The humble Chelsea bun first entered history around 1700, endorsed by royalty as a fashionable indulgence, thanks to the The Chelsea Bun House, an attraction that was set on the approach road to Ranleigh Gardens, a playground of GeorgianLondon and enjoyed a rapid rise in popularity.  

According to John Timbs, writing in 1855 for the “Curiosities of London” during his time as editor of The Illustrated London news: 

‘It was customary for the Royal Family and the nobility and gentry to visit the Bun-house in the morning.  George II., Queen Caroline and the princesses frequently honoured the proprietor, Richard Hands, with their company; as did George III and Queen Charlotte; her majesty presented Mrs.Hands with a silver gallon mug with five guineas in it’ 

Richard Hands became known as “Captain Bun,” and his success with The Bun House was continued long after his death, thanks to his impressive wife.  During the rampant “bun-slinging” time of Easter, Mrs. Hands often resorted to pulling down her shutters, and commanding a large police presence as she sold upward of 240,000 buns on Good Friday 1839 alone, with around 250 “slingers” taken off by the ever-present police! 

Shortly after this event, the bun-house was sold and demolished, but the Chelsea bun lived on, as a popular line in bakeries all over the country.   

What makes the perfect Chelsea bun?

The Chelsea buns creation as a commercial-scale bakery product made it almost impossible to replicate in even the best equipped home kitchen, despite its relative ease of production in a bakery.  The standard yeast dough is usually enriched with eggs and used not only for Chelsea buns, but also for other kinds of rolls and fancy small loaves.  Easy to embellish, the dough is rolled out on a long bench, smeared with butter, sprinkled with dried fruit and spices and rolled into a long sausage. 

At Fitzbillies, this is where the skill of our head baker Gill comes into its own.  Using an ancient butcher’s sabre that’s believed to be as old as the bakery itself, Gill takes a quick look at the sausage and cuts its perfectly into the exact number to fit the tray. Every time. No mistakes. And no, we don’t know how she does it either.  

These bun sized portions beautifully expose the swirls of delicious fruit and generous spices.  Packed tightly into a high sided baking tray, and allowed to rise into a soft, squishy uneven squares, they are baked as “batch” – allowing each bun to touch and connect during the baking process.  

These days we bake our buns in slightly smaller trays than our predecessors, creating 40 buns per tray, arranged in 8 rows of 5, and not too heavy for our team to lug in and out of our ovens!

What makes our buns so unique?

Once perfectly baked and golden, our buns are smothered in our secret sticky sauce.  Whilst many of the more traditional recipes suggested a sprinkling of sugar, or light coats of icing, we think we hit the mark when we created our glaze.  Made exclusively for us in a specialist sugar refinery, our bun syrup is one of most carefully guarded secrets, and we think we’ve found the most perfect balance of sweetness, but not cloyingly sweet, extra sticky and with some of the smoky mysterious character of molasses. We can’t be the only ones who think we got it so right – after all, we go through over 10 tonnes of it every year! 

And with over 100 years of experience perfecting the Fitzbillies Chelsea bun, we are as confident that it would delight royalty just as much today as it did at its inception back in the 1800’s.  

After all, over 250,000 Fitzbillies bun-eaters each year can’t be wrong can they?

May 18, 2023 — Zoe Gill

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