Soaring success: Alfred Bird & Sons

Alfred Bird & Sons was one of the most successful food companies in Britain at the turn of the twentieth century. Bird’s Custard is one of the most widely recognised brands in the UK, with 99 percent customer recognition.

Alfred Bird (1811 – 1878) established a chemist’s shop on Bell Street, Birmingham, in 1837. He produced a baking powder, which allowed bread to be made without yeast, and then an eggless custard powder.

Alfred Bird & Sons was established to mass produce these inventions in 1843. Larger premises were established on Worcester Street.

Alfred Bird & Sons won a contract to supply baking powder to provide fresh bread for the British troops during the Crimean War in 1855.

Following the death of his father in 1878, Alfred Frederick Bird (1849 – 1922) became sole owner of the firm.

A large new factory was built at 35 Moor Street, Birmingham in 1886, but it burned down a year later, with thousands of pounds worth of damage. A new factory was opened on Gibb Street in the Digbeth district of Birmingham. Sales increased by 275 percent between 1892 and 1901 .

The Digbeth factory on Gibb Street

Alfred Bird & Sons became a limited company in 1900 with an authorised capital of £300,000. Profits more than doubled between 1900 and 1907. Company capital was increased to £400,000 in 1908.

Alfred Frederick Bird left an estate valued at £653,656 when he died in 1922. He was heralded as a pioneer of modern advertising. He was succeeded by his son, Robert Bland Bird (1876 – 1960), as chairman.

The three birds logo was introduced in 1929.

Alfred Bird & Sons (Ireland) was established in Dublin in 1934.

Import restrictions in the post-war period led General Foods of America, best known in Britain for Grape Nuts cereal, to acquire Alfred Bird & Sons for £403,000 in 1947. Sir Robert Bird was retained as company chairman.

The two companies shared some similarities; C W Post (1854 – 1914), who had invented Grape Nuts, had also been an extensive advertiser.

General Foods introduced its Maxwell House instant coffee to the British market in 1954.

Sir Robert Bird retired as chairman of Alfred Bird & Sons in 1956, and was the last member of the family to be connected with the firm.

Monkhouse & Glasscock, custard powder manufacturers, was acquired in 1958.

Expanding production saw the Birmingham factory become increasingly cramped. General Foods relocated Bird’s production to a new factory in Banbury, Oxfordshire in 1966. Situated across 42 acres and built at a cost of £6 million, it employed 1,300 people. It was one of the most modern food factories in Europe.

Bird’s managed to persuade 72 percent of its permanent male employees to relocate to Banbury. Cash grants were offered to negate relocation costs for workers. Workers generally found the standard of living to be higher in the new location.

Alfred Bird & Sons was formally renamed to General Foods Ltd in 1967. By this time Maxwell House was the firm’s largest brand, with a 30 percent share of the British instant coffee market.

General Foods had annual UK grocery sales of £24 million by 1969, and its brands included Bird’s custard, Angel Delight, Maxwell House coffee and Grape Nuts cereal.

General Foods bid £39 million in cash for Rowntree, the confectioner, in 1969, but the offer was rejected.

General Foods acquired Philip Morris in 1985 for $5 billion to become the largest consumer goods company in the United States.

Bird’s Custard and Angel Delight were sold to Premier Foods in 2004 for £70 million.

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