Category Archives: Biscuits & cakes

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.

Rocky road: Fox’s Biscuits

Fox’s is best known for the Rocky and Party Rings biscuits. Brandy snaps, its original product, are still sold.

Michael Spedding establishes the business
Michael Spedding (1834 – 1927) was born to poor circumstances at Marsh, near Huddersfield in Yorkshire. He received just three months of formal education.

Spedding found work at a cotton mill in nearby Meltham. His grandfather encouraged him to relocate to Batley, where prospects were better. Spedding was poor, and made the 15-mile journey on foot. His economic position was such that on some nights he would sleep in barns.

Spedding married Susan Fox (1834 – 1895), the daughter of a bone-setter, in 1854.

Party Rings, a leading Fox’s product

Spedding had established himself as a food seller by 1863. He began to concentrate on the confectionery trade, with an initial focus on brandy snap biscuits.

Spedding had been joined in business by his daughter Hannah and his son-in-law Fred Ellis Fox (1871 – 1938) by 1891. The business began to trade as F E Fox & Co from 1897. Spedding retired in 1900.

F E Fox & Son
Fred Fox was joined by his son, Michael Spedding Fox (1896 – 1963), and the business began to trade as F E Fox & Son.

F E Fox & Son relocated to a new site at Batley from 1927. Ginger biscuits began to be produced alongside brandy snaps.

Michael Spedding died as one of the oldest men in his district in 1927.

F E Fox & Son was incorporated as a private company in 1938. The business was still a regional concern at this time.

Fred Fox died in 1938 and left an estate valued at £19,243. Michael Spedding Fox became managing director of the company.

Fox’s Biscuits becomes a national business
The Batley factory was expanded and modernised in the post-war period. F E Fox & Son had around 500 employees by 1955.

F E Fox & Son won a valuable contract to produce biscuits for Marks & Spencer in 1958. The contract accounted for half of all production.

F E Fox & Son required capital to fulfil its ambitions of becoming a nationally recognised company. The business went public in 1960 as Fox’s Biscuits with an authorised share capital of £400,000. There were around 950 employees.

The offices at Batley in 2007

Parkinson’s Biscuits of Kirkham, Preston was acquired in 1966.

J Lyons & Co acquired a 25 percent stake in Fox’s Biscuits in 1972.

Acquisition by Northern Foods
Fox’s Biscuits was acquired by Northern Foods in 1977. Following the merger of their interests, Northern Foods supplied Marks & Spencer with around 40 percent of its cake and biscuits.

Alfred Henry Fox died with an estate valued at £124,375 in 1977.

Fox’s Biscuits was one of the largest biscuit manufacturers in Britain by 1986. Around 2,500 people were employed.

Elkes Biscuits of Uttoxeter was acquired in 1986.

Northern Foods invested £20 million to increase production at Fox’s Biscuits in 1987.

Fox’s Biscuits was best known for its Rocky and Party Rings biscuits by the 1990s.

The Elkes brand was repositioned as a budget product.

2 Sisters Food Group and Ferrero
Northern Foods was acquired by 2 Sisters Food Group in 2011.

Fox’s ranked fourth in the British biscuit market, with a four percent share in 2019. The business employed 2,000 people. Own-label and contact work accounted for around 25 percent of production.

Ferrero, an Italian confectionery manufacturer, acquired Fox’s Biscuits, including the Batley and Kirkham sites, for £246 million in 2020. The own-label biscuit business, with a factory at Uttoxeter, was retained by 2 Sisters.

Biscuity history: William Crawford & Sons

Crawford’s was the fourth largest biscuit manufacturer in Britain, and the longest-established. The brand continues today as the economy sister brand to McVitie’s.

Origins and early growth
Ship biscuits were first produced at 31 Shore, a public house in Leith, Edinburgh, from 1813. Robert Mathie (1790 – 1863) took over the business from 1817, and employed five men by 1851.

Mathie retired and sold the business to William Crawford (1818 – 1889) in 1856. Crawford immediately opened an outlet on 14 Leith Street, Edinburgh to extend his customer base.

Crawford was a master baker employing six men and one boy by 1861. He relocated his Edinburgh outlet to 2 Princes Street from 1866.

Crawford employed five men and one boy in 1871.

Crawford established a custom-built factory at Elbe Street, Leith in 1879. The business traded as William Crawford & Sons from 1880. The wheat meal biscuit, similar to a digestive, had replaced the ship biscuit as the leading product by this time.

William Crawford died as a well-respected figure in Leith and Edinburgh in 1889. He was succeeded as principal of the firm by his son, William Crawford (1858 – 1926), a man of a retiring disposition. It would be due to the efforts of the son that the family firm would grow to national scale.

The Elbe Street factory was described as “large” by 1891.

Establishment of a Liverpool factory
William Crawford sent two of his brothers, Archibald Inglis Crawford (1869 – 1940) and James Shields Russell Crawford (1863 – 1927), to establish a subsidiary in Australia in 1897. The brothers were due to set sail from Liverpool, but instead decided to stay put, and established the Fairfield Works on Binns Road in the city.

The Fairfield Works, Binns Road, Liverpool (2013)

Crawford products around this time included wheat meal, shortbread, currant and rich tea biscuits, as well as cream crackers.

William Crawford & Sons had established national distribution by 1900.

William Crawford & Sons of Leith was registered as a limited liability company with a capital of £251,000 in 1906. The Crawford family controlled the company.

