “Frog Dome” was not to be, it seemed that for the frog cake anything was possible. Implanted in the local psyche since the 1920s, it was officially declared a South Australian icon by the National Trust in 2004.
But there’s a lot more to Balfours than the frog cake. The company is one of Australia’s oldest food manufacturers, tracing its origins back to 1853, just 17 years after Adelaide’s founding. Generations of South Australians have had their Balfours favourites, from Scotch pies and Albert biscuits in the mid-19th century to square pies, chocolate donuts and custard tarts today.
This is the story of a family business that began with one small shop, opened by a Scottish baker in Adelaide’s rough and ready colonial days. Today, 165 years later, the company is a sophisticated operation, with factories in Sydney and Adelaide producing hundreds of products: pies, pastries, muffins, crumpets, cakes, donuts, croissants…the list goes on. Yes, Balfours has changed with the times. But the company remains an integral part of South Australia’s – and Australia’s – food history.
Ship Biscuits, Rusks and Routs
The year was 1852. On a midsummer day in Leith, the port of Edinburgh, baker James Calder and his wife Margaret Balfour boarded the barque Collooney, bound for Australia. It was a long journey, perhaps too long, because although their original destination was Melbourne the Calders decided to disembark in Adelaide. And that’s where the Balfours story begins. It’s the story of an enterprise that has maintained the finest traditions of baking for more than 165 years.
James Calder was born in Edinburgh in 1818, into an age of turmoil. The industrial revolution was changing the way people lived and worked. Manual labourers in rural areas were seeing their jobs disappear as new machines took their place, and people flocked to the cities to seek out new jobs in factories. Edinburgh, like other cities, was becoming increasingly crowded and employment harder to find. But, as always, people needed to eat. And bread was the staple that sustained them.
So James served his apprenticeship and became a baker. It wasn’t an easy life. Back then, bakers worked 14 to 19-hour days – and those ‘days’ started at 11pm. If you were lucky, you could sleep for a couple of hours in the early morning, while the dough was rising. It was hard, physical work in oppressively hot conditions and it took its toll: statistics show that bakers in Britain rarely lived past the age of 42.
Despite that, it was an honourable trade and one with a long history. Not for nothing was Scotland called “the great nursery of bakers”. The Incorporation of Baxters (or bakers) of Edinburgh, one of the city’s 15 trade guilds, traced its origins back at least as far as the 1400s. The Scottish bakers weren’t just famous for their bread, but for their scones, pancakes, fruit cakes, oatcakes and shortbread. And, increasingly, biscuits.
By the 1830s and ‘40s, as James was mastering his craft, baking in Scotland was being transformed from a small, local enterprise to one with greater commercial possibilities. Global trade was increasing, commodities like sugar were becoming cheaper and new technology was improving ovens and bakery equipment. In the 1840s, the invention of baking powder – that magical additive that made cakes rise without yeast – opened up a host of new possibilities.
It seems James Calder was successful in his trade. In 1844, at just 26 years of age, he took over William Thorburn’s bakery in Shrub Place, just off the main road connecting the Old Town of Edinburgh to the port of Leith. Within a few years he had moved his business to new premises closer to the port and by 1851 was the proprietor of two bakeries in the area, including a shop in one of Leith’s most fashionable streets.
It’s safe to assume that he had help in running these businesses from his wife, Margaret. James Calder and Margaret Balfour had been married in St Cuthbert’s church, in the shadow of Edinburgh’s famous castle, in 1843. We know little about Margaret, except that she and James remained childless after nearly nine years of marriage. Perhaps this lack of family responsibilities contributed to the couple’s decision to sell their Edinburgh businesses and seek their fortunes in Australia.
Was it the lure of the goldfields that attracted them? The fact that their original destination was Melbourne makes it likely. In 1851, the discovery of gold at Clunes and later Ballarat in Victoria attracted adventurous spirits from across the world. Ship-owners could scarcely cope with the numbers clambering for passage and ships changed hands for high prices as entrepreneurs sought to profit from the fortune-hunters.
James and Margaret gained passage on the barque Collooney, built in Aberdeen ten years before. A wooden sailing ship just 37 metres long and 6.7 metres from side to side, the Collooney would have offered far-from-luxurious quarters. The Calders didn’t even have a cabin to themselves. Passenger lists of the day indicate that they must have been either ‘intermediate’ or ‘steerage’ passengers.
Although we have no account of their journey, we have, perhaps, some idea of what the couple took with them. An Immigrant’s Guide to Australia, published around the same time suggested that a married couple required: …for the wife: three cotton dresses, one pair stays, four petticoats, sixteen chemises, two flannel petticoats, twelve pairs cotton stockings, four pairs black worsted ditto, six night dresses and caps, six pocket-handkerchiefs, four handkerchiefs for the neck, six caps, two bonnets, cloak and shawl, one pair boots, two pairs shoes, and eight towels.
A similarly exhaustive list of clothing was supplied for the husband because, the guide pointed out, with strict water rationing “it is not possible to wash on the voyage”. The immigrants also needed to provide themselves with a mattress and bedding, knives and forks, a coffee pot, wash-bowl and soap.
The Collooney sailed from Scotland in late July, but it was December before she berthed in Adelaide. For more than four months, the Calders saw little but endless stretches of ocean and ate a monotonous diet of ship biscuit, salt meat and preserved vegetables, perhaps enlivened by a little cheese, mustard or pickles.
Contemporary accounts tell of passengers growing weary of chess, backgammon, books and cards, of long days becalmed in the Bay of Biscay and of gales, storms, extreme heat and extreme cold. It’s little wonder that James and Margaret decided to end their voyage in South Australia and to seek their fortunes in trade rather than at the diggings.
