Taking the biscuit: a history of Peek Frean (Part II)

Peek Frean pioneered the modern British biscuit. The business introduced the Bourbon, Custard Cream, Marie and Garibaldi biscuit varieties.

You can read the first part of this history here.

Peek Frean becomes a limited company; introduces the mass-market biscuit
Peek Frean was registered as a limited company with a share capital of £500,000 in 1901. Peek Frean biscuits were distributed through 45,000 outlets.

Peek Frean held a Royal Warrant to supply biscuits to King Edward VII.

The shortbread-based Pat-A-Cake biscuit was launched in 1902. It was to prove a major success for the company as the first biscuit marketed at an affordable price. Sales in the first week totalled over twelve tons.

Arthur Carr (1855 – 1947) became chairman and managing director of Peek Frean from 1904. Carr massively increased the company’s advertising budget.

Nearly 400 million Pat-A-Cake biscuits weighing a total of 6.5 million lbs were sold in 1906. Annual sales for this single product line amounted to £160,000. As well as the Pat-A-Cake, 250 different varieties of biscuit were sold.

Peek Frean employed over 2,500 people by 1907.

Production of the long-established Pearl biscuit ended in 1907. The Bourbon, a cocoa-flavoured cream sandwich biscuit, was introduced in 1910.

Peek Freen's Family Circle biscuit assortment. The box likely dates from the 1980s
Peek Frean’s Family Circle biscuit assortment. The box likely dates from the 1980s.

Peek Frean was an enlightened employer for the period. Benefits included in-house medical and dentistry care (to which the company paid £3,000 a year in 1911), and a subsidised staff canteen. A third of company profits were spent on employee welfare by 1911.

A Bermondsey women’s strike in August 1911 saw 1,200 employees refuse to work. The strikers wanted higher pay and the abolition of short shifts. However Peek Frean management countered that strikers had intimidated non-striking staff and that their wages were higher than the Bermondsey average.

Peek Frean produced nearly 100 million shortbread biscuits in just three months in 1912. This was understood to constitute a record for the sale of biscuits.

Over 3,000 people were employed by 1912.

Peek Frean established the Meltis chocolate factory, with a staff of 130 people, in Bedford in 1913.

Peek Frean introduced the Custard Cream biscuit in 1913.

Sales doubled and profits almost quadrupled between 1900 and 1913.

Huntington Stone, a major shareholder, died in 1916 and left a gross estate valued at £239,580. He bequeathed around £200,000 to Christian missionary charities.

The Bermondsey site employed 4,000 people and covered six acres by 1917.

Peek Frean claimed that Pat-A-Cake was the most popular biscuit ever produced. As much as 75 tons, or ten million biscuits, could be produced in a single day by 1920. Other popular biscuit lines included the digestive, milk, petit beurre, thin arrowroot, Marie, ginger nuts and shortcake varieties.

Peek Frean merges with Huntley & Palmer
A high rate of income tax and death duties convinced the directors of Huntley & Palmers of Reading to accept Peek Frean’s invitation to merge in 1921. A holding company, Associated Biscuit Manufacturers, with a capital of £2.5 million, was formed.

Peek Frean acquired Britannia Biscuits of India, with a factory in Mumbai, in 1924.

Peek Frean had introduced Vita-Wheat, the first British wheat crispbread, by 1927.

Arthur Carr retired in 1927.

Twiglets, a savoury snack, were introduced in 1930.

Ellis Carr, a major shareholder, left a personal estate of over £1 million in 1930.

Peek Frean acquired the English subsidiary of Suchards of Switzerland, based at Bedford, in 1932.

Peek Frean had established an Australian subsidiary by 1934.

Peek Frean employed over 4,000 people across a twelve acre site by 1939. Over 300 different varieties of biscuit were produced. The company also manufactured its own biscuit tins; some three million a year.

Arthur Carr died in 1947 with an estate valued at £630,206.

Peek Frean provided one of three wedding cakes for the Royal Wedding of Princess Elizabeth, later Elizabeth II, in 1947. The 600 lb cake stood six-tiers tall.

Peek Frean established a factory across a seven-acre site in Ontario, Canada in 1950. The factory supplied the Canadian and the North Eastern United States markets. Peek Frean was consequently able to reduce its wholesale prices in America by 25 percent due to lower distribution costs.

Peek Frean acquired the Ashley Vale Biscuit Company, with a factory at Avonmouth, Bristol, in 1955.

There were 1,750 employees at Bermondsey in 1964.

Peek Frean closed the Bristol factory in 1965 and relocated production to Bermondsey. 350 to 400 jobs were lost.

The Meltis confectionery site at Bedford covered five acres and employed 1,300 people by 1966. Meltis was the largest producer of Turkish Delight in Britain, and the second largest producer of liqueur chocolates.

Meltis merged with Chocolat Tobler to form Tobler Meltis in 1967. Interfood, the owner of Suchard, acquired Tobler Meltis in 1975.

Sales at Peek Frean grew in the early 1970s, led by the popularity of it shortcake and Christmas puddings.

The loss-making Australian subsidiary, with seven percent of the market, was sold to Arnotts, a rival biscuit manufacturer, in 1975.

Peek Frean is sold to Nabisco; subsequents owners
Nabisco, a large United States biscuit manufacturer, acquired Associated Biscuits for £84 million in 1982.

Peek Frean was the largest manufacturer of Christmas puddings in Britain by 1984. This was due to the fact that they were relatively low-priced, as they did not contain alcohol. Over 4.5 million Christmas puddings were sold every year.

The Peek Frean brand had become primarily associated with commodity and children’s biscuits by the mid-1980s.

Associated Biscuits was sold to BSN of France, manufacturers of the LU biscuit, in 1989. Nabisco retained the Canadian business, where it continued to produce biscuits under the Peek Frean brand.

The Bermondsey factory was closed with the loss of 1,022 jobs in 1989. The biscuit market was in decline, and the factory was operating at just 50 percent capacity. The site also suffered from high overheads due to its inner-city location and age. Production was transferred to Aintree and Leicestershire.

The India and Pakistan subsidiaries were divested for $44 million in 1989. Britannia was the largest biscuit manufacturer in India, and English Biscuit Manufacturers was the largest biscuit manufacturer in Pakistan.

Peek Frean advertising ended in 1990, and the brand began to be phased out from 1991.

BSN (now called Danone) sold its British and Irish biscuit operations to United Biscuits for £200 million in 2004.

Although no longer sold in Britain, Peek Frean branded products continue to be manufactured in Canada and Pakistan.

Various former Peek Frean products are still sold in Britain, including the Family Circle assortment, and the Twiglets savoury snack.

One thought on “Taking the biscuit: a history of Peek Frean (Part II)”

  1. I have a picture of “Granny Peek” as I was always led to believe that I was descended from her.
    My Mother, Grandmother, and so on were born/raised in Plymouth Devon UK.
    Any information on this would be greatly appreciated.

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