The Leith factory was largely rebuilt in 1906, and covered a quarter of an acre. The factory employed 150 men and boys by 1911.

Alexander Hunter Crawford (1865 – 1945), a leading Edinburgh architect, joined the company from around 1920.

William Crawford & Sons employed hundreds of people at its factories at Leith and Liverpool by 1923. By this time the company claimed to be “the oldest of the biscuit manufacturers”.

Company capital was increased to £700,000 in 1924.

William Crawford died with an estate valued at £876,211 in 1926.

William Crawford & Sons ranked among the largest British biscuit manufacturers by 1929. It was the fourth largest biscuit manufacturer in Britain in 1939, with a market share by volume of 14 percent.

Archibald Inglis Crawford died in 1940 with an estate valued at £1,015,886.

Douglas Inglis Crawford (1904 – 1981), son of Archibald, became company chairman from 1946. His father had instilled in him the values of honesty and integrity.

Douglas Inglis Crawford (1904 – 1981)

Takeover by United Biscuits
William Crawford & Sons was the largest privately-owned biscuit manufacturer in Britain by 1962. Its best known product was shortbread. The business employed 3,000 people in Liverpool, and 1,000 in Leith.

The company was still largely in Crawford family hands when it was acquired in a friendly takeover by United Biscuits for £6.25 million in 1962. Douglas Crawford was appointed vice chairman of United Biscuits.

United Biscuits closed the Leith factory in 1970, with the loss of 703 jobs. Meanwhile an investment of £2 million saw production increased by 50 percent at the Liverpool plant.

The McVitie’s, Crawford and Macfarlane sales teams were merged in the 1970s.

Douglas Crawford retired in 1974.

The Crawford factory in Liverpool was the longest-established and largest of all United Biscuits factories. It was also the most progressive in terms of employee relations. The site covered seventeen acres and employed 4,000 people by 1977. The Tuc biscuit and Tartan shortbread were its leading products.

Douglas Crawford died with a net estate of £252,431 in 1981.

United Biscuits wound-down manufacturing operations at Liverpool between 1984 and 1987. 934 full time and over 1,000 part time jobs were lost. Some administrative functions are maintained at the site.

The Crawford name was repositioned as an economy brand from 2014. The Crawford’s (formerly Peek Frean) Family Circle was rebranded under the McVitie’s name.

How the cookie crumbles: United Biscuits (Part II)

Part I of this history of United Biscuits.

United Biscuits produces McVitie’s Digestives, Jaffa Cakes, Jacob’s cream crackers and Carr’s water biscuits.

United Biscuits is formed and becomes the largest biscuit manufacturer in Britain
Two Scottish biscuit manufacturers, McVitie & Price and Macfarlane Lang merged in 1948 to form United Biscuits, with a capital of £3.5 million. The businesses continued to trade under their respective names.

The Harlesden, North London, facility became the first fully-automated biscuit factory in the world in 1948, increasing output by 1000 percent.

United Biscuits produced 384 biscuit varieties in 1955. In order to cut costs, this had been streamlined to around 30 high-selling product lines by 1965.

United Biscuits held nearly 70 percent of the digestive biscuit market by 1959. It was also a leader in the sale of Rich Tea biscuits.

United Biscuits was the largest biscuit manufacturer in Britain by 1962.

William Crawford & Sons, the largest privately-owned biscuit manufacturer in the United Kingdom, was acquired in 1962 in a mostly share-based transaction which valued the company at £5.9 million.

United Biscuits increased its capital from £9 million to £13 million in 1963.

Hector Laing drives growth at United Biscuits
Hector Laing (1923 -2010) became managing director of United Biscuits from 1964. He would oversee a period of continued growth at the company.

United Biscuits entered the packaged cake market in 1964. The company had taken a 14 percent share of the market by 1968, winning market share from J Lyons.

United Biscuits held around 30 percent of the British biscuit market by 1965. The Harlesden site was probably the largest and best-equipped biscuit and cake factory in Europe by the mid-1960s.

William Macdonald & Sons of Glasgow was subject to a friendly takeover for £2.8 million in cash and shares in 1965. The firm had introduced the Penguin chocolate-coated biscuit in 1932. It was experiencing strong growth, and held almost 20 percent of British chocolate biscuit exports.

The United Biscuits subsidiaries were absorbed into a single operating company in 1965. This lowered costs, and increased competitivity.

The company announced plans to close four of its nine factories, and to greatly increase production at Glasgow and Liverpool in 1966.

The McVitie & Price factory in Edinburgh was closed in 1967 with the loss of 541 jobs. The Macdonald factory at North Cardonald, Glasgow was closed with the loss of 497 jobs. The Crawford factory in Leith was closed in 1970 with the loss of 703 jobs, and the Macdonald factory at Hillington, Glasgow was closed with the loss of 497 jobs. The factories that were closed had no room for expansion, and it made economic sense to rationalise production at a smaller number of larger sites.

The Macfarlane Lang factory at Tollcross, Glasgow was doubled in size at a cost of £2.3 million in 1969. The labour force was increased from 250 to 1,350. The factory would supply the Scotland, Northern Ireland and North of England markets.

The Crawford factory at Liverpool increased capacity by 50 percent following a £2 million investment in the 1970.

Sales of the McVitie’s brand doubled between 1962 and 1967, and McVitie’s had by far the most brand recognition in its category. The McVitie’s Chocolate Home Wheat (a chocolate digestive) was its highest seller.