The Adelaide they encountered in 1852 stood in stark contrast to the Edinburgh they left behind. Instead of a crowded, ancient city of close to 200,000 souls they found a town established just 16 years before, a town of less than 20,000 people. The streets, though wide, were so muddy that ladies frequently lost their shoes while crossing the road. The Calders’ first journey from the port no doubt provided a rude introduction to their new home. “The road is very wide, but full of holes, only a rough mud causeway over a huge marsh,” wrote one new arrival.
With the gold fever of 1851 Adelaide had become a virtual ghost town, as able-bodied men deserted their regular occupations to follow their dreams. There was an acute shortage of labour. Windows and doorways of homes were bricked up and carried notices saying “Gone to the diggings”. Streets were almost deserted and shops lay vacant. One humourist even suggested that the South Australian Government should place a “South Australia – TO LET” sign on an off-shore island to attract passengers on passing ships.
By the end of 1852, though, the lucky ones were returning with their spoils and the city was beginning to recover from the exodus. South Australia was profiting from its own rich copper mines while the colony’s wheat farmers and millers enjoyed high prices for the foodstuffs they exported to feed hungry gold-seekers. Despite the primitive sanitation and the mud, Adelaide had schools and churches, mechanics institutes, theatres, newspapers and even a Botanic Garden.
It was a town poised to grow and James Calder was determined to grow with it. He wasted no time acquiring premises at 130 Rundle Street in central Adelaide where he set up as a bread and biscuit maker. He already had competition. Bakers were among the first to establish their businesses in Adelaide, initially relying on flour imported from Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) or even from Chile.
By 1840 there were at least 14 Master Bakers operating in Adelaide and their offering had expanded from the basic ship biscuits and bread to include a wide range of fancier cakes, biscuits and pies. An advertisement from the time, headed “ADELAIDE ADVANCE!!” offered “Breakfast Rolls every morning at 8 o’clock, and Tea Cakes every afternoon; plain and fancy Biscuits, Buns and Cakes of all descriptions, fresh daily.”
That the Calders built an enduring business is a credit to their business acumen and the quality of their products. Fortunately, by the 1850s they had access to high quality, homegrown ingredients. Around 20 per cent of South Australian families were involved in growing grain and local millers were winning world-wide praise for the quality of their flour.
By 1855, South Australia’s population had grown to more than 66,000 and the colony was becoming more prosperous, helped by the expansion of the pastoral and mining industries and the opening up of trade along the River Murray. This increasing prosperity benefited the Calders’ business. In 1855, their bakery was listed for the first time in the local business directory and James, realising the power of advertising began to promote his wares.
He started with the basics. “RUSKS. RUSKS. RUSKS.” the headline announced. The advertisement continued politely: “The undersigned begs respectfully to call attention to his large stock of excellent and nutritious ARROWROOT RUSKS, very suitable for Invalids and Children, and prepared expressly for the ensuing hot season. Sold in one pound packets, at 1s. 4d. per pound, by JAMES CALDER, Wholesale Confectioner and Biscuit Baker.” Further advertisements advised that Calder was importing a large variety of the finest Scotch Confectionery.
However, by 1857 the confectionery seemed to be taking a lesser role and James was calling his business Calder’s Fancy Bread and Biscuit Bakery. At this time, he took over a second property at 43 Rundle Street. This was initially a retail shop, while baking operations continued to take place at 130.
The Calders must have seen bright prospects for life in their new country, because they were soon joined by other family members including Margaret’s sister Janet, James’s brother William and his family, and, in 1859, Margaret’s nephew John Balfour. John arrived from Scotland at the age of 14, along with more of the Balfour tribe, and became an apprentice in the bakery. It was John who would put the Balfour name on the door – a name that was destined to become Adelaide’s iconic baking brand.
The business continued to expand, and soon the Calders added to their range. By 1864 they were offering not only “a first-rate Loaf of Bread and Biscuits of unequalled quality” but wedding cakes made to order. The intricately ornamented white wedding cake had gained popularity since Queen Victoria’s marriage in 1840 and Calder’s was happy to supply one “unsurpassed for Ornament and Quality” for a trifling five guineas. Smaller wedding and Christening cakes were always in stock.
A newspaper story of the 1860s tells us a little about the Calders’ success in those early years: “Being a thoroughly practical man [James] was soon able to produce an article equal in quality and considerably cheaper in price than the imported; but it was not till some years afterwards that by the application of machinery he was enabled to turn out a much larger quantity than could ever be done by mere hand labour.”
Canny Scot that he was, James Calder could see that the future of baking lay in mechanisation. He had his eye on the wholesale biscuit trade, which required increased production. So, in 1865, he travelled back to Edinburgh to purchase machines to handle the kneading, rolling and cutting operations. The cutting machine, from Messrs. A. & G. Slight’s, of Edinburgh, was “constructed on the most recent and improved principles”.
James installed these machines in his premises at 130 Rundle Street. There, four men and an apprentice worked from five in the morning until five at night which, the South Australian Register remarked, was “considerably more reasonable than the hours at which the men are required on most bakeries to be at work”. James believed that the shorter hours benefited both his employees and his business, as the men were fresher for having had a good night’s rest.
In 1866, James was promoting his business as a “machine biscuit factory”. The new machinery allowed him to make his usual excellent quality of biscuits in greater variety and, he claimed, “at a much lower price, especially the small fancy biscuits.” It remained only to add a more powerful driving force: steam. Despite the limited space – the factory at 130 Rundle Street was just 40 feet (12.2 metres) long and 12 feet (3.7 metres) wide – a steam engine was finally installed and the first Calder’s Steam Biscuit Factory was in operation. Read on…