Set on the Kew Road, The Original Maids of Honour boasts a history almost as long and colourful as the area that surrounds us.
It all started with the dainty Maid of Honour cakes after which we are named. It is believed that Henry VIII, King of England from 1509-1547, came across Anne Boleyn and her Maids of Honour (the young ladies who attended the Queen), eating the cakes from a silver dish. Tasting one for himself, the King was so delighted by its ‘melt-in-the-mouth’ sensation that he confiscated the recipe and demanded it be kept secret in a locked iron box at Richmond Palace.
One account goes even further and states that, in order to protect the secret recipe, the unfortunate Maid who invented the cake was imprisoned within the Palace grounds and ordered to produce the delectable tarts solely for King Henry and his royal household! We don’t know, but one thing’s for sure – the cakes which are deliciously sweet and yet slightly savoury, light and crisp yet unctuously soft in the middle, required a careful balance of the finest ingredients and the lightest hand to make – and they still do.
The years passed and the Tudor Dynasty gave way to the House of Stuart. Certainly by the early 18th century the recipe had been disclosed to a bakery in Richmond and the tasty little cakes became one of the features of fashionable Richmond through that century and beyond.
The first Original Maids of Honour shop was on the corner of Hill Street in Richmond under the ownership of Mr John Billet and can be traced back to the early 18th century. Here a young lad called Robert Newens served an apprenticeship and went on to open his own premises, first in King Street and later at No 3 George Street, and so the tradition of making and selling Maids of Honour in Richmond continued.
Robert Newens’ family helped build the business and in 1850, his son Alfred Nashbar Newens opened a brand new establishment on the Kew Road – exactly where we are today. Of course, the father passed the now secret family recipe on to his son and the Maids of Honour were served warm and delicious to the people of Kew – with a whole range of other baked goods on offer as well.
Alfred Newens died in 1927 leaving his business to be carried on by his son John and daughter Kathleen. But during World War II (1939-1945), the elegant early Victorian building that housed the bakery, shop and dining room suffered severe bomb damage and the future looked bleak.
A surveyor’s report from 1947 describes the site of the bakery as “little more than a pile of rubble, the baker’s oven a charred and blackened hulk at its centre”.
But the Dunkirk spirit was alive and well (a phrase used to describe the tendency of the British to pull together and overcome times of adversity) and the Original Maids of Honour had its own “miracle of deliverance” when John Newens’ son Peter left the army and with his family, set work to get the business back on its feet.
The bake house was rebuilt with new gas ovens installed, and the shop front was remodelled. Though the fashionable 1940s building lacked some of the lofty elegance of its Victorian predecessor, the new premises had a welcoming and homely appeal with its distinctive Mock Tudor mix of painted pebbledash, red clay roof tiles, heavy timbering and casement windows – and few would disagree, is a far more fitting home for a cake and an odyssey of Tudor origin!
Visitors today to the Original Maids of Honour are greeted by this very same shop front, and since the 1940s the business has gone from strength to strength. And though its no longer run by the Newens family, little else has changed. The Maids of Honour are still served warm from our ovens every day and the bakery provides a mouth-watering experience for any visitor in its huge variety of high quality homemade iced and plain cakes, meat pies, cream teas and traditional English luncheons.
And the Maids of Honour recipe? That’s still a secret – one that’s safe with us for a good long time to come…