IT'S a town's name that has become synonymous with those "exceedingly good cakes" produced by Mr Kipling.

Pick up a box anywhere in the country and you are likely to see an Eastleigh address on the packaging.

But while the name of the Hampshire town may remain, from the end of next year there will be no cakes produced at its Leigh Road bakery.

As exclusively revealed in later editions of the Daily Echo yesterday, the plant - which has been a bakery since 1937 - is set to close with the loss of 423 jobs by the end of next year.

Workers were given the grim news yesterday as the giant Manor Bakeries briefed its workforce in a series of 2pm meetings across the country.

The largest producer of cakes in a £1 billion-a-year UK market said it had undertaken a "very exhaustive review" of its business across four sites at Eastleigh, Moreton on the Wirrall, Stoke on Trent and Carlton, near Barnsley.

Although the cake market was big and growing, they had excess capacity at the four sites and, to remain competitive, it was proposed to close the Eastleigh factory by the end of 2005 while halving capacity at the Moreton site and making nearly half of the 550 workforce redundant.

Revealing that the move was aimed at concentrating production at Stoke and Carlton, a spokesman said: "While, clearly, it will be of little consolation to people at Eastleigh, the production at Stoke and Carlton will be increased on the back of new investment.

"It is very much an economic and commercial decision.

"If there was an alternative the company would have looked at it, but there is no viable alternative."

Workers at the plant were tight-lipped yesterday and refused to elaborate on what they had been told.

Two female workers, who were clearly upset as they left the factory, said: "We are very shocked - what do you want us to say? We have lost our jobs."

The news was greeted with dismay by Eastleigh Council leader Keith House, who commented: "I think we can all understand that it is cheaper to produce in the Midlands than on the south coast."

He added: "It is obviously devastating news for those affected - but they have, at least, given substantial advance warning which will help people find new employment.

"The only consolation is Eastleigh's very buoyant employment market.

"When we have had other major closures, people have been able to find jobs quickly.

"We will be working, as usual, with employment agencies and training suppliers to do anything we can to assist."

A pledge of assistance to workers facing redundancy also came from Eastleigh's executive councillor for economic development Peter Wall, who commented: "We will be very sorry to see Mr Kipling leave town and we are disappointed to lose a long-established manufacturing company.

"However, Eastleigh enjoys a vibrant economy and the council will be working closely with Manor Bakeries over the next 18 months to develop re-training packages for staff who may need to find new employment."

Former Eastleigh mayor Mike Buckingham said he thought it was a shame Eastleigh was going to lose another of its major employers.

He said: "We have lost Pirelli's and Causton's and the railway is a shadow of its former self.

"Now we will be losing Manor Bakeries.

"These were not only big employers but they also offered apprenticeships.

"We read in the papers that we are suffering from a shortage of skilled workers and here is another area able to train people that has gone."

The proposed closure of the cake plant involves 341 full-time shop floor workers, 35 engineers and 47 administrative and management staff.

There are also 49 central support staff but the company will be consulting with them about transferring to an alternative location in the area.

Manor Bakeries will also retain a presence in Eastleigh through its administration office at Mitchell House in Southampton Road, where 23 managers and 39 administrative staff are employed.

That base will be unaffected by the closure of the Leigh Road factory.

But the regional organiser for the Bakers', Food and Allied Workers' Union, Frank Loveday, said closure of the cake factory would leave a void in Eastleigh.

He said: "I think it is very sad and disappointing.

"It is a great loss to the town. It has been a great employer for a long time there."

Mr Loveday said he had previously worked at the Mr Kipling plant in Eastleigh and added: "I will lose a lot of friends that I have there - it will be a sad loss.

"It's hard to employ 400 workers in that industry."

A company spokesman said it was far too early to say what would happen to the site once the factory had closed.

When the shutters go up it will be the end of an era stretching back to 1937 when the Price family built the Eastleigh bakery.

Four years later the site became a dual-purpose manufacturing centre, making both bread and cakes, before the bakery focused on cake production in 1978.

Local historian Gordon Cox said he was very surprised at the news that the Mr Kipling plant was to close.

Looking back over the history of the bakery, he said: "Price's was a firm that had shops all over Southampton and district.

"This is part of old Eastleigh that is disappearing.

"It is very sad."

Manor Bakeries' parent company, RHM Limited, is set to invest more than £45m in the cake-producing business over a three-year period in the wake of the reshuffle.

Manor's chief operating officer Patrick Irving commented: "Our undoubted existing strengths, combined with this new investment and innovation, will further enhance Manor as the clear market leader in the growing cakes category."

He said Manor was in a highly competitive market, had an excess capacity and the move was aimed at making the company much more competitive for the future.

He also had words of praise and sympathy for Eastleigh workers.

He said: "Obviously we have had to take some hard decisions and it is a particularly severe blow for Eastleigh.

"We have a very loyal and hard-working workforce and this decision is no reflection on their commitment to our business."