Meredith & Drew was acquired in 1967. Following the acquisition, United Biscuits produced over one third of all biscuits consumed in Britain.

Kenyon, Son & Craven, with the KP salted peanuts brand, was acquired in 1968 in a share exchange which valued the private company at £3.5 million.

United Biscuits was the largest biscuit manufacturing company in Europe by 1969.

Hector Laing was appointed company chairman from 1972. That year, United Biscuits took over the biscuit interests of Cavenham, which included Carr’s of Carlisle and Wright’s of South Shields, for £4 million in cash.

The South Shields factory was closed with the loss of 823 jobs in 1973.

A total of four factories and four offices were closed in the early 1970s in a spate of rationalisation. The McVitie, Crawford and Macfarlane sales teams were merged in the early 1970s.

United Biscuits acquired Keebler, the second largest biscuit manufacturer in the United States, for £23 million ($55 million) in 1974.

United Biscuits employed 36,000 people in 1976. Its products were sold in 92 countries. The company controlled 41.6 percent of the British biscuit market, and boasted eight out of the ten highest selling products.

Not every venture was a success however, and United Biscuits was prepared to admit defeat when appropriate; the company withdrew from the packaged cakes market in 1977.

United Biscuits sold 75 million biscuits every day by 1978.

The former Macfarlane Lang factory at Osterley, West London, was closed with the loss of 2,000 jobs in 1980.

The Hobnob biscuit was introduced from 1985.

Hector Laing retired as company chairman in 1990.

Recent history
After initial success, United Biscuits began to struggle in the United States, amidst strong competition from larger rivals Nabisco, as well as lower-cost supermarket own-label products. Keebler was sold to Flowers Industries, a breadmaker, for $500 million in 1995.

United Biscuits employed 22,500 people in 22 countries in 1999.

Jacob’s, a Liverpool biscuit manufacturer, was acquired from Danone of France for £200 million in 2004.

United Biscuits was acquired by private equity firms Blackstone and PAI Partners for £1.6 billion in 2006.

The snacks division of United Biscuits, including Hula Hoops crisps and KP nuts, was sold to Intersnack of Germany, manufacturer of Pom-Bear crisps and Penn State pretzels, for £504 million in 2012.

United Biscuits was sold to Yildiz Holding of Istanbul for over £2 billion to create the third largest biscuit manufacturer in the world, behind Mondelez and Kellogg, in 2013.

United Biscuits rebranded all of its sweet biscuits under the McVitie’s name, and all of its savoury biscuits under the Jacob’s name from 2014. McVitie’s gained the Club, Fig Rolls, BN and Iced Gems products from Jacob’s, whilst Jacob’s gained the Cheddars snacks products. The Crawford’s name was repositioned as a value brand, and products such as Family Circle were rebranded as McVitie’s.

The Harlesden site remains the largest biscuit factory in Europe as of 2017. The facility employs 580 workers. 22 different lines are produced, including Digestives, Hob Nobs and Mini Cheddars.

Biscuit empire: Huntley & Palmers (Part II)

This article continues from Part I. Part II chronicles the decline of Huntley & Palmers from its position as the largest biscuit manufacturer in the world.

Registered as a company
Huntley & Palmers was registered as a private limited company in 1898.

Huntley & Palmers was the 38th largest British industrial company in 1905, with a capital of £2.4 million (c. £255 million in 2014). Nearly 7,000 people were employed.

Iced gems were introduced in 1910.

As late as 1910, Huntley & Palmers largely eschewed advertising.

George William Palmer died with an estate valued at £765,676 in 1913.

A 1923 advertisement

Huntley & Palmers was the largest biscuit manufacturer in the world. Almost half of production was exported by 1914, with 50 percent destined for the Far East and Africa.

Huntley & Palmers supplied the British army with hard tack biscuits during the First World War.

The export trade was slow to rebuild after the First World War: only 25 percent of output was exported in 1924. Meanwhile, domestic sales declined as Huntley & Palmers failed to introduce new products or update existing ones. Marketing was poor, with inadequate advertising, fewer salesman than other firms and no depots outside Reading.

It has been argued that Huntley & Palmers had too many product lines to produce efficiently, and that the Palmer family paid themselves overly generous dividends and salaries, funds which might otherwise have been reinvested into the business.

The Reading factory site covered 24 acres, and included 36 acres of floorspace by 1920. The Osborne (similar to a digestive) was the most popular biscuit, followed by the Marie (rich tea) and the Ginger Nut.

Associated Biscuit Manufacturers
High income tax and death duties persuaded Huntley & Palmers to merge with Peek Frean of Bermondsey, under a holding company called Associated Biscuit Manufacturers (ABM), in 1921. Individual production and marketing strategies were maintained by the two companies.

By neglecting the commodity category of the biscuit market, ABM’s domestic market share had declined to 15 percent.

William Howard Palmer died in 1923 with an estate valued at £536,794.

A factory was opened near Paris in 1923. At the time it was decried in Britain as the transfer of jobs overseas.

80 percent of the 6,000 strong workforce at the Reading factory went on strike in 1924. The dispute, regarding worker efficiency, was settled within three days after Huntley & Palmers agreed to recognise the workers union.

Peek Frean turnover and profits had exceeded those of Huntley & Palmers by 1927. Peek Frean installed automated biscuit plants in the early 1930s, but Huntley & Palmers did not do so until 1938.

ABM employed 7,245 people in 1935.

