Hot Cross Buns have a colourful and lengthy history. Amongst the superstitions, sailors would take Hot Cross Buns baked on Good Friday with them on their voyages, as it was said to prevent shipwrecks. Located not too far from the East End docks, the associations with the Widow’s Pub in Bow in East London are incredibly strong.
The legend goes that in the early 19th Century a widow lived in a cottage with her only son. Her sailor son left for the sea but promised to be back on Good Friday, 1824. Awaiting his return, his mother baked him a hot cross bun, but he never arrived. Every year until her death she baked a bun on Good Friday, hoping to welcome her son home, but she never saw him again.
In the 1840’s a pub replaced the cottages called the Widow’s Son and the tradition has been carried on with a Hot Cross Bun baked every Good Friday and hung in a net above the bar. A service is held in the pub and a member of the Royal Navy adds another freshly baked to the net admist singing, a few jovial drinks and a lot of goodwill.
Another story says claims the Widow was the publican of a pub already on site – but we will possibly never know.
Thanks to a tip off by the lovely Miss Regula Foodwise, we couldn’t resist popping along, and chatting with the friendly locals (proper proper Cockney Sparra’s) – some who have been attending the service for over 50 years and Navy members – some fresh from a 6 month voyage.
Sadly there was a fire about 15 years ago in which many of the age-old buns were burnt, but a few were saved and have been treasured with their fresher counterparts.
It’s a real festival atmosphere; everyone crowded in at 3pm glasses in hand, rock music pumping and the buffet kindly laid on (over the billiard table) and such a nice atmosphere.
The legend is such a heartbreaking tale, can you imagine what the Widow would have to say if she knew that the tradition is still being carried out over 125 years later? Maybe as the MC said “Another year, another Good Friday, another bun.”
We especially loved the sign hanging above the pub of the Sailor returning many years later to the pub, with the many buns hanging in their net. The old Facade can be seen here.
- Sharing a hot cross bun with another is supposed to ensure friendship throughout the coming year, particularly if “Half for you and half for me, Between us two shall goodwill be” is said at the time.
- Another encourages keeping such a bun for medicinal purposes. A piece of it given to someone who is ill is said to help them recover
- If hung in the kitchen, they are said to protect against fires and ensure that all breads turn out perfectly.
- Eggs laid today will not go off
- If a child is born today & baptized on Easter Sunday they will have gift of healing
The Hot Cross bun has very contested origins, with Pagan claims, some claiming a connection with Eostre (a Germanic god, the namesake to Easter), some to the Ancient Greeks but the most widely accepted seem to be the Christian origins, with the cross on the buns representing the Crucifixion.
Awesome fact: the London Clerk of Markets issued a decree forbidding the sale of hot cross buns and other spiced breads, except at burials, on Good Friday, or at Christmas. The punishment for transgressing the decree was forfeiture of all the forbidden product to the poor.
If you fancy joining in next year, the pub address is The Widow’s Son, 75 Devon’s Road, Bow, London, E3 3PJ.