Obituary: Bill Collins, co-inventor of the Chorleywood Bread Process

Bill Collins (right) with former Chorleywood colleagues Mike Overton (left) and Jim Brown (centre) at the BSB annual meeting in 2011

Bill Collins, co-inventor of the Chorleywood Bread Process, has passed away.

Here, Baketran director Stan Cauvain talks about how his former colleague and friend revolutionised the baking industry.

Mention the name Thomas Hylton Collins to bakers around the world and you will get a puzzled look; change that to Bill Collins and you get instant recognition, not least because of his association with the invention of the Chorleywood Bread Process (CBP). Yet there was much more to Bill’s career than the invention of the CBP, and his detailed knowledge of the manufacture of bread and fermented goods covered all aspects of breadmaking.

Bill was born in Liverpool and set out to be a baker from school. As a full-time bakery student, he gained his City and Guilds Diplomas. National Service in the UK army was followed by a managerial career in plant baking. However, in 1956 Bill joined the British Baking Industries Research Association (BBIRA) based in Chorleywood and as they say, the rest is history.

The defining moments in Bill’s career began in 1958 when he was asked to undertake long-term research into the fundamentals of breadmaking; he seized the moment with a passion that never diminished. Studies on continuous dough mixing using pre-ferments laid the foundations for a deeper understanding of dough development using mechanical energy. From that study, combined with inputs from Dr Norman Chamberlain and the leadership of Dr George Elton (director-general of BBIRA at the time), the CBP was born and launched in 1961. A Queen’s Award to industry followed in 1966 for BBIRA.

Bill retired from the Flour Milling and Baking Research Association (the successor of the BBIRA at Chorleywood) in 1993 after 37 years. For much of that time he was the head of the bread section, a role that he relished and had no wish to change. Throughout those years his enthusiasm for new ideas never dimmed and his teams were constantly adding new dimensions to our understanding of bread baking through work on wheats, ingredients and processes.

Always polite, Bill was never afraid to challenge perceived wisdom and would often disarm learned disagreements with the phrase, “Well I am only a baker but…” That he was, and he ably combined the technical and practical skills that are needed in bread production. He was a quiet and inspirational team leader and mentor to many, including this writer.

With an unassuming character, Bill was always uncomfortable with, and shunned, popular recognition of his association with the CBP. In part that was because he contributed so much more to the world of baking and cereal science. His treatise on the Creation and Control of Bread Crumb Structure remains a critical text for all bakers and gained him the Insignia Award in Technology of the City and Guilds London Institute, and an honorary Doctorate from the home of the National Bakery School, the London South Bank University. So typical of Bill, it was a title he never used and equally readers may be surprised to read that he received a Queen’s Jubilee Medal in 1978.

Family life

Bill was a strong family man, and he and his first wife Joyce devoted much energy to raising their four children. In retirement, Bill’s considerable woodworking skills were put to use making furniture and toys for the grandchildren. Sadly, not long into Bill’s retirement, Joyce passed away.

Sometime later, Bill was to meet and marry Marjorie. They discovered that they had grown up a few streets apart in Liverpool but only met when they attended the same church not far from their respective homes in South Buckinghamshire.

In the resume of Bill’s career and achievements published in the Chorleywood Digest when he retired, the text included the words “…an era has come to an end at Chorleywood”. Indeed, it had and while we might say the same of his passing, I would politely dispute that. His legacy is more than the sum of his achievements; it is also about what he inspired others to achieve and to do in baking. Listening to this peroration Bill would be embarrassed and uncomfortable, and so in keeping with his character, on behalf of the baking industry worldwide I will simply say “thank you, Bill”.

A personal memory from Stan Cauvain

The photo above was taken in the year when the CBP became 50. I persuaded Bill to join the event but in his usual modest form, he declined the opportunity to be part of the presentation. So, it was with some trepidation that I had the task of telling the story to the man who lived it. It was typical of Bill that he would create opportunities for members of ‘his team’ and I was honoured that it fell to me to be the appropriate presenter of the watershed moment that he, Norman Chamberlain and George Elton created for baking 50 years before.

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