Two large rivals emerged: the value biscuit manufacturer George Weston had established production volumes that equalled ABM by 1938. In 1948 the Scottish firms McVitie & Price and MacFarlane Lang merged to form United Biscuits, with 3,350 employees.

Huntley & Palmers in Reading (1945)

Factories were opened in Canada, the United States and Australia in 1949. The Reading factory employed 3,000 people in 1954.

A new factory was opened in Huyton, Liverpool in 1955.

The Cornish Wafer was the highest-selling biscuit by 1954. Associated Biscuits concentrated on cream, savoury and assorted biscuits. Around 15 to 20 percent of production was exported in 1959.

Jacob’s joins Associated Biscuit Manufacturers
Jacob’s, the third largest biscuit manufacturer in Britain, was acquired by ABM in 1960.

Huntley & Palmers employed 2,000 people across its two factories by 1968. The range of biscuits produced by Huntley & Palmers was streamlined in the mid to late 1960s in order to focus on the most profitable lines.

ABM was reorganised as Associated Biscuits in 1969.

Associated Biscuits employed 9,856 people in 1972. The company dedicated the vast majority of its advertising spend to the Jacob’s brand from 1972. One third of sales came from overseas, with factories in Australia, Canada and India.

Associated Biscuits had an 18 percent share of the British biscuit market in 1976. It was behind United Biscuits with 40 percent.

The Reading factory was closed in 1976. Associated Biscuits claimed that the 21-acre site was “surplus to requirements”, and production was relocated to Liverpool and Bermondsey. The Reading site was sold for £4 million in 1979.

Overseas production was dedicated to British-style biscuits. Digestives and shortcakes were popular in Canada, whilst the Indian market preferred cream crackers and Thin Arrowroot.

In 1982 Associated Biscuits employed over 14,000 people in Britain, and 3,100 overseas.

Acquisition by Nabisco
Nabisco, the American manufacturer of Shredded Wheat and Ritz crackers, acquired Associated Biscuits in 1982. Nabisco was interested in the Huntley & Palmers brand, as well as its worldwide distribution network, particularly in Singapore, Canada, France and Germany.

The five Associated Biscuits factories in Britain were operating at half to two thirds capacity, and the business became loss-making. The Huyton factory was closed with the loss of 770 jobs in 1984, and production was relocated to Aintree, Liverpool.

The Aintree site was modernised at a cost of £25 million in 1986.

Huntley & Palmers was positioned as the Associated Biscuits premium sweet biscuit brand. However it accounted for just five percent of company production by weight by 1988.

Nabisco did not successfully manage their British biscuit operations. Their market share in biscuits had declined to 11.7 percent by 1988, and they were forced to reverse their decision to discontinue production of Bath Oliver biscuits following popular protest.

High overheads and traffic congestion saw the Peek Frean factory at Bermondsey closed with the loss of 1,022 jobs in 1989. Production was transferred to Aintree and Leicestershire.

Takeover by BSN
Associated Biscuits was acquired by BSN of France in 1989.

The Huntley & Palmers brand was phased out in favour of the Jacob’s name in 1990. It made sense to concentrate resources behind a single brand, and the Jacob’s name was better known, and believed to have a more contemporary image than the Huntley & Palmers brand. Huntley & Palmers products subjected to a re-branding included Romany, Crumbles, Lemon Puffs and Cornish Wafers.

The head office was relocated from Reading to Liverpool in 1996.

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

Huntley & Palmers Cornish Wafers are still sold under the Jacob’s brand, and McVitie’s continue to manufacture Thin Arrowroots. Huntley & Palmers biscuits are still produced in New Zealand.

In around 2018 the Huntley & Palmers brand was acquired by Freemans Confectionery, a Walsall-based confectionery wholesaler, who use the brand to market own-label products such as cakes.

Baking history: Carr’s of Carlisle

Carr’s are best known for their Table Water biscuits. The Carr factory in Carlisle is the oldest biscuit factory in the world.

Establishment and development
Jonathan Dodgson Carr (1806 – 1884) was the son of a grocer from Kendal in the North West of England. Carr served an apprenticeship to a baker, and then commenced business as a miller and baker on Castle Street, Carlisle, from 1831.

Jonathan Dodgson Carr
Jonathan Dodgson Carr (1806 – 1884)

Carr began to sell biscuits in tins in order to preserve product freshness. He became the first person to use steam-powered machinery to manufacture biscuits.

Sales soon grew, and Carr opened a factory on Caldewgate, Carlisle, from 1834.

A committed Quaker, Carr was a gentle, kind and modest man. An enlightened employer, he had established a library for his workforce by 1841.

With assistance from Philip Henry Howard (1801 – 1883), the Member of Parliament for Carlisle, Carr was appointed biscuit maker to Queen Victoria in 1841. He was at this point the sole manufacturer of machine-made biscuits in the United Kingdom. At this stage only four varieties of biscuit were produced.

The Royal Warrant was to prove a boon to sales, and 400 tons of biscuits were produced in 1846, with a staff of 90.

J D Carr died in 1884, and he was formally succeeded by his three sons, Henry Carr (1834 -1904), James Carr (1838 – 1901) and Thomas Carr (1840 – 1895).

Henry Carr was appointed chairman of the business. A deeply spiritual man, he had a greater inclination towards religion than commerce. However he was determined to show that he was worthy of the legacy left him by his father. He ventured upon an ambitious expansion of the biscuit factory, almost doubling its productive capacity in 1891.

