Bridey below the Breadline (1976)

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Artist: Ken Houghton
Writer: Unknown
Publication: 12 June 1976 – 28 August 1976

Summary

It is the year 1666. Bridey Brown and her father, a master baker, arrive in London in search of a job at the King’s Bakery. Unfortunately it is the night the Great Fire of London breaks out and Mr Brown gets the blame because the watchman saw him entering the bakery (to get back his certificate) when the fire broke out and the bakers make them scapegoats. Their accents mark them as strangers, which makes them all the easier to scapegoat in times when Londoners were xenophobic. So now there are prices on the heads of the Browns. Worse, Mr Brown was severely injured when he entered the bakery and is now crippled. So Bridey has to keep her injured father in hiding while turning to her own baking skills and wits to earn a living using the bakery they are hiding in, and somehow get medical attention for her father while dodging lynch mobs, the catchpoles (the Stuart equivalent of the police), and the dislocation, hysteria and upheaval in the aftermath of the Great Fire.

Eventually Bridey finds a doctor for her father, who knows nothing of their situation. Bridey also takes time out to help Samuel, a baker’s apprentice who is constantly beaten for incompetence and they become friends. But when his incompetence results in an oven catching fire, she takes the blame for him and ends up with a lynch mob on her tail. She takes refuge in the doctor’s house, but the mob follows. Among them is Bonnie Bates, the leader of an urchin gang Bridey had an unpleasant clash with earlier. The doctor manages to get rid of the mob and believes the Browns have been scapegoated over the Great Fire. He offers to use his influence to help clear them.

But then the urchin gang turn up to rob the place and the doctor’s snobby daughter Clara thinks Bridey is part of the gang. Bonnie throws a torch that sets the house ablaze. Everyone manages to escape, but now the doctor thinks the Browns tricked him. He has Mr Brown arrested and thrown into The Fleet (an old London prison) while thinking Bridey died in the fire.

Bonnie returns and tricks Bridey into smuggling a file into The Fleet in a loaf of bread – purportedly for Bridey’s father, but really to help three criminals escape. They were imprisoned for Puritan fanaticism and now they are out for revenge on London. This involves forcing Bridey to make a loaf in the shape of a crown for a bakers’ competition (part of Christopher Wren’s rebuild of London), which will be judged by Charles II himself. The plotters plan to poison the crown, which will kill the King when he tastes it. After the crown is finished, their leader, Master Oliver, takes it to the competition while the others attempt to drown Bonnie and Bridey in the Thames. The girls escape and set off to save the King.

Bridey does so by setting fire to the table laden with entries. She is recognised and everyone thinks she is fire-raising again – but the King realises the truth when he sees a dog drop dead after eating pieces of the crown.

But Master Oliver is up on the scaffolding, holding Bonnie at knife point. However, he steps on a plank that is not strong enough. It breaks and he falls to his death. Bonnie is in danger of meeting the same fate, but is saved by a mound of flour that was piled for her to fall into as a cushion.

The King is so impressed with Bridey’s actions that he now believes her father is innocent and pardons him. The other bakers invite Mr Brown to join the bakers’ guild, and Christopher Wren himself designs a bakery for them. Bonnie joins the Brown family in their bakery.

Thoughts

Fugitive stories are always popular, and the added frustration of the father being injured and incapable of running with Bridey certainly adds to the tension. The scapegoating of the Browns for the Great Fire of London because emotions are running high in the wake of the Great Fire, hysteria is on the rise, and the story being set in rough, brutal, xenophobic times in any case is well thought through. We really feel for the Browns as we know they could be lynched or thrown into one of the notoriously foul 17th century prisons, with little hope of justice at their trial. Whichever way this story will be resolved, we know it cannot be through the legal system of the period. And the Browns don’t stand much chance of proving their innocence, especially as Bridey’s name gets even blacker by covering for Samuel and then getting the blame for Bonnie’s torching of the doctor’s house, so how can they be cleared?

Less well thought through is the change of heart in Bonnie. She knew beforehand that the three criminals were “the three blackest gentlemen you ever met” and she was clearly frightened of Master Oliver, so why did she help them escape instead of leaving them there? Her overhearing them plotting to murder Bridey is plausible in her change of heart, but she already knew they were “the three blackest gentlemen”, so it should not have been much surprise. And Bonnie herself was not much better; she had committed robbery and arson earlier in the story. If she had been blackmailed into helping them escape it would have made more sense and her change of heart more convincing, but her motives for helping them are never explained, and something is not adding up about her change of heart.

It seems a bit ominous that the villain is called Oliver. It keeps having us thinking of Oliver Cromwell, who was responsible for the execution of Charles I and paid the price, even in death (his corpse exhumed and put through the traitor’s death) upon the restoration of Charles II. This Oliver was also out for regicide and, like Cromwell, he was a fanatical Puritan. Cromwell made his own Puritanism clear during the Interregnum, even to the point of banning Christmas celebrations. But both Olivers lose in the end and the monarchy wins. Clearly, Jinty is out to make some inference here.

Personally, I quite like the story for its historical settings and the bread-making theme that permeates the whole story from start to finish. Sometimes the bread-making helps and even saves the day; other times it unwittingly causes harm, including the Great Fire itself that the Browns are wrongly blamed for. Jinty must have had a marvellous time with the irony of the bakery theme – where the Great Fire started – becoming the running thread of the whole story that eventually becomes part of the rebuild of London.

It is pretty intriguing that Ken Houghton drew three Jinty stories in succession in 1976, and all three were on historical periods. The predecessor of this story, House of the Past, dealt with the 1930s. This story is set in Stuart times, and the story  that follows, Daisy  Drudge and Milady Maud, is set in Victorian times. Afterwards, Houghton never drew for Jinty again (though his artwork reappeared in Gypsy Rose as reworked reprints from old Strange Stories). What was behind it here – the same artist and writer team for all three stories, or was Houghton specifically engaged for some jag on historical stories that Jinty was having?

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3 thoughts on “Bridey below the Breadline (1976)

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