Just under 1,000 people were employed by 1891. Nearly 300 different varieties of biscuit were produced. 18,000 Derby biscuits could be produced in one hour. 200,000 Midget biscuits could be cut in an hour.

Overexpansion led to liquidity issues, and the business was forced to tender a public offering of shares in 1894.

An 1896 advertisement for Carr & Co

A Royal Warrant to supply King Edward VII was issued in 1903.

The factory covered several acres by 1904, and 300 varieties of biscuit were produced.

Henry Carr died in 1904 and he was succeeded as chairman by Theodore Carr (1866 – 1931), the son of Thomas Carr.

Theodore Carr was a hands-on chairman. He had developed the Table Water biscuit in 1890, which soon became the signature product for the business. It was a variant of the Captain’s Thin, a Victorian staple which was itself derived from the ship biscuit. The Table Water biscuit was thinner and crisper than any biscuit before it, and paired particularly well with cheese.

The unprofitable flour milling division was divested as Carr’s Flour Mills in 1908.

The biscuit factory employed 4,000 people by 1919.

Carr & Co had a capital of £600,000 in 1927.

Theodore Carr died in 1931, and he was succeeded as chairman by his brother, Harold Carr (1880 – 1937).

Carr & Co granted its workers a five day working week from 1934, and hours were reduced from 47 to 45 with no reduction in pay.

Carr & Co produced 4,500 tons of biscuits a year by 1939, and was one of the largest biscuit manufacturers in Britain. The biscuit factory was one of the largest in the world.

A view of the Carlisle factory in 2008

A fully automated biscuit-making plant was installed in 1960.

Cavenham acquisition
Carr & Co was a mid-sized British biscuit producer by the 1960s, and suffered from increasing competition from the larger manufacturers.

Cavenham, controlled by James Goldsmith (1933 – 1997), acquired Carr & Co in 1964, beating a £1.2 million bid by J Lyons. The Carr family, who owned around 30 percent of the business, supported the sale.

Capital-saving measures were introduced, including the sale of the freehold of the Carlisle factory for £600,000, which was then leased back for £63,000 a year.

Goldsmith rationalised the Carr product range. Through television advertising he was able to triple the sales of Table Water biscuits by 1966, to take around three percent of the British biscuit market.

Carr & Co was sold to United Biscuits in 1972.

United Biscuits immediately transferred some Carlisle production to a factory in Liverpool, with the loss of 80 jobs. However the Carlisle factory escaped closure, in part, due to its excellent labour relations, which were in themselves a valuable asset.

United Biscuits massively increased the advertising spend at Carr’s.

Factory closures at other United Biscuits sites, as well as increasing sales of bourbon and custard cream biscuits, saw production increased to seven days a  week from 1990. Staffing levels rose to over 2,000.

Present day
The Carlisle factory employed over 600 people in 2016, and produced McVitie’s products such as the Gold bar, as well as Carr’s Water Biscuits. It is the oldest continually-operating biscuit factory in the world.

Cream of the crop: Jacob’s of Aintree

Jacob’s are best known for Cream Crackers, with 1.4 billion consumed in 2013. The business was founded in Ireland, but this post explores the history of their British subsidiary.

W&R Jacob was founded by two Quaker brothers, William and Robert Jacob, in Waterford, Ireland in 1851. Shortly afterwards the business relocated to Peter’s Row, Dublin.

A fire completely destroyed their factory in 1880. W&R Jacob completely rebuilt and extended the site, and installed new machinery.

W&R Jacob had introduced “American Crackers” by 1881.

W&R Jacob introduced the cream cracker in 1885. It was so-called because it had extra fat “creamed” into the flour. The new product was to quickly prove a great success.

W&R Jacob acquired ten acres of land at Aintree, adjacent to Hartley’s jam factory, in 1912. It was intended to improve the firm’s market share in Liverpool. Manufacture began on the site from 1914.

During the First World War the armed forces were supplied with Jacob’s biscuits.

Following the end of the First World War, Jacob’s rehired every employee who had fought during the war, and also found work for a large number of men who had been injured during the conflict.

The Club chocolate biscuit was introduced from 1919.

The foundation of the Irish Free State saw the English subsidiary established as an independent company in 1922.

Jacob’s was one of the largest biscuit manufacturers in Britain by 1929.

The Aintree factory covered 30 spacious acres by 1932, and included lawns and flower beds. The firm employed over 3,000 people. Over 300 different varieties of biscuit were manufactured.

The Yorkshire market was entered in earnest from 1932, with the construction of a large depot in Leeds.

Jacob’s held seven percent of the British biscuit market by volume by 1939.

Approximately 1,500 employees were engaged in manufacturing in 1949; 75 percent of them were women.

A new depot was established at Plympton in 1959, due to increasing sales in the Devon and Cornwall region. It had a capacity to handle six million lbs (2.7 million kg) of biscuits each year.

Jacob’s was the third largest biscuit manufacturer in Britain when it was acquired by Associated Biscuits in 1960. Family members, who controlled 70 percent of voting shares, approved the sale.

Associated Biscuits dedicated the vast majority of its advertising expenditure to the strong Jacob’s brand from 1972.

The Jacob’s sweet biscuit product lines, other than the Club, were phased out in the 1980s in favour of the Huntley & Palmers brand.

The Aintree site employed 2,800 people by 1983.

The Aintree site was modernised at a cost of £25 million in 1986. Its leading lines were the Jacob’s Cream Cracker and the Jacob’s Club biscuit.

Voluntary redundancies and natural wastage had seen the staff reduced to 1,800, with a further 400 temporary staff over Christmas, by 1988.

Nabisco continued to invest heavily in the Aintree plant, which absorbed much of the production from the Bermondsey site, which was closed in 1989.

The Huntley & Palmer name was discontinued in 1990, and all products were relabelled under the Jacob’s brand.

United Biscuits acquired Associated Biscuits for £200 million in 2004.

United Biscuits rebranded all of its savoury biscuits under the Jacob’s name from 2014. Jacob’s gained the Mini Cheddars product, but lines such as Club, Fig Rolls, BN and Iced Gems were rebranded as McVitie’s.

The Aintree site produced over 55,000 tonnes of products in 2014. 900 people were employed at the factory.

It was announced that the Aintree site would receive an investment of £10 million in 2015. The site is the centre of United Biscuits savoury snack production, and brands manufactured include Twiglets, Mini Cheddars and Club, as well as Jacob’s.

Jacob’s held 25 percent of the British savoury biscuit market in 2015.

Reports emerged in 2018 that Jacob’s could be sold in a deal that valued the business at £100 million. Potential buyers included Mondelez and Burton Biscuits.

Strange but true: Meredith & Drew

Meredith & Drew became the largest biscuit manufacturer in Europe.

William Meredith
William Meredith (1803 – 1868), originally from Bristol, established a bakery at Shadwell, East London in 1830. He employed William George Drew (1813 – 1867) as his principal assistant.

Little is known of this early period, but following a quarrel between the two men, William Drew left the business to establish his own biscuit bakery from 1852.

William Meredith established a steam-powered factory on Commercial Road East, and focused on the public house trade for his biscuits, pound cakes and Banbury cakes. The business traded as Meredith & Son by 1856.

Drew & Sons
William Drew established a steam-powered factory on Shadwell High Street. Like Meredith, he focused on supplying the public house and hotel trade with biscuits. He employed 30 men by 1861.

William Drew died from a heart attack in 1867, and his obituary hailed him as “a man of remarkable energy and enterprise”, remembered for his charitable interests. Management of the business passed to his wife Barbara Drew, and his only son, Lear James Drew (1840 – 1917).

Drew & Sons produced over 100 different biscuit varieties by 1877.

Meredith & Drew
Frederick Meredith and Lear Drew merged their interests as Meredith & Drew, with a capital of £107,000, in 1891. The merged business was one of the largest biscuit manufacturers in Britain.

Meredith & Drew received its first Royal Warrant, from Queen Victoria, in 1894.

The Meredith & Drew factory at Shadwell was extended in 1896. Production was still concentrated on the manufacture of biscuits for the catering industry, particularly public houses and hotels.

Meredith & Drew developed a reputation for fair treatment of its customers and workforce.

Meredith & Drew was one of the best known businesses in the East End of London by 1897. Lear Drew was chairman, and he was supported by a strong management team including H D Rawlings (1836 – 1904) as vice chairman.

The Wright stuff
Meredith & Drew merged with Wright & Son of Shadwell through an exchange of shares in 1905. Thomas Reuben Wright (1868 – 1923) was appointed managing director of the company.

Lear Drew died with an estate valued at £30,986 in 1917. He was remembered as a genial man.

Thomas Reuben Wright died with an estate valued at £73,530 in 1923.

The Shadwell factory employed a workforce of around 1,000 people by 1925.

A factory was acquired at Ashby-de-la-Zouch in Leicestershire in 1927.

Meredith & Drew launched the Betta Biscuit, a low-cost product, from 1931. Its success allowed the business to grow to become the largest biscuit manufacturer in Europe by 1934.

Meredith & Drew had six factories across England by 1939. The London site, which was also the largest, was destroyed during the Blitz in 1940, and production was permanently relocated to plants at Oldham, Brighouse and High Wycombe. A factory was also acquired at Halifax. Company headquarters were relocated to Ashby-de-la-Zouch.

Schoolchildren help to load Meredith & Drew biscuit tins onto a lorry, to be sent to liberated Europe (1945)

The merger of McVitie & Price and Macfarlane Lang to form United Biscuits in 1948 saw Meredith & Drew lose its position as the largest biscuit manufacturer in Britain.

29 different biscuits were produced in the post-war period, including shortcake, digestive, Marie, Nice, bourbon, custard cream and ginger nut.

Meredith & Drew employed 2,500 people and employed an authorised share capital of £1 million by 1951. Geoffrey Anthony Edward Drew Wright (born 1908), son of T R Wright, was managing director.

A new factory was established at Cinderford, Gloucestershire in 1951. It employed 300 people and focused on cream cracker production.

Meredith & Drew closed four factories throughout the 1950s in order to centralise production at Halifax, Cinderford and Ashby-de-la-Zouch.

The Cinderford factory was closed with the loss of 346 jobs in 1962. Production was transferred to the Halifax and Ashby-de-la-Zouch plants, which were extended and modernised.

Own-label production for Marks & Spencer and a strong presence in the licensed trade saw Meredith & Drew hold around five percent of the British potato crisps market by 1963.

Crisps contributed to an increasing share of turnover, and the Ashby-de-la-Zouch facility began to struggle to meet demand. A new crisp factory with a staff of 280 was acquired in Lanarkshire in 1963.

Meredith & Drew was strong in own-label production, savoury biscuits, the catering trade and potato crisps in 1967.

United Biscuits era
Meredith & Drew, with four percent of the British biscuit market, was acquired by United Biscuits for £2 million in a cash and share offer in 1967.

United Biscuits acquired Kenyon, Son & Craven, the manufacturer of KP nuts, for £3.5 million in 1968. Kenyon, Son & Craven was merged into Meredith & Drew.

Meredith & Drew advertising was wound down, and rationalisation saw the Meredith & Drew brand retired in the early 1980s.

The Halifax site was closed with the loss of 990 jobs in 1989, and production was relocated to Ashby-de-la-Zouch.

The Ashby-de-la-Zouch biscuit factory was closed with the loss of 900 jobs in 2004.

United Biscuits continues to employ around 2,000 people in Ashby-de-la-Zouch through its distribution centre and KP Snacks factory.

The Meredith & Drew brand was reintroduced as a premium biscuit brand with a focus on the catering trade from 2018.

How the cookie crumbles: United Biscuits (Part I)

United Biscuits produces McVitie’s Digestives, Jaffa Cakes, Jacob’s cream crackers and Carr’s water biscuits.

Macfarlane Lang
James Lang established a bakery business at Gallowgate, Glasgow from 1817. His products included Scotch bread and shortbread.

John Macfarlane (1824 – 1908), nephew to John Lang, joined the firm from 1841 and the business traded as Macfarlane Lang. An energetic and progressive manager, Macfarlane eventually assumed control of the business.

John Macfarlane was a pioneer in the introduction of machine-made bread to Scotland.

John’s son, James Macfarlane (1857 – 1944), joined Macfarlane Lang & Co in 1878. He was joined by his two brothers, George William Macfarlane (1865 – 1938) and John Lang Macfarlane (died 1912).

A large new factory, the Victoria Works, was established in Glasgow in 1880.

Macfarlane Lang began to manufacture biscuits from 1885.

Sales expanded in the South of England, and a London factory was established on the banks of the River Thames on Townmead Road, Fulham from 1903.

Macfarlane Lang became a limited liability company from 1904, but remained a family business.

James Macfarlane became chairman from 1908.

Macfarlane Lang succeeded due to a strong commitment to quality and a wide variety of biscuits. The company supplied Osborne biscuits to the King by 1909.

John Lang Macfarlane died in 1912 with a personal estate valued at £284,563.

Macfarlane Lang was one of the largest manufacturers of biscuits in Britain by 1914. The factory in Glasgow covered four acres, and the Fulham site covered five acres, employing a total of 2,500 workers. Success was based upon high quality which stemmed from experienced management, skilled labour and strong investment in machinery.

After numerous extensions, the Fulham site lacked space for further expansion, and London production was relocated to a sixty-acre site at Osterley, West London, from around 1932. The new plant was one of the most modern biscuit factories in the world.

George William Macfarlane, deputy chairman of Macfarlane Lang, died in 1938 with a personal estate valued at £415,479.

Macfarlane Lang held a market share of eight percent by volume in 1939.

Sir James Macfarlane died in 1944, and left a personal estate of £172,180.

McVitie & Price
Robert McVitie (1809 – 1883) was advertising himself as a baker and confectioner in Edinburgh by 1856. He was a master baker employing six men, four boys and three women by 1871.

The firm was inherited by his son, Robert McVitie (1845 – 1910) in 1883. Charles Edward Price (1857 – 1934), a former salesman for Cadbury, joined him in partnership in 1888 to form McVitie & Price.

McVitie & Price began to produce their version of the digestive biscuit from 1892. The firm did not invent the digestive, but it is generally agreed that they did produce an improved version.

The works covered nearly three acres and employed around 300 people by 1894.

The firm ranked among the second tier of British biscuit manufacturers by 1899, behind Huntley & Palmers and Peek Frean, but alongside Carr & Co.

McVitie & Price established a factory at Harlesden, London in 1901. Price retired in 1901, and Alexander Grant (1864 – 1937) was appointed general manager.

McVitie & Price supplied their digestive biscuits to the Royal Household and the Houses of Parliament by 1908.

Robert McVitie died in 1910 with personal estate valued at £227,454. He died childless, and Alexander Grant became chairman and managing director of McVitie & Price.

McVitie & Price introduced the Jaffa Cake in 1927.

By 1936 McVitie & Price was one of the largest biscuit manufacturing firms in the world, with nearly 2,000 people employed at Harlesden, and more employed at factories in Edinburgh and Manchester.

McVitie & Price was the fifth largest biscuit manufacturer in Britain by 1939, with a market share by volume of ten percent.

The number of product lines at McVitie & Price had been reduced from 370 to ten by 1945.

Robert McVitie Grant (1894 – 1947), chairman of McVitie & Price, died in 1947 with a personal estate valued at £1,033,234.

That same year, Hector Laing (1923 -2010) joined the firm.

McVitie & Price and Macfarlane Lang merged in 1948 to form United Biscuits, with a capital of £3.5 million. The businesses continued to trade under their respective names.

Part II of this history.

 

Best Weston: a history of Burton’s Biscuits

Burton’s Biscuits introduced the Wagon Wheel and Jammie Dodgers product lines and became the second-largest biscuit manufacturer in Britain.

Canadian origins
George Weston (1864 – 1924) established a bakery business in Toronto, Canada in 1882. He ensured its success by introducing mechanisation and mass production.

Weston had began to focus on biscuit manufacturing by 1911. He was latterly assisted by his son, Willard Garfield Weston (1898 – 1978). W G Weston was a man with a missionary zeal.

W G Weston (1898 – 1978)

W G Weston enlisted in the Canadian Army during the First World War, and served in France. He was fascinated by business, and during his periods of leave he toured English biscuit factories. Weston appreciated the quality of British biscuits, but determined that production methods were inefficient.

W G Weston returned from the war in 1919 and persuaded his father to import $1 million of machinery in order to manufacture English-style biscuits. The business soon began to flourish.

W G Weston assumed full control of the business following the death of his father in 1924. Within two years profits had quadrupled.

Weston enters the British market
Weston was keen to enter the British biscuit market, which was the largest in the world, and had a reputation for manufacturing products of the highest quality.

Weston commissioned a report on the British biscuit industry in 1929, with an eye to making his first foreign acquisition. The report determined that, with around 100 manufacturers, the British market was saturated, and ought to be avoided. Weston reached a different conclusion, instead identifying a fragmented industry that was ripe for consolidation. The seven largest biscuit manufacturers held less than 60 percent of the market. Furthermore, the Great Depression meant that solid businesses could be acquired at a discounted price. Weston determined to “make a better and cheaper biscuit”.

Weston acquired Mitchell & Muil, a loss-making but well-regarded Aberdeen biscuit manufacturer, in 1933, with financial backing from a Wall Street trader. Weston streamlined the product range of 150 biscuits to 50, and the business had re-entered into profitability within just one month.

Weston closed the antiquated Aberdeen factory in 1934 and established a new, fully-automated plant on Slateford Road, Edinburgh. This lowered his manufacturing costs. He also imported Canadian wheat to lower his production costs.

Weston established a factory in Slough, Berkshire, close to the large London market, in around 1935.

A biscuit factory was established in Belfast from 1936.

British technical expertise in biscuit-making was used to improve manufacturing methods in North America.

The Weston interests in the United Kingdom became independent of the North American business from 1936.

Weston saw great potential in the British market, and relocated to the country with his family on a permanent basis.

Weston also acquired bakeries. By 1937 he was the second largest purchaser of flour in Great Britain.

Weston maintained scrupulous cost control. A visitor to the Slough plant in 1937 noted a jet of air that was thinning the chocolate coating on the production line biscuits. The visitor commented, “that’s blowing the chocolate off”, and Weston replied, “No, it’s blowing the profit on”.

Weston employed 13,000 people by the end of 1937. His business was the third-largest biscuit manufacturer in Britain.

A factory was established at Llantarnam in Wales from 1938. It was a depressed industrial area, and the construction received financial support from the Nuffield Trust.

Weston Foods Ltd was formed in 1938 to acquire the four Weston biscuit companies as well as a number of bakery and confectionery firms. Weston was one of the wealthiest men in the British foods industry by this time.

Weston Foods was acquired by Allied Bakeries, also controlled by the Weston family, in 1939.

Weston Foods held 19 percent of the British biscuit market by volume by 1939, narrowly behind Associated Biscuit Manufacturers.

W G Weston donated £100,000 to the Royal Air Force to acquire six Hurricane and six Spitfire fighter planes in 1940.

Post war: new products and acquisitions
Garry Weston (1927 – 2002), the son of W G Weston, invented the Wagon Wheel biscuit in 1948. He placed two Marie biscuits around a marshmallow filling and covered it with chocolate.

The Llantarnam factory in Wales employed 1,000 people by 1949.

A view of the Llantarnam factory in Wales (2010)

Burtons Gold Medal Biscuits of Blackpool was acquired in 1949, followed by the Caledonian Oat Cake Baking Company in 1953.

The Belfast factory was closed down with the loss of 175 jobs in 1958.

The Jammie Dodger, a shortbread biscuit with a jam filling, had been introduced by 1966.

Garry Weston becomes chairman
Garry Weston succeeded his father as chairman of the business from 1967. He was an unassuming and down-to-earth man.

Weston Biscuits had assumed the name of Burton’s Biscuits by 1973.

Viscount mint chocolate biscuits had been introduced by 1978.

Burton’s Biscuits was the third largest biscuit manufacturer in Britain by 1982, with a twelve percent market share. 3,530 people were employed.

A Jammie Dodger biscuit

The Slough factory lacked sufficient space to be suitable for modernisation, and was closed with the loss of 440 jobs in 1982.

By this time the leading lines were Wagon Wheels, Jammie Dodgers, Viscount mint biscuits and Edinburgh shortbread.

Wagon Wheels were among the most popular biscuits imported into Russia by 1994.

Garry Weston retired in 2000.

Sale to private equity
The Weston family sold their British biscuit operations to private equity firm Hicks Muse Tate & Furst for £130 million in 2000. The company had annual sales of £171 million and 2,500 employees. Hicks Muse already owned Maryland Cookies and the licence to produce Cadbury biscuits, and the merged entity controlled 20 percent of the British biscuit market.

The Burton’s Biscuits board of directors was ousted by its new owners in 2003.

Burton’s Biscuits was the second largest biscuit producer in Britain by 2011.

New owners, present day
Burton’s Biscuits was sold to the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan for £350 million in 2013. There were over 2,200 employees, and manufacturing plants at Llantarnam, Edinburgh and Blackpool, and a chocolate refinery at Moreton, Merseyside.

Burton’s Biscuits sold the rights to Cadbury biscuits to Mondelez for nearly £200 million in 2016. The following year, the licence to produce Mars biscuits was acquired.

Burton’s Biscuits sold its chocolate plant at Moreton to Barry Callebaut in